The Princeton Brass Band is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ 1964 arrival to the United States with a free all-Beatles music tribute concert at Rider University’s Burt Luedeke Center Theater on Sunday, November 16.
To many, the link between the legendary British rock quartet and a brass band may not be obvious. But in a telephone interview Princeton Brass music director and founder Stephen Arthur Allen says that the connection is broader and deeper than it first appears. Allen teaches a course on the Beatles in Rider’s degree-granting bachelor’s program in popular music. The Rider program began in 2012 at Allen’s instigation.
Allen ties the Beatles’ Brass Band connection to Beatle Paul McCartney, and cites details of McCartney’s biography. “Paul McCartney’s grandfather played the E-flat bass — a type of tuba,” he says. “Paul’s dad played trumpet. Paul’s first instrument was the trumpet. He listened to brass bands.”
Allen calls McCartney “almost the musical director” of the Beatles. Along with John Lennon, the multi-musically gifted McCartney composed the pieces that made the Beatles a world sensation. In 1963 the music critic of “The Times” of London called Lennon and McCartney “the outstanding English composers of [the year].”
“You can hear the brass band influence in songs that sound like marches and waltzes — especially in marches,” Allen says. With its emphasis on movement and beat, “Rock and roll has its roots in marches, especially [John Phillip] Sousa marches,” he adds.
He points out that on the cover for the “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” album, the Beatles appear in brass bands’ dress. “They are acknowledging their brass band background,” Allen says. Adding to the evidence, he asserts that the line “And the band begins to play” in the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” single is a specific reference to a brass band.
“The brass band is part of the Beatles sound,” Allen says. “People [who attend our concert] will realize how right a brass band sounds for Beatles’ pieces. The brass band approach is concealed in the Beatles’ music.”’
Moreover, Allen adds, McCartney wrote a piece specifically for brass band, a tune called Thingumybob (pronounced “thing-a-me-bob”) on its second album release. The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” appears on the reverse side.
The Princeton Brass Band has a special connection to “Thingumybob” and has programmed the piece for the November 16 concert. The PBB gave the first North American performance of the composition in 2005.
The PBB, Allen makes clear, is a British brass band, an ensemble whose format is prescribed. A British brass band is a 30-piece brass group with percussion. “All the instruments were invented by Adolphe Sax, [inventor of the saxophone] except the trombones,” Allen says. “Brass bands are more than 150 years old. Brass band competitions determined the make-up of the band. Their format was standardized at about the same time as soccer players agreed that a team should consist of 11 players.”
The British brass band instrumental structure calls for one soprano cornet — “I think of it as the cherry on the cake,” Allen says. “It has a distinctive sound and is at the top of the structure” — and nine other cornets, one flugelhorn, three tenor horns, two baritones, two euphoniums, two tenor trombones, one bass trombone, four tubas, and percussion (“Any instrument you can hit,” says Allen).
Allen formed the Princeton Brass Band in 2004. It has attracted a diversity of enthusiastic participants. “There’s a big range of age in the Princeton Brass Band,” Allen says, “and a big range of livelihoods. There are college professors, high school teachers, and people with regular day jobs. We rehearse every Sunday at Rider and have professional standards. People participate for the love of the medium. Nobody gets paid. I don’t get paid. I could not tear those people away from their families for three hours on a Sunday afternoon for any other type of ensemble.”
Since 2110, with a nudge from Allen, the Princeton Brass Band has been the official ensemble in residence at Rider. “I approached the provost and told him of the high standard of the ensemble and the wide range of its repertoire in order to convince him.”
The PBB has no formal audition process, Allen says. “I make the band aware of an opening, and the players invite possible participants to join in. It soon becomes clear whether there is a good fit.”
As Allen sees it brass bands thrive on competitions. “Competitions,” he says, “are a big part of brass band culture. They permit reaching an amazing technical standard.” In 2006, two years after founding the PBB, he saw to its joining the North American Brass Band Association (NABBA) to provide it with an arena in which to compete. The PBB has repeatedly won honors at the NABBA championships
“It was very clear to me from the moment I formed the band in 2004 that participating in the only serious contest in North America was going to be an essential component of the band’s development,” he said in an interview with Phil Hanson, trumpeter and founder/editor of the online magazine 21st Century Brass. “I think that approached correctly contests generate an enormous amount of focus and desirable musical development, allowing for a very fruitful exchange with other bands and individuals — calling each other higher.”
Allen was president of the NABBA from 2011 to 2013. He considers brass bands as beyond the merely musical and describes his chief job as president as “encouraging groups to participate and develop a sense of fraternity. Some call brass band activity a movement,” Allen says. “I like to think of it as a family relationship.”
Allen was born in 1960 in Horley, south of London, England. His father was the manager of materials for a construction contracting company. His mother worked at a bank. Allen says that his family was not particularly musical but was very supportive. His younger brother, Christopher, plays tenor horn.
Allen immigrated to the United States in 1999. His wife, a graphic artist, is originally from Lawrenceville.
As a child Allen had asthma, and his doctor prescribed playing a wind instrument in order to develop consistent air support. His father took a second job, working a milk route from five to eight each morning, to pay for the music lessons that would help his son’s asthma.
Allen’s instrument was the euphonium — a baritone-voiced brass horn similar in shape yet smaller than a tuba. “Euphonium was the only instrument left in the cupboard at the school,” he says. That presence was a happy accident. In his teens, Allen won national awards and television appearances as a euphonium soloist. The appeal of the instrument, he says is “its incredibly beautiful sound.” He suggests tracking it down on YouTube to be convinced.
The downside of being an euphoniumist, Allen says, is “it’s hard to make a living playing euphonium.” However, the situation is improving: “The euphonium has been exploding in terms of public recognition for the last 20 years,” he says, “and there is a growing repertoire.”
By age 16 Allen earned a performing degree from the London College of Music. “It’s easier and quicker to get to a high standard on a brass instrument than on other instruments,” he says. “But to get to the extreme top is very demanding for euphonium. Mostly, you need air control. That’s the root of everything to do with technique on a brass instrument. Support is the key. It has to do with the tension of the diaphragm; you have to constantly push downwards. It’s a matter of pressure on the guts.” Then, he adds, proudly punning, “What it produces is a really gutsy sound.” Allen still performs publicly on the euphonium, but he calls conducting his main focus.
In addition to performing, Allen has collected respectable academic credentials. He holds master’s and doctoral degrees from Oxford University, where he focused on the operas of Benjamin Britten. His Oxford doctorate dates from 2003. He has lectured on Britten in England, Australia, and the United States. The Princeton University Music Department engaged him in 2006 to teach the history of pop and rock music. He has also taught at Rutgers University and Westminster Choir College of Rider University.
The Beatles concert is the season opener for the Princeton Brass Band. The group will also play a holiday concert in December and its “Championship” program in February. The “Championship” program consists of what the Band will play in the North American Brass Band Association’s national competition in Fort Wayne, Indiana in March, 2015.
Princeton Brass Band, Beatles Celebration, Bart Luedeke Center Theater, Rider University, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. Sunday, November 16, 2 p.m. Free. 609-895-5504 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Princeton Brass Band Holiday Concert, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, December 21. Adults $10. Students and children $5. 609-258-9220 or www.princeton.edu/utickets.
Princeton Brass Band Championship Concert, Monroe Township High School, 423 Buckelew Avenue, Monroe Township. Sunday, February 22, 2 p.m. For ticket prices and contacts, follow the band at www.facebook.com/princetonbrassband.