National Championships 2004 - Harrogate - Test Piece Reviews


4BR looks at each of the set works for this years contests. Some great works and some very descriptive writing is one offer for the payers and the audience alike to enjoy.

Fourth Section:

Philip SparkeThe Four Noble Truths - Philip Sparke

The Fourth Section test piece, The Four Noble Truths was commissioned by the Dutch National Brass Band Championships for their 2003 competition.

It takes its inspiration from the basic expression of the teaching of Budda who concern themselves with Dukkha, which although it has no exact translation, can mean suffering, stress or sadness. Philip Sparke has delivered a marvellous set work for the bands at this level - full of colour, rhythm and descriptive writing that captures the musical essence of each of the "Four Truths".

The first is Dukkha itself - which describes the different types of stress we all experience in life; birth, aging, desire, change and death. The movement is marked Moderato (chrotchet = 116) so it not as fast and furious as the rhythmic writing may suggest.  There is plenty for all sections of the band to get to grips with and lots of dynamic changes and broad musical lines so that a quality ensemble sound can be shown off.  There are plenty of neat touches that, if they come off will give the movement the right sense of manageable stress (those who fail could be heading for a bit of a breakdown), before it ends with a fine broad and sonorous final three bars. 

Samudaya - The Noble Truth of the Origins of Dukkha, explores many of the same themes as the first, but on a short-term basis. It's all about the stresses of short lived pleasure (fantastic though it is at the time - just ask any bloke) and so the music has a restless almost aggressive intent. It is marked Molto Vivo e ritmico (chrotchet = 168) so it is speedy (a bit like some blokes on a one night stand) and has real energy from the word go.  Some peace is sought in a chorale like passage (a bit of a breather before we go back out on the town) before it ends amid a rapid fire snare drum blitz.

Nirodha - The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha is all about the removal of stress and is as peaceful and gentle as a group of transcendental hippies having a smoke on a nice roach. Marked Larghetto (chrotchet = 60), it has a lovely lilting feel which is underscored by a chiming tubular bell which offers a foundation for the soloists to really express themselves. Each will have their moment in the spotlight as they induce that special chill out feeling.

Finally, Magga - The Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Dukkha, which describes the eight Buddist disciplines recommended to help ourselves eliminate the origin of stress from our lives. You have to ask whether Buddha could have let us know that giving up work, drinking less, getting rid of the mortgage and finding a partner in life who enjoys football is the answer - but apparently not. Marked Andante Maestoso, (chrotchet = 88), there is a real nobility about the writing, introduced by fanfare features making way for broad rising themes on the euphonium, horns and finally upper brass. It is super stuff and demands discipline from the players not to overblow things and more stamina than Paula Radcliffe could manage. It is rounded off with a tricky ending, but if it comes off a band could well be on the way to enlightenment and a prize winning performance.

Third Section:

Darrol BarryDiamond Heritage - Darrol Barry

The Third Section set work was commissioned by the Friends of Pleasley Pit in 1999 with funds made available by the National Lottery "A4E Express". The work is dedicated to the restoration of the Pleasley Colliery, which is situated in the North Derbyshire Coalfield near the town of Mansfield.

Although it is a single movement work, it is in many ways a theme and several variations on the "Miners Hymn" - the hymn tune "Gresford".  That hymn took its inspiration form the pit disaster of 1934 when 266 men were killed at the Gresford pit in North Wales, so it is certainly a melancholy paean.

The work unfolds slowly but with a real sense of purpose, marked Lento, (chrotchet = 84) (the perfect Welsh choral territory to roll the R's and clear the phlegm from the back of the throat). Darrol Barry paints a wonderfully descriptive picture and the score is full of escalating drama in the long introduction. Things become a bit more peaceful thereafter in a section marked "Lumbering" as the composer recalls the hard sweat induced labour of the colliers as they go about their preparation work in the heat and dust of the coal face.

