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The Regional Test Pieces 2003
by Paul Hindmarsh

The Music Panel of the British Federation of Brass Bands has chosen what it hopes are five exciting and challenging works for the Regional Qualifiers 2003. Since the finals in September and October will be celebrating the centenary of Eric Ball, the Panel decided to choose five works new to the contest scene and all of them with a contemporary flavour.
Two of them have been published especially for the Regionals. A new work from Dr. Peter Graham is always welcome and the Panel is grateful to him for making this new work available for the Third Section

It is very important to the brass band movement that new and especially young composers are encouraged to write for the medium and not just for the elite bands. The Music Panel is aware of the need to provide good, fresh new work for other divisions. For example, of the twenty five or so works that I have commissioned over the past 12 years through the BBC or the Brass Band Heritage Trust, a third of them have been written with Lower Sections in mind.
Simon Dobson comes from a banding family in Cornwall and is currently studying composition at the Royal College of Music in London. Lydian Pictures is his first major work for band and was commissioned by the BFBB Music Panel especially for the Fourth Section. It will provide, we feel, a tough, though not insurmountable challenge.

Wilfred Heaton’s is always full of interest. His published output may have been small, but each work reveals a consummate technique and originality of expression. Celestial Prospect, may be relatively short and may not look or sound difficult, but all those who work on it will discover that its complexities and challenges will emerge with detailed study. During the 12960’s Wilfred Heaton and Arthur Butterworth were teaching colleagues in Yorkshire. Arthur is 80 next year and in recognition of this the BFBB Music Panel has selected what he regards as one of his best brass band pieces. This work, like the Heaton, will reveal it’s distinctive qualities slowly. It is a beautifully crafted work which will test conductor and the whole band to the full.

Judith Bingham’s masterpiece Prague is the Championship Section choice. Here is music which traverses the whole range of sounds, from harsh, aggressive tone clusters to haunting lyricism.


Judith Bingham is one of this country’s foremost composers. In a career spanning some 25 years (she celebrated her 50th birthday in June 2002), she has composed for the opera stage, for symphony orchestra and for chamber ensembles. However, it is for her vocal, choral and brass music that she has become best known.

A trained singer, as well as composer, Judith Bingham was for many years a professional singer in London and a member of the celebrated BBC Singers. Writing for voices whether solo or in choirs is central to her composing. Through her choral music she has become one of this country’s most sought after composers in America. In writing for brass – both orchestral brass and brass band – she has also mined a rich seam of inspiration. Images, places, atmospheres and locations are important source material here as a stimulus to her highly individual imagination.

Bingham’s first brass band piece was Brazil (now withdrawn), but composed in response to a visit to Rio de Janiero with the BBC Singers. Since then she has written the short sprint for brass Four Minute Mile (a short but dynamic miniature), The Stars above: the Earth below (more expansive and lyrical) and Prague.

Prague is one of 15 works for brass band commissioned by the BBC since 1991. The first performance was given by the Williams Fairey Band, conducted by James Gourlay, to whom the work is dedicated. It is a tough, challenging work, in places gritty in its musical language, but vivid and powerful in its imagery. You really can hear in the music the images Bingham has responded to. There is raw power in the fast music, but there is also a mysterious, almost other-worldly lyricism about the slower music.

Places and landscapes are often starting points for Judith Bingham’ music. Prague is one of the jewels of central Europe, a city of stunning architectural beauty, largely untouched by the world wars of the last century and now restored for the benefit of increasing numbers of tourists. The Czech Republic is renewed in confidence and it boasts the cheapest beer in Europe. It was a visit to the city in 1994 that prompted this piece, which uses this contemporary backdrop to evoke powerful and at times disturbing images from the city’s colourful history and mythology. Prague is conceived as a testing piece (ie: a test of musicianship as well as technique), that is really about turmoil. Judith Bingham writes:

“The city is used to symbolise the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. The central figure is the Golem, the creature created from clay by Rabbi Low in the sixteenth century, which having run amok in the city was laid to rest in the attics of the Old-New Synagogue. It seemed to me to symbolise the turbulent history of Prague with its many invasions from Celts and the Hussites to the Nazis and Communists.

