2007 British Open Championships - Test Piece review


4BR looks at Kenneth Downie's glorious new test piece for this year's contest.

First things first: ‘Visions of Gerontius’ is not ‘St. Magnus’ Mark II. It is certainly not ‘The Promised Land’ or for that matter a homage to Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ either.

The keen eared listener will of course pick out small motifs in the musical architecture, but that would be like taking a close look at the O2 Millennium Dome and declaring it a copy of the Albert Hall just because the roof is a bit rounded on both. This is a very distinctive original.

’Visions of Gerontius’ is a wonderfully mature work both in thought and structure from a composer with a perceptive, fecund mind. Downie himself says that writing ‘descriptive’ music does not greatly appeal to him and that he feels more comfortable within the strictures of a theme and variations format, but that is doing himself a great disservice. Someone with his undoubted talent could we are sure, write just about anything and give it a sense of musical purpose.

The musical inspiration for the piece comes from the hymn tune ‘Gerontius’, written by John Bacchus Dykes (1823 – 1876) and the words of Cardinal John Henry Newman and his poem, ‘The Dream of Gerontius’. Edward Elgar took inspiration from Newman for his own ‘Dream’, written in 1900 and although that was first received as a disaster (in Birmingham of all places), it was to become his crowning glory as a composer.  There is little threat of the first instance happening here with this piece – although the latter may well be true in years to come.

The emotional inspiration comes from the emotive understanding of that text and the way in which it reflected (although not describing) the circumstances of the final months in the journey of the life of the composer’s friend, Leighton Rich.  As Downie states: “My music does not seek to describe these circumstances, but it is most definitely influenced by them. I leave it to the imagination of each listener to draw their own conclusion.”

Given the power of the words of Cardinal Newman, it would be hard not to interpret the work in any other way. There will of course come a time when we will all look back to contemplate and assess our lives. Whether or not that will encompass a great spiritual assessment of what has passed and of what is to come will be for the individual conscious and whether they believe their soul will travel from this world to the next to be embraced by God.  Newman’s words do however make for a persuasive argument.

Praise to the Holiest in the height,
And in the depth be praise;
In all His words most wonderful,
Most sure in all His ways.

The work is approximately 16 – 17 minutes in length (depending of course on the interpretation) and starts much like ‘St. Magnus’ with a simple delivery of the opening stanza of the hymn tune.  The tune itself is well known to most people (and was used as a snippet by Michael Ball in ‘Whitsun Wakes’, the British Open test piece in 1997).

The opening motif returns time and time again – sometimes directly, sometimes less so. Its presence and the reminder of the words ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height” are a constant throughout the piece (its final appearance comes just four bars from the end) and even if at times it is obliquely stated, it is the bedrock from which all else flows.  

There is also an almost constant sense of questioning flux about many of the variations that follow – a reflection perhaps of the questioning attitude, as Downie suggests, of the individual’s doubts, fears and insecurities about his life past and what is to come.

Following the introduction, which itself remains somewhat blurred in focus, the first variation (although not marked a such throughout) is marked Allegro con energia crotchet = 136.  Again the structure is reminiscent of ‘St Magnus’ with the 5/8 bars in particular almost (but not quite) a repeat of material used before.

The filigree work in the cornets in particular is technically difficult, and the amount of subtle detail in dynamic markings in particular is very precise.

A great deal of the work is mp or mf and no more, allowing for pulse and the all important sense of energy to flow. Percussion players will enjoy this piece, even though a great deal is asked of them (especially xylophone, where throwing a bag of frozen peas on the keys to sound good won’t be an option). The percussion is not solely used just to add weight and colour, but also to enhance and develop thematic material and solo lines. Any band that has brought (or bought for that matter) in their percussion team a week before will have found out that it won’t work on this piece.

If there is a slight weakness then it is perhaps that Downie has been rather too kind to the conductors in places, allowing them to fiddle with his intentions. Some of the cornet work for the lower solo cornets will surely be co-opted by the principal and bumper up, and the same will go for the rep and back tow at times.  Hopefully they won’t cheat, but, then again, this is contesting…

However, he has also ensured that there is more than enough sheer technical brilliance to sort out the best from the rest too. At rehearsal mark MM for instance there is a series of interjections by cornets and trombones that is nigh on impossible to play with clarity. Only the very best bands will manage it – just as it should be really.

The second variation remains disturbed and unresolved (marked poco animato) but allows for expression and balance whilst at its end there is a short moment of repose and a beautiful test of musicianship for players and conductors at rehearsal mark M – starting pp and rising imperceptivity to a mp conclusion.

The third variation at N is more playful (again marked con energia dotted crotchet = 100) with the lead taken by the bass trombone.  Detail is everything here with small, distinctive rising motifs throughout the band – all played around the mf mark too. At P comes a real moment when quality will show and if the band has a soprano of real class, before the detail and pulsing energy returns once more. All along though the sense of that opening motif, stated with the four notes remains subtly in the background.

The fourth variation is based around the third phrase of the hymn tune,  ‘ In all His words most wonderful’ and allows for delicate duet and solo work to appear - trombone and rep, solo cornet and euphonium, flugel and solo horn. Reflective yet still troubled it moves without resolve to the next variation at rehearsal mark U.

Here the Eb tuba is asked a great deal to start and the sense of on going motion is taken up by the other lead lines. Detail is crucial once more before the bass line perhaps produces the first direct quote from Elgar’s ‘Gerontius’ just before X (‘And in the depth of Praise’). The writing becomes ever more complex here, with rising fanfare work demanding balance and precision before the possible second direct quote (?) from Elgar just after Y. The last few bars of the variation will test the fingers like crazy – all built on a subtle bell like reiteration of the thematic material in the final four or so bars.

The sixth variation is the one that will test the bands and conductors the most – an almost macabre, grotesque 6/8 waltz, marked giocoso but with a sense of a darkly lit Victorian fun fair to it all. Technically it is immensely difficult (the little introduction in particular will cause problems) whilst the main soloists will all be put on high alert. The solo cornet at FF will have to be something of an escapologist, whilst the ensemble will have to have enough in reserve to keep things on a well metered track and not kill off their chances with misplaced speed.

The seventh variation is the emotional core of the work. Marked Con Dolore it reveals a painful almost anguished sense of final questioning. This is quite beautiful writing, emotive rather emotional with a heightened sense of awareness that possible fulfilment is within agonising reach.  The final few bars sense the finale and the glory of acceptance through trial, tribulation and anxiety - a positive conclusion after spiritual turmoil.

The final section is all about joyous brilliance, technical bravura and huge, magnificently soaring reiterations of the words of Newman’s text. The soprano at rehearsal mark OO leads imperiously whist all around busy filigree work provides a bubbling foundation. The last few bars sees the end of the journey and with one final return to the opening line ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’ the work concludes with a massive climax – although many a band will have to beware overcooking it right at the end, despite the huge chance to string the last two bars out forever.

It’s a glorious ending to glorious piece.

Iwan Fox. 


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