A further change then takes place as the tempo is upped to chrotchet = 96. Lots of huge chords invoke the massive blocks of coal as they are hewn from the face by the machinery, whilst the soprano leads a singing thematic line as if to suggest that even in these terrible conditions a man can find beauty in song (many colliers were of course very fine musicians be it in choirs, operatic societies or brass bands). This leads to an even quicker section marked, "Lively", (chrotchet = 132) and an almost jazz feel enters the writing. It is very energetic and lively but will demand discipline from the bands not to overcook things too quickly and lose the sense of balance, which is so clear in the score.

The sense of physical fatigue returns once more in the next section marked "Heavy", (chrotchet = 96), before things move along again with a sense of animation and drive and which leads to a very interesting ad lib feature on the back row cornets which takes place over three strictly measured bars. It will be interesting to hear what the MD's make of this.

The tempo then slows down before the solo cornet reiterates the "Gresford" hymn tune theme once more and the build for home occurs. The inexorable build mirrors the miners as they make the long trek to the surface from the bowels of the earth (in 1934 miners usually had to walk anything up to 3 miles from the bottom of the shaft to the coal face) and the sense of inner joy as they finish their punishing shift and return to the fresh air and sunshine of the surface. (No pithead baths though - they didn't come in until after Nationalisation in the vast majority of pits). The writing to end is marked "Majestic" - an appropriate finale for the brave souls who worked in those hellish conditions, for even though it was a gruesome digging out the "Black Diamonds" there was always a sense of nobility about it as an occupation.

George Orwell summed the miners up when he said, "…it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior." This work is a fitting tribute to their graft.

Second Section:

Chaucer's Tunes for Brass Band - Michael Ball

The set work for the Second Section is the only one of the four test pieces used this year at the Finals that isn't an original work for brass band. "Chaucer's Tunes" was originally written for Wind Ensemble and for the British Association of Symphonic Bands and Wind Ensembles 1993 Conference. The brass band version came into being in 1998 and was commissioned by Paul Hindmarsh (a bloke that the brass band movement owes a great debt of gratitude to over the years) for the 1999 National Youth Brass Band Championships.

It is around 11 in length, so it isn't a as demanding a work as some of the same composers test pieces for the bands in higher sections, and it is essentially light in character. Its inspiration of course comes from Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales", one of the great works of English literature (and as any A Level student will know, one that takes a hell of a time to read and understand).

The book is a collection of stories recollected by Pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and was written around 1370. It is difficult to understand at first because of the language - for instance: "A Clerk ther was of Oxenford also, That un-yo logic hadde longe y-go". Or, "So was hir jly whistle wel y-wet." See what we mean?

Thankfully, Michael Ball is a very clever musical interpretator and has managed to derive six interconnected sections that tell the stories of some of the Pilgrims as we go along. Just like the book, it becomes very easily transparent once you get the hang of it and it becomes very enjoyable stuff indeed.

The opening "Intrada" marked "Robust and Lively" is set out with a percussion introduction before the band enters in full and moves along in fine style and with rhythmic pulse right to a very quick ending. This is then followed by a Fantasia; Alma Redemptoris Mater, which the composer specifically asks to be played in a broad spacious manner with plenty of ebb and flow. Conductors with a bit of music in their hearts will love this, but they should beware not to make it too sloppy (Chaucer cannot be described as a Mills and Boon writer, he was more into the boddice ripping stuff even in the 14th Century).   It is a sad tale this, as the young boy tops himself, so get the hankies out if the bands get it right.

Then we lead into the great old story of The Wife of Bath - all sex, lies and medieval videotape. It is an amazing story of wanton desire and how a knight is led more by his the contents of his codpiece than his brain - but it all ends happily ever after. The music is the same and is marked to be played with alertness and humour (aspects brass bands don't do very well as a matter of course). If however the MD has a twinkle in his eye, this could be the movement to set them apart from the rest of the field.

Next comes the Carol: Es ist ein' ros' entsprungen, which again the composer informs should be played in a sustained singing manner. This is a lovely lyrical section of playing, with solo voices given the chance to showcase their tone and musicality, whilst the cornet section (from sop to bottom third cornet) will have to display a fair amount of stamina as the lines are sub divided in a very transparent manner.

Finally, Chase: Chauntecleer and the Fox (and not a story about the editor of 4BR either), which is all about the story of a Nun's Priest. It is marked to be played in an aggressive and unrelenting fashion, although there are very subtle dynamic differences and little rhythmic traps that will be missed by those who just opt for volume. It leads on its breathless way to a very boisterous ending in good old Merry England fashion.

