Herbert Howells (1892-1983) is typically regarded as a composer of liturgical and organ music. In recent years, many of his early orchestral and chamber works have been rediscovered and proved to be a rich source of romantic music that reflects the composer’s love of the English countryside as well as being technically satisfying.
Less well-known, except with brass band aficionados, are his two contributions to this genre. Pageantry: Suite for brass band was written for the 1934 Contest at Belle Vue in Manchester. This work has retained its popularity ever since. The Three Figures: Triptych for brass band (1960) was composed as the contest piece for the National Championships of that year. The winning band was Munn and Feltons which was founded in Northamptonshire in 1933. It now plays under the name The Virtuosi G.U.S. Band.
The ‘Three Figures’ in the title refer to three well-known personalities in the world of brass bands. The opening movement is ‘Cope’s Challenge.’ Samuel Cope (1856-1947) was the founder of weekly newspaper The British Bandsman which was established in 1887. It is still going strong in both online and print formats. This movement is characterised by three contrasting themes. The first is a powerful thrusting tune which is followed by audacious fanfares. The third melody is a little sad and melancholic.
The second movement is entitled ‘Iles’s Interlude’. This refers to John Henry Iles (1871-1951), the founder and chief administrator of the National Brass Band Championships. Once again, Howells has struck a reflective mood for much of this movement. This apparently reflects the introspective character of Iles. The music is largely pianissimo throughout, presenting a considerable challenge to the band.
Finally, ‘Rimmer’s Race’ is dedicated to the composer, instrumentalist and conductor, William Rimmer (1862-1936). This is an extrovert piece that is almost toccata-like in its energy and rhythmic diversity. There is a period of reflection, before the movement and work comes to an enervating close.
Three Figures is more ‘abstract’ than the titles of the movements may suggest. In fact, Howells was employing a conceit from the days when Elizabethan composers named pieces after friends and famous musical characters. He had already done this in his instrumental works Lambert’s Clavichord (1927) and Howells’ Clavichord (1941). It is not really necessary to try to read any profound programme into these movements: just enjoy the music.
Three Figures: Triptych for brass band has been used as a Contest Test Piece seven times, the most recent being 30 October 2005 at the Pontin’s Championship.
The Three Figures can be heard on YouTube. The Besses O'the Barn Brass Band is conducted here by Roy Newsome.