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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 day……

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 10k.

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 it “safe”.

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 more refined.

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?

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