Soapbox Rant - A National musical disgrace


Composer Phil Lawrence bemoans (and by heck does he bemoan) the short sighted decision to choose 'Judges of the Secret Court' for the National Finals. From Berlioz to The New Seekers - they all get it in the neck...

LawrenceI have to say (as is my want) I'm disappointed, saddened, disillusioned, disgusted and yet somehow not very surprised at the choice of music for the Royal Albert Hall National Finals this year.

I also made comment some time ago on ‘Enigma' and ‘Renzi' when they were chosen. I make my comments from one particular stand, and that is from a composer's point of view. However, I will also comment from other standpoints too.

Firstly I do myself no favours in view of the ‘quango in perpertua' by criticising their choice, as I would also like to be a chosen composer one day for this holy of holies occasion. I do revere and respect this very special day in my calendar! So, my head is well up above the parapet. The great thing for me on this day out is to hear something new and invariably different and usually, exciting, and it should be so as part of the test at this level of banding, and part of this special day.

A challenge worthy of our top bands

A new work to be learnt by band and conductor; whose interpretation will be unique, as no precedent would have been laid out before. Each band worrying about their individual premiere and how close it comes to the image of the composer's ideal. There my friend is a challenge worthy of our top bands!

Note I say the composer, and not those in the box, as they still learning what's going on via the first 4 bands on, and then when they are let out, they still manage to make pseudo dodgy comments on the work (remember?). So, there is one good reason at least, that a new test holds its own as a new experience for all comers!

New is always exciting for me, and, if the human race didn't desire new, I'd probably be pulling some bird by the hair right now into my cave for a T Rex BBQ! But strangely enough, there are some of those ‘band-dinosaurs still walking amongst us!

Of course I'm out of a potential job (given the chance, along with 32 others, guessing figures). I don't mind being out of work to another good composer contributing to the movement, but being out of work by an old turkey, that's dry, tough, with no real stuffing? This gives me an unpleasant musical gut ache?

The archeologists point of view

Let me take the archaeologists point of view. ‘Judges' was one of many Frank Wright's arrangements of Berlioz overtures, but I'm afraid this one sucks in two directions.

Firstly, it's not a good composition by Hector himself. In fact, it falls far short of the other overtures which I also think are a little wanting (at times) in the development and orchestration department (in my humble opinion). The fascination Berlioz found with the quiet, then suddenly loud, goes on too long - it's like peek-a-boo with a baby (you get cheesed off before the baby does). Also, vast swathes of chordal progressions with nothing on top and basic oompah accompaniment!

Now don't get me 100% wrong. I like my Berlioz, but I'm choosey! Ah, yes, number two point I needed to make.

WrightSecondly, it's not one of Frank's better arrangements either! And who am I to say? Well, I've played them all under the greats including Rex Mortimer, Jim Scott, Maurice Hanford with CWS both in concert and competition at Belle Vue, and, I've sat in the pit at the Royal Opera House under Sir Colin Davies and Zubin Metha, and at the Albert Hall with the BBCSO under Sir Andrew. So, I've heard and played these very works at the top end of genres - original and arranged/transcribed!

When I say I am choosey, for example ‘Symphonie Fantastique' hits the creative heights of that period for me (& Nuits d'été) in many ways.

The first symphony to have five movements, use lite motifs in all movements, two tubas, two harps, church bells, off stage oboe, accompanying timpani in chords, muted (hand-stopped) horns (for witches apparently), and holding a running programmatical story throughout (which of course Beethoven did in his 6th).


Of course these wild new symphonic things do happen in music when you play guitar and take drugs, as silly old Hector did (mandolin & opium)! ‘Le Francs Judges' was one of his first immature melodies that he rescued from an earlier quintet made up of friends that he had burned (the music not his mates) after only just acquiring some knowledge of basic harmony after bumping into a piano (which he played did badly). He composed this and all parts from the flute in 1818/19 when he was around 15/16 years of age. The overture/opera dates from 1826.

I'm sure if anyone started to parade anything I composed when I was 17, I'd be mortified! And, I'm in no way trying to compare myself with Berloiz at 17.

The opera was abandoned (just like most teenagers when they're bored) and bits were later changed and developed (as he was older) into ‘March to The Scaffold' & ‘Symphonie Funerbre et Triumphal', so not all of it was total rubbish, just a little immature and basic at that time perhaps?

It did spurt out one good tune of course, and Judith Durham leapt upon it with "The New Seekers" in late 1965 and made "And Now The Carnival Is Over" that was a great overture/song, but did they know the real Carnival as well? Seems like both Durham and Berloiz were both good at using old left over material.

Let's face it; Hector was no Beethoven, Mozart, or Brahms in terms of musical stature and a bad analogy in our period would be a Robbie Williams compared to Sinatra! He was though, very lucky to get on quickly in French society (in fact massively so, flavour of the decade, legend in his lunchtime), not only as a composer, but as a conductor and critic and a literary wit as well!

