2008 Lower Section National Finals: Test piece review - The Shipbuilders


Paul Hindmarsh examines one of the great old classics of the brass band repertoire - Peter Yorke's 'The Shipbuilders'.

Fourth Section: The Shipbuilders by Peter Yorke 

The career of composer, conductor and arranger Peter Yorke (1902 – 1966) flourished during a golden age of British light music, of which he was a leading exponent. Following in the wake of composers like Eric Coates and Haydn Wood was a clutch of talented professionals, all of whom worked extensively for the BBC Light Programme, for the British film industry, musical theatre or in the recording studio. 


Peter Yorke was just a few months younger than Harry Mortimer and a few  years older than Gilbert Vinter and Ronald Binge. Like Vinter however, he came to write for brass band towards the end of a career cut short by illness and a premature passing.

A Londoner by birth, Peter Yorke was the son of a printer and was still in this teens when he was appointed as an organist and choir-master. Following his studies at Trinity College, London he worked as a pianist in West End theatres, but his skills as an arranger soon caught the eyes and ears of the leading dance bands of the time, eventually founding his own orchestra, which provided broadcasts for various European radio stations from 1937. 

The previous year Yorke had moved into the movies, as chief arranger for Louis Levy and his Gaument-British Orchestra. The plush sound that he created to Levy also a characteristic of the work he did under his own name in later years. After the Second World War, he re-formed his own orchestra, expanding it to some 40 players. 


Yorke composed and arranged prolifically during the last 20 years of his life. His broadcasts were popular and he became a mainstay of the BBC Festivals of Light Music held at the Royal Festival Hall from throughout the 1950s and on into the 60s. 

Closing theme

Peter Yorke’s Suite The Shipbuilders was commissioned for the 1960 festival. Galleons Reach, The Explorers overture and Automation were other entertaining Yorke works for brass band. But his most often heard work, which I recall from my childhood, was Silks and Satins which was the closing theme for the popular 60’s tv hospital soap-opera Emergency Ward 10.

The Shipbuilders is an impressive but concise work, requiring solid tone from top to bottom of the band and some confidence in dealing with the ‘pre-Vinter’ moments of exposed colour. The work is a suite of four character miniatures, linked thematically through the heroic motif announced by the lower band right at the start. 

Web of Steel   
The principal tune (solo cornets) needs to be delivered with precision and clarity, while the layers of supporting material need to be well balanced and contrasted in dynamic. Staccato chords will need to be well-matched with sustained chords offering the confidence of harmonic support and direction. There much detail to be brought out, with due attention to the length and weight of accented crotchets when set against staccato quavers and sustained minims – quite a challenge.

The Launching  
This is a broad, moderately paced movement, which is dependent for its successful delivery on sustained power and breath control. The principal melodic phrase repeatedly descends from a great height. This requires good diaphragm control and evenness of production. The surges of dynamic power from piano to forte need to blossom without forcing or going out of tune. Keep something in reserve for the final chord!

All Hands at Work  
In terms of energy and range, this fleeting scherzo is arguably the most demanding movement. I wonder how many conductors will have the courage to play the principle scherzo theme, with its difficult chromatic intervals and wide leaps, on all cornets in unison, as marked? The exposed octaves between basses and high baritones and horns need to be carefully tuned and balanced. The layers of activity in the central episode should not conflict with each other – the theme is in the bass. The four epic chords toward the end are a dangerous moment for tuning and tone, with a pearly moment for baritones and basses (in delicate octaves) to end.

Maiden Voyage  
This short finale is not the usual blockbuster ending, but is cleverly both reprise and climax. The compound pulse needs to flow with a sustained sound, especially through the semi-quaver arabesques is vital. The way Peter Yorke has transformed his main theme into a gentle line at the start is an elegant musical touch.  Much of the writing lies high in the range once again and the phrasing in the central duet between solo euphonium (the main line) and the solo cornet (an accompanying obbligato) must be poised and well phrased. The loudest moment in the whole work is reserved for the final triumphant bars and the final chord.

Paul Hindmarsh


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