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THEATRE PLAYBILL: THEATRE, COVENTRY. Second Night!!… The Celebrated Distin Family.



A rare playbill from the Coventry Theatre, presents The Celebrated Distin family, a famous family of musicians, who played a vital role in popularization of Saxhorns and brass music in England and the United States, with a major influence on the American Civil War bands. 

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This is a rare early illustrated playbill for theatre performances on the evening of April 21th, 1840, in the Coventry Theatre, featuring The Celebrated Distin Family on various brass instruments, accompanied by Mrs. Distin on Piano and a singer Mademoiselle Schiller from Berlin. The lower part of the playbill lists 19 musical numbers performed that evening.

The Distin Family was formed of a father John Distin, a former member of King George IV’s Household Band, and his four sons, George Frederick (1817–1848), Henry John (1819–1903),William Alfred (1822–1879), and Theodore (1823–1893), who performed on brass instruments. In the 1840s they became world famous for their modern music, played on a completely new instrument – the saxhorn.

The saxhorn family was developed by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian musician and inventor, who later became famous for inventing saxophone, during the mid-to-late 1830s, and was not patented until 1845. Only a year before, in 1844, Sax met The Distin Family, at the time extremely famous touring English musicians, in Vienna by coincidence and the quintet agreed to try the new instrument.  The Distin Family was, thank to their musical talent and theatrical performance, widely responsible for instant popularisation of the saxhorn and brass music in popular culture.

A German composer Heinrich Marschner wrote about the Distin Family in The Musical Gazette (vol. I, no. 14, pg. 107, Boston, August 3rd, 1846).

These artists use their splendid instruments (the saxhorns) with a most remarkable superiority; and I feel bound to testify that their execution really leaves nothing to be desired. An ensemble so perfect has never been heard.  These five artists play as if they were but one man.  To say how great, how profound was the impression which they produced upon the public, is an impossibility; during their entire concert, nothing like the slightest idea of criticism could enter the minds of their audience.

In 1849 The Distin Family, or The Distins, as they were newly called, left for a tour of North America. The performances in New York, where they were supposed to appear in 40 shows, were a financial failure due to a Cholera epidemic, which scared away the audience.

After returning to Europe, one of the sons, Henry Distin, founded his own successful instrumental manufacturing, still cooperating with Adolphe Sax. After selling the firm, what would later become the firm Boosey & Hawkes, he moved tot he United States in 1876, where he founded another musical company Henri Distin Manufacturing Company. The popularisation of the saxhorn instrument and the brass music through The Distin Family in 1840s and 1850s had a large influence on the United States and in 1860s the saxhorn became the most common brass instrument in American Civil War bands.

Because of their influence on the popular music, especially in the North America, the life and itinerary of the Distin Family is well researched. This performance by The Distin Family is not recorded in contemporary literature (Ray Farr, The Distin Legacy: The Rise of the Brass Band in 19th-Century Britain, 2013. Distin Diaries) We could not find any records of this playbill in institutions worldwide. 

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