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Professor A. J. Phasey

Acknowledgements: Sincere thanks to Mr. John Roberts for permission to quote freely from his biographical paper on his forebear, Professor A. J. Phasey, and for supplying the group photograph in which he appears with three of his sons and a friend. Thanks also are due to Greg Monk, Arnold Myers, Miles Eldredge, Rick Schwartz and Jeff Cottrell (his Ph D thesis) for information on the history of early 19th Century musical instruments researched by my colleague Peter Goble, himself an experienced euphonium player. Thanks also to Douglas Yeo of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for permission to reproduce the photograph of him with his collection of serpents.

Professor Alfred James Phasey (1834-88) – an accomplished player of the euphonium, ophicleide and other brass instruments – appears in a 1862 group photograph of the Kneller Hall staff. See where he is to be seen seated in the first row, second from the left. Although his date and year of birth is not known with certainty, an obituary in the Cheshire Observer for 17 August 1888 incorrectly puts the year at 1832. We know of this error because the admissions register of the Royal Military Asylum, Chelsea, provides accurate information from which the month and year of his birth can be calculated.

Registered as entrant No. 5275, Alfred James was admitted to the RMA 23 September 1839 at age 5 years and 7 months. The records of the Asylum are indisputable, so his month and year of birth is reliably calculated as February 1834. His young age on admission was not unusual. Of more than ten thousand children who went through the Asylum between 1803 and 1880 a number in excess of 2500 were between the ages of five and eight years. Alfred's father, Pte Thomas Phasey of the 1st Foot Guards (the Grenadier Guards), and his mother Elizabeth, were recorded 'Alive' in the register when their son entered the Asylum. As the demand for places in the institution was high, restricted to boys and girls who were true orphans or with but one parent still living, one is faced with a problem. Why was Alfred Phasey allowed to enter the institution – and at so young an age? There is one possible reason: his father might have been on service overseas, his mother dying and too ill to care for him.

Being a Grenadier guardsman was a definite advantage to the boy's acceptance for admission to the RMA. An exceptionally large number of senior officers on the board of commissioners, including the Duke of York himself, had served in the Grenadier Guards and the Coldstream Guards, which meant that officers of those regiments had close ties with the Asylum, which gave the guards regiments a distinct advantage over all other regiments and units when it came to securing places for the children of soldiers in need. During the same period previously noted (1803 to 1880) the guards regiments secured 1080 places for their children or 10 per cent of the total available spaces. This goes some way to explaining, but not conclusively, why the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Phasey was able to join the RMA while his parents were still living.

It is certain from the later course of his life that Alfred thrived in the disciplined and ordered regime of the institution. He spent the next ten years of his childhood being taught reading, writing and arithmetic. He would also have begun his musical career at the RMA and, although he is best remembered for his mastery of the euphonium, this could not obviously have been the first musical instrument on which he received instruction. Musical tuition instruction for students began early, but not at age six when they were still infants. Going from the experience of boys with contemporary experience at the Duke of York's School, it is a reasonable assumption that Alfred could have taken the fife as his first instrument. This is because the fife is a relatively easy musical instrument for a boy of seven and eight to handle.

As he got older he would have been able to handle the heavier musical instruments. He most probably learned to blow the bugle. The school still has a drum, fife and bugle section in its band, familiarly known as the 'spit and dribbles'. The bugle was a natural transition from the fife, flute and piccolo. Only boys with a good lungs were able to tackle instruments of the brass section: the cornet, French horn, trombone, euphonium and tuba. It is, however, certain that Phasey would not have progressed to the larger brass instruments of the day – the serpent and ophicleide – under eleven or, at a stretch depending in his size, age ten. The euphonium was not in use in military bands until the 1850s. (A century later, in the 1950s, the school still possessed a serpent in its band storeroom.) It is certain that Alfred Phasey would be familiar with more than one instrument by the time he enlisted, having progressed from the smaller wind instruments to the larger ones as he grew.

