Derek Bourgeois - An Assessment of his music in Two Parts
Part 2: 1987-2005
By Tim Reynish - 2006
In an article on British Wind Music since 1981, I wrote somewhat pompously about Derek:
The influences in his music include Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Ravel, Walton, Shostakovich and Britten, all assimilated into an extraordinarily fluent technical language which has consciously stepped away from attempting to vie with contemporary trends in the seventies and eighties into a far more popular lingua franca which owes much to the world of the brass band. Here virtuosity and sentiment go hand in had, and I find in some of the late works that this juxtaposition, which works for brass bands, jars when transcribed for wind orchestra.
In the first part of my assessment of the music of Derek Bourgeois, I suggested that it was time for us to re-visit his music of two decades ago. Since writing that, I listened one evening with Jonathan Good in Tennessee to the Symphony of Winds, the Sinfonietta and the Concerto for Three Trombones. At the end of the evening, we agreed how fresh all three works sounded, even to our 21st century ears after twenty years of new music. The music of the seventies and eighties represents the Bourgeois that I love and these are for me among his strongest pieces.
DILEMMA FOR CONTEMPORARY COMPOSER
During a privileged week at Derek and Jean's home in Mallorca in June, 2004, we argued for many hours about the development of music. I am not an intellectual, but I do feel that composers cannot ignore everything that has happened in the past one hundred and fifty years.
WE CAN'T UNPICK THE 20th CENTURY
Composer Diana Burrell spoke of the need for a composer to...try and find a language which doesn't disregard everything which has happened in the twentieth century, that does acknowledge Stravinsky and Schoenberg and Boulez, while being simple enough to work for the concert hall, or church, or for young people - the wider community in some way, but which acknowledges that this is where we are - we can't go back. We can't unpick the twentieth century.
Robin Holloway put it differently...I am trying to write music which, though conversant with most of the revolutionary technical innovations of the last 80 years or so, and by no means turning its back on them, nonetheless keeps a continuity of language and expressive intention with the classics and romantics of the past.
Derek in the past two decades has consciously allowed his muse to flower with abandon, and his natural flair for romantic music allied to his extraordinary technical ability is allowed full expression, although he can and will write pastiche to order - more of that in the final discussion of his most recent commissioned work. I am basically not in sympathy with what is sometimes his oversimplification of phrase lengths, quirky yet often very traditional harmonic procedures, lyrical and occasionally (for me) naïve melodies, with descending sequences, which I can accept in Elgar and Rakhmaninov but not in music of today. I suspect that I am being a musical snob, but I must as well confess despite these caveats to being totally captivated by much of his music in performance; the release of pent up anger and emotion into a gentle, sometimes derivative, pastoral idyll is often a welcome relief.
I am conscious therefore that I will be only touching the surface of his recent music in the second part of this essay; indeed, space prohibits an in-depth discussion of all of the major works of this period.
WITTY, LYRICAL, ACERBIC, ENTERTAINING, UNPREDICTABLE.
These are the elements of early Bourgeois that have a powerful attraction for me. The Second Symphony op 27 is perhaps very typical; it begins with a menacing 6/8 scherzando, thematic ideas which are grotesque parodies (think Shostakovich or Prokofiev), but which in the later works of the nineties so often turn into (for me) trite television sit-com themes. Motifs, which in the 70's used to inhabit the world of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, nowadays turn into sit-com interludes, Hancock's Half Hour. None the worse for that you may say, if done with wit and elegance, but so often I find the melodic invention of his more recent pieces sometimes trivial. In the Second Symphony the Scherzo develops strongly however, interrupted from time to time with sudden wrenches of metre and harmony - trills in the wind dissolve onto high sustained strings with sweetest of echoes of Puccini, with a passage for wind beginning for all the world like the bassoons just before Stravinsky's Danse Sacrale, and he then sustains the idyll with the greatest control, a passage heart-rending in its pathos. He introduced me one evening to Malcolm Arnold's Symphony no 9. I was stunned by the emotion and the melancholy, and could not help reflecting that if Bourgeois and Arnold were called Shostakovich, Bourgeois 2nd Symphony and Arnold 9th would be in the repertoire of every orchestra.
A CD released by Louis Martinus ES 47.317 called CRAZY gives an excellent view of many of his shorter earlier works. Played by a splendid pickup group called "Ad hoc Wind Orchestra" and conducted by Derek himself, these performances are authentic and this disc should have something for everyone. I personally find that a work such as Bridges over the River Cam (G&M Brand, 1989) already is verging on the obvious. For me the fugue never quite escapes its academic background; there is a tinge of Bernstein in the second main theme, but, again for me, a lack of real energy. As always this is a purely subjective personal view, many colleagues love the piece and find it a wonderful evocation of those dreamy but exciting Cambridge days.
TWO CONCERT MARCHES
Royal Tournament (1989, G&M Brand) was commissioned by Frank Renton and combines many of the most populist military marches in a glorious pot-pourri, with some scary minor excursions for A Life on the Ocean Waves and The British Grenadiers, all brilliantly clever and tremendously effective, with Elgar and Walford Davies fighting out who should have the last word. Thirteen years later for the Silver Jubilee, Happy and Glorious (1992, HaFaBra) recaptures this mixture of wit and ceremonial in equally splendid fashion. If you want to play an original British contemporary march, either of these will have echoes of our glorious imperialist past and will give your players a lot of fun and practice to do.
TIM REYNISH - MUSICAL SNOB
However, several works from this period just do not ring my bell; the Trumpet Gallop (1995, HaFaBra) might be useful if you are searching for an immediately attractive three and a half minute fill-in for a soloist; for me this is typical of the entertainment side of the brass band repertoire, and I find three of Derek's major concertos also less than interesting, although they receive many performances. The Concerto for Trombone (1988 G&M Brand), The Concerto for Brass Sextet (1994, HaFaBra) and the Concerto for Percussion (1995) all for me are too contrived and derivative, as is the concert piece Perchance to Dream (1998, G&M Brand).
On the other hand, many of the less pretentious pieces work well for me. For instance, theRomance for Saxophone (1991, G&M Brand) is the sweetest little bonne bouche, a salon piece of which Elgar might have been proud, Molesworth's Melody (2001, HaFaBra) has the charm of the much earlier Serenade, Metro Gnome (1999, HaFaBra) poses even more metrical conundrums than the Serenade, while Biffo's March is very good fun.
THERE BE DRAGONS
There are curiously few good concert overtures written for wind band, which is perhaps why we keep programming Bernstein's Candide or the Shostakovich Festive Overture or arrangements like Makris' Aegean Festival. It is ignorance rather than prejudice that makes the Bourgeois pieces languish on the publishers shelves.
BRASS BAND REVOLUTION
A review for Musicweb of a record made by the Yorkshire Building Society Band neatly sums upBlitz, a work of Bourgeois which caused a major sensation in the world of Brass Bands. In 1981 the work did as much as any to haul the brass bands into the late twentieth century. Even now after twenty years the naked aggression of the start with its echoes of The Rite of Spring are still a shock, while the sinuous lines which follow transcribe ideally to the saxophone, resulting in the transcription Wind Blitz (arranged 2002). It comes from what I consider his best period, with typical themes familiar from the Symphony of Winds or Greendragon and a sensational ending - original stuff. So many of the genre pieces are very effective and deserve a place in the international repertoire. The composer himself writes programme notes on some of these in the excellent web site of HaFaBra.
2001 A WIND ODYSSEY
This piece, originally entitled "2001 A Brass Odyssey", was commissioned by the National Youth Brass Band of Switzerland to be premiered in the year of its title. I had written a piece which ran the gamut of human moods and emotions, from the aggressive and energetic to the calm and peaceful, and when looking for a title I could not resist the fact that the novel by Arthur C Clarke had a title that was exactly what I was looking for. So I substituted the word "Brass" for the word "Space". Like the book, this piece also makes a journey through many adventures. This Wind band arrangement was made at the behest of Louis Martinus.
Biffo's March was written in Summer 1999 at the request of Louis Martinus, who wanted an easy march for his catalogue. The piece is a standard march with a trio section that is calmer and more elegiac. The two themes combine at the end. It is called Biffo's March, because some years ago when I was writing the music for a play, the author gave me a small toy bear as a good luck mascot for the production. I called him Biffo, and he happened to be sitting on the desk in my study when I sat down to write the march. It exists in three formats: Wind band, Brass band and Fanfare band.
This piece was written after Hardy Mertens asked me if I would write a competition finale piece for the Sardinian Band in which his girlfriend, Carla Correddu, was a flautist. He wanted a piece that would grab the attention from start to finish, and be unquestionably something, which would finish a competition performance with a grand flourish. This piece, written early in 2000 is the result.
Imagine you are on a boat, which is gradually building up speed pulling gently out of Geneva. You get your first view of the beautiful Lac Leman which provokes a melody in your head first heard played by a trombone against the chugging of the boats engines. The tune builds up with full harmonies as the wonderful scenery unfolds.
Then you pass all the lakeside towns that cluster along the northern border, with their vineyards, which produce the excellent Swiss wine from the Chasselas grape. They are a patchwork of dazzling colours. You glance up and see the imposing snow-clad mountains with their wooded hillsides and valleys. Finally you reach Montreux where the excited atmosphere of the Brass Band Championships is building up to fever pitch.
These were the ideas I had in my head when I set out to write the piece. There is no precise programme, but the listener should have little difficulty in following the above scenario as the piece unfolds.
THE MAHLER DE NOS JOURS
I remember a contentious breakfast with a leading American conductor and Adam Gorb, following a CBDNA performance of a recent Maslanka Symphony, at which discussion raged over whether David Maslanka was the Wind Orchestra's Mahler de nos jours. Listening several times to theSymphony of Winds and Sinfonietta, as well as the orchestral symphonies of the eighties, I realised that Derek had introduced Schubertian heavenly lengths to the wind medium before Maslanka and Colgrass in their trail-blazing A Child's Garden of Dreams and The Winds of Nagual, and I began to speculate as to whether Derek is the David Maslanka de notre pays.
IGNORANCE IN THE SIXTIES
I remember playing the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies of Mahler under Antal Dorati with the CBSO in the sixties, at a time when they were virtually unknown in England. At the start of each rehearsal week, we thought the works had fine moments, but also passages which jarred and were trivial, bombastic, naïve. By each concert, we were almost unanimously caught up in the drama which Mahler brings to the medium; I did however hear of a trumpeter/composer in the Hallé Orchestra who used to go home after a Mahler Symphony with Barbirolli and spent the rest of the night playing Sibelius on his record player to exorcise Mahler and cleanse his ears!
TASTE - TODAY'S KITSCH IS SOMETIMES TOMORROW'S MASTERPIECE
I am not a bellicose person, but some time ago I nearly attacked a music critic of The Guardianfor bemoaning the fact that Kyung Wha Chung had stooped to play what he considered to be kitsch in a recital, the Grieg Violin Sonata. When I was his age, I said, we did not talk about Tchaikovsky and Rakhmaninov, and in fact I did not even know that there were any Rakhmaninov works other than the Variations and the Second Piano Concerto. I discovered the Second Symphony when I first conducted it with the RLPO fifteen years after Cambridge. Nowadays, all of those great 19th and early 20th century