The Test Piece: Les Preludes
Bram Gay is a master of the brass band transcription. He
is the inheritor of a line that stretches back from Joseph Parry
and Alex Owen through William Rimmer and Charles Godfrey to the
great Frank Wright.
His transcription of Liszt’s “Les Preludes” has been a formidable
achievement made greater by the fact that for most bandsmen over
the age of 25, he has irrevocably superseded one of the sacred cows
of the banding world – William Rimmer’s previously famous arrangement.
(That Bram Gay’s transcription is being used for the 149th British
Open we have some problems with, and we’ll discuss that in our introduction
to our coverage of the Championships.)
Bram Gay has produced a work far removed from Rimmer’s own as to
make the two almost distant musical relatives, and for this he must
be firmly congratulated. His is a transcription that as the term
suggests, owes direct comparison to the Liszt original in that it
is a true re- arrangement of the music rather than Rimmer’s pot-pourri
of melodies, themes and personal ideas that made up his own arrangement
all those years ago.
However, the problem with any brass band transcription or arrangement
lies in the translation of the orchestral colours, hues and timbres.
The arrangements for bands from Rimmer to Wright are all musically
monochrome to the ear as the brass band cannot reproduce the kaleidoscopic
colours of a symphony orchestra; and Bram Gay’s transcription suffers
the same fate.
In being true to the descendent line of great arrangers he can
now truly number himself in, he has given us a brass band masterpiece
in black and white – a two tone chef d’oeuvre of undoubted skill
and expertise that however brilliantly conceived and executed remains
dated and almost antiquated as soon as it comes off the transcription
assembly line. This is not to derogate the effulgence of the achievement,
but it is rather like looking at a brilliant black and white copy
of a painting by Matisse or Picasso – it pales in comparison.
Bram Gay however knows the brass band and his mastery of the art
of transcription means as a “stand alone” brass band piece, his
“Les Preludes” makes for good pleasurable listening for the audience
and cold sweats for most of the corner men on the contest stage.
There are numerous challenges put on offer (some of them more than
a little idiosyncratic), but he has been more than skilful enough
to make the music rather than the technical confrontations the winner.
The listener will first be aware that Bram Gay has restored the
first 35 bars of Liszt’s music - the area in which the very crux
of the three note musical idea is postulated. These bars will test
even the best bands in terms of tuning and ensemble as the initial
figure is repeated through descending and ascending lower band quaver
runs. The “big tune” (Rehearsal mark A and the place where the Rimmer
started) comes after this and possibly by now many bands will have
kissed their chances of winning good-bye. It’s a very testing start.
All through here we get the bombastic tune, which has some parts
of the band honking it out in grand style and the cornets playing
the very tricky string part. It’s in 12/8 so bands can play in their
usual lazy rhythmic style, but much of the detail to the ends of
phrases will require sharpness, as they are duple semi quavers for
the most part.
With lips well warmed up, a “L’istesso tempo (not named after the
composer) brings in the cello tune on the horn, whilst back row
cornets busy themselves on the linking semi quaver runs before Bram
Gay finally gives the tune over to the euphs at the key change,
where the amount of detailed cover work is done by muted cornets.
The transcription around Rehearsal C is very detailed and clear
and balance will be all-important as the euphs explore the tune
up in the stratosphere whilst the sop and rep have a beautifully
delicate part just before Rehearsal D, which is marked pp but will
have to be heard to be appreciated fully.
Rehearsal D onwards gives the first notice of the very hard technical
challenges ahead for certain key instruments with the sop and rep
first having the tune (again marked only p and dolce espress) before
a wicked crescendo leads to a Poco rall and the sop indulging in
the most fearsome of trills - top f natural to top G as the solo
cornet builds below, then Eb to F – both marked piano! (Thanks Bram!)
The a tiny gem of an 8 bar section - very opaque and anorexic in
its scoring that features octave jumps at pianissimo for a back
row cornet and then sop (middle C to Top C to finish off at pp!)
