There’s a stout, hale and hearty song, if ever there was one! The lyrics to this song, celebrating the refreshment of brown October ale were penned by Harry Bache Smith (1860-1936) who collaborated with a number of composers in developing the librettos for many Broadway musicals. This particular song came from a collaboration with a Masonic Brother, Henry Louis Reginald de Koven (1859-1920), in creating the comic opera, Robin Hood.
Bro. de Koven was born in Middletown, Connecticut, and while still a child, his family moved to England. He graduated from St. John’s College, Oxford, and studied music with Franz von Suppe and Frederick Delibes. When he returned to America, he first worked for a Chicago brokerage firm and eventually opened a dry goods store. According to the 1913 records of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, Bro. de Koven was raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason while at Oxford University.
Following his success in business, he returned to conducting, and music composition which involved writing a number of operas and operettas including Robin Hood in collaboration with Harry B. Smith and which became one of his greatest successes. The most famous song from Robin Hood is undoubtedly “O Promise Me” with lyrics by Clement Scott (1841-1904), a well-known and influential English theatre critic, and which was eventually included in the stage production of Robin Hood. Just how Scott’s poetry was inserted in Smith’s libretto, I am not quite sure; but the song soon became Robin Hood’s most famous and frequently performed musical selection. This song has also long found favor in the world of sacred music and often continues to be sung at church weddings. In fact, my bride and I chose it for our own wedding back in 1971, where it was sung by a Masonic brother with organ accompaniment.
Anyway, back to the reason for writing about “Brown October Ale,” that “other song” from de Koven and Smith’s collaboration in the “gaslight era” of the late 19th century. This was a time period where there was a great deal of interest in all things medieval as reflected in some of the fashions of that time as well as in art nouveau and which undoubtedly contributed to the theatrical success of Robin Hood.
According to legend, Robin Hood is supposed to have lived during the reign of King Richard I in the latter part of the 12th century, and earliest ballads which mention him date back to the 15th century. Even William Shakespeare (1564-1616) made reference to Robin Hood in his late 16th century play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
I first heard “Brown October Ale” as a young teenager playing from some sheet music that my grandfather had. He and I often played this song together with him playing the piano, and me playing the clarinet. It wasn’t a great sounding duet by ordinary music standards; but nonetheless, it seemed wonderful to me.
Many years later, I “rediscovered” this song and thought it would work well with brass instruments since it was originally intended to be sung as a happy declaration by a full-sounding baritone voice. So I decided to arrange it for the Aleppo Noble Brass Quintet. Inasmuch as there were no copyright issues involved (musical compositions with an original copyright date prior to 1923 are now in the public domain), I found an old copy of the song published by New York’s venerable music publisher, G. Schirmer, and set out to arrange the original vocal music for brass instruments.
When converting piano/vocal music to something readily playable for band instruments, the first issue is dealing with the key in which the music is written. Finding a “good key” for the new instrumentation is half the battle won. In this case, the key issue was an easy one, the song having been originally written in E-flat, which coincidentally also works well for brass instruments. Next, the melody had to sound out well against the chords and be in harmony with the accompaniment. Therefore, in order to deliver the melody to the listener in a way and manner consistent with the original vocal music, I gave the melody line to the first trumpet and trombone playing in octaves (the trombone playing the same notes in the same octave as the baritone voice, and trumpet strengthening the melody an octave above). The second trumpet, horn and tuba were assigned notes from
the chords in the original piano accompaniment and thus, after printing the charts, the piece was ready to try out at a Noble Brass rehearsal.
With the January Ceremonial being held in the mezzanine, where it would be impossible to accommodate the full Aleppo Brass Band, the Noble Brass Quintet, under the direction of our Assistant Bandmaster, Noble Daniel Madore, played in lieu of the full ensemble, presenting pieces from the Broadway musical stage. These included “Broadway Baby” from Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical, Follies, “Get Me to the Church on Time” from Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 smash hit, My Fair Lady, and, of course, “Brown October Ale” from Robin Hood, the 1890 comic opera by Reginald de Koven and Harry B. Smith.
So that’s the story of “Brown October Ale” as far as Noble Brass is concerned, and the song also seems especially appropriate as Aleppo celebrates its recent and very successful launching of the Brewmasters’ Club and the creation of unique craft beers (aka known as some very special “camel’s milk”). Thus, as Mr. Smith penned some 129 years ago, Now tapster if in me you’d win, a friend who would not fail, fill up once more the cannikin with brown October ale!