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Eric Ball in Cornwall

Phillip Hunt, the presenter of the Sounds of Brass radio programme in the West Country recalls Eric Ball and his time spent in Cornwall over the years.


Eric BallERIC BALL IN CORNWALL

The Mozart of the Brass Band Movement was how Dr Roy Newsome described Eric Ball, the highly regarded Composer, Adjudicator and Conductor whose Birth one hundred years ago is being marked all over the world by brass band enthusiasts.

Eric Walter John Ball was born in Kingswood near Bristol on 31st October 1903, the eldest of three sons of Jack and Lily Ball. His mother had been born into a Baptist family and had joined The Salvation Army at an early age, holding the rank of Captain when she married Eric’s Father in 1902. He was the eldest of 16 children whose parents had also been active Salvationists, so that the young Eric was very much at home with Christian ideals and the practice of expressing them through music from a very early age.

The family moved several times in Eric’s early years and it was in London, where his Father was managing a small chain of Grocers shops, that he began his musical education. This was through the discipline of a Salvation Army Youth Band in Ealing as well as private piano study. When the Family later moved to Kent he continued his private studies with a local Anglican organist, who versed him in harmony and counterpoint as well as teaching him the organ. He progressed rapidly and had a short period as Organist of Holy Trinity Church in Dartford.

His heart however was in The Salvation Army and by 1919 at the age of sixteen had obtained a job in The Salvation Army Musical Instrument Department at Judd Street in central London. He soon progressed to The Musical Editorial Department where he spent twenty eight years and worked alongside such well known Salvation Army composers as Philip Catelinet, Bramwell Coles, Albert Jakeway and George Marshall, as well as Henry Hall, later to become famous as a Band Leader.

His first published work, a march called Hoist The Flag, appeared in 1922 and he soon began producing such pace setting works as The Old Wells, Songs of The Morning and the tone poem Exodus. This, alongside various accompanying duties and the completion of his ARCM as well as becoming a full time Salvation Army Officer in 1927. He was also conducting various Salvation Army Bands and reached the pinnacle of achievement in that field when was appointed to the Bandmastership of The International Staff Band in 1942.

Within two years the world of Brass Band music, inside and outside The Salvation Army, was shocked to hear in April 1944 that due to a controversy over his involvement in spiritualist activities Major Eric Ball had resigned as an Officer in The Salvation Army. He now had to find other means of support for himself and his wife Olive and turned to what he knew well, Brass Bands.

By the Autumn of 1945 he was Adjudicating at Brass Band Contests and had been engaged by Brighouse & Rastrick in May that year as their Professional Conductor, giving a Concert with the Band in Cornwall within a few weeks. This no doubt may have had something to do with their Bandmaster and Solo Cornet at the time, Fred Roberts from Camborne. Eric Ball went on to win the National Championships with them in 1946 and the British Open with CWS Manchester in 1948.

What he really wanted to do however was compose music and by the mid fifties had withdrawn from conducting Bands on a competitive basis, preferring to limit his involvement to conducting concerts and taking courses, particularly those where young players were taking part. It was his well known skills in teaching young people that led to an invitation to him in 1962, to take the Easter Course of The Cornwall Youth Brass Band that year.

The Band had been originally founded in 1955, but had been reformed with the support of Dr Denis Wright, the Founder of The National Youth Brass Band, by The Cornwall Brass Band Association in 1959. The first Chairman of the Band was the late A R Trudgian and it was he, who after two courses taken by Dr Wright and one by T J Powell had the idea of inviting Eric Ball to Cornwall. It was an inspired choice, and so successful and popular that Eric Ball returned in 1963 as well 1964 and 1965, coming back to the Band, of which by that time he was President, in 1969 and 1978.

One afternoon Reg Trudgian took Eric and Olive for a drive down the valley of the River Fowey along the banks to the mouth of the River. Eric was so inspired by the beauty of the scenery that by the next course he had composed The Fowey River Suite, which he dedicated to The Cornwall Youth Brass Band who gave the first performance under his Baton. The Band played the piece, which had five movements, from manuscript, but later when the music was published, Eric Ball had reduced it to only four movements, due to time constraints apparently imposed by the Publishers. No doubt the Band still has the original unique manuscript with all five movements, not heard since that first performance.