The serpent (see the illustrations) had been in use by military bands since the turn of the 19th Century. Beginning in the early 19th Century, new musical instruments derived from the serpent were invented.
  Courtesy of Phil and Pen Holcomb, an early serpent (Saranon serpent c. 1800) bass baritone instrument made of wood and animal hide.  
Courtesy of Phil and Pen Holcomb, a modern reproduction of an Italian serpent (bass cornett) in use from the 16th to the 19th Century.
According to accepted authorities, the ophicleide from the Greek ' ophis' for 'serpent' and 'kleis' for 'stopper' or 'cover' (also see the illustration) followed the serpent.

This was a brass instrument with keys and pads (similar to a modern saxophone). Bugle maker Joseph Halliday of Dublin is credited with inventing the ophicleide in 1821 although earlier versions had appeared on the continent. Versions of this instrument appeared in British bands over the next few years.

An early version of the euphonium, but known by another name, was invented in 1825, credit for its creation going to one Herr Sommers of Weimar. This instrument with valves to change the pitch has taken many forms and undergone numerous modifications in its history.

  Douglas Yeo with four serpents by the Christopher Monk Workshops (worm, serpent, church serpent, contrabass serpent) copyright © Walter Scott, all rights reserved. Courtesy of Douglas Yeo, used with permission. See
Alfred Phasey is credited with widening the bore of the instrument soon after he became an expert player of the then latest version (it appeared in its recognizable modern form about 1843). It did not appear in British military bands until the early 1850s, so Phasey would not have learned to play it before he joined the Coldstream Guards Band in 1849. That he did so, and wrote a tutor for the instrument within two years is testimony to his expertise as a musician. This, however, is getting a little ahead of the Phasey story.

The ophicleide, a brass wind instrument fitted with pads and levered keys that replaced the serpent.

  A double bell version of a four-valve euphonium in use in the late 19th Century

Alfred remained a pupil at the RMA beyond his 14th year, the normal leaving age at which boys enlisted for military service or entered into indentured apprenticeships, is evidence that he was a proficient musician by his early teens. The commandant of the school, Lieutenant Colonel James Williamson, is known to have helped boys who showed promise or demonstrated talent by retaining them beyond the normal leaving age. Henry Lazarus, the clarinetist, a fellow professor at Kneller Hall, had benefited from Williamson's preferential treatment much earlier than Phasey. Lazarus served as a servant to the commandant, which was one way the school authorities used to keep capable boys to be monitors in teaching the younger children. Because of their advanced musical skills, Lazarus and Phasey both were undoubtedly employed to teach younger boys.

Boy Phasey, as he was known, joined the RMA at an important stage in its history. The authorities stopped accepting girls into the institution after 1839 (the last one left the school in the mid-1840s). This exclusion together with a reduced number of boys permitted to enter is sufficient evidence of preparations made by the military authorities to make radical changes in army education. Using the students of the Asylum as a 'model school', the Army instituted a programme of formal training for army schoolmasters. This revolutionary system of education, both for the children and student teachers, was the creation of two outstanding scholars in the field of education: Dr Walter McLeod and the Rev. William S. O. Du Sautoy. Their work formed the foundation of the Royal Army Education Corps (RAEC). The 'Ecole Normale' (of French origin) was specifically for training army schoolmasters, who used the 'Model School' to practice the instruction they were given in the Ecole Normale. The Asylum and the Army had come a long way since the days on monitorial teaching when boys of 13 and 14 were sent to home and foreign stations to teach adult soldiers to read, write and do arithmetic. The new education system coming to the RMA as it did beginning in 1846, Alfred Phasey and his fellow students were the direct beneficiaries of McLeod's and du Sautoy's new curriculum, which put the British Army years ahead of the Elementary Education Act of 1870.

