This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Adolphe Sax. Whilst most people will immediately associate the name of Sax with, of course, the saxophone this was but one of very many instruments he invented or developed.

Over the past few months I've been involved with a group of musicians who are delving into the history of another of Sax's inventions - the family of brass instruments known as the saxhorn. This group, The Prince Regent's Band, takes it's name from the private band of the Prince Regent, later George IV,  late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. The original Prince Regent’s Band was an elite ensemble of musicians from throughout Europe and the new group has set out to explore much of the wealth of music for brass and wind instruments from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Prince Regent's Band decided to mark the Adolphe Sax bicentenary with the reconstruction of a programme music influenced by the Distin Family, one of the earliest and most famous of brass ensembles. 

Founded by John Distin, a former member of the original Prince Regent's Band, the group comprised himself, his four sons George Frederick, Henry John, William Alfred and Theodore, and his wife Anne Matilda Distin (neé Loder). In their earliest formation in 1836 the ensemble included John Distin on slide trumpet, keyed bugle or even "walking stick cornet", George Frederick on trombone with Henry, William and Theodore on horns and Mrs Distin appearing on piano. Over the course of three decades the ensemble travelled the length and breadth of Europe and Northern America giving more than 10,000 concerts and gaining many important and influential admirers.

"Never have I heard wind instruments played with so much splendor, purity, and precision; to add to this, that nothing equals the grandeur of their style" (West Brighton and Cornwall Advertiser, September 19th 1851) 

"The combination of bugles, horns, and trombones in a concert room might be presumed too noisy an exhibition for the tender ears of a fashionable auditory, but such is the beautiful tone and perfect understanding between this family of musicians, that unmingled gratification and delight attend their efforts." (The Musical World, February 9th 1838)

In 1844 the family travelled to Paris where they were engaged to perform for a month. Here they heard the great cornet player Jean Arban performing on a new valved brass instrument by Adolphe Sax in a concert organised by Hector Berlioz. The Distins were so taken with the instrument that they immediately arranged a meeting with Sax from which they came away with three new instruments. The family quickly aquired a full set of five of the new instruments which they claimed to be the first to call "sax horns". These instruments are today the instruments that make up the modern brass band. In keeping with one of Adolphe Sax's main tenets these instrument provided a homogenous group of valved brass instruments from covering all ranges from the Soprano in E flat down to the Contrabasse in E flat providing performers and composers with a new sonic world for brass instruments.

The Distins were resourceful arranging and rearranging popular works of the time, including many works from the genres of opera, ballad and folk song. Their programmes often advertised works by composers such as Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Meyerbeer, Handel and Beethoven. Sadly no arrangements by the Distins remain but inspired by their pioneering work the Prince Regent's Band has set about similarly arranging works for sax horn ensemble which are performed alongside similar arrangments from the time.

The group has two concerts coming up:

Holywell Music Room, Oxford. “Oldest custom built concert room in Europe” 
Friday 30th May 2014 - 7.30pm 
Tickets £12 - available on the door or from:

St Cecilia's Hall, Niddry Street, Edinburgh EH1 1LJ 
Saturday 31st of May 2014 - 7.30pm 
Tickets: £14 /senior citizens £10 / students and unwaged £5. 
Available on the door or from the Queens' Hall Box Office, 85-89 Clerk Street, Edinburgh EH8 9JG. 01313 668 2019.

So I desperately need to get practising this beautiful Courtois alto sax-horn in Eb that I've been lent by the fantastic Bate Collection in Oxford who are kindly loaning us a number of instruments for this project.