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The British Open Brass Band Championships.
82nd Spring Brass Band Festival
The Winter Gardens Blackpool
Saturday, May 11th 2002

The Test Pieces:
Checkmate, Bliss arr Eric Ball
Carnival Romain, Berlioz arr Frank Wright
Un Vie de Matelot, Robert Farnon

Date Posted: 09.05.02

Checkmate - Sir Arthur Bliss arranged Eric Ball

Sir Arthur BlissArthur Bliss was born in London in 1891 and died there in 1975. He was knighted in 1950 and appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953, following the death of Sir Arnold Bax. For over 50 years he remained an influential figure in the English musical scene.

He regarded himself very much as a “professional” composer and as such his reputation has been built on a number of very well written, yet popular works. He remained a man who sought happiness in all that he did and who concluded in his autobiography “ the odds against happiness can be so menacingly and terribly weighted that I doubt whether I should wish to be born again. But in this life of mine…… I have had much to be grateful for. I had a father that I could have wished, and I have a wife and two daughters that I could have wished. Grandchildren live to carry the link from me to the future, and fortune has permitted me to work at what I love best - music”.

The ballet “Checkmate” was first performed at the Theatre de Champs - Elysee in Paris in the Summer of 1937.

It is a somewhat disturbing score, alert and incisive, harshly brilliant; it establishes a steely hold on the emotions, yet through its unyielding exterior there seeps a sense of ruthlessly objectified compassion.

The composer himself used the following word to describe the story behind his work: “ You see the pieces assembling in their order, first of all, light hearted pawns, pages attending the knights to come. Then the four knights leap on, two in red and gold and two in black and silver; They challenge each other to feats of daring, while the pages applaud their skill and courage. The Black Queen enters majestically - the Red Knights and pawns remain spellbound under the influence of the most dangerous piece on the board. She is like a fierce lynx or leopard, at one time purring, at another baring her claws. She hypnotises one of the Red Knights with her power and beauty and throws him a rose, which he wears in his armour. The game is long and fierce, in the fight when the Red Knight has the Black Queen at his mercy he hesitates to kill her and is himself treacherously stabbed by her in the back.

The red pieces have been swept from the board, and the Black are attacking the final citadel of the Red King. He is old and feeble and can do little to protect himself. Gradually his enemies close in on him. At the moment of death the old King has a vision of himself as a young and strong ruler, and turns at bay. But the ring of his foes is too strong. He is struck down. It is Checkmate!”

Sounds familiar eh? - Women always come out on top! So, that’s the story behind a very exciting piece - and one that will certainly test the stamina of all the bands who will be striving to gain a qualification place for the British Open.

The arrangement by Eric Ball was undertaken for the National Brass Championships of Great Britain, which was held at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 7th October 1978. The contest saw 20 bands take part (Dalmellington from Scotland withdrew) and the title was won by Yorkshire Imperial Metals under the direction of Denis Carr, who played off number 9 to gain 194pts and beat Besses O'’th'’Barn and Roy Newsome (off number 1) into second place, a further two points behind and with Grimethorpe and Stanley Boddington a further point back in third. Walter Hargreaves took Fairey’s in fourth place, Jim Scott led Fodens into fifth and St. Dennis and Eddie Williams filled sixth spot.

The winners took home 500 and the men in the box were Prof. Cedric Thorp Darby, Albert Chappell and Col. George Evans. How things have changed eh?

The original arrangement was in four movements, but due to perceived time constraints, only three of the movements were used - the same as today, and so the bands now perform for contest purposes “Dance of the Four Knights” - approximately 4 minutes in length, “Ceremony of the Red Bishops” - 3.15 and the Finale “Checkmate” - 3.50. The “Red Knights Mazurka” - 3.40 is dropped - which is a great pity, because it is neither too long and is perhaps technically the hardest section of the work.

The piece is quite short by today’s standards with it lasting in its abridged form around 11 minutes, and even adding the extra movement it would only by 14 and a half minutes in duration. Why the extra movement has not been included is therefore a bit of a mystery to us. Thus, we are left with a fine arrangement of a powerful bit of writing, that becomes two movements that are loud (very loud most probably by some bands) and one short quiet movement. It would have been so much a better test if the extra bit was added. Could the organisers offer an explanation?

The piece itself has also been somewhat overlooked as a set work ever since that 1978 National, and we struggled to find occasions when it had been chosen elsewhere. The last movement was a popular “finisher” for many years at Entertainment contest - including the famous occasion at Spennymoor when a leading conductor forgot to bring the band in on the last note and turned to face the audience whilst his players were left in limbo - lungs full and ready to let rip. The middle movement has sporadically been heard as well, but overall the piece has been living on too many band shelves gathering dust for too many years. It is a welcome revival.

It should sort out the best from the rest, but be warned! - it could be a very loud and hurtful experience on the ears, as it is a piece that could well be blown to smithereens if MD’s decide to try and power their way the Symphony Hall. Lets hope the judges penalise the folly of that strategy and reward the bands that make dramatic music from a worthy test.