At age 15 on 12 February 1849, Phasey enlisted as a band boy in the Coldstream Guards. Why the Coldstream Guards? Why not in the band of his father's regiment, the Grenadier Guards? In response to the explosion of public and military interest in music during the mid-19th Century, trained musicians were in high demand, which meant that competition for musicians from the RMA by military bandmasters was fierce. For their part, the young musicians were attracted to the best bands, naturally. In this regard, the band of the Coldstream Guards was among the premier military bands in and around London. Bandmaster Charles Godfrey, who had led the band since 1825, would have had little difficulty in persuading young Phasey to join his band. He was joining good company. His fellow RMA musician, Henry Lazarus, had enlisted in the Coldstream Band under the baton of Bandmaster Thomas Lindsay Willman, one the most accomplished clarinetists of his day. This helps explain why Lazarus himself had excellent tuition on the clarinet. He took over as principal clarinetist of the London Philharmonic and Opera orchestras in 1840. Phasey would have joined the band of the 'Depot battalion' (from 1838 to 1842, the Grenadier Guards and Coldstream Guards were stationed in Canada, relying on the respective depot battalions for new recruits).

In 1853, Mr. Cadwallader Thomas, another outstanding clarinetist, was appointed bandmaster of the Coldstream Guards Band. Thomas is distinguished for taking a spell as bandmaster of the RMA (1870-1880). The year 1880 was the year the name of the RMA changed to the Duke of York's Royal Military School. Thomas's connection with the Coldstreams, the RMA and his virtuosity on the clarinet all point to the wonderful concentration of talent in this particular Guards Band. Others, including Willman, Thomas, Lazarus and Phasey were outstanding musicians who encouraged, and were encouraged by, the company of their contemporaries.

The year 1853 is an important milestone in Alfred Phasey's life, for that was the year he met his future wife, Elizabeth Hall of Banbury. Elizabeth Hall came from a musical family. The Town of Banbury brass band had been formed in 1836 by her relative, probably her uncle, Mr. T. Hall, watchmaker by trade. Her father, John Hall was a hairdresser (barber?) and musical. John Roberts writes that the Halls were 'on good terms with any visiting bandsmen'. Alfred and Elizabeth were married in 1854 and moved to Pimlico, Middlesex, where the first of their large family of nine children was born, a girl, Phoebe Elizabeth.

Alfred was twenty years of age and Elizabeth twenty-two in the year of their marriage and they would have experienced the problem of most newlyweds in having to make do on a bandsman's pay. Alfred, however, was no ordinary musician. He made his mark immediately he joined the Coldstreams by learning and developing an unusual virtuosity on the newly-introduced euphonium, which didn't come into common use in military bands until the following year. His skill with the instrument was so extraordinarily adept that he drew the attention of the band's historian. In a recent history, the historian wrote, "In the band at this time was Bandsman Phasey whose virtuosity on the euphonium did much to develop and popularize the instrument". It is no wonder that he was soon supplementing his bandsman's pay from the lucrative engagements (known as 'gigs' today) available to first-rate musicians throughout London.
Such was Phasey's command of the euphonium that within three years he had written and published a 'euphonium tutor'. He wrote another tutor (a practice and instruction book) for the trombone. Phasey obviously had a skill with a large range of wind instruments. He is also reported to have modified the euphonium to provide the bell with a large bore to give it a more sonorous sound. No documentary evidence, however, has been found to substantiate this assertion. The Royal Military School of Music opened its doors at Kneller Hall in 1858 for the instruction of military musicians, to teach music, scoring and arranging and to train bandmasters.  

A modern euphonium in the hands of P. J. Goble of the White Rose Concert Band, Harrogate

To this end, the military authorities running the RMSM acquired a staff of brilliant musicians and teachers and appointed them professors. Alfred Phasey joined this august company at Kneller Hall in 1859 as Professor of the Euphonium. John Roberts refers to the instrument Phasey taught as the tenor bass. He is, however, identified with the euphonium in an 1862 photograph of the teaching staff of Kneller Hall. Fellow ex-RMA pupils Henry Lazarus (clarinet; a fellow Coldstream Guards bandsman) and Thomas Sullivan (bombardon) were also on staff. Professor Hughes (ophicleide) is also thought to have been at the RMA although his entry in the admissions register of the institution has yet to be established.