By the time Eric Ball returned to take the Band at their Easter 1969 Course, he had written another piece of music inspired by Cornwall. This was the Overture St Michael’s Mount, the first performance of which was given by the Band under the Composer’s Baton. The Concert also featured his arrangement of “To a Wild Rose” as well as a now forgotten work, the Suite James Hook by Henry Geehl, a composer who Eric Ball had acknowledged as having a great influence on his early music.

The Cornwall Youth Band Brass Band that Easter included several young players still very much active in Brass Bands today. These were, the Leader Peter Minear, Mike Faro, Terry Sleeman, Phil Blake, Brian Holder and Phil Harris. Peter remembers Eric Ball as a very “sincere, humble sort of chap” which he put down to his Salvation Army background.

Eric Ball was the first President of The Cornwall Youth Brass Band, an Office he held until his death in 1989. When the Band came to hold its 20th Annual Course at Easter in 1978, he was the unanimous choice to lead it once again, the last occasion on which he did so. Though there was no new Cornish piece for the Band to play, he entrusted it with the First performance of his “Fantasia on a German Chorale” and also included his double trio, Quid Pro Pro. This featured six Cornet Players, D J Tonkin, D Whear and N Cock from Camborne, Claire Trethewey from St Dennis, G Champion from St Stythians and Francis Mills from Carharrack. They were answered by five Trombones, J C Gribben from Camborne, A Sibley, C Stevens and R Phillips from St Ives and D Marriot from St Dennis.

Under the Headline of “Youth Band Maintain The Highest Standards” the Cornish Guardian of 30th March 1978, reported that Mr Ball had been presented by David Tonkin from Camborne with a Memento in Cornish Slate in recognition of his untiring work with the Band. Keith Harris from St Agnes said that as Mr Ball had had a lot to say about Keys and Key Changes during rehearsals the Young Players had great pleasure in presenting him with a device on which to hang his keys.

In reply Eric Ball was reported as saying that, “It is important that The Cornwall Youth Brass Band continues to flourish because the Members were already or would become players in other Bands, some of them very good Bands”. He also announced that The Trudgian Youth Awards to be made at the forthcoming West of England Bandsman’s Festival for the Girl and Boy making the best progress in Playing, Attendance and Behaviour had been awarded to Claire Trethewey of St Dennis and Jonathon Camps of Coombe.

Back in the early sixties courses directed by Eric Ball, the leader of The Cornwall Youth Band was Brian Minear, at that time like his brother Peter a player from Stenalees. He remembers him as “a placid and kind gentleman, not flamboyant” and “someone who the Band looked up to, perhaps not realising quite how famous he was”. Cecil Brewer, one of the local tutors at the time told me he was a very reserved person and whilst perfectly friendly to everyone kept himself to his self.

On one occasion at the end of course Concert in Fowey School, Leonard Adams, another young member of the Band, told me how Eric Ball started the concert by explaining to the audience how the Band was made up of Male and Female instruments. The Male one’s being those facing forward and the Female those facing upwards. He then asked one group to demonstrate by playing a set of chords from quiet to loud and the other group from loud to quiet as a group and then both together, which demonstrated how they blended so well, as the sound met and became one in the middle.

The Annual West of England Bandsman’s Festival at Bugle was the other main Cornish Brass Band event that Eric Ball had a great deal of involvement with, indeed he Composed two major works for the Festival. He first came to Bugle to Adjudicate in 1961 when all the Test Pieces chosen were composed by himself. The Class A work being Tournament For Brass, which was won by St Dennis conducted by Eddie Williams, the Best Player Award going to their Soprano Player Rodney Richards.

He came again in1967, when St Austell were the Class A winners, playing his Second Rhapsody on Negro Spirituals conducted by A G Richards, with the late John Dunstan, the Solo Euphonium of St Dennis taking the Best Player Award. On Eric Ball’s next visit in 1970 he again judged John Dunstan to be Best Player with St Dennis winning Class A playing the his Symphonic Suite, Festival Music. The Band also won the Award for the Best Set of Basses on the day with Peter Strongman taking the prize as Best Tenor Horn of the day.

