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Regionals 2004: Test piece review

TRISTAN ENCOUNTERS
A Retrospective View by the Composer, Martin Ellerby

The composer of this year's Regional Championship set work, gives his own thoughts about the "Tristan" test.


Martin EllerbyOnce, when asked ‘what comes first, the music or the lyrics?’ the noted Hollywood songwriter Sammy Cahn replied: ‘the phone call!’ Well, it might not have been quite like that with regard to Tristan Encounters, but Philip Biggs (organiser of the All England Masters Brass Band Championships) certainly made the phone call to me sometime in 1998 to invite me to write the test piece for the following year’s competition in Cambridge.

I had known Philip for some time and kept him updated on my new works for brass band mainly in the form of recordings on both commercial CD’s and from the BBC Festival of Music for Brass where I was fortunate enough, in those halcyon days, to have had splendid performances of my Euphonium Concerto (with Steven Mead), my brass symphony Natalis and tone poem Vistas. I suppose he felt ready to take a chance on a composer who, though having a reasonable history of working with bands, had no track record of writing test-pieces. In fact most of the works I had written were deemed unsuitable for such use due to my predilection for writing four percussion parts per score, although Natalis was later used as a test-piece in the National Youth Brass Band Championships of Great Britain where such issues are less problematic.

So, armed with the obvious instrumentation list, an approximate maximum duration and the date of the competition, I had to work out what the piece was going to be and how in fact it would differ from my previous works in the sense that it was commissioned from the outset to test players and conductors alike. What else had I really got though? Well, I had attended several contests and understood the peculiar aesthetics of such days along with a little dose of the ever-present political shenanigans! I had a strong publisher whose then music editor, Philip Sparke, could be relied on for help and advice. I also had (as I still do) my ‘little-book-of-proposed-titles’ in which lay the key words Tristan and Encounters. Eventually, I realised the only serious drawback was the fact that I would have no opportunity to alter or revise the score prior to publication – a situation I still find alien and somewhat disconcerting. I considered, and still do, the rehearsals before a premiere, along with the first performance itself, to be a firm part of the writing process: an opportunity to have second thoughts, confirm issues and draw on feedback from a variety of sources, chiefly conductors, performers and listeners. This is not insecurity but the knowledge that once a work is commercially printed publishers do not want their composers coming back with new editions every fortnight!

It the event, writing a test piece has some certainties. The ‘rules’ and general expectations are known and not going to be changed for individuals. I returned to my little book – yes Tristan Encounters it was to be – the time had arrived to use up that particular title.

So why Tristan and why Encounters? What were behind such thoughts? Enter Richard Wagner. I had long been quite entranced by the opening prelude music to his opera Tristan und Isolde due to its enigmatic tonal properties: its avoidance of confirming a tonic, at least for some time, so that whenever appearing committed to a key the result is doubly effective and dramatic. Much use of the interrupted cadence is also a notable feature of this opening music. Then there was the famous ‘Tristan-Chord’, the principal cause of this tonal instability along with some beautiful sequences, ever falling short of sentimentality, and, finally, from the close of the opera the ‘Liebestod’ (Love’s Death) which would eventually provide the basis for my own conclusion and, in contrast to Wagner’s poetic ending, a glorious test-piece finish – of which more later. The Encounters aspect is easily dealt with and needs little explanation. In short, it is simply the meeting point between the Wagner original and my own collisions with elements of his music.

The sub-title Prelude and Transfigurations for Brass and Percussion is included as it is part of a generic series of such sub-titles I have used on both previous and future occasions: Natalis – Symphony for Brass and Percussion, Requiescant Aberfan – Symphonic Elegy No. 1 for Brass and Percussion and Chivalry – Symphonic Tone Poem for Brass and Percussion. The term Prelude obviously refers to my source material and Tranfigurations to Wagner’s own method regarding the compositional techniques of variation and metamorphosis. I am also keen to acknowledge the contribution made by percussionists in contemporary works for the medium. There is no significance to the number of transfigurations – fourteen being the number I reached as I approached the timing deadline!

Much has been written elsewhere regarding the structure and course of the piece, most notably by Rodney Newton (to whom the work is dedicated) in the British Bandsman and Alan Jenkins of Brass Band World magazine, both of whom interviewed me and I have no reason to disagree with their subsequent accounts. To this effect, I shall conclude these notes with a few personal observations and comments.

Enter Rodney Newton, a fellow composer (with some highly impressive brass band compositions and arrangements along with 9 symphonies and much media work to his credit) I was fortunate to have him on my staff when I was Head of Composition and Contemporary Music at the London College of Music and Media. Rodney is a confirmed ‘Wagnerite’ and, as all who know him will attest, never short of conversation material on any number of subjects! When the news came in that he had suffered a stroke (whilst conducting a brass band) as an act of support and friendship during this time I had no hesitation in dedicating Tristan Encounters to Rodney. Perhaps the greater privilege and pleasure was to follow as Rodney was fit enough to be taken to Cambridge as my guest for the first 21 performances the work was to receive!


With regard to the cadenza section that comprises the 12th Transfiguration, I would confess to having forced this into the proceedings. Its musical weakness is that the piece halts in order to accommodate what can best be described as intrinsic test-piece writing: a section designed purely to trip up the unfortunate on the day. I had the courage to avoid this when I wrote my second test-piece Chivalry for the 2003 Masters, but must also acknowledge that Chivalry was a difficult piece to judge due to the fact that all the bands entering at that level could technically play the work very well. Chivalry, in the final analysis, is probably a 1st Section test-piece, whereas the cadenza section alone puts Tristan Encounters firmly in the top bracket.

I do, however, have a personal opinion about musicality being part and parcel of a challenging test-piece. Aspects such as phrasing, adherence to dynamic markings and gradations, ensemble, close proximity to the suggested metronome marks, and most of all, being tasteful in the interpretation. This is not to deny the delivery of a different or even somewhat controversial performance but rather that there are certain unwritten parameters that liberties should not be taken with – I’d describe this as good-taste!

Another writer, T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets wrote ‘In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.’ I would like to draw the attention of band directors to this quotation with regard to my piece. The work opens with a timpani solo (doubled in 4 tom-toms) comprising the four notes of the Tristan-Chord. The work ends with this same rhythmic figure (though pitch adjusted) and it should be dynamic and conclusive with no elongation of the final beat in any parts. Close examination of the last page of the published score will reveal that it comprises one chord – the final tonic – and takes three full bars and a slight part of a fourth to execute: there is no need (in my opinion) to drag this out any further than I have written it. Perhaps my notation is not clear but this is the certain intent of the composer and I hope that the adjudicators would sense this.

Having lived with Tristan Encounters for some five years I am happy with the work. I’ve been fortunate to have had it released on some half-dozen commercial CD’s and it’s often been the own-choice piece at several overseas competitions. I’m delighted that it has been chosen for this year’s Regional Championships and look forward to attending as many of the contests as possible.

Finally, in closing, I wish all the competing bands in their various regions every success and hope they have found my work a challenging but enjoyable experience.


Martin Ellerby – Altrincham, March 2004

Written for 4BarsRest.com the online brass band magazine

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