I am ashamed to say that before this double album
of Wilfred Heaton’s music landed on my doormat I had not heard
of Heaton. The more I have discovered about him in preparing this
review the more I realize that it is no disgrace and indeed to
some of you he may be a new name. None of this is to disparage
Heaton and his music. His obscurity, like that of many another
neglected composer, was as much to do with his aversion to self-promotion
as with the band world’s conservative reaction to his audacious
I had attempted in the 1970s to write music for
eminent London brass and military bands but this is not something
I have continued. I am not a bandsman myself and I must confess
that at first I had no strong desire to unwrap the CD. However
as soon as I played the first major work on CD1 (‘Contest Music’)
I was hooked and quite astounded that this very fine, even great,
composer had, until now, eluded me.
I have spoken to musicians who knew Heaton and
who are trying to promote his music. From this I have been able
to form a picture of the man and the creative musician. I have
concluded that no matter what the medium Heaton would have been
a very important composer. In fact it seems that he also wrote
for orchestra, piano and other instruments and groupings.
He was born in Sheffield to Salvationist parents.
His father was a bandmaster. Consequently Wilfred’s earliest musical
leanings, from the age of eight when he started piano lessons,
were nurtured through the Salvation Army. The earliest pieces
on these CDs, date from the end of the Second World War when he
was in his 20s. They are hymn-based variations (chorale prelude
type works) for Salvationist bands, pieces like ‘Just as I am’.
His earliest success was the march ‘Praise’ published in the 1940s
and a work which has been played despite the neglect from which
the rest of Heaton’s music has suffered.
I approached my friend the composer Arthur Butterworth,
no mean judge he. The two composers had worked together for the
peripatetic service in the old county of West Yorkshire. He told
me what an incredibly modest man Heaton had been. He made no attempt
whatsoever to promote his own music as he had written it primarily
for the glory of God and for the use of the Army bands. Indeed
he often had works played over and then would put them on a shelf
to be forgotten.
‘Contest Music’, one of his last compositions,
was rejected because it was too ‘difficult’ or possibly too ‘modern’.
This happened several times. Arthur told me how hurt Heaton had
been by the rejection of ‘Contest Music’ especially as he had
in his mid-fifties come out of compositional retirement to write
it. In truth Heaton was often well ahead of his time, at least
as far band music was concerned. Salvationist bands or even the
colliery bands could not handle the original way he treated traditional
melodies. Heaton became increasingly interested in Stravinsky,
Schoenberg and Bartók well ahead of others. This is apparent
even in his earlier works. He was, briefly, a pupil of Mátyás
In ‘Just as I am’ the result is a miniature tone
poem, which takes you on a journey through differing keys and
atmospheres. Paul Hindmarsh, the BBC producer who has done such
a great deal in promoting and broadcasting Heaton’s music, has
written about this piece in the excellent booklet notes: "The
tune here is ‘The Fairest of Ten Thousand’ used for the words
‘At the feet I bow adoring’. Heaton’s setting is full of subtle
nuances of phrase and dynamics. The interweaving textures are
spun out like silk; the harmonies painted in illusive style".
One could speak of two sides of Wilfred Heaton’s
music: a more conservative one, sometimes even witty and possibly
in the light music category. The enchanting ‘Wonderful Words’
featuring two solo cornets and the March ‘Le Tricot Rouge’ fall
into this category. Then there are the other works such as the
twenty-five minute ‘Partita’ which runs to four movements. Here
the fantastic Scherzo may well remind one of William Walton, a
composer whose spirit hovers over some other pieces. Robert Simpson’s
‘hand’ is also intermittently apparent. Simpson surely influenced
the three movement ‘Contest Music’. Anyone who can write an almost
eight-minute Scherzo like this, controlling the material both
harmonically and formally, has to be a significant composer.
Obviously Heaton knew the brass world intimately.
Consequently he could take risks with his orchestration. ‘Partita’
is a huge test of stamina and technique for even the finest brass
players. Accordingly it has had relatively few performances. Some
of the music has had to be reconstructed. Various people have
spent some time tracking down missing parts. Derek Smith, the
New York Staff bandmaster, did much investigatory work to make
the wonderful ‘Celestial Prospect’ variations a performable reality.
Hindmarsh owns up to producing a performing edition of ‘The Golden
Pen’. He added dynamics, articulation and percussion parts. The
original score has not yet been located.
I greatly admire the achievements of everyone
who made this project possible. Especially admirable is the work
of the two bands represented. Both are magnificent, but especially
the Black Dyke Mills who take on the two big works ‘Contest Music’
(incidentally commissioned for a contest before being rejected)
and the ‘Partita’. All of the music requires immense virtuosity
and must have been a real labour of love to rehearse. I suspect
that much of the music was tried out regularly in concert before
being committed to disc.
And, what a superb and realistic recording. Very
powerful, all detail is available with excellent balance and bass
response. I cannot speak too highly of the entire project. I believe
too that more is to come, as an increasing amount of Heaton’s
work is still turning up.
This double CD comes with two booklets with the
first giving biographies of the composer and the bands, with the
names of the players. The second is devoted to the music and what
is known of its inspiration. Both feature colour photographs,
all lavishly produced.
If you spot the CD in a shop ask them to play
Track 5 CD2 ‘Glory, Glory’ a substantial concert March written
in 1988, and ask if they can start it at about 3’50" if you
are short of time. This offers a touch of Malcolm Arnold-type
comedy - a breath of fresh air.