The Regional Test Pieces 2003
by Paul Hindmarsh
The Music Panel of the British Federation of Brass Bands has chosen
what it hopes are five exciting and challenging works for the Regional
Qualifiers 2003. Since the finals in September and October will
be celebrating the centenary of Eric Ball, the Panel decided to
choose five works new to the contest scene and all of them with
a contemporary flavour.
Two of them have been published especially for the Regionals. A
new work from Dr. Peter Graham is always welcome and the Panel is
grateful to him for making this new work available for the Third
It is very important to the brass band movement that new and especially
young composers are encouraged to write for the medium and not just
for the elite bands. The Music Panel is aware of the need to provide
good, fresh new work for other divisions. For example, of the twenty
five or so works that I have commissioned over the past 12 years
through the BBC or the Brass Band Heritage Trust, a third of them
have been written with Lower Sections in mind.
Simon Dobson comes from a banding family in Cornwall and is currently
studying composition at the Royal College of Music in London. Lydian
Pictures is his first major work for band and was commissioned by
the BFBB Music Panel especially for the Fourth Section. It will
provide, we feel, a tough, though not insurmountable challenge.
Wilfred Heaton’s is always full of interest. His published
output may have been small, but each work reveals a consummate technique
and originality of expression. Celestial Prospect, may be relatively
short and may not look or sound difficult, but all those who work
on it will discover that its complexities and challenges will emerge
with detailed study. During the 12960’s Wilfred Heaton and
Arthur Butterworth were teaching colleagues in Yorkshire. Arthur
is 80 next year and in recognition of this the BFBB Music Panel
has selected what he regards as one of his best brass band pieces.
This work, like the Heaton, will reveal it’s distinctive qualities
slowly. It is a beautifully crafted work which will test conductor
and the whole band to the full.
Judith Bingham’s masterpiece Prague is the Championship Section
choice. Here is music which traverses the whole range of sounds,
from harsh, aggressive tone clusters to haunting lyricism.
Judith Bingham is one of this country’s foremost composers.
In a career spanning some 25 years (she celebrated her 50th birthday
in June 2002), she has composed for the opera stage, for symphony
orchestra and for chamber ensembles. However, it is for her vocal,
choral and brass music that she has become best known.
A trained singer, as well as composer, Judith Bingham was for many
years a professional singer in London and a member of the celebrated
BBC Singers. Writing for voices whether solo or in choirs is central
to her composing. Through her choral music she has become one of
this country’s most sought after composers in America. In
writing for brass – both orchestral brass and brass band –
she has also mined a rich seam of inspiration. Images, places, atmospheres
and locations are important source material here as a stimulus to
her highly individual imagination.
Bingham’s first brass band piece was Brazil (now withdrawn),
but composed in response to a visit to Rio de Janiero with the BBC
Singers. Since then she has written the short sprint for brass Four
Minute Mile (a short but dynamic miniature), The Stars above: the
Earth below (more expansive and lyrical) and Prague.
Prague is one of 15 works for brass band commissioned by the BBC
since 1991. The first performance was given by the Williams Fairey
Band, conducted by James Gourlay, to whom the work is dedicated.
It is a tough, challenging work, in places gritty in its musical
language, but vivid and powerful in its imagery. You really can
hear in the music the images Bingham has responded to. There is
raw power in the fast music, but there is also a mysterious, almost
other-worldly lyricism about the slower music.
Places and landscapes are often starting points for Judith Bingham’
music. Prague is one of the jewels of central Europe, a city of
stunning architectural beauty, largely untouched by the world wars
of the last century and now restored for the benefit of increasing
numbers of tourists. The Czech Republic is renewed in confidence
and it boasts the cheapest beer in Europe. It was a visit to the
city in 1994 that prompted this piece, which uses this contemporary
backdrop to evoke powerful and at times disturbing images from the
city’s colourful history and mythology. Prague is conceived
as a testing piece (ie: a test of musicianship as well as technique),
that is really about turmoil. Judith Bingham writes:
“The city is used to symbolise the triumph of the human spirit
over adversity. The central figure is the Golem, the creature created
from clay by Rabbi Low in the sixteenth century, which having run
amok in the city was laid to rest in the attics of the Old-New Synagogue.
It seemed to me to symbolise the turbulent history of Prague with
its many invasions from Celts and the Hussites to the Nazis and
The piece falls into four clear section, the first opening with
seven chords, which represent the seven locks and seven keys that
guard the ancient crown of Bohemia in St. Vitus’ Cathedral.
Next comes a more snowy scene set in the Ghetto with a high trombone
solo. A very slow section follows about the Charles Bridge, with
its strange monuments and statues. This cuts abruptly into the final
section. In Wenceslas Square, so often the centre of scenes of defeat
and triumph in Prague, the Golem appears to rise again, but is drowned
out by the seven chords of the opening”.
It is the power of the musical imagery, the contrast between turbulence
and refinement, and the matching of technical and musical challenge,
which convinced the BFBB Music Panel to select it for the 2002 Regional
Championships. Prague has been described by many distinguished musicians
and fellow composers as one of the finest works for brass band of
recent years. It has certainly won many admirers among in the wider
musical world, beyond the narrow confines of contesting. The amateur
choral movement throughout the world regards Judith Bingham as one
of the very best and certainly most imaginative composers of the
mainstream that we have in this country. It is time for the brass
band world to become further acquainted with this major talent.
Passacaglia on a Theme of Brahms Op.87
This work is modelled on the last movement of the Symphony No.4
by Brahms - one of the finest symphonic movements in the whole repertoire.
However, Butterworth has not simply copied Brahms’s theme
(which itself is derived from a chorale theme in Bach’s Cantata
No. 150). He turns it upside down and extends it to provide a continuous
under-pinning for his own invention. Only towards the end does Butterworth
quote Brahms’s powerful original.
Although opportunities for individual soloists to shine are few
in this work, all players have their moments to shine. Quality of
tone and control in slow playing will be a key to getting the middle
portions of the work sounding as the composer intended. The faster
music will be as much a test of stamina as of dexterity and articulation.
Butterworth makes great demands on his cornet section, especially
as the music builds to its thrilling climax. It would be wise not
to peak too soon, but to leave plenty left in the tank for the final
Celestial Prospect is a set of variations on the Salvationist song
Come, comrades dear. The tune is very straightforward in outline,
but the composer treats it symphonicaally, rather than in the “air
varie” manner. He derives little themes from the song to create
a series of imaginative and resourceful character pieces . There
are two light textured and rhythmically intricate Scherzando variations
- note the metronome marks here! - followed by a gently rocking
barcarolle. In the final moto perpetuo, the solo cornets will need
to play with great control. At the heart of the piece is a heart-felt
elegy. This is some of the most overtly emotional music which Heaton
ever wrote and is a memorial to all those dear comrades who lost
their lives in the Second World War. Although Celestial Prospect
was played through in the late 1940’s by the Rosehill Band
of the Salvation Army, it was not published at \the time and the
music went missing for many years. We have Derek Smith, former conductor
of the New York Staff Band, for tracking down the music in the 1980’s.
Heaton was persuaded to re-construct the work. In the process he
made some significant harmonic and rhythmic embellishments, the
most radical of which is the new bridge passage inserted between
the elegy and the finale.
1. Industry - 2. Seascapes - 3. Earth Dance - 4.Flight
Northern Landscapes originated as a brass quintet . It was later
revised and re-worked for the Boarshurst (Greenfield) Silver Band,
with funds provided by the national lottery. It is in four distinct
movements which share ideas, but are quite distinct in character
and in the demands the make on the performers. Characterisation
of the images conjured up by the composer will be paramount here.
Flight and Seascape are sound-pictures requiring careful tone control
and subtle contrasts. Industry and Earth Dance are musically and
technically more demanding. The latter starts with a menacing fugal
exposition - take care with the accidentals - then moves into some
mirror counterpoint. Play it like a “ballet-romp” is
the composer’s suggestion. It finally subsides into a quiet
1. Fanfares and Dances 2. Romance 3. Folk Song
Although the musical style and the individual parts of Simon Dobson’s
new work are within the compass of the Fourth Section, this work
makes particular demands on individual confidence. It is rare at
this level for there to be so many separate musical strands sounding
together. It is the range and colour of the scoring which will bring
this entertaining work to life. The work Lydian refers to the interval
of the augmented fourth, for example the interval from middle C
up to F sharp. It gives a characteristic edge to the sound-world
here - as it does in much of the folk music of eastern Europe. Indeed
there is a folk-like quality to the melodies and themes which Dobson
uses in his Lydian Dances.
Contrasts of tempo, colour and mood will energise the music. The
composer suggests that the interpreter should imagine each movement
as a picture, with its own stories and colours. The first should
be full of vigour and fire - energetic and buoyant. The second should
be utterly relaxed and expressive - like a lullaby. The finale is
all fun - a crisp, snappy dance.
Paul Hindmarsh © 4BarsRest