When it opened, Kneller Hall had between 80 and 90 students, who had to share the available musical instruments. Initially, there being one instrument of each type only, students had to wait their turn to practice unless, of course, they were fortunate enough to own a musical instrument. Roberts reported that, in conversation with Swift, the young (Arthur) Sullivan became acquainted with all the instruments of the band by visiting pupils at practice. During fine weather, when students of Kneller Hall found a secluded spot in its grounds to develop their embouchure and practice their arpeggios, Arthur must have got to know the musicians well and to absorb their musical abilities. The teaching staff of Kneller Hall, with their numerous contacts on the London musical circuit, acquired tickets for students to attend musical events at the Crystal Palace and elsewhere.

Alfred Phasey's career did not stop with the Kneller Hall professorship. Like most of his fellow teachers, he had a life outside the School of Music. For example, during the concert season of 1865 at Her Majesty's Theatre under the baton of Luigi Arditi (renowned Italian violinist and composer) Phasey was a featured soloist. He played the bass trombone in August Mann's Crystal Palace Orchestra and solo euphonium in the Band of the Blues and Royals under the baton of Charles Godfrey, one of several accomplished musician brothers. In 1880, he played the ophicleide in the Crystal Palace Orchestra under Sir Michael Costa. In fact, he was never far from the London musical circuit. In 1885-6, he was the trombonist in Saturday performances of the Crystal Palace Orchestra.  

Professor Alfred James Phasey at the height of his musical career, seen here, seated on the right, with three of his sons standing and a friend of the family

Despite his full and busy life as a professional musician in London bands, orchestras and ensembles, Albert served in the appointment of bandmaster of the 6th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers (aka the St. George's Rifle Volunteers) for about four years from 1868 to 1872. To accommodate him his work, he and Elizabeth moved their growing family from Pimlico to various places around the capital, finally settling in a larger house at Markham Square, Chelsea, the same area of London in which he had spent those ten years of his childhood at the RMA, Chelsea. In fact, in 1873, the year following the time he spent with the St. George's Rifles Band, and while he was still working with the Crystal Palace Band, the Cheshire Yeomanry negotiated for his services. The Yeomanry engaged Phasey and sixteen musicians for occasional engagements "for ninety pounds per annum, exclusive of railway fares" as recorded in the paper written by John Roberts.

He still found time and patience to instill a love of music and the euphonium into his children. His sons Alfred and Handel Phasey both had a successful musical careers. Alfred played the euphonium with Gilmore's Band in the U. S. A. where, according to Dr. Arnold Myers, Director of Edinburgh University Collection of Historical Instruments, Alfred Phasey Jnr was described as "...a dashing young English Fifth Lancer with brilliancy, his manipulation of the pedal notes being remarkable." Later, he filled his father's position as solo euphonium player in the Crystal Palace Orchestra. His younger brother Handel, who became a professor of the euphonium, also composed marches and wrote other musical scores. The Phasey sons, however, are of peripheral interest only to this biographical note on their remarkable father.
In his short lifetime (he died at the early age of 54), Alfred Phasey earned his place as a star performer in the galaxy of musicians, composers and bandmasters who populated the London music scene of the second half of the 19th Century. Hardly a leading orchestra in the capital was without his services at some time during his career: the Crystal Palace Orchestra, the Philharmonic Society of London, and the 'state orchestra' (an orchestra assembled for state occasions and performances) and, when required, as a member of '...the Queen's [Queen Victoria] private band, although he was not officially a member of ...(it).' [Quoted from a letter dated 7 February 2000, over the signature of Miss Pamela Clark, Deputy Registrar, of the Royal Archives.] When Alfred died, on 17 Augest 1888, he left a large vacuum in the London musical circle.  

Here Handel Phasey holds a double-belled euphonium popular in the late 19th Century and into the early 20th

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