2008 Butlins Mineworkers Championships - Preview: Life Divine


4BR Editor Iwan Fox has a look at 'Life Divine' - classic piece of brass band music or nothing more than a intriguing curiosity with a second hand title.

‘Life Divine’ was initially written for the 1921 National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain. 

It’s composer, the Welshman Cyril Jenkins remains something of an enigma of brass band composition even though four of his works were used at the two major championships: ‘Coriolanus’ (1920), ‘Life Divine’ (1921) and ‘Victory’ (1929) at the National, whilst ‘Saga of the North’ was used at Belle Vue 1965.  ‘Life Divine’ was used once more at Belle Vue in 1963.

Why the gap between his first and last works has never really been explained fully – (the composer did spend time in Australia where he was once besieged by a baying mob of bandsman after his decision at a contest didn’t go down too well!) whilst no mention of his return to major composition was made in the 1965 Open programme or the banding press. His reputation as a brass band composer then seems to rest firmly with ‘Life Divine’.

Jenkins (1884 – 1978) hailed from Swansea and has been described as ‘one of the lesser lights’ in Sir Charles Stanford’s composition class at the Royal College of Music.

After the success of ‘Coriolanus’ he was asked again by the National Championship management of John Henry Iles and his editor at British Bandsman Herbert Whiteley to write another set work.

Initially of course the piece was called ‘A Comedy of Errors’ but this title was rejected by Whitley who had earlier in his editorial tenure (as far back as 1913 in fact), called for ‘better’ serious music to be used at the Championships.

The title, perhaps whimsically entitled by Jenkins, rather than with any pretence to Shakespeare was therefore rejected as inappropriate. Who then chose the new title of ‘Life Divine’ remains a mystery.

Furthermore, given that the piece would surely have already been written (partially or fully) by the time Whiteley made his observations, the preface programme notes outlining the composer’s inspiration for the tone poem also remain debatable. 

Jenkins makes these observations:

Certain phases of Life are common to most if not all men and the music of the Tone Poem carries the listener through four of such phases.

a) In the Andante Molto Maestoso a man’s outlook on Life as a thing of seriousness and dignity is shown.

b) The Allegro Vivace which follows shows him facing its problems with a spirit of vigorous optimism, while two tributary themes suggest that Life, with all its seriousness, is not devoid of humour and happiness.

c) The short section which follows, Maestoso, is a reminder that times of stress and trouble are inevitable but these are quickly dispelled by the

d) Andante Nobilemente, portraying the helping and enobling power of true love.

The music again proceeds to review these four phases of Life, the concluding section (Andante Nobilemente) showing Love triumphant over all.

All well and good – and plenty serious enough to satisfy the rather staid Whiteley.

The problem remains though – given that Jenkins must surely have had many of his ideas either written or partially developed for the piece, this all sounds a bit of nonsense in its own right. Even today, a number of major works tend to be written first and then get a flowery description after.

That hasn’t stopped the piece becoming revered as something of a brass band classic however, despite the misgivings of many serious musicologists who have poured over it.

Paul Hindmarsh, writing about original brass band compositions between 1913 and 1998, for Trevor Herbert’s book, ‘The British Brass Band – a Musical and Social History’ described it thus:

“He tested every player, not just the four or five soloists, contriving to ‘shoe horn’ showy trills, scales, and runs, as well as sentimental melodies and fanfares, in a sonata form. While the piece is energetic, exciting, and remains popular, its rhetoric sounds empty, and its phrasing is four-square and repetitive – a pale imitation of Rimsky-Korsakov and Liszt at their most bombastic.”

Despite, or perhaps because of the severity of its technical challenges allied to the melodramatic lyricism, it remains rather more an intriguing curiosity rather a true classic of it’s genre. You have to agree with Paul Hindmarsh – for all its tricks and ornaments it remains a rather insubstantial piece with little emotional depth and almost comic episodes of dated ensemble effect.

Too often it sounds like the organ music that was used to play to accompany silent movies. You can just imagine the heroine strapped and cuffed to the railway track as the 4.15 from Euston steams towards her lovely little head, whilst in the background the comedy villain waxes his luxuriant moustache and rolls his eyes like a maniac hell bent on destruction.   Then, just in the nick of time, a stiff upper lipped Englishman saves the day, smacks Johnny foreigner in the fizzog and runs off with his bride to be to live happily ever after.

This really is Saturday morning at the pictures music – 1920s style.

Still, there is much to enjoy (apart that is if you are a baritone or repiano cornet player) and it should still provide a stern test for the competing bands.  Perhaps ‘A Comedy of Errors’ was the best, and most accurate, title for the music after all.  

Iwan Fox


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