CD Preview: The Celebrated Distin Family
During the mid-nineteenth century the Distin Family ensemble blazed a trail across Europe and Northern America. This industrious ensemble performed countless concerts between its inception in Scotland in 1835 and founder John Distin’s retirement in 1857. This was a period during which brass playing and technology shifted from valveless “natural” instruments and keyed instruments to the new designs of valved brass. The Distin family was of seminal importance with regard to this shift in brass playing in the nineteenth century; their performances on the newly invented “saxhorns”, as well as their own endeavours in manufacturing instruments and publishing music and tutors for these new instruments, not to mention their involvement with amateur music making the length and breadth of the British Isles, did much to promote brass music and to cultivate the growing brass band movement.
Anneke Scott, from The Prince Regent’s Band, who are shortly releasing a CD entitled “The Celebrated Distin Family”, told Revoice! more about this hardworking and influential family...
“Never have I heard wind instruments played with so much splendour, purity and precision; to add to this, that nothing equals the grandeur of their style – the astonishing ensemble which pervades their execution, is only to say, that the brilliant reception which they have met with has been more than justified by talent so truly remarkable.”
composer Giacomo Meyerbeer on the Distin Family, quoted in The Musical Gazette (vol. I, no. 14, pg. 107, Boston, August 3rd, 1846)
The Prince Regent’s Band first started investigating the life of the Distin Family back in 2013 - the bicentenary of Adolphe Sax was looming the following year and the musicians of PRB (Richard Fomison, Richard Thomas, Anneke Scott, Phil Dale and Jeff Miler) were looking for something around which to build a saxhorn programme. Adolphe Sax is, today, mostly remembered for his invention - the saxophone. However this was just one of many instruments that the Belgian invented, other new inventions included families of saxotrombas, sax tubas and, the instruments that PRB have been exploring, the saxhorns.
With all of these families Sax had the same goal: to create a family of musical instruments in which, from the smallest to the biggest, each instrument shared a homogenous sound. In many ways this goes back to the much earlier idea that Revoice! readers will be familiar with - the consorts of viols or recorders. Today the modern versions of saxhorns are recognisable as the tenor horns, baritones and tubas of the brass band world. PRB has assembled a collection of original upward-facing saxhorns as well as a number of cornets and ventil- horns for use in our “Celebrated Distin Family” project. Our own collection has been supplemented by loans from collectors such Jeremy Montague and museums such as the Bate Collection, Oxford.
PRB brings together a group of leading period brass players, the members are regularly to be heard performing with ensembles such as the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, English Baroque Soloists, Florilegium, Academy of Ancient Music, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, The Sixteen, QuintEssential, The City Musick, as well as contemporary groups such as the Hackney Colliery Band and Bollywood Brass Band! The group takes its name from the early-nineteenth-century elite wind ensemble known as ‘The Prince Regent’s Band’ which was formerly known as ‘The Prince of Wales’ Private Band’ and later known as ‘The King’s (i.e. George IV’s) Household Band’. This historical ensemble was ‘composed entirely of picked skilled musicians, elected without regard for nationality from any source where good wind players were to be found’ (Adam Carse ‘The Prince Regent’s Band’ Music & Letters , vol. 27, no. 3, July 1946).
As PRB started looking into the history of Sax and his saxhorns one name kept on jumping out, that of the Distin Family. It’s hard to overestimate the impact that this small ensemble had on brass playing. The ensemble travelled throughout Europe and North America spreading enthusiasm for the new saxhorns. In addition to their performances, they built up a family business that did much to nurture the growing brass band movement in the UK, through manufacturing instruments and publishing music and journals.
The literal and metaphorical “father” of the ensemble was John Distin. Famed as a slide- trumpet and keyed bugle player, his career started as a member of the Grenadier Guards Band. In 1820 John was appointed to the prestigious Household Band of King George IV and in 1830, after the dismissal of the bands as a result of George IV’s death, John was appointed bandmaster at Taymouth Castle in Scotland, the seat of John Campbell, the second Marquis of Breadalbane. It was during his time in Scotland that the first outings of the formative Distin Family ensemble occurred. The Distin boys, George Frederick (1817–1848), Henry John (1819–1903),William Alfred (1822–1879), and Theodore (1823–1893), were all trained as brass musicians and joined their parents (with mother, Ann Matilda Loder, on piano) on stage as “The Celebrated Distin Family”.