The next section through Rehearsal E to G will give the big bands
the real chance to shine as the main meat of the heavy playing of
the piece comes to the fore. Although the orchestral colour is missing
the music retains excitement through clever use of chromatic runs,
crescendos and diminuendos that gives drive to some seriously heavy
stuff. Basses will have had to be practising at the Chromatics in
the Arban and the cornets again have bar upon bar of quaver arpeggios
that need a light touch not to over power. This fairly rattles along
until to bars before Rehearsal G when the brakes need to be applied
G through H is a ten bar interlude that features the soprano in
two quasi cadenzas the first with a rit and the second without,
before a change of key and the type of quiet, short and high playing
that gives everyone nightmares and sorts the men out from the boys.
The proceeding ten bars to the Allegro Pastorale could contain
more splash marks than a gents urinal on a Saturday night and the
following section is a real test not only of character, but of technique
and musicianship for all the players who will have to spit out some
very quiet and detailed playing with no help from anyone else. Bram
Gay has cunningly cut up the parts so that each solo line has to
link to the next (solo cornet to sop to horn to flugel to sop etc)
and this makes for a veritable minefield that could see some bands
sink faster than a Greek cruise ship. The flugel from here on will
really be earning their money.
Delicacy is the name of the game through J, K, and L and the reward
to the bands willing and capable of taking the risks are plain to
see and hear – if this section comes off them you could be up in
the prizes for sure.
Rehearsal M marks the run in for home (although it’s still a long
way away) and there is an exciting build up to an Allegro Marziale
that requires cleanliness in the descending and ascending chromatic
runs (the back row cornets have a couple of real sods here). Alternative
sections around Rehearsal N and O of heavy playing are interspersed
with quiet detailed and cheeky retorts before the build up to a
Pui maestoso that lets the band give it the full welly. One last
build up section at Rehearsal P gives one last chance to shine at
the technical stuff before the “Big Tune” reappears at Andante Maestoso
after Rehearsal Q for the big finish.
Tired lips could lead to overblowing and tuning problems and bands
will need as much stamina as an actor in a porn movie, before reaching
the climax, which according to Bram Gay should be the very last
note. Why not eh?
Then you can all relax, have a fag and milk the applause.
Bram Gay’s “Les Preludes” is in fact homage to Rimmer, Owen and
Wright and to an age of banding that has long, long disappeared.
Some may shed a tear that this has been the case, but those who
seek a return to those days usually wear very rose tinted spectacles,
and any case it is thankfully impossible. We should never forget
our rich heritage, but we should never forget either that for the
most part it wasn’t as good as people make out. Bram Gay’s “Les
Preludes” has reminded us very much of that fact and it is a testament
to his skill that his transcription is not a pastiche but a worthy
new addition to the banding repertoire.
The Composer: Franz Liszt 1811 – 1886
Liszt was born in Hungary in the small village Rieding and his
talent as a child prodigy on the piano was recognised at a very
early age. He toured Europe as something of a 19th Century “Boy
Wonder” before turning his talents in adolescence to composing.
In 1848 around the time he first set about his exploration of the
“Symphonic Poem” – the relationship he felt between music and literature,
he became music director at the ducal court of Weimer and during
this period he wrote his first draft of “Les Preludes”.
This was finally completed in 1854 and although it is a famous
Liszt work it is universally seen as not one of his greatest compositions.
Others, most notably his “Mephisto Waltz”, 12 “Trancendental Etudes”,
“Hungarian Rhapsodies” as well as his “Faust” and sacred works are
seen as being “first class” Liszt. “Les Preludes” is strictly Nationwide
Liszt died in 1886 at his home and was buried with due haste by
his daughter, Cosima, who carried on with a party after the service!
The Transcriber: Bram Gay
Bram Gay was born in the Rhonda valley of Wales and as a child
prodigy of the cornet joined the Fodens Band at the age of 14. Following
National Service he played professionally as a trumpet player before
becoming Orchestra Manager at Covent Garden.
He has conducted, adjudicated and transcribed the test piece at
the Open Championships. He appeared twice as conductor, gaining
4th place in 1976 with Cory and transcribed Edward Elgar’s “Severn
Suite” for the contest in 1996. He has appeared as adjudicator on
7 occasions (1986, 87, 91, 93, 94, 96, 98).
In addition he has written a fictional book entitled “Maestro”
about the life of a talented Welshman from the Rhondda valley who
due to a combination of good looks, wealth and fame, combined with
glamorous power, becomes irresistible to female admirers on his
climb to the top of his conducting career. It is said to be in no