British Open Coverage 2002:
Test Piece Review:
The Maunsell Forts – Nocturne for Brass Band
John McCabe (2001/2002)
Published by Novello
Distributed by Studio Music
It’s not often that two Welshmen agree with the sentiments
of one William Carling – ex captain of the English Rugby Union
Team, serial philanderer and at one time, the bloke rumoured to
have given Princess Diana private lessons in the dark arts of rucking
and mauling - but he very much hit the nail on the head a few years
ago with his famous quote about “Old Farts”.
This was if you care to remember, his aside at those people whom
he thought were out of touch with the modern game of rugby –
the blazer and gin and tonic brigade who yearned for the days of
men in baggy shorts, Brylcreamed hair and double barrelled names
playing a game that was forever English – ie, amateur and
always losing. Good old Will wanted the game and its ethos to be
brought into the 20th century…….
He came to mind you see when 4BR cast its eye over the test piece
for the 150th British Open Championships – John McCabe’s
“The Maunsell Forts” – Nocturne for Brass Band.
Not that McCabe has any direct link to rugby, or Princess Diana
for that matter, but because you can be guaranteed that come the
end of the day on September 14th, the “Old Farts” will
be out in force - for the organisers of the 150th British Open and
John McCabe in particular have taken a brilliant and most welcome
step of dragging the old contest well and truly into the 21st Century.
And all this 100 years after the birth of Harry Mortimer as well.
There will be a legion of moaners and carpers, ready and willing
to try and decry a superb piece of brass writing - and you can hear
them now….. “No big finish”, “No euphonium
solo”, “Not hard enough”, “Boring”….
the list will be endless, and the complaints will echo around the
hall and bars. The “Old Farts” are going to have a field
To put not too fine a point on it – “Sod ‘em!”
The “Maunsell Forts” is a tremendous test piece –
different, yes, but still as good as anything we have heard in recent
years and better by half than just about anything else.
It takes its inspiration from the structures of the same name,
which were built between 1942 and 1943 from the designs of Mr Guy
Maunsell, a civil engineer. They were to be built to protect important
estuaries such as the Thames, Humber and Mersey from attack by German
mine laying planes, ships and submarines, who tried to sabotage
these important waterways during the War.
They were huge edifices, designed in two main types and were successful
in destroying 1 E boat, 22 aircraft and 31 V1 flying bombs. Seven
were built and placed on the Thames, but only 4 remain standing
today – not a bad feat seeing as they were only built of reinforced
concrete and plate steel.
McCabe himself wrote the work after taking a sea trip around the
structures, leaving from the Kent coast, and the impression they
made on him was deep and quite profound. He subtitled the work Nocturne,
as the composition is framed by quiet music that he felt reflected
the quiet mystery and atmosphere of the Forts. He reflected also
upon the structures in his imagination at night - conjuring up images
of danger and almost surreal science fiction (he alludes to the
fact that the Forts remind him of the tetrapods of H.G. Wells “War
of the Worlds” – think of the cover of the Jeff Wayne
album rather than the rubbish 1950’s British film of the same
name and you see what he means)
Formally the music is in sections that are easily delineated –
the opening is an extended slow movement that outlines the main
recurring theme, whilst this is followed by what he states are a
kind of Rondo in which the meat of the musical invention lies in
two episodes (the second a fast passacaglia) with the fanfare like
Ritornello (which is heard three times) binding the structure together.
Simply, it starts quiet, has a couple of faster sections, and ends
very quietly indeed. “Les Preludes” it ain’t and
at just on 15 minutes it’s not a marathon - more a world class
Percussion wise it's on the conservative side – with timps,
snare drum, bass drum, high tom–tom, suspended cymbal, tam-tam,
vibraphone and tubular bells all that is needed. They are used sparingly
yet to amazingly brilliant effect, adding subtle colours and timbres.
Three players will manage with ease.
The opening is marked Grave, circa crotchet = 60, so it's not a
dirge. Interestingly, markings are 'circa' allowing musical directors
the flexibility for complete musical exploration and interpretation.
It’s all about colour and effect – timbres and layers
of interest (parts in the lower end are separated). The initial
motif appears in the horn (reminiscent of the opening of Cloudcatcher
Fells) and the music is in the detail – and detailed it is,
with individual lines all having something to say. The dynamic never
rises above mf – so keep a keen ear out for the bands playing
The second section is marked Maestoso, ma energico, crotchet =
132 and once more there is subtle detail all over the score. Markings
above and below the stave are crystal clear and it will be interesting
to hear how bands approach the notation markings – especially
the tenuto marks over the quavers passages. Some may go for an accented
approach to try and created the energy, whilst others may be a bit
Things carry on in much the same vein in the next section –
marked Allegro molto energico, crotchet = 132, where the horns once
again announce the small motif which is heard opposite a subtle
languid line from other sections of the band. Again it’s the
clever use of detail that is so important and although technically
all the players in every band will cope, it will be the way in which
they play rather than just how they play that will give the music
the correct sense of style and more importantly – atmosphere.
Things come to head (but only ff, so listen out for the bands giving
it nonsensical welly) before the Maestoso ma energico section returns
again. Some brilliant detailed writing – as multi layered
as an onion occurs around letter P (only the best bands will make
this clear and transparent) and this section seems so sparsely written
yet is breathtakingly constructed. Lots of rhythmic changes –
subtle as anything just poke through here and there whilst the major
lines flow through. The sop has plenty of middle range work to do
and there are a couple of sections of leggerio mp quavers that will
take a bit playing to come off without sounding pecked.
The next Maestoso, ma energico section returns with its themes
again before there is a build to a ff thumping triplet quaver climax
at letter AA.
Calm is restored with a Temp Primo crotchet = 60 section now -
and the writing as beautifully crafted. It is as lovely to listen
to as the quiet sections of “Cloudcatcher Fells” and
will test both the musicality and stamina of the very best outfits.
It builds slowly again to the last climax – again ff not ffff!
And there is detail to be heard even here. From here on in the atmosphere
becomes more mysterious as if a fog descends on the estuary and
the Forts become ghostly figures.
The last few bars reiterate the opening – quiet and calm,
atmospheric and surreal. Yet there is clear detail to be heard in
even the lowest voices before the cornets end their involvement
and the horns return to the opening pp motif. The tam tam and bass
drum end things with a subtle pp to mf roll.
That ends a quite superb test piece – a piece that is so
much more satisfying than your average run of the mill contest work
(you can bet a few quid that this one won’t be used as an
own choice come the European in Bergen). Given that there isn’t
one dynamic marking above ff (even though you can be sure there
will be the usual amount of overblowing) and so much of the dynamic
range is marked below mf, you may think how on earth will the best
bands come through to claim the top prize.
Well, the best bands will be the bands that will be directed with
the most insight and understanding by their MDs – ones that
read the score rather than making up something that ain’t
there. Balance, and tonal quality will shine through from those
bands with control and musical intelligence. When a band plays this
piece well, it will be one of the more satisfying musical experiences
you will have heard for many a day.
Sit back – have a real good read of the score and open your
minds. If you do this you’ll have a great time. If however
you are sat by, or start to impersonate an old fart, then the end
of 19 performances won’t come soon enough. We always knew
Will Carling was a decent chap didn’t we?