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Alexander the Great
The last of the Victorian triumvirate

On the centenary of the death of Alexander Owen, 4BR looks at the life and legacy of one of the greatest figures in the history of the brass band movement.

Owen
The greatest of them all...

The death of Alexander Owen, aged 69, at 7.15pm on the evening of Thursday 29th July 1920, broke the last great link in the chain to the golden era of Victorian banding.

Alongside John Gladney (1839-1911) and Edwin Swift (1843-1904), Owen formed a ‘triumvirate’ that monopolised the contesting landscape for over 30 years. 

Between them they won every September British Open except one from 1873 to 1904, as well as three of first four National Championships. 

Now, arguably the greatest of them all was gone.

Lead Kindly Light

He had conducted Besses o’ th’ Barn in a concert on July 18th, and the following Saturday had adjudicated at a contest in Newtown in mid Wales. 

Feeling unwell on his journey home he stopped at his son’s house where he suffered a stroke. He never regained consciousness. 

The news soon reverberated around the banding globe with messages of condolence coming in from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA and South Africa.


Still resolute a century later

On 4th August 1920, Alexander Owen was laid to rest at Stretford Cemetery - the cortege led by a massed band playing the ‘Dead March’ from ‘Saul’. 

A century after his death, it remains as resolute in profile as his stature in the annals of banding history.

At the graveside, Besses o’ th’ Barn performed his own favourite hymn, ‘Lead Kindly Light’ (Sandon) for their iconic leader. The opening bar was later engraved on the headstone.

A century after his death, it remains as resolute in profile as his stature in the annals of banding history.

Enigmatic

Thanks to extensive research, a great deal is known of Owen’s banding career, although details of his early childhood remain rather enigmatic.   

Born in Swinton on 29th April 1851, his formative years were spent in a local orphanage. 

Owen never hid the fact. 


The name in the register of orphan births - 1851 (third from bottom)

In fact, his funeral eulogy stated that he was proud that he had overcome “…less advantages than most” to “win his own way with absolutely no backing except that of his own talents, his intense industry and his never failing confidence in his ability to win through to fame and fortune.”  

Owen was to become the epitome of the Victorian self-made “good citizen”; a beacon of moral rectitude and modesty (although his business interests lay in success as a tobacconist, hotelier and publican).

Owen was to become the epitome of the Victorian self-made “good citizen”; a beacon of moral rectitude and modesty

Self made foundation

He built his life on a foundation of hard work, self-improvement (he was fond of classic English literature) and service to his local community.

In later years he became a Conservative member of the Stalybridge Town Council and was a regular church goer. On his death he left £18,319 (around £825,000 today). 

How many of the 887 children alongside him in those early childhood years at Swinton Industrial School were to emulate that?

Small and slightly rotund in stature, serious in countenance, disposition and action, Alexander Owen’s respect was hard earned but rarely lost.  

How many of the 887 children alongside him in those early childhood years at Swinton Industrial School were to emulate that?

His musical education is thought to have come from lessons received from a former cavalry bandmaster – although he must have also received good business tutoring, as by the age of 18 he has already established a thriving tobacconist’s business.


Owen directs Besses on their tour to France

Stern but fair

Crucially, his less than advantageous upbringing enabled him to connect to the players he later conducted - a stern but fair paternalism that found an immediate response wherever he raised his baton.

He first found fame (and financial reward) as a virtuoso cornet player - joining Stalybridge Old Band aged 16 and conducting them from 1869 to 1872. He later founded the rival Stalybridge Borough Band, although his conducting prowess was still embryonic.

Such was impression Gladney made on him that Owen was to name his son after him (as well as rather surprisingly, Verdi). 

It was his playing; his tone, compass, free production and expression said to be charming and his stamina outstanding, that made his name.

In 1875 he joined Meltham Mills and for the next five years came under the influence of John Gladney – the pre-eminent conductor of the age.  

Such was impression Gladney made on him that Owen was to name his son after him (as well as rather surprisingly, Verdi). 

Black Dyke

Owen played with Meltham as they claimed a Belle Vue ‘Open’ hat-trick (1876 - 1878), but he also reignited his serious interest in conducting.

Between 1877 and 1884 he led Boarshurst Band winning a number of local contests before his emerging talent was came to the attention at John Foster Mills in Queensbury where he was appointed professional conductor of Black Dyke in 1880.

Under him the band won the Open in 1880 and 1881 - completing a hat-trick of their own. The following year Owen did it himself, leading Clayton-le-Moor to victory.