The boys started on the natural horn; it is most likely that their father would have been their teacher, though Henry and William studied at the Royal Academy of Music for a short spell in 1834.Whilst Henry,William and Theodore continued on this instrument, the eldest son, George, changed to trombone, thus providing a bass instrument for the fledgling family ensemble, with John Distin taking the melody on slide trumpet or keyed bugle.
“We perceive by the Inverness Courier that Mr. Distin, with his wife, four sons, and infant daughter, have been making a very successful professional tour through Aberdeen, Banff, Elgin, Forres, and Inverness. Although remarkably clever performers on the horn and trumpet, when we heard them (we allude to the little boys) they must have attained to a rare proficiency, when we find it stated in the above paper: “we may repeat what certainly the first musician of the north remarked upon the occasion – ‘taking into consideration the sort of instruments here used, this performance is certainly the greatest musical treat I ever witness, though I have been present at all kinds of concerts’.” “
The Musical World (vol, VI, no. LXXII, pg. 106, July 28th, 1837)
In 1844 the Distins travelled to Paris, where they had been engaged by a M. Chaudesaigues to perform for a month at “the Paris theatre”. The Distins returned from France with a new invention, a family of valved brass instruments made by the Belgian Adolphe Sax (1814–1894) which the Distins called “saxhorns”.
Accounts vary as to exactly how the Distins first acquired their saxhorns. In the accounts by the Distins it was they who, on hearing “a French artist” perform on the new saxhorn and insisted on seeking out the “little manufacturer” who had designed this instrument:
In the Distin account of what happened Henry Distin is struck at once by the remarkable purity and sweetness of tone of the new instrument and is fobbed off by their interpreter who says the instrument is is some new fangled thing gotten up by a little manufacturer that the translator thought not worthy of introducing to the Distins. The Distins demanded to visit the “little manufacturer” first thing the next morning. This little manufacturer, Adolphe Sax, had only completed three instruments as models - a soprano E [flat], contralto B flat and an alto E flat – and had not yet any for sale. The Distins persuaded Sax to lend them the three instruments and to make two more to complete the quintet. Sax readily agreed on the promise that once the Distins had mastered the instruments they would help promote them by performing on them.
There is however, another, less flattering version of events in which, rather than the Distins saving a “little manufacturer” it is Sax who saves the day. In this version the Distins are described as ”poor people”, who, with their "detestable style" were desperately trying to get a foothold in Paris. In this account, Sax charitably gives them each a new instrument of his own design, tutors them individually and (somewhat miraculously) turns everything around. This version comes from Oscar Comettant's Histoire d'un inventeur au dix-neuvième siècle. Comettant was very pro-Sax and perhaps his anti-Distin sentiments may have been influenced by the success of the Distin business in first promoting the Sax design of instrument and then capitalising on its success by producing rival instruments and designs of their own.
“These artists use their splendid instruments (the saxhorns) with a most remarkable superiority; and I feel bound to testify that their execution really leaves nothing to be desired. An ensemble so perfect has never been heard. These five artists play as if they were but one man. To say how great, how profound was the impression which they produced upon the public, is an impossibility; during their entire concert, nothing like the slightest idea of criticism could enter the minds of their audience.”
Heinrich Marschner quoted in The Musical Gazette (vol. I, no. 14, pg. 107, Boston, August 3rd, 1846)
There are no remaining sources for the ensemble music performed by the Distin Family. It is likely that their repertoire would have been in a constant state of flux as new “hits” emerged and as new instruments were designed and old ones fell out of fashion. A major change to their repertoire occurred in 1848 with the untimely death of the eldest son George, eight months before the Distins set sail for a tour of the USA. Given this pragmatic and flexible approach that the Distins themselves had to their repertoire, PRB have set out to recreate the type of repertoire that we believe the Distins may have performed in the same spirit.
This new “re-imagining” of the work of the Distin family is perfectly illustrated in the art work, commissioned from Emma-Jane Semmens, based on one of the most famous images of the Distin Family (the 1845 lithograph of the Distins by Charles Baugniet), but now incorporates saxhorns taken from a Distin instrument catalogue published c. 1851-3.
Visit www.princeregentsband.com for more information including videos on all the instruments heard on the new “The Celebrated Distin Family” disc, out December 2nd 2016 on Resonus Classics (www.resonusclassics.com)
Hear The Prince Regent’s Band live at the Holywell Music Room, Oxford,
7.30pm Tuesday 29th of November, 2017.