The piece falls into four clear section, the first opening with seven chords, which represent the seven locks and seven keys that guard the ancient crown of Bohemia in St. Vitus’ Cathedral. Next comes a more snowy scene set in the Ghetto with a high trombone solo. A very slow section follows about the Charles Bridge, with its strange monuments and statues. This cuts abruptly into the final section. In Wenceslas Square, so often the centre of scenes of defeat and triumph in Prague, the Golem appears to rise again, but is drowned out by the seven chords of the opening”.

It is the power of the musical imagery, the contrast between turbulence and refinement, and the matching of technical and musical challenge, which convinced the BFBB Music Panel to select it for the 2002 Regional Championships. Prague has been described by many distinguished musicians and fellow composers as one of the finest works for brass band of recent years. It has certainly won many admirers among in the wider musical world, beyond the narrow confines of contesting. The amateur choral movement throughout the world regards Judith Bingham as one of the very best and certainly most imaginative composers of the mainstream that we have in this country. It is time for the brass band world to become further acquainted with this major talent.

Passacaglia on a Theme of Brahms Op.87

This work is modelled on the last movement of the Symphony No.4 by Brahms - one of the finest symphonic movements in the whole repertoire. However, Butterworth has not simply copied Brahms’s theme (which itself is derived from a chorale theme in Bach’s Cantata No. 150). He turns it upside down and extends it to provide a continuous under-pinning for his own invention. Only towards the end does Butterworth quote Brahms’s powerful original.
Although opportunities for individual soloists to shine are few in this work, all players have their moments to shine. Quality of tone and control in slow playing will be a key to getting the middle portions of the work sounding as the composer intended. The faster music will be as much a test of stamina as of dexterity and articulation. Butterworth makes great demands on his cornet section, especially as the music builds to its thrilling climax. It would be wise not to peak too soon, but to leave plenty left in the tank for the final two minutes.

Celestial Prospect

Celestial Prospect is a set of variations on the Salvationist song Come, comrades dear. The tune is very straightforward in outline, but the composer treats it symphonicaally, rather than in the “air varie” manner. He derives little themes from the song to create a series of imaginative and resourceful character pieces . There are two light textured and rhythmically intricate Scherzando variations - note the metronome marks here! - followed by a gently rocking barcarolle. In the final moto perpetuo, the solo cornets will need to play with great control. At the heart of the piece is a heart-felt elegy. This is some of the most overtly emotional music which Heaton ever wrote and is a memorial to all those dear comrades who lost their lives in the Second World War. Although Celestial Prospect was played through in the late 1940’s by the Rosehill Band of the Salvation Army, it was not published at \the time and the music went missing for many years. We have Derek Smith, former conductor of the New York Staff Band, for tracking down the music in the 1980’s. Heaton was persuaded to re-construct the work. In the process he made some significant harmonic and rhythmic embellishments, the most radical of which is the new bridge passage inserted between the elegy and the finale.

Northern Landscapes

1. Industry - 2. Seascapes - 3. Earth Dance - 4.Flight

Northern Landscapes originated as a brass quintet . It was later revised and re-worked for the Boarshurst (Greenfield) Silver Band, with funds provided by the national lottery. It is in four distinct movements which share ideas, but are quite distinct in character and in the demands the make on the performers. Characterisation of the images conjured up by the composer will be paramount here. Flight and Seascape are sound-pictures requiring careful tone control and subtle contrasts. Industry and Earth Dance are musically and technically more demanding. The latter starts with a menacing fugal exposition - take care with the accidentals - then moves into some mirror counterpoint. Play it like a “ballet-romp” is the composer’s suggestion. It finally subsides into a quiet mysterious cadence.

Lydian Dances

1. Fanfares and Dances 2. Romance 3. Folk Song

Although the musical style and the individual parts of Simon Dobson’s new work are within the compass of the Fourth Section, this work makes particular demands on individual confidence. It is rare at this level for there to be so many separate musical strands sounding together. It is the range and colour of the scoring which will bring this entertaining work to life. The work Lydian refers to the interval of the augmented fourth, for example the interval from middle C up to F sharp. It gives a characteristic edge to the sound-world here - as it does in much of the folk music of eastern Europe. Indeed there is a folk-like quality to the melodies and themes which Dobson uses in his Lydian Dances.

Contrasts of tempo, colour and mood will energise the music. The composer suggests that the interpreter should imagine each movement as a picture, with its own stories and colours. The first should be full of vigour and fire - energetic and buoyant. The second should be utterly relaxed and expressive - like a lullaby. The finale is all fun - a crisp, snappy dance.

Paul Hindmarsh © 4BarsRest

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