The West of England Bandsman’s Festival celebrated its Golden Jubilee on 15th June 1974 and for this special occasion asked Eric Ball to adjudicate once again and to compose a piece for the Bands in Class A to play. He responded with The Cornish Festival Overture and in the special Golden Jubilee Brochure wrote, “My personal links with Cornwall go back many years, and visits there have given me not only enjoyment, but also a sense of the Duchy’s unique atmosphere; compounded, it seems to me, of an outgoing love of life and natural beauty, with a strange sense of the invisible and mystical.

To one who has been involved in brass band music during a life-time, there can be no doubt about the important contribution made by Cornish composers, conductors and bandsmen.

In my desire to base this overture on Cornish tunes I am Following in the footsteps of an illustrious predecessor, Henry Geehl, whose rhapsody On The Cornish Coast made a splendid addition to the brass band repertoire many years ago”.

On the day four Cornish Bands, Camborne, Mount Charles, St Austell and St Dennis as well as Soundwell from Bristol competed for The Royal Trophy, playing Eric Ball’s arrangement of the Toccata from Leon Boellmann’s Suite Gothique as well as the Cornish Festival Overture. St Austell conducted by the late Fred Roberts took the Trophy having won first prize for both pieces. In addition the programme listed a Special Award given by HRH Prince Charles, The Duke Of Cornwall, of an inscribed trumpet, to be awarded to the outstanding Cornet Soloist of the day. This was won by the late Bill Buzza, the Solo Cornet of The St Austell Band.

The West of England Bandsmen’s Festival had been founded in 1912 and up until 1966 had been held at Peniel, a farm just outside the village of Bugle. Eric Ball had Adjudicated the Contest in 1967, the first year it moved to the Football Ground in the village and when some years later the Festival Committee decided to commemorate this special place in their history, they once again turned to him for a new piece of music.

As his inspiration Eric Ball used a passage in The Old Testament found in Genesis Chapter Thirty Two which describes how Jacob wrestled with God himself and named the place, Peniel. In a note on the Score, the Composer wrote, “This work is not intended to actually portray in music the events described in Genesis, although the varying moods were evoked by a re-reading of the story”.

The new Test Piece was used in 1976, Eric Ball’s last visit to Bugle, when he shared the Adjudicating with Albert Chappell. The Winners that day playing Peniel were St Dennis conducted by Eddie Williams, who also won the Royal Trophy. The Festival Committee of the day is to be congratulated for commissioning two major works from the pen of Eric Ball, both of which reflect his regard for Cornwall and his high opinion of it’s Bands. As he wrote in the 1974 programme, “knowing the skill and artistry of Cornish Championship Bands, I have felt free from restrictions in making technical demands upon the players”.

As far as other Contests are concerned Eric Ball only Judged for The Cornwall Brass Band Association Annual Contest in Truro on one occasion. That was in 1964 when included in the Test Pieces was his Indian Summer, chosen for the Fourth Section, which was won by St Breward Silver.

A special one off occasion when Eric Ball visited Cornwall was on 30th March 1968 when, accompanied by his wife Olive, he came to Conduct The St Dennis Band at a special concert to mark the re-opening of the Chapel at St Columb. The Chapel, now sadly demolished, had been renovated and for giving this unique concert the Band received a fee of Five Guineas. Among the items on the Programme was Eric Ball’s masterpiece, Resurgam, ( I Shall Rise Again), both Brian and Peter Minear, players with St Dennis at the time, described to me as “unforgettable” the experience of playing this deeply felt work under the Composer’s Baton.

Talking recently to Colonel Brindley Boon, the former National Secretary for Bands of The Salvation Army, he summed up what is certainly the popular view that Eric Ball’s music, “is supreme because it is pleasant to listen to, it has a deep message which stirs Salvationists and all listeners alike, it’s chording and harmony is very pleasant, and the great thing is that he has tunes in his music. There is melody, memorable melody, that one can go away singing, rather than just a very clever conglomeration of sound which perhaps leaves us a little cold”.

Eric Ball left a unique and irreplaceable body of music for his first love, the Brass Band, and an indelible impression on those he met here in Cornwall, whether as a Teacher, Conductor or Adjudicator. We are fortunate that his visits to the County resulted in the Composition of several pieces of music which deserve to be played much more as a Tribute to this unassuming and gentle man of brass.


Phillip Hunt.

This article first appeared in the Cornish Guardian newspaper earlier this year.

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