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Originally posted on 4BR - March 2017


An open letter to the music panel

As the round of area contests draws to a close it is perhaps apposite to reflect on the test piece choices used recently.

The panel are to be applauded for the choices in all five sections, pieces which have provided the bands with ample opportunity to really make music while focussing on the fundamentals of good brass playing. There have been problems though in the execution of these fundamentals, particularly the seeming continual erosion of many players abilities to control their instruments at softer dynamic levels and in passages where the scoring thins out. It is more and more evident that this is becoming an increasing problem in our “championship” section bands. 

For all the naïve comments on social media, some from rather surprising sources, that Pageantry is no longer a “top section” test piece it bared its teeth in many ways exposing frailties in playing technique which don't sit well with bands of supposedly championship section status. 

It proved to be an enema to some of the pointless excesses in some modern writing where, as we all know, it can be easier to hide your individual shortcomings as a player, and indeed collectively as a band, behind a barrage of semiquavers, cross- rhythms, excessive percussion and loud dynamics. 

There have also been problems with a lack of understanding from conductors in how to approach some of these pieces. Excessive tempos are never going to impress if the detail and clarity is lost and in an age where it is easier than ever to do the background research and groundwork on pieces which have been around for a bit it seems either rash,foolish or perhaps arrogant to fail to at least consider the best of what can be gleaned from this research. 

The five composers used all displayed an innate understanding of how to write effectively for band, providing well structured works with a skilful understanding of scoring which gave bands and conductors all they required for effective music making. The fact that many, both players and conductors, did not take full advantage of this is not the fault of the composers. We must continue to provide music of a high compositional standard for the areas and national finals which will, in the long term, see an improvement in overall standards of playing in all the sections should the conductors and players accept the challenge to take a hard look at where they can make the most improvement in their performance standards. For the vast majority this will mean focussing on improving each individuals control of their chosen instrument in exposed passages and at softer dynamic levels.

One of the best ways to do this is to continue to provide music written by composers with a real understanding of how to write effectively and sympathetically for band. Those who focus on giving us music which is idiomatic for each instrument and gives the players a chance to express themselves musically rather than attempting to trip them up with cheap tricks.

It is with this in mind that I submit the following list of suggestions for consideration for future use at both the areas and finals.

I would also add a caveat to the list in as much as it does not, by its very nature, address the crucial need for newly composed music. I would still like to see area and finals test pieces being chosen on some kind of rotation – eg. an established “classic” piece / a “modern” work / something new. All I would ask is that any “new” piece being considered displays the same high standard of compositional craft and skill in scoring as the suggestions on this list.

The lists for the lower sections are a little shorter as historically the compositions which still stand the test of time tend to originally be from the higher sections. Perhaps there is an extra opportunity here to encourage more new compositions?

I have marked with an (A) or an (F) any pieces with I think would be more suitable as areas or finals choices. This may be due to either difficulty or, in the odd instance, just the performance time. I have also added a few notes to explain what may at first seem any unusual choices.

The list is not exhaustive but hopefully will stimulate some discussion and debate.


Partita Philip Sparke

Cloudcatcher Fells John McCabe

Contest Music Wilfred Heaton

The Year of the Dragon Philip Sparke

Blitz Derek Bourgeois

Of Men and Mountains (F) Edward Gregson

Variations on a Ninth* Gilbert Vinter

* Can cornets & horns still triple tongue? On the recent evidence of Pageantry the cadenzas would still sort the soloists out.

Diversions for Brass Band (A) Derek Bourgeois

A Kensington Concerto (A) Eric Ball

Vistas (A)  Martin Ellerby

Cantata (F) Andrew Duncan

Gallery (F) Howard Snell

Raveling Unraveling (F) Philip Sparke 

A Symphony of Colours (F) Simon Dobson

Montage Peter Graham

Revelation (F) Philip Wilby

1st Section

Spectrum Gilbert Vinter

The Essence of Time Peter Graham

Four Dances from “Checkmate” Bliss arr. Eric Ball

Connotations (F) Edward Gregson

High Peak Eric Ball

Variations for Brass Band  Ralph Vaughan Williams

John O'Gaunt Gilbert Vinter

A Caledonian Suite Buxton Orr

A Downland Suite (F) John Ireland

Fire In The Sky Peter Meechan

Symphonic Music Paul Huber

Endeavour Philip Sparke

Fireworks (F) Elgar Howarth

Pantheon (F)  Jacob Vilhelm Larsen

Tombstone Arizona Gareth Wood

Introduction, Elegy & Caprice Morley Calvert 

Tournament for Brass (F) Eric Ball

2nd Section

Sinfonietta Gordon Langford

Dimensions Peter Graham

Three Impressions for Brass Arthur Butterworth

Triptych Philip Sparke

Culloden Moor Gareth Wood

Rococo Variations Allan Street

The Saga of Tyrfing Jacob Vilhelm Larsen

Tam O'Shanter's Ride  Denis Wright

The Pilgrim's Progress (F) Rodney Newton

The Ages of Anxiety (F) Roger Payne

Penlee (A)  Simon Dobson

3rd Section

Three Haworth Impressions Gordon Langford

Divertimento  Bryan Kelly

Sinfonietta Joseph Horovitz

Variations on a Theme by Handel* Gordon Langford

* The composer's instructions on the score would allow a version of c. 12/13 minutes to be performed if required. A neglected gem by a master craftsman.

A Leadsman, a Lady and a Lord David Stanhope

Four Spanish Impressions Rodney Newton

Music for a Festival Philip Sparke

The Graces of Love (A) Oliver Waespi

4th Section

Glasshouse Sketches (A) Barrie Gott

A Malvern Suite Philip Sparke 

Three Inventions Pi Scheffer

Aspirations Derek Bourgeois

A Saddleworth Festival Overture Goff Richards

Edinburgh Dances (F) Bryan Kelly

1st Suite in Eb Gustav Holst arr. Sydney Herbert