A pioneer of brass in the East – Sir Robert Hart’s Chinese brass band

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Robert Hart – Vanity Fair, 1894

Sir Robert Hart was Inspector-General of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service in China from 1863 until 1908, and he was a significant British figure in recent Chinese history. His work encompassed much beyond the assessment of customs revenue, to the extent that he once joked that he might as well be titled ‘Inspector General of Everything’. Hart was a great lover of music, playing the violin himself, often performing at soirées and parties.

In the late 1880’s he discovered one of his staff was a bandmaster which reminded him of the pleasures that ensemble music could give. Out of his own pocket he purchased a set of brass instruments from Europe and gathered a dozen or so Chinese boys and young men to start to learn to play them. Within a year they were sufficiently capable to start performing and eight of them began training others. The players all had different trades including a barber, a shoemaker and a tailor, and were provided with uniforms, though these were of a more oriental fashion rather than the military style usually adopted by European bands. The band was led by the Portuguese bandmasters J. Costa and later, from 1896 to 1908, E.E. Encarnacao.

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The band in 1902, with E.E. Encarnacao on the right

The band performed regularly at balls, dances, garden parties and other official events, becoming well known throughout China. The garden parties, in particular, were regular events, every Wednesday during the spring and autumn seasons, held in the Inspector General’s own garden, with invited guests and other Peking residents enjoying the music.
This band is notable for being the first civilian brass band consisting of Chinese musicians, starting an appetite for more European music and a trend for the creation of more bands in a similar style.

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The band in 1906, with Sir Robert Hart and E.E. Encarnacao on the left

There are reports of some of the young musicians in Hart’s band later being poached by leading Qing officials as their own bands were beginning to be established at the start of the twentieth century. Some of the bandsmen were also proficient on stringed instruments which they used at times for indoor concerts. It was also known as the Peking Boys’ Brass Band.

In a postscript to a letter in April 1890, Hart remarks:

“Keep your eye open if you hear of a good Brass-instrument man, who would make a good Postal-clerk and good Bandmaster (playing First Cornet himself), let me know. Qualifications necessary: Good tempered, patient, painstaking, able to transpose and re-arrange music for his men, good cornet player, good at simple arithmetic, handwriting, sober and economical.”

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The band performing in 1907

Hart’s daughter, Mabel Milburne Hart, on her first visit to China in 1905, wrote:

“… My Father’s Chinese Band was playing a stirring march in the Courtyard as we entered – It consists of about 20 Chinamen who are trained by a Portuguese and play brass band instruments out of doors and stringed indoors. They play as well as almost any band I’ve ever heard, and are splendid at Dance Music. There is a huge hall in the house with a splendid floor made especially for dancing. We are going to have a Diplomatic Dinner on Thursday with a dance to follow…”

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The band in 1907, with E.E. Encarnacao on the left and Sir Robert Hart on the right


Sir Robert Hart, 1908

A commemorative event – “Remembering Sir Robert Hart” was held in February 2013 at Bisham. Part of the proceedings consisted of the Waltham St Lawrence Band playing a concert of music including some of the pieces that Hart’s Chinese band had played in the early 1900’s.

A substantial collection of personal and official papers of Sir Robert Hart is held by Queen’s University Belfast in their Manuscript Collection (MS 15) which includes a large number of programmes from the band’s performances. Various digitised items from the collection are available online – see: http://digital-library.qub.ac.uk/

On a final note, Keith Robinson, a retired music teacher with an interest in Chinese language and music, is currently researching a book on Hart’s Chinese Brass Band, which will cover the work of Sir Robert Hart and his band in far greater detail than this brief overview.

Here are a selection of concert programmes that the band performed from an early one from 1889 to their final concert on 18 April 1908.

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20 February 1889

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29 August 1892

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10 February 1904

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9 February 1907

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4 December 1907

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Final concert 18 April 1908

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