Saturday, 2 December 2017

Two Winning Works for Brass Band (1967)

I do not often write about brass bands. Which is a pity. I have enjoyed this type of music-making since hearing the CWS Manchester Brass Band many years before I began to take an interest in classical music as opposed to the pop music of my generation (late 1960s, early 1970s)
I was flicking through the pages of Music on Record: Brass Bands edited by Peter Gammond and Raymond Horrocks (Cambridge, Patrick Stephens, 1980) the other day and spotted the winning entries for the British Open Championships and the National Championships for the year 1967. This is exactly fifty years ago, and about the time I first (knowingly) heard a brass band in action.
The winners of that year’s British Open Championships were the Grimethorpe Colliery Institute band under George Thompson with a test piece by John Ireland, A Comedy Overture.  And the National Championships prize at the Albert Hall was secured by the Black Dyke Mills band conducted by Geoffrey Brand playing Eric Ball’s Journey into Freedom.

A quick search in YouTube found recordings of both works, not necessarily of the winning performances.

John Ireland’s A Comedy Overture was composed in 1934 for that year’s National Brass Band Competition at Crystal Palace a couple of years after the equally engaging brass work A Downland Suite.  The present work was scored for full orchestra in 1936 an was retitled A London Overture.
The music creates an 'impression' of London that Whistler's paintings or Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes do. The Overture is characterised by the oft-cited 'onomatopoeic' theme of ‘Dilly – Piccadilly,’ My favourite part of this work is the beautiful ‘nocturnal’ section. I always imagine a late-evening stroll in a London Square or a Thames-side walk. I understand that the piece was a lament for a friend of the composer. Whatever the inspiration, A Comedy Overture ends on a positive note, full of fun. It is perfectly suited to the brass medium.

I understand that Eric Ball’s Journey into Freedom was specifically composed for the 1967 National Championships. It is an engaging work that explores several profound themes.  The composer has written that ‘The idea behind the music, which is very hard to play, is this: We live in a very materialistic age and therefore the music is often ugly, almost discordant, fierce and harsh. It speaks to us of this violent, materialistic age.’

Although the liner notes of Chandos 4513 (British Bandsman, 1987) suggest that this work has an atmosphere that is ‘rigid, unyielding materialism, machine-like, enslaving, cruel’ followed by ‘a mixture of high resolve, bravado and fear…’, a more positive note is introduced by ‘hopeful’ solo voices and a peroration presenting a Love theme that brings ‘inner freedom.’
It is a well-contrived work that provides considerable contrast between styles of playing that are sometimes aggressive and at others reflective.
Contrariwise, there is little hear that that nods to the avant-garde so prominent in the mid-sixties world of classical music.  

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