The music of local composers
Arguably, the success of convention weekends is totally evaluated by the 'feel good factor' with which one returns home. To enhance this, it is essential that the final session is memorable and stimulating. On this occasion the Association selected a 'winner' in the stimulation stakes! The title of the session was "The Music of Local Composers" (in the Harrogate area) with Dr Wilby and the Harrogate Band conducted by David Lancaster.
It is always interesting to hear composers talking about their music. A prominent 'local' composer is Dr Philip Wilby, so it was natural that he should begin the session. He started by referring to his suite The Seasons and the problems that emerged while composing it. Firstly, he quickly dispelled the idea that the work illustrates the seasons as Vivaldi attempted in his work with the same title. As Dr Wilby said, "How can you describe four seasons in three movements?" He then explained that his intention was to describe our emotions as we progress through the seasons and the three movement suite form was suitable for this.
Dr Wilby raised the question of the relationship between the composer and the band during rehearsal and performance. The term he used was 'Symbiosis' between the interdependent features of the creative and performing processes. He said he welcomed thoughts on this because the problem of writing interesting parts for 'second' players is accentuated when writing for lower section bands. Dr Wilby then began to offer a number of solutions! The first example was a demonstration of several qualities of drum roll that feature prominently in this piece. Dr Wilby described these as a 'poetic' way of dealing with what otherwise may be a repetitive sound.
Regarding 'second' parts he highlighted the difficulties of tuning chords in extreme keys that require second and third valve fingering. As an example he gave the tonic chord of G flat major from The Seasons scored for second and third cornets and soprano. The general opinion was that good listening skills were essential in these situations.
The comments made by Dr Wilby reminded me of when I started playing in a band. We survived on a musical diet of Fantasias by J A Greenwood and other similar pieces. We enjoyed them because everyone was playing almost all the time! Dr Wilby displayed a more sophisticated approach to the problem of making music interesting for the less experienced players. But, at no point did he suggest that composers should 'write down' for them. His solutions were musically integrated into the piece and were as essential to the performance as the 'solo' parts, possessing an educational dimension that can be exploited by the conductor.
Dr Wilby then commented on his piece Atlantic, for which he supplied examples from the score. This was written for the Tomra Brass Band, who are based in a shipbuilding community in Norway and draw players from the local population. The piece is arranged as a Concerto Grosso, that is, a work for several solo players, who are surrounded by a larger group who support the musical argument, provide antiphonal musical opportunities, and on occasion overwhelm the solo group in climatic outbursts. It is written for two 'bands', the division in the score being marked by the percussion. Consequently, the visual impact is similar to an orchestral symphonic score. It was explained that the manuscript paper had to be designed before the scoring could be done. It was composed in 2001 and recently used in Norway as a test piece. From the tantalising snippets we heard, this piece promises to become widely popular. This part of the session was concluded by a performance of The Seasons.
Neil Richmond then talked about composers having connections with Harrogate district. Neil is well known locally as a dedicated teacher and conductor. Now retired, he has assisted the Harrogate Band and David Lancaster in researching the topic and arranging the resultant music. The first name raised was that of Ernest Farrar. He studied at Durham and Dresden in the early years of the last century before being appointed organist at Christ Church, Harrogate. He was also active in local orchestras. Regrettably he was killed in World War I. One of his works, Heroic Elegy, written whilst he was serving in the army, had been performed only once. The score was discovered in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and arranged for brass hand by Neil Richmond. The work includes the Agincourt Song, later used by Walton in his music for the film Henry V and shows that, had Farrar survived, he would probably have become an important 20th century composer.
Another local composer was Arthur Wood of Three Dale Dances fame. It seems that he wrote two suites of dances, making Six Dale Dances in all! While in Harrogate he played second flute in the Municipal Orchestra, which apparently was of a commendably high standard.
Perhaps the most famous composer with Harrogate connections is Gerald Finzi. He moved to Harrogate with his family to escape the Zeppelin raids on London in 1915 and studied with Ernest Farrar for a short time. An arrangement of the introduction to his work Dies Natalis was performed. It was originally written for strings; the success of this arrangement by Neil Richmond may encourage someone to arrange his Romance for String Orchestra for brass band.
Then followed an illustrated talk by a member of the Harrogate Band, Gavin Holman, about bands in Harrogate. Music was very important to the commercial health of the town when visitors 'took the waters'. The musical day began at 7.3Oam! Those who have tasted the spring water of Harrogate will readily understand that it is advisable to stay out of doors after doing so! To enhance the promenading experience, professional musicians took to their instruments morning, noon and night (sorry about the pun!) This talk was expertly given and far removed from the normal band history lesson.
The Harrogate Band concluded the afternoon by playing three works. The first of these was Wilfred Heaton's march Tricot Rouge, followed by The Royal Border Bridge from Arthur Butterworth's Three Impressions for Brass, and concluded with a march written by David Lancaster, Dragon Parade, named after a street in Harrogate. David is modest about his music, but this march could well become part of the standard repertoire.
Thank you to everyone who made this memorable afternoon possible. The Harrogate Band played to the high standard we have come to expect, showing musical sensitivity and understanding of the music they performed. A special thank you to Philip Wilby for his contribution, and to Neil Richmond and David Lancaster for sharing with us the results of their research and commitment into a fascinating topic that continues to enrich the whole brass band movement.