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Nationals Championship of Great Britain 2003

Test Piece Review
Theme and Eight Variations from the Enigma (Opus36), Edward Elgar arr. Eric Ball

We cast our critical eye (and it is a bit critical) over the choice of the set work for this year's Finals

Edward ElgarThere is only one main question concerning the choice of Eric Ball’s arrangement of Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” as the set work for the Championship Section National Finals at the Royal Albert Hall this year.


Given that 2003, according to the BFBB and their Music Panel no less, was supposed to be a celebration of the life and work of Eric Ball, it comes as something of an “Enigma” to why then those same people decided to use this arrangement – especially as his exact 100th birthday occurs on the 31st of the month. There seems no logical explanation to why it was chosen and the selection therefore smacks of good intentions pickled by muddled thinking. Eric Ball was a truly great brass band composer and someone who gave the movement some of its greatest works, so why then couldn’t any of them have been used. What of “Festival Music” or “Journey Into Freedom” – great music, and still very severe tests for the best bands.

Given also that Eric Ball didn’t think of his arrangement as being one of his finest musical achievements you are left with the impression that when the brass band movement comes to shooting ourselves in the feet we don’t half go the whole hog and get the twelve bore shotgun out. It is a great lost opportunity to show the wider world of how good we are at playing great brass band music.

So what of the music itself? First of all some facts. The original by Elgar consists of a Theme and 14 Variations – this test piece consists of a Theme and 7 Variations, so it is something of a “Mini Me” to misquote Austin Powers. Oh – just to muddle things further, this pygmy version is entitled “Theme and Eight Variations” which is also something of a misnomer, as due to the supposed time constraints Variation 12 (and possibly the musically most satisfying of the ones that could have been used) has been dropped. Not content then with blowing our feet off, the powers that be have reloaded and totally blown off our legs as well. Given that the Variations are supposed to be musical portraits of the composer’s friends, the BFBB have musically assassinated seven of them quicker than Quentin Tarrantino could manage in his movie “Kill Bill”.

You couldn’t ever accuse Eric Ball being in any way shape or form being like the author of “Pulp Fiction” but just like “Kill Bill” this is not a great man on great form. The musical arrangement is grey and drab, tired and too often weakly scored – the lack of colour is the thing that strikes you so forcibly with this work and you soon get the feeling when listening and playing that it has been scored primarily to suit the pitch of the brass band instrumentation rather than to suit its timbres. The humour the Elgar managed to create musically about his rather eccentric coterie of friends is totally absent here.

Alan Jenkins in the “Brass Band World” gives a masterful insight into both works and points out most strongly that perhaps the most galling omission is Variation 12 - cutting it out leaves a lumpy and unsatisfactory tonal change from the ending of the “Nimrod” Variation to the Finale that clanks like a missed gear change on a old Ford Cortina. We recommend you buy a copy as soon as possible.

To understand this very “English”music then, you have to understand something about the time period in which the composer lived. Elgar was born at the peak of Queen Victoria’s reign – 1857. This was a time when Britain ruled at least a quarter of the Globe, the American Civil War was still four years away and even middle class families employed servants. By the time he died in 1934 everything had changed – World War One had destroyed Western Europe politically as well militarily, Hitler was Chancellor of Germany and the motor car was now the dominant economic factor in industrial wealth. Britain was on the verge of catastrophe.

When the “Enigma” was performed for the first time in 1899 Elgar was at his musical zenith. Hans Richter conducted the first performance to high acclaim, and following a few modifications to the score the revised version we know today was given its first performance at the Worcester Festival on September 13th 1899. Fame for Elgar was secured.

The score is dedicated “To my friends pictured within”, and whilst the identities of the friends themselves has long been known the secondary mysterious “Enigma” of the unknown tune has puzzled many a musicologist since the time the composer himself rather mischievously spoke of it. Still – as we are only getting the shortened version it would be hard to make a stab at it on the evidence we are going to hear at the Albert Hall on Saturday.

The friends themselves are the type you would find in a Evelyn Waugh novel – a disparate bunch it seems of the work shy, eccentric, waxed moustached Edwardian stiff upper lipped public school brigade who wouldn’t have been out of place in an episode of “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Brideshead Revisited” – (and that’s just the women). Have a look at some of the photographs of these people and you will see what we mean. 1899 was the fag end of the Victorian age, and these were fag end characters.

Variation 1 (C.A.E.) is a warm and lyrical and is a loving portrait of the composers wife Lady Alice Elgar, whilst Variation 2 (S-P) depicts the slightly wayward and flirty amateur pianist H. David Stuart Powell. Variation 3 (R.B.T.) is a portrait of the odd country squire Richard Baxter Townshend, who had the God given gift it is reported of breaking into a falsetto voice at the drop of a hat pin and which left Elgar and friends in stitches. The long winter nights must have flown by…..

Variation 7 (Troyte) – (is anyone called Troyte nowadays?) depicts the slightly bonkers Arthur Troyte Griffith who had a hair parting only Stanley Matthews could carry off with some semblance of style and who was an argumentative old codger – not surprising from the way he looked. Variation 8 (W. N.) depicts Winifred Norbury an elderly patrician (a bit like a cross between Lady Astor and Edith Evans playing Lady Bracknell) whilst the most famous variation of them all, Variation 9 pays homage to August Johannes Jaeger (Jaegar is German for Hunter – thus Nimrod from the Old Testament) who was an agent for Elgar’s publisher, Novello. Elgar noted his “good, lovable honest soul” – 15 years later Britain was at War with Germany. The Finale (E.D.U.) is the composer himself (not the Brazilian footballer of the same name) and reiterates many of them explored earlier in the work. It ends in good old true English fashion with cymbals and big rosy chords.

Eric Ball’s arrangement will test the bands for sure (the sop players will not enjoy the top D’s early in the day) but as we have said, this is a disappointing work. The final verdict though is that Eric Ball deserves to be remembered by a better example of his skill than this. This is not a satisfactory tribute to a truly great man of brass.

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