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Doyen

The History of Brass Band Music
The Modern Era: 1970-2000

Robert Simpson (1921-1997) Energy (1971) [10:20]
Wilfred Heaton (1918-2000) Contest Music (1972) [15:25]
Joseph Horovitz (b. 1926) Euphonium Concerto (1972) [16:50]
Edward Gregson (b. 1945) Connotations (1976) [12:39]
Philip Wilby (b. 1949) Jazz (1974) [14:32]
Grimethorpe Colliery (UK Coal) Band/Elgar Howarth
rec. Dewsbury Town Hall, 16-17 April 2005. DDD
DOYEN DOY CD163 [69:46]

I have many happy memories of brass bands. It was rare to visit the seaside without hearing at least one such concert on the promenade bandstand. It was as much a part of the ‘holiday’ scene as ‘Punch and Judy’ or the Seaside Mission. The music the town bands played was more often than not selections from the ‘shows’ or the Savoy operas. Maybe there would be a nod towards the ‘beatnik’ generation with a rendition of Yellow Submarine or a poignant euphonium solo of Fool on the Hill. Usually there were one or two pieces that seemed to be written specifically for the medium – perhaps a march? Occasionally there was an arrangement by the band-leader or one of his more precocious players. It was a pleasure to sit on a deck chair and doze in the summer sun!

It was some few years later that I learned that there is a passionate competition world that brass bands enter with tremendous enthusiasm and almost cut-throat intensity. I recall my father taking me to one of these events – and explaining how the judges would sit in what appeared to me to be a conjurer’s box on the stage – so they could not see which particular band were playing – scrupulously fair. I remember sitting in the Happy Valley in Llandudno one Sunday afternoon in the early 1970s. I was on what Alex Munro had termed ‘Aberdeen Hill.’ (In those non-PC days it was where those too tight to pay for the show would sit – but were still be able to hear and see all that went on!)

The town band played one of the Little Suites by Malcolm Arnold. It was the first time that I had heard a brass band piece by one of the major English composers. Moreover this was a piece that had been specifically composed for the competition world. I was seriously impressed – it was a long way from Oklahoma – but equally enjoyable. I imagine that they were using the afternoon concert as an opportunity for a further rehearsal.

Robert Simpson's Energy is possibly one of the all-time great works for brass band. Not perhaps just for the music itself, but because it was one of the first pieces to challenge the received brass band form and soundscape. This work was influenced hugely by the symphonic output of Sibelius and Nielsen rather than the ‘marches’ of Kenneth Alford. Of course Simpson is perhaps best known today for his fine symphonies and chamber music but he did have experience of playing in brass bands as a boy and this certainly shows well in this present work.

From the very first note of this piece we are conscious of 'energy'. Be it the pent up kind as in the early pages or much more extrovert as the work progresses. Simpson is known to have described this work as a 'composed accelerando' and this just about sums the work up. This is one of the essential works for the brass band and well deserves its place at the head of the play-list.

My favourite work on this CD has to be the appropriately named Contest Music by Wilfred Heaton. It was first heard at the National Championships of 1982 and has established itself as a firm favourite amongst the brass cognoscenti. The work was originally composed for the 1972/3 competition, but did not impress the judges who felt that it would be too risky to introduce such a 'ground-breaking' piece. It slumbered for a decade before being revived.

Contest Music is effectively a short symphony for brass band, which, like Simpson's Energy, probes stylistic regions not explored at that time. There is nothing difficult about this music from the listener’s point of view - at least in 2005. It is in three contrasting movements. Interestingly the slow movement manages to avoid the more syrupy and sentimental sound often met with in the brass world. It is actually quite an acerbic meditation that must have raised a few eyebrows when it was first 'tried out'. However, there is a fine balance between traditional 'brass band' sonorities and more jazz-inspired 'big band' sounds. Yet the unity and probity of the work is never in question.

The Euphonium Concerto is one of those perfect pieces that seems to balance melody, harmony and formal poise. It is not necessarily a masterpiece – but everything says to the listener that this is an enjoyable work which is generous to the soloist and fun to play. It was composed in 1972 at a time when much music was, at least to my ear, unintelligible. Horovitz uses a basically classical form to present his attractive ideas. The evocative middle movement reveals the tonal quality of the euphonium to great effect: it is finely played by Michael Dodd. The last movement is quite simply a ‘tour de force’.

Connotations was composed by Edward Gregson for the 1976 Brass Band Championships held at the Royal Albert Hall. And Oh boy is it an exam piece! It is a rather lovely work which appears to be a set of variations - although this is not explicit in the programme notes. This 'variation' quality gives the work its didactic and competitive edge. The variety of each 'section' requires much interpretive technique and understanding: it is what makes it a fine test piece. In fact this has proved to be one of the most popular 'modern' brass works of all time.

Just for the record, the contest in 1976 was won by the Black Dyke Mills Band.

Philip Wilby’s 'Jazz' is a fascinating essay in the brass band medium. As its title implies it owes much to that particular style of music. It was inspired after a visit to New York, where the composer was impressed by the pizzazz and vitality of that great city. It is fundamentally 'An Englishman in The Big Apple'. Yet there is much traditional brass writing: it is not all Gershwin and Gillespie. It was composed for the All England Master Brass Band Championships in 1997.

The music is in four contrasting sections - each linked by a solo passage. The rhythms of the dance floor appear in much of this music yet there are also some decidedly 'nocturnal' passages. Perhaps the thing that impresses me most about this piece is the sheer variety of the instrumental colour. I hardly realised that such tone and timbre was possible in a single work! This must be one of the finest masterworks written for the brass band and well deserves its success. It is a most perfect fusion of jazz and brass styles; a blend seldom seen in the repertoire.

This is not the forum to discuss the place of the brass band in twenty-first century Great Britain. But perhaps a couple of observations are not out of place. I was in York not so long ago and was standing in Parliament Street listening to one of the local brass bands playing. What struck me most was the age spread of the players. Two cornet players sat side by side – both wearing trademark dark glasses. One was probably in his seventies and the other would be lucky if he had reached double figures. Yet both were enthusiastically playing music and both were immaculately turned out in their uniform. And the drums were being played by a teenage girl! What other amateur performance group could cross such boundaries. It has to be good for music-making and it has to be good for the fabric of society.

Secondly the whole competition scene ensures that the music is well played, well rehearsed and well presented. It gives all brass bands the chance to win prizes and compete against the ‘greats’. What a privilege it must be to play one of the great ‘test pieces’ on the same stage after the Grimethorpe or Hammonds Sauce Works Band have had their ‘go’!

And lastly, there is much great music being written for the bands. There are still lots of arrangements – but a small corpus of fine original and sometimes even ‘symphonic’ works has been added to the repertoire over the years. This CD exemplifies some of the finest of these works played by one of the best brass bands. Not only is the music great and the recording excellent, but the CD itself is value for money – nearly 70 minutes of music. This is a major addition to the archive of brass recorded sound.

John France

 

 



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