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The Test Piece: Les Preludes

Bram Gay is a master of the brass band transcription. He is the inheritor of a line that stretches back from Joseph Parry and Alex Owen through William Rimmer and Charles Godfrey to the great Frank Wright.

His transcription of Liszt’s “Les Preludes” has been a formidable achievement made greater by the fact that for most bandsmen over the age of 25, he has irrevocably superseded one of the sacred cows of the banding world – William Rimmer’s previously famous arrangement.

(That Bram Gay’s transcription is being used for the 149th British Open we have some problems with, and we’ll discuss that in our introduction to our coverage of the Championships.)

Bram Gay has produced a work far removed from Rimmer’s own as to make the two almost distant musical relatives, and for this he must be firmly congratulated. His is a transcription that as the term suggests, owes direct comparison to the Liszt original in that it is a true re- arrangement of the music rather than Rimmer’s pot-pourri of melodies, themes and personal ideas that made up his own arrangement all those years ago.

However, the problem with any brass band transcription or arrangement lies in the translation of the orchestral colours, hues and timbres. The arrangements for bands from Rimmer to Wright are all musically monochrome to the ear as the brass band cannot reproduce the kaleidoscopic colours of a symphony orchestra; and Bram Gay’s transcription suffers the same fate.

In being true to the descendent line of great arrangers he can now truly number himself in, he has given us a brass band masterpiece in black and white – a two tone chef d’oeuvre of undoubted skill and expertise that however brilliantly conceived and executed remains dated and almost antiquated as soon as it comes off the transcription assembly line. This is not to derogate the effulgence of the achievement, but it is rather like looking at a brilliant black and white copy of a painting by Matisse or Picasso – it pales in comparison.

Bram Gay however knows the brass band and his mastery of the art of transcription means as a “stand alone” brass band piece, his “Les Preludes” makes for good pleasurable listening for the audience and cold sweats for most of the corner men on the contest stage. There are numerous challenges put on offer (some of them more than a little idiosyncratic), but he has been more than skilful enough to make the music rather than the technical confrontations the winner.

The listener will first be aware that Bram Gay has restored the first 35 bars of Liszt’s music - the area in which the very crux of the three note musical idea is postulated. These bars will test even the best bands in terms of tuning and ensemble as the initial figure is repeated through descending and ascending lower band quaver runs. The “big tune” (Rehearsal mark A and the place where the Rimmer started) comes after this and possibly by now many bands will have kissed their chances of winning good-bye. It’s a very testing start.

All through here we get the bombastic tune, which has some parts of the band honking it out in grand style and the cornets playing the very tricky string part. It’s in 12/8 so bands can play in their usual lazy rhythmic style, but much of the detail to the ends of phrases will require sharpness, as they are duple semi quavers for the most part.

With lips well warmed up, a “L’istesso tempo (not named after the composer) brings in the cello tune on the horn, whilst back row cornets busy themselves on the linking semi quaver runs before Bram Gay finally gives the tune over to the euphs at the key change, where the amount of detailed cover work is done by muted cornets. The transcription around Rehearsal C is very detailed and clear and balance will be all-important as the euphs explore the tune up in the stratosphere whilst the sop and rep have a beautifully delicate part just before Rehearsal D, which is marked pp but will have to be heard to be appreciated fully.

Rehearsal D onwards gives the first notice of the very hard technical challenges ahead for certain key instruments with the sop and rep first having the tune (again marked only p and dolce espress) before a wicked crescendo leads to a Poco rall and the sop indulging in the most fearsome of trills - top f natural to top G as the solo cornet builds below, then Eb to F – both marked piano! (Thanks Bram!) The a tiny gem of an 8 bar section - very opaque and anorexic in its scoring that features octave jumps at pianissimo for a back row cornet and then sop (middle C to Top C to finish off at pp!)

The next section through Rehearsal E to G will give the big bands the real chance to shine as the main meat of the heavy playing of the piece comes to the fore. Although the orchestral colour is missing the music retains excitement through clever use of chromatic runs, crescendos and diminuendos that gives drive to some seriously heavy stuff. Basses will have had to be practising at the Chromatics in the Arban and the cornets again have bar upon bar of quaver arpeggios that need a light touch not to over power. This fairly rattles along until to bars before Rehearsal G when the brakes need to be applied (together hopefully).

