2006 National Championships of Great Britain - Test Piece review

24-Oct-2006

Written by a young Hector Berlioz and given something of an individual make over by Frank Wright in 1961, is 'Les Francs Juges' any good?


BerliozWe wonder what old Berlioz would have thought about a brass band playing his overtures? He most probably would have enjoyed it given that he was prone to a good old bit of hearty brass indulgence in his time, but also given that he was a vain old so and so, he wouldn't have been too pleased with the way Frank Wright cut and rearranged his original in a way that even Dr Frankenstein would have thought a bit of a botch jobbie.

Berlioz was born near Grenoble, son of a respectable physician who wanted his young lad to follow him into the world of medicine. If he had done so successfully, Berlioz would most probably have invented the first mechanical heart or something, given his impetuosity and somewhat overactive imagination, and in the end he never put a stethoscope round his neck. Instead he opted for the less glamorous career as a musician, and even though he couldn't play the piano well, which was seen as something of a drawback, he didn't let that stop him and the rest as they say, is history.

Talking of history – so too was the score of ‘Les Francs Juges', which he composed as a young man in 1825 (the overture was written a year later), a year after his first substantial compositional Mass, and was rejected by both the town hall bureaucrats and musical elite of Paris. Berlioz, in typical overblown, egocentric French manner decided that even if it was rejected as being ‘too complex' and about Germans to boot, he would still use it again, and so bits and pieces eventually came to light in other works, most notably the opera ‘Benvenuto Cellini' and ‘Symphonie Fantastique'. The original never saw the light of day again.

The Overture though had a life of its own, and although generally seen as an immature work (the famous lyrical theme comes from a flute quintet of his teenage years) in comparison to his later, more colorful efforts it has stood the test of time pretty well, even if it has become little more than a Berlioz ‘bon-bon'.

The story surrounds the Machiavellian judge Olmerick and his nasty goings on in medieval Germany –a 14th century Judge Dredd with his friends. That is about as much as you really need to know, as the rest of the music no longer exists, although the libretto does.

Why the piece was transcribed for brass band and in such a way by Frank Wright we may never know though, although at the time the famous theme was used as the introductory music to the popular television interview programme Face to Face - so perhaps it was thought ‘topical', as other overtures such as ‘Force of Destiny' were as yet untouched by Wrights exploring hand.

In his own programme notes to the 1961 National Finals he tells us nothing other than the original was cast in sonata form and that Berlioz consulted a member of the Paris Opera about the use of trombones in the unison passage of the introduction. 

Why he chose to drop his arrangement down a minor third (possibly to make it easier on the players on their high pitched instruments), totally desecrate the percussion parts and seemingly ignore score markings (and misplace them for that matter) he took to the grave.

At the time Wright had arranged a number of overtures for brass band, nearly all of which remain in circulation today. Time and closer inspection has not been kind to them, showing them to be amazingly limited in scope and foresight, invariably colourless and predominately based on pitch. At the time though they were what the brass band movement thought was the way forward, so it would be cruel to suggest they are not of value. However they are certainly not the musical gems that many believe they are.

For instance, the writing for flugel horn in ‘Juges' borders on the incomprehensible at times, far too high and showing a lack of appreciation for the rest of the horn section. Doubling of parts is endemic with the second cornet part in particular seemingly just written to boost volume rather than anything else.  It seems that the structure of the work owes much to the same musical thought process as Christmas Carol books.

Frank Wright also marked his arrangement with a metronome marking of Crotchet = 78 to start when the original is clearly marked 72, whilst later, the Allegro Assai originally marked at semi breve = 80 is marked 138 by the Australian. Perhaps the originals were deemed to hard to play as slow and as fast as Berlioz wanted by a brass band, but this seems inconceivable, especially by today's standards. 

In his excellent article for the British Bandsman on the work (issue 5427), Rodney Newton suggests that the reason for the obvious changes was more to do with Wrights understanding of the poor acoustic offered by the Albert Hall, but this seems a very weak and implausible excuse for a man who had by 1961 gained a great deal of experience in arranging overtures for brass band.  There are other glaring errors too, asking the bass trom to play quasi pizz when the original was written for strings and the lack of markings on parts in the brass version which are integral to the original.

Printing oversights perhaps, or plain poor arranging? The latter seems to be the answer, especially when you look at the percussion writing. Why for instance is there a side drum part written where none existed in the original and why does Wright insert more cymbal crashes than can be found in Sousa march?

It all adds up to a piece that should have been confined to the dustbin of time and never used again. If the decision was based on the fact that it would a popular choice then perhaps a new, more authentic version should have been sought. The brass band movement is not short of people who can do a pretty good job on orchestral overtures (Dr Christian Jenkins has done a fine arrangement of 'Benvenuto Cellini' and Howard Lorriman has produced much more authentic versions of other popular works such as ‘Rienzi' and a cracking ‘Flying Dutchman'.)

Why not ask the likes of Howard Snell (he did a super job on Berlioz's ‘Waverley' over 20 years ago now) or Peter Meechan or anyone else come to mind.

'Juges' will test the bands, but not the best bands to any great degree of discomfort. It is not a test piece in any manner of the form we now understand - it is a concert piece, plain and simple, to be used sparingly at that.

The Nationals deserve better than this mish mash of a work, an arrangement that belongs to a time when the movement was in stagnation and musical regression.   The bands, the players, conductors and audience also should deserve something better.

That it is being used in 2006 is cause for concern and perhaps reveals why the greater musical world views us with such disdain at times. On this occasion we cannot complain, we deserve it.      

Iwan Fox

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