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.
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
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
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.
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’.
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
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.