G through H is a ten bar interlude that features the soprano in two quasi cadenzas the first with a rit and the second without, before a change of key and the type of quiet, short and high playing that gives everyone nightmares and sorts the men out from the boys.

The proceeding ten bars to the Allegro Pastorale could contain more splash marks than a gents urinal on a Saturday night and the following section is a real test not only of character, but of technique and musicianship for all the players who will have to spit out some very quiet and detailed playing with no help from anyone else. Bram Gay has cunningly cut up the parts so that each solo line has to link to the next (solo cornet to sop to horn to flugel to sop etc) and this makes for a veritable minefield that could see some bands sink faster than a Greek cruise ship. The flugel from here on will really be earning their money.

Delicacy is the name of the game through J, K, and L and the reward to the bands willing and capable of taking the risks are plain to see and hear – if this section comes off them you could be up in the prizes for sure.

Rehearsal M marks the run in for home (although it’s still a long way away) and there is an exciting build up to an Allegro Marziale that requires cleanliness in the descending and ascending chromatic runs (the back row cornets have a couple of real sods here). Alternative sections around Rehearsal N and O of heavy playing are interspersed with quiet detailed and cheeky retorts before the build up to a Pui maestoso that lets the band give it the full welly. One last build up section at Rehearsal P gives one last chance to shine at the technical stuff before the “Big Tune” reappears at Andante Maestoso after Rehearsal Q for the big finish.

Tired lips could lead to overblowing and tuning problems and bands will need as much stamina as an actor in a porn movie, before reaching the climax, which according to Bram Gay should be the very last note. Why not eh?

Then you can all relax, have a fag and milk the applause.

Bram Gay’s “Les Preludes” is in fact homage to Rimmer, Owen and Wright and to an age of banding that has long, long disappeared. Some may shed a tear that this has been the case, but those who seek a return to those days usually wear very rose tinted spectacles, and any case it is thankfully impossible. We should never forget our rich heritage, but we should never forget either that for the most part it wasn’t as good as people make out. Bram Gay’s “Les Preludes” has reminded us very much of that fact and it is a testament to his skill that his transcription is not a pastiche but a worthy new addition to the banding repertoire.

The Composer: Franz Liszt 1811 – 1886

Liszt was born in Hungary in the small village Rieding and his talent as a child prodigy on the piano was recognised at a very early age. He toured Europe as something of a 19th Century “Boy Wonder” before turning his talents in adolescence to composing.

In 1848 around the time he first set about his exploration of the “Symphonic Poem” – the relationship he felt between music and literature, he became music director at the ducal court of Weimer and during this period he wrote his first draft of “Les Preludes”.

This was finally completed in 1854 and although it is a famous Liszt work it is universally seen as not one of his greatest compositions. Others, most notably his “Mephisto Waltz”, 12 “Trancendental Etudes”, “Hungarian Rhapsodies” as well as his “Faust” and sacred works are seen as being “first class” Liszt. “Les Preludes” is strictly Nationwide League material.

Liszt died in 1886 at his home and was buried with due haste by his daughter, Cosima, who carried on with a party after the service!

The Transcriber: Bram Gay

Bram Gay was born in the Rhonda valley of Wales and as a child prodigy of the cornet joined the Fodens Band at the age of 14. Following National Service he played professionally as a trumpet player before becoming Orchestra Manager at Covent Garden.

He has conducted, adjudicated and transcribed the test piece at the Open Championships. He appeared twice as conductor, gaining 4th place in 1976 with Cory and transcribed Edward Elgar’s “Severn Suite” for the contest in 1996. He has appeared as adjudicator on 7 occasions (1986, 87, 91, 93, 94, 96, 98).

In addition he has written a fictional book entitled “Maestro” about the life of a talented Welshman from the Rhondda valley who due to a combination of good looks, wealth and fame, combined with glamorous power, becomes irresistible to female admirers on his climb to the top of his conducting career. It is said to be in no way autobiographical.

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