It is a work that captures the spirit of the book really well - although not as well perhaps as the slightly bonkers film, "A Knights Tale" which was a very liberal adaptation that had Chaucer has a half mad conman and which for some bizarre (but immensely enjoyable reason) featured the music of Queen and other various rock groups. If you think of that when you hear this, then you will be on the right tracks.

First Section:

Rodney NewtonThe King of Elfland's Daughter - Rodney Newton

This is a little belter of a test piece. Rodney Newton is a superb brass composer and his original music such as this, and his arrangements such as the recently premiered "Church Windows" by Respighi are absolute gems of the art of writing for brass band.   

This work is inspired by the writings of Lord Dunsany (or to give him his proper name, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, who was born in 1878 and died in 1957). His headstone must have been six foot wide with a name as long as that. By all account he was a bit "colourful" - a euphemism that the upper classes used at the time to describe someone who was away with the faireys. And boy, oh boy, was old Eddie well and truly away with the little people.

The old boy was also a bit of a fantasy writer (as well as Welsh Chess Champion) and this was one of his best. It's still a bit sub par "Lord of the Rings" stuff - all trolls and elves, magical wizards and all that baloney, but nevertheless it makes for a wonderful story (Strange how Disney has yet to pick it up, ruin it and turn it into a multi million dollar epic with good old American values of apple pie and MacDonald's beefburgers though).

Rodney Newton picks up the narrative line and transforms it into descriptive music for brass quite brilliantly, and the story of the love between Alveric and Lirazel (who sound like two French rugby half backs) is brought to life in wonderful colour.  The use of percussion throughout adds greatly to this, and it will take some pretty confident players to make it come off. Rodney knows his way around the shed building department and knows exactly what must be played and how, so just hitting and hoping won't bring the desired effect - the percussion teams in all the bands will be key players on this piece.

The short Prelude heralds a section that describes the Kingdom of Erl and the exposed playing will make severe demands on the players. Before they can catch breath though, the band is on their way with Alveric on his quest to get himself a bride (in Elfland it seems, travelling abroad to get a pre packaged off the shelf Princess was all the rage). The music here has real drive and purpose (the boy had a yearning in his breeches it seems) and there is some vicious technical stuff to test the likes of even the most mild mannered second baritone and Bb bass!

Things reach a great old climax as Alveric enters Elfland (an unfortunate turn of phrase don't you think), which is not a French petrol staion but the Kingdom of the little people. Here he meets Lirazel and they of course fall in love. This is shown by a superb section of duet writing by the composer, which then develops with huge passion through other leading instruments. The euph in particular will earn his beer money here.  Once the smootchy stuff is out of the way though, the two must head for the new marital home and of course, the natives are not a happy bunch.

A great pitched battle then ensues as our intrepid lovers head for home through the swords of the elves (once more making demands on the technical abilities of all the sections of the band) before the girls father wakes up from his slumber (he was most probably down the local having a jar or two) and sends out a little troll to do his dirty work for him and get his apple of his eye back home and in her bedroom where she belongs.

This is a great section of writing - all mischief and menace as the ugly little troll (played by the first baritone - no offence) does the dirty on the girl and manages to whisk her back to Elfland and her Dad. All seems lost for our eponymous hero, but after years of fruitless search his prayers are answered as the King of Elfland has a change of heart (perhaps brought on by the fact that his daughter would now be getting on a bit and he doesn't want her left on the elvish shelf) and the two are brought together again through a fantasy version of "Friends Reunited" and they all live happily ever after in a state of the art Wimpey new build home in a nice area of town. The final section marked largamente is stirring stuff indeed and couldn't be sung better by Elvish Presley (sorry, just had to do it!). It brings things to a corker of an end. 

It's a fantastic piece for the contest, and even if we have been a little flippant in our interpretation then its because when we heard it we were so bowled over by the skill of the composer in bringing the subject matter to life. Rodney Newton has an acute sense of musicality, a dry wit and a superb talent in writing for brass. Enjoy this one to the full.


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