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Fantasy For Brass Band: 4BarsRest take a closer look at the forthcoming National Finals test piece for the First Section

Test Piece: Fantasy For Brass Band – Opus 114
Composer: Malcolm Arnold
Published by Studio Music

It’s a strange thing to say really, but Sir Malcolm Arnold has been something of a peripheral composing figure to the general brass band world. Apart from “Fantasy For Brass Band” which was written for the National Championships of Great Britain as far back as 1974 most of his original works for bands have been confined to the lower sections, and although popular and accessible they have not perhaps shown us how fine a composer for brass he has been.

2001 sees the National Finals in Preston using two of his works – his “Attleborough Suite” for the Fourth Section and “Fantasy For Brass Band” for the First Section. It is the latter, which is without doubt the most substantial and will for the most part give the competing bands a true test of technique and more importantly, musicianship.

Dedicated to the artist, Tony Giles, “Fantasy for Brass Band ” is a composition that is just over 9 minutes in length – a dwarf in stature of a test piece compared to the Goliath’s of today’s offerings and is essentially made up of four main sections to form one continuous line of musical development.

The opening “Prelude” is marked Allegro Moderato at 112 crotchet beats and takes the form of repeated fanfares from the top half of the band that are answered by descending runs from the lower end. It is clean and clear writing that will demand the same in the execution from both conductor and players alike. The dynamic marking is forte nearly all the time so bands trying to whack it out should beware! Only the bar before rehearsal-marking B is marked fortissimo for the entire band. Cleanliness is next to Godliness as my Gran used to tell me, so neat and tidy playing with rounded full balanced sounds should do the trick.

The flugel introduces the first theme at rehearsal marking B which is then taken on by the horn section (all mp and mf) before the fanfare motifs are reiterated at forte level to climax with a fortissimo series of repeated semi quavers before the introduction of the second main section of the work, entitled “Dance” at rehearsal marking E. If your band has kept its head up to now, then things could be looking up.

The “Dance” is marked crotchet 96 and needs to be felt at a slower yet bright and lively pace. The marking is Allegretto. Again, it very clear and clean writing that will demand a lot of musical insight to work properly. Throughout this section the dynamic markings are clearly set out and will need to be observed with care and attention as will the tuning at rehearsal marking G where the bass end take over the tune. The music looks easy to play along here, but keeping things together and balanced without rushing away with things could be the key. It’s all about control and with backsides twitching and lips quivering at the pianissimo dynamics, things could get a bit hairy.

The “Elegy” at rehearsal marking I is an absolute gem of scoring. Again it’s a slower tempo (marked crotchet =72) but it’s Andante con moto. Conductors who come over all dramatic and poncy and slow things down to a dirge will not only kill the music, but most probably kill their players as well. It’s 33 bars of sublime simplicity that is the keystone of the piece, as it requires both stamina and musicianship for it to come off. Dynamics range from pianissimo to forte and there are two beautifully realised solos for cornet and euphonium that need sympathetic execution. The final chord will require a clenching of the backsides and brave hearts.

The “Scherzo” follows and it is here that the technical demands of the music come to the fore. Marked “Vivace” it is meant to be lively and animated rather than “hell for leather and hold onto your trousers”. It's marked crotchet =120 only so some liberties can be taken but conductors who think their bands will be able to play it at up to a third quicker in speed will need their heads examined. Try double tonguing at that speed eh? – it’s bloody hard work.

It’s all about clarity again as the writing demands neat tonguing technique from the entire band. Rehearsal marking L will be a pointer to whether things are going to plan (fantastic chance for the bass drum player to become a star) and from then on it could be a question of keeping things under control. Cornets get to spike a top D or four (there could be more splashes here than a five year olds paddling pool) before there are a series of chromatic runs throughout the band at rehearsal marking M that will need more than a bit of practice to come off cleanly. (Bass players beware!). If things have gone to plan, you will reach the final “Postlude” together and still in control.

Just when you thought it safe to go back in the water, the fanfares reappear but this time it’s marked pianissimo. Frayed lips will have difficulty making this come off at a very quiet dynamic level, but control again is the key. The answering runs from the bass end are now ascending as a slow build up takes up the reins and the band shoot off into the final Vivace (again only marked 120 beats) for the ride to the line.

Only in the last 7 bars does the final accelerando come and this will need to be marked out to show that the band has something left in reserve. Some great final spiked chords through the band (sop gets some top B’s!) before the end bars (marked unison) finish it all off.

9 Minutes of some great writing should make sure that only the best bands get to grips with the music and should make the adjudicator’s job fairly easy. It’s a great piece to play and to listen to, but it will require conductors to be more sensible than usual when it comes to tempi and dynamics in particular. It should make for a very interesting contest indeed.

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