Carnival Romain, Berlioz arranged Frank Wright

Hector BerliozIn complete contrast to the set work for the Grand Shield, Frank Wright’s arrangement of the Berlioz overture, “Carnival Romain” has become a classic (and well worn) test of bands ever since it made its first appearance as the test piece at the 1966 National Finals. GUS Footwear won that contest on the day under the direction of the late, great Stanley Boddington, beating Black Dyke and Fairey into the bargain.

From that day on it has been seen as an ideal test of the very best bands, and it was subsequently used as the set test for 1979 Open, which was memorably won by Fairey Engineering under Walter Hargreaves and the Pontins Championships in 1983, won by the Jones and Crossland Band. It was also used at these Championships as the Grand Shield test piece in 1991, when Whitburn took the title back to Scotland.

It is however very much a brass band arrangement of its time. Frank Wright went through a whole gamut of composers works - Berlioz being just one and although the piece remains a favourite with banding audiences, it must be said that it isn’t perhaps a great arrangement of the work per se. It was written at a time before the advent of percussion as an integral part of brass bands make up, and at a time when the approach to writing and arranging for band personnel was completely different. By the standards of today’s writing and willingness of composers to explore the colour and timbre of all the instruments of the band, the piece can sound rather bland in hue, but that doesn’t take away from the excitement the piece can generate.

The technical aspects of the piece remain difficult to this day though and the euphonium, soprano and flugel will all have to be on top of their game to ensure success for the bands. There are a number of little corners at the ends of phrases especially that will have to be watched and the back row cornets won’t enjoy their parts.

Musical Directors will also have to curb any tendency to try and win things with speed alone, as the excitement of the music can be generated even through a slightly more steady tempo. Clean and accurate technique in the quicker sections allied to balance in dynamics could be a better course of action. Listen out for some very difficult sop and solo cornet links at the Allegro Vivace, and a real bitch of a part for the sop just before figure K (a series of octave jumps in groups of quavers - not many will be able to play it cleanly if the tempo is on the high side)

Lots of great, exciting stuff - and mostly loud will see a number of bands making a good bash of things, but it could well be the bands that make the most of the difference in dynamics, clean technique and lack of splits that will win a place at the Grand Shield in 2003.

Un Vie de Matelot, Robert Farnon

Robert FarnonThe bands wishing to take the first step up the divisions towards the ultimate prize of playing at the British Open will surely be cursing however chose Robert Farnon’s “Un Vie de Matelot” - for it is one hell of a difficult piece.

Commissioned for the National Finals of Great Britain in 1975, the Canadian composer gave the banding world one of the most original and witty compositions, that had beautiful tunes, tricky technique and a test of lip sapping stamina for players that even 27 years later will see off more than a few.

On that day, it was Black Dyke under their new Musical Director, Major Peter Parkes that won the day by 3 points from Stanshawe and Brighouse and Rastrick, but the memory of the win for many was the sublime cornet playing of Philip McCann in the long expressive solo that won Dyke the title.

Since then it has appeared occasionally rather than regularly, and it was the test piece for the Grand Shield in 1988 (won by CWS Glasgow) and the Regional Championships in 1995. It was also somewhat comically used a couple of years ago as a second section work at the Mineworkers - with predictable results.

The piece is basically a series of variations on a theme - a theme set out right at the start in brilliant fashion by the soprano cornet - a tune that any sop player can recite in his sleep. It immediately sets out a picture of life on the ocean wave - at times jolly, capricious and carefree, at others dark, subdued and reflective and finally exultant, majestic and glorious. It is a great piece of descriptive writing.

Each of the variations tests the sections of the bands in turn, with the euphonium, horn and baritones all with little turns on the yardarm - but it is the elongated soprano solo and the huge cornet solo that are the focal points of the piece. Both will require players of secure technique and inherent musicality to bring off, with the sop solo starting in the middle register - a minefield for tuning problems.

The cornet solo however is a real test of style and stamina for the player. Some will of course find help from the “bumper up” who may fill in here and there - but that for us is an opt out that should be penalised; this is a test for the Principal Cornet, and if your bands isn’t up to it, then you shouldn’t expect success. It is integral to the piece and when it comes off it is a glorious section of expressive writing and one that any top class player should enjoy. There will be casualties for sure, but there will also be some superb playing as well.

After that it’s a long, long cruise for home and a test of stamina for any band. Try and blow your way to victory and you will come a cropper on the rocks way before the end. It will require skill and quality playing to maintain the sound and build towards the climax of the work and the last few lines will see the top cornets and sop in particular up in the crows nest of the register. The last few bars are huge and the sop will need a lip like iron to make the final Forte Piano top C sing. There will be many good performances of the piece, but how many real top class ones we think?

Good luck to everyone, and enjoy a great piece of writing. It will certainly sort out the best bands from the rest.

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