Musical destiny

He was now in charge of his musical destiny and with his own emerging business interests in Manchester Owen’s next step was to be the most important and lasting of his musical life.   

In 1882, financial pressure saw Besses o’th’ Barn part company with John Gladney. There followed a brief, unsuccessful interregnum with George Birkinshaw (who had replaced Owen as solo cornet at Meltham), which ended in a dispiriting fourth place at a local contest.

 
The terms of the 1884 contract that saw Owen sign his life to Besses

As their former player Joseph Hampson said in his celebrated 1892 book about Besses: “Why was the question oft-times asked,  should we not be able to raise a band in this district equal to such splendid organisations as Meltham, Black Dyke, Oldham, Accrington, Boarshurst, Stalybridge, Mossley etc?”

As a result, they approached Alexander Owen for a second time to, “ascertain his terms for taking in hand the conductorship of our enterprising subjects…”   

This time he accepted and on February 24th 1884 he took his first rehearsal. He was to remain as professional conductor until his death.

Own terms

It was an appointment very much on Owen’s terms, as he remained with Black Dyke until July 1888.

His pragmatism was well founded as contest rules at the time allowed him to both conduct and play.  It ended, much to Owen’s frustration, when the ‘professional’ rules were changed.  

He reportedly stated: “Maybe I am a professional conductor, but I am an amateur cornet player!” 

Aged 37 and with his mentor Gladney still the dominant figure, his decision to concentrate his primary conducting focus on Besses o’th’ Barn was cemented.

He reportedly stated: “Maybe I am a professional conductor, but I am an amateur cornet player!”  


A man at the centre of things...

Over the next 20 years or more he built them into one of the foremost bands of the era, and himself into a leviathan.   It was to be a golden age for both. 

Prior to his ‘full time’ decision Owen had worked tirelessly to improve Besses as a contesting outfit – even overcoming the effects of a bad accident that had seen him thrown from his horse trap. 

Stern but fair

His personality was said to be stern but fair. He had the habit to lock the bandroom when he was rehearsing, placing the key into his waistcoat pocket. It was only removed and the door unlocked when he was satisfied with his night’s work.

However, on one occasion when rehearsing ‘Elijah’ later than expected, Owen asked the bass trombone player: ‘Look, you’re saying, “…ist that thou Elijah?” – it’s very important. If Elijah were in the room tonight what would you say?’

The player mused before replying: ‘Sithee, Elijah – its quarter to nine, time for rehearsal was finished. If tha’ll come to the bar with me, I’ll let thee buy me half a pint.’

The player mused before replying: ‘Sithee, Elijah – its quarter to nine, time for rehearsal was finished. If tha’ll come to the bar with me, I’ll let thee buy me half a pint.’

Owen was said to have given a wry smile, took the key from his waistcoat pocket and unlocked the door.

Perfect gentleman

Others recalled him first hand.

Albert Coupe stated that when he was much older Owen was “the perfect gentleman”, although he could “still show the young ones what to do” on the cornet and could be a demanding presence – including to a precocious Harry Mortimer, who later recalled that in a rehearsal he had very nearly reduced him to tears.   


The perfect gentleman

Commanding

Although certainly a commanding figure, Owen’s great skill was that he appreciated that working men at the time held insecure employment.

He always made a point of thanking them for their efforts as well as taking time to thank employers for giving players time off for contests. He was said to be to be able to massage a player’s ego as well as an employer’s cheque book. 

That was to be seen at Besses as his work ethic, man management skills and desire to succeed soon brought success and contest scalps - invariably playing one of his specially written operatic arrangements.

That was to be seen at Besses as his work ethic, man management skills and desire to succeed soon brought success and contest scalps - invariably playing one of his specially written operatic arrangements.  

The most famous, ‘Rossini’s Works’, was performed to such an extent, and with such success, that is was eventually barred at a contest in 1887.

Undeterred, Owen simply came up with another - this time from Beethoven.  His ‘Damnation of Faust’ won Besses prizes at 19 out of 20 contests.


1903 National Champion

Glorious glowing whisper

Under Owen, Besses quickly became identified as much for their sound quality as for their prize winning prowess - able to produce “a glorious glowing whisper of tone” at pppp according to one media report. 

One correspondent wrote on hearing them that “…the delicacy at times was almost enough to make one doubt the evidence of the senses of sight and hearing, and wonder whether we were really listening to instruments of brass.”

Despite the successes (which came with increasingly media-led rivalry with the likes of Black Dyke), it wasn’t until 1892 that Owen added a fourth Belle Vue Open title to his name as Besses won their first on ‘Zaar und Zimmermann’. 

They repeated the feat in 1894, whilst Owen also led Mossley to success in 1897.

One correspondent wrote on hearing them that “…the delicacy at times was almost enough to make one doubt the evidence of the senses of sight and hearing, and wonder whether we were really listening to instruments of brass.”

At the Crystal Palace in London he led Denton Original to the first National Championship title in 1900 before crowning his contesting achievements with Besses in 1903 when they triumphed on ‘Der Meistersinger’. He never scaled such a major peak again.

Extraordinary

From then on, Owen and Besses took a different musical direction - with extraordinary tours around the UK, as well as to France to celebrate the entente-cordiale in 1905 (where he was decorated Officier de ‘Instruction Publique’ by the Under- Secretary of Fine Arts) and the World Tours of 1906/07 and 1909.

Owen’s fee for the 1906 tour was £300 - worth around £37,000 today. 

Owen’s fee for the 1906 tour was £300 - worth around £37,000 today. 

He was worth every penny though - making numerous arrangements and composing pieces for the band to perform; from marches such as ‘World Tour’ and ‘Pelorus Jack’ to solo, duets and operatic selections – with all parts written with beautiful clarity and individually signed.


Written in the master's hand...

It was however an exhausting schedule and Owen, well past 50 years of age was now perhaps secure in the knowledge that as according to his eulogy, that “…as the result of a hard working and thrifty career he had no need to pursue his profession for a livelihood”. 

He didn’t tour with Besses in 1912. 

As such there was to be no valedictory Indian Summer.  The new century was soon to belong to the likes of William Rimmer, William Halliwell and J.E Greenwood.

As such there was to be no valedictory Indian Summer.  The new century was soon to belong to the likes of William Rimmer, William Halliwell and J.E Greenwood.

Gradual decline

Health issues some years previously may also have accounted for his gradual decline as a contesting force. He still appeared at events with numerous bands, but they were no longer elite level contenders – the names of the likes of Earby, Boots Plaisaunace and Palmer’s Works no more than obscure footnotes in history.

His last victory came at the equally long forgotten Lincoln Temperance Fete & Gala Contest with Mansfield Colliery Band, his last competitive appearance a couple of months later at the 1919 September British Open as Besses came out of the prizes.  

Mr Greatheart

Owen seemed content though (he had taken up the saxophone and conducted a choral society).  His life’s work had brought him respect and respectability in equal measure - a quite remarkable achievement for a Victorian orphan. He had nothing left to prove. 

His life’s work had brought him respect and respectability in equal measure - a quite remarkable achievement for a Victorian orphan. He had nothing left to prove. 

His wife Maria pre-deceased him in 1916; his son, Gladney Verdi, neither a musician nor businessman of success (he was a declared bankrupt) outlived his father by a mere 11 years. 


The master at work...

Small in stature, huge in achievement, Owen’s eulogy spoke of him forever being thought of as Bunyan’s ‘Mr Greatheart’, “…that doughty hero of our youth – whom neither threats nor difficulties could alarm, but who went on prepared to fight his way to the goal at all and any odds. Born a fighter, but a sagacious one.” 

Unlike Gladney, what he lacked in upbringing he made up in self improvement. Like Swift, his work ethic was prodigious and ultimately exhausting. 

Unlike both however he left a series of works to posterity that were decades ahead of their time – his great selections from ‘Die Walkure’ remarkable in scope, thought and execution.

Relevant

100 years after his death Alexander Owen’s legacy remains remarkably relevant.  


The last performance

The Alexander Owen Memorial Fund Scholarship was soon set up - lasting until the turn of the new millennium.  Former winners included Arthur Butterworth, Bram Gay and Elgar Howarth.

However, even the most modern brass bands and conductors owe him a greater debt of gratitude.

Pioneer

Specially written own-choice test-pieces for major contests, one-off entertainment compositions for concerts and tours to foreign lands – and not forgetting that he was also freelance conductor with a solid, successful brass band home to return to each week? 

Owen was a pioneer of them all a century and more ago. 

Fittingly, his passing 100 years ago will be marked by Besses o’ th ‘Barn Band (there was also to have been a concert with Stalybridge Band) at his graveside in Stretford Cemetery.  

Around the world on the 29th July, a quite remarkable life deserves to be celebrated as well.  

Iwan Fox

With thanks to Tim Mutum, Stephen Etheridge, Besses o’th’ Barn Band

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