It well could have been a bit of "Jack of all trades" and just didn't get enough time to hone/develop his compositional voice/style as his other contemporaries did? However, he was adopted hook line and sinker as ‘le garcon' composer, and soon, his face was on the back of the French 10 franc note (and other denominations). Just think how long it took Elgar to get his face on a £20!

The arrangement itself

Looking at the arrangement a little more carefully, ‘Judges' is not his best - let's face it.

I know from working on huge arrangements in duff key's like "Ride of The Valkyries" in E+/- (concert), and "L'apres Midi" (in many sharp keys concert) there are many things to consider besides how high it might go (which is practically immaterial to a good arranger). You have to consider the effective range of every instrument, and how the line can be executed well by the player/s.  I am speaking of arranging here and not composition!

The original is in F minor and finishing in F major concert.  Frank's starts in D minor and finishes in D major concert. To me, one might have left it as it was, or gone up a tone, but what Frank did strikes me as rather strange, as it puts the band the majority of the time in a cack key!

Having looked at the score, the possibility of having it a tone lower (from Frank's) looks more plausible. Those that come and say, how can that be when you have 3rd cornets already on low G's and F#'s the answer would be, it would have then been arranged totally differently. Looking at some of the off-beat stuff on the back row during tutti's in the arrangement, I can't help thinking that if this were on horns, trombones or baritones things might be a bit clearer in this soupy arrangement.

As for:  "They're all top bands they should be able to play it", I don't subscribe to this at all! Most of this arrangement is an intonation minefield, and that should not be there as a test. So many instruments start tunes/runs/root notes on C#, the worst note on anyone's instruments. The end section with unison horns and flugel in E/F# major? Down a tone would have made more sense (of course this would have changed the arrangement beyond its present state, but?).

There are also other pea-soupers where baritones have off-beats with grace notes with timpani quietly in the background busy with quavers and crotchets in double time. It sounds like a salsa band under a duvet!

Bandsman's point of view

Now to the bandsman's point of view. Well, some bands have had a recent crack at it if they went to the French Open. Size wise it only needs the very basic numbers, and those that carry 4 percussionists can put them into retirement although they have contributed all year round to getting to the Albert Hall. Timps, bin-lid basher, biscuit box and cardboard box kicker, that's all.  This leaves 2 or 3 percussionists per band unemployed for the finals. Not something that would have crossed the quango's minds?

All the bands at the Albert Hall should be able to play this standing on their heads, thus the pedigree dividing line won't be as sharp as it normally is with a modern commissioned test, which leaves a back door open for many a dark horse! This in effect, is a good thing! But for me, music-wise, it's a big yawn and the same for bands who are playing it very well after only three rehearsals!

The Audience?

As for the audience/stalwart/camp followers point of view?. Well many of course will love it, claiming, "Its rite nice to hear a tune again" and one can't help being partially on that side. But to me, this contest and the Albert Hall cries out for new demanding music every year.

Of course I have not yet searched that other obvious corner for choosing this bit of brown music, that of financial? So, we'll ask!


Are we short of pennies? Can we not afford a commission for the finals? One might put some extra thought behind the choice of "The Secret Judges Handshake"? Out of copyright, and no one to pay at all? Of course it's Frank Wright's copyright as it's his arrangement of a non-copyright piece. If this is true on our brown music choice, why are we out of pennies for the biggest show of the year? Where have they gone? Who owns what and why? I mean, come the choice of an oldie it could have been anything from ‘Blitz' to ‘Odin', ‘Montage' or ‘New Jerusalem'. You name it over the last 30 years - but the entire latter are in copyright still. Begs the question?

So, what can we expect next year then? ‘William Tell' with Pete Postlethwaite presenting the bands with sponsorship from Classic fm? At least he might speak his mind at the end of the contest. I think this is a great step in the name of dinosaur-kind; they come from Europe and USA to attend, so would you go to Norway to hear 18 great bands play ‘Gems of Wagner' or ‘Epic Symphony'?

It has been said many times by many on many occasions on and off over many years that you don't go to a brass band competition to listen to music! You go to hear some play badly and to hear the odd band play like angels. In some classic cases where classical transcriptions have been used some bands thought they might get brownie points for interpretation! Ha!

Even if we do get repetition at the finals contest from our great composers for band like Philip Wilby, the music still rings fresh in our ears again and again. But for me, the Albert Hall is about new music, fresh new exciting music which is palpable to me as I journey down to the hall on that very morning.

Well battered cod

This year this choice will just whiff to me like an early morning stroll down the pier waiting to fill your lungs with fresh sea air, and instead all you can smell is last night's fish and chip shops reeking of well battered cod!

To finish, you might say, what a long-winded soap box rant? But, if I can weigh up these deciding factors on choosing a piece for the National Finals, why can't those in charge employ a similar criteria when doing the job?

I'm sure they haven't. For me, they have taken away the one great joy I have in the year down at the Albert Halll - the birth of new music, and that of the real challenge it brings to our very best bands we have in the UK!

Phil Lawrence.


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