The Golden Oldies III:
4BarsRest takes a look at what could arguably be the most important
of all brass band recordings
Grimethorpe Colliery Band with Besses O’ th’ Barn Conductor: Elgar
Headline Recordings for Decca – June 1976.
Our recent series of Golden Oldies has provoked a considerable
response from you – people it seems would love to see the LP return.
However, more than any other record, this release from Decca with
Grimethorpe performing (with some help from Besses it must be said)
Elgar Howarth’s “Fireworks”, Takemitsu’s “Garden Rain”, Birtwistle’s
“Grimethorpe Aria” and Henze’s “Ragtimes and Habaneras” has been
the one that most people believe is essential listening material
and one of the most important brass band recordings ever made. It
is possibly the greatest “What if?” brass band record.
1976 was the year after “Fireworks” had been unleashed on the unsuspecting
banding fraternity at the British Open where Wingates under the
baton of Richard Evans took the title playing off number 23 (the
last but one band on). Grimethorpe incidentally did not take part
as Elgar Howarth was in the box with William Relton and Roy Newsome,
but such was the furore that many conductors thought it “undesirable”
and the following years saw the Open revert to “Epic Symphony”,
“Diadem of Gold” and “Benvenuto Cellini”.
Around the mid 1970’s Elgar Howarth was perhaps at his most radical
in the way in which he brought to the brass band a new and almost
revolutionary change in musical perspective. The conservative elements
that even today hold back the movement were even stronger then and
pieces such as “Grimethorpe Aria” were considered so way out that
they had no place in the movements development. It was perhaps the
movement’s greatest mistake. For all the success and innovation
he brought to contests such as “Granada Band of the Year” Howarth
has been poorly treated by those who still believe that banding
should still remain an isolated form of traditional music making.
This record is a salutary remainder of the possibilities Howarth
opened up to us.
“Fireworks” complete with narrator Lady Valarie Solti (in best
BBC “Listen with Mother” voice) remains a delight of musical wit
and invention. The idea may be borrowed but writing is still fresh
and insightful and at times wickedly pointed as it highlights both
the brass bands potential and its limitations. It is easy to see
why so many brass dinosaurs saw it as such as threat to the cosy
limits they were used to as it reveals touches of those composers
who Howarth admired (and they possibly never heard of) most and
there are elements of Birtwistle, Henze and even Vinter throughout.
Even by todays technical standards the playing is of a good quality,
although the combination of two bands for the end fugue is something
of nothing as an experiment. It is however a great work and one
that even today is sadly and unnecessarily neglected. The Open of
1975 must have been an amazing contest of musical discovery and
possibility - 2001 sees bands playing “Les Preludes”. Progress eh?
The rest of the LP sees Grimethorpe and Howarth take the plunge
into repertoire that for the musical knowledgable seems as mild
as a Chicken Korma curry but for the brass band fraternity must
have been like eating a Vindaloo with no water.
“Garden Rain” by the Japanese composer Takemitsu was originally
written for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble in 1974 but Howarth
was allowed to re-score it for full band. It is a reflective piece,
both elegant and poetic (and very slow) which explores the softness
of texture and colour that up until then had not been fully explored
by brass band composers. Today it sounds even a little dated in
style but remains a piece that illustrates the possibilities of
“Grimethorpe Aria” (1973) however is a totally different kettle
of fish and remains one of the most important brass compositions
of the post war period. Howarth is of course a champion of Birtwistle’s
music and one of the leading orchestral conductor of his works and
the listener is rewarded with a performance that should have led
to Birtwistle becoming as well known a brass band composer as say
Robert Simpson, who’s works started to appear at around the same
It is an uncompromising work, bleak in mood, mostly slow in tempo,
anguished, pessimistic but always interesting. As Howarth himself
remarks in his superb sleeve notes, “it has not yet endeared itself
to band audiences reared on more ear tickling fare” (How true –
even 25 years later). He believed it would become a masterpiece
of the repertoire, and he has been proven right.
The last work is the eclectic and almost exotically eccentric “Ragtimes
and Habaneras” by Hans Werner Henze, which has fortunately remained
a popular and accessible work, even though it estranges the traditional
approach to brass scoring and instrumental style. Henze knew litlle
of the brass band (except for a list of the instruments and two
recordings given to him) and so gave the banding world a brilliant
entertainment of 11 miniature pieces of glittering brilliance based
around a “Cuban” style of dance rhythms and musical references to
Kurt Weil, Romberg and even Mahler. Even today it is a fresh as
the proverbial daisy.
So “What if?” then? Well it seems that 1976 was perhaps the highpoint
of brass band experimentation, and just like in the Frankenstein
story, the ignorant villagers came up and destroyed what was meant
to be a thoughtful and intelligent creation. The pieces were rubbished
and thought of as too avant garde and musically destructive to our
conservative ideals. Thankfully we haven’t completely lost Howarth,
but we certainly lost Birtwistle and a whole phalanx of new composers
that could have enriched the banding world with copositions that
would have explored new areas. What about a test piece by MacMillan,
or Cage or even Harle?
As Howarth points out, these composers have tackled the problem
(of brass band repertoire) “…. enlivening and revitalising a repertoire
which had become inbred and stale”. Just remember he wrote this
in 1976 – even today his words are almost prophetic.