2003 Spring Brass Band Festival
The 83rd Grand Shield
Winter Gardens, Blackpool
Test Piece Reviews
4BR casts its eye over the three test pieces that
have been chosen for this years contests.
Tallis Variations - Philip Sparke
Tallis Variations was written for the 2000 European Brass Band
Championships, which were held at Symphony Hall Birmingham in the
May of that year, and which were won by the Yorkshire Building Society
Band conducted by David King.
Philip Sparke has produced a wonderfully musical piece that since
it’s contesting debut has become a favourite piece for both
players and audiences alike. It is not technically the hardest work
from the pen of the composer and certainly not the hardest work
bands at the Grand Shield would have had to tackle in the past few
years either, but it remains a very stern test of the basics of
quality brass band playing. Rumours have persisted that perhaps
the organisers made the wrong choice for the Grand Shield and that
they should have gone for “Paganini Variations” as a
better test (denied by the organisers) but on closer inspection
the piece will be a worthy test for the bands hoping to book a berth
at the Open in September.
The hymn tune is course one of the most famous English tunes of
all time, but it is interesting to note that this is a relatively
short work from Philip Sparke as he was asked to make the piece
fit a certain time criteria for the European Championships. This
makes the piece something akin to a musical novella rather than
a full blown musical novel and you do get the feeling that there
is enough material here to have been explored in so much more depth.
That isn’t to say what the composer has done isn’t good
– it is a beautiful piece of writing, but the work seems a
little confined. Perhaps a “Director’s Cut” from
Mr Sparke may come in the future?
That being said, the bands and the audience will surely enjoy the
music, whilst the adjudicators will have a heck of a task of separating
the best bands if they approach the work with a high degree of musical
sensitivity and understanding of what the piece is all about. This
is certainly not a blood and thunder showcase, rather a sombre almost
The hymn tune on which the variations are based is the third of
nine that Thomas Tallis wrote in 1567 as part of a psalter for the
first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. Vaughan
Williams famously used it as the basis of his “Fantasia”
many years later.
After the busy and turbulent opening the first half of the theme
is stated by the middle of the band. Variation 1 is based on the
first two notes of the theme in the E minor tonality. Variation
2 contains a gentle but very difficult flugel solo and a varied
statement of the theme in chorale form. Variation 3 starts with
a series of short solos before a serene cornet melody appears. The
final variation is an ebullient one, starting with cornet fanfares
and evolving around a fugue like theme first heard by the euphoniums.
Eventually the music from the first variation returns to herald
the final statement before the music subsides and ends peacefully
in the beauty of the Tallis chorale again.
Paganini Variations – Philip Wilby
Perhaps one of the greatest classic brass band compositions of
all time, “Paganini Variations” was commissioned by
the BBC in 1990 for the BBC Band of the Year, Grimethorpe Colliery
Band and is inscribed “For Paul Hindmarsh”, the BBC
The same year Harry Mortimer chose it as the test piece for the
British Open Championships at the Free Trade Hall, which was of
course famously won by Grimethorpe Colliery conducted by Frank Renton.
The way in which it is readily accessible to the both players and
audience (it is of course based on one of the world most favourite
tunes) has made it one of the most popular pieces for both contest
and concert stages ever but remains a fiendishly difficult test
of technique and nerve for players.
The 24th Caprice has been worked, re worked and worked again and
again by composers, but never until Wilby did it, for brass bands.
However, Wilby took two strands – the historical and the personal
and combined them together into a contemporary piece that takes
us from the early 19th century and the roots of the early brass
band repertoire right through to the modern day. Each of the sixteen
variations explores these avenues to the full – some romantic,
some sombre, others brilliant and brash, whilst the underlying theme
remains intact. It is a tour de force and a piece that only the
very best bands can really make shine. Plenty will give it a good
go, but only the best on the day will conquer it’s musical
and technical peaks. The soloists in particular have plenty to do
(although interestingly the cadenza section was written as an optional
section by the composer) whilst every section of the band will be
stretched by the demands placed upon them.
Even though the piece has been played by nearly all the bands here
at some time, the piece remains fresh and uplifting both to perform
and listen to. It also remains a great test piece.
Tournament for Brass – Eric Ball
Written by Eric Ball for use at the 1954 British Open, “Tournament
for Brass” is something of a hidden gem from the pen of our
greatest composer. On that day, the Munn and Felton Band won under
the direction of the great Stanley Boddington off the number 1 draw
against 18 other bands – something that has never been done
since at the contest, so perhaps history may repeat itself here
The piece has surfaced a few times over the years – notably
at the Grand Shield contests in 1975 and 1981 which was won by the
Leyland Band conducted by Richard Evans and also at Pontins in both
1983 and 1991 when it was used in the Second Section. It is though
a much more difficult piece to make come off than you would think
and is a worthy test of the bands here.
The three movement work is of its time – Eric Ball was quite
conservative in his musical architecture and construction so the
work is easy on both the ear and as a technical challenge to the
players and MD. The first movement is entitled “Trios and
Duets” and the composer explores both to the full right from
the start. The interesting point to note though is that the opening
although marked Allegro ma non troppo is not a up and at ‘em
sort of opening to a the piece at all. In fact the top dynamic is
only forte. The detail though is immense. Right from the start there
are distinct markings above, below and on the stave and the composer
has asked for the balance to be perfect between individual and group
Cornets are grouped into trios and duets, whilst the solo lines
are almost echoes of previous thematic material. The music has a
lovely flow and development whilst at all times everything has an
understated control. Three times the composer demands that the music
revert to the original tempo – even at the end, so there can
be no false excitement generated through the misuse of speed. This
opening is all about control and clarity and woe betide any bands
who don’t heed the written word on the score.
The second movement is a beautifully constructed interlude of a
theme and variations that place great musical demands on the primary
soloists in the band. The theme is set out in ¾ time with
a clarity that Mozart would have been proud of, before it is developed
with subtlety and feel for the music. It calls on the soloists to
express themselves without ever losing sight of the basic simplicity
of the line so even when the cornet and euph seem to be in free
time, the underlying structure is still there to be heard. It asks
for passion and should be given it – only players with music
in their hearts will succeed in making it sound as it should, others
will make it sound like an exercise form the Arban Tutor. The movement
ends as it begins – with a simple reaffirmation of the theme
and a bass note that dies away in the ether.
Finally the last – marked “Scherzo” it is a playful,
bright and bubbly movement that is marked giogoso – not presto.
Again, the composer has deliberately marked the score in full to
emphasis exactly what he wanted to hear, so the devil is once more
in the detail. One point to note is that there are few if any accent
markings to emphasis the beats – oh so many will try and to
put them in for sure. This music doesn’t need an artificial
pulse, the bands that capture the true spirit will find that it
just skips along.
Once more the dynamic markings are not full blooded either with
forte the general top end dynamic marking , so control is what is
called for. The solo cornet has one of the nicest bits of filligree
obligato work ever written at figure 13, whilst the rest of the
band will have to try hard to capture the misterioso fell at 10.
It ends with a double forte climax (one of the very few in the piece)
before a final lento brings things to an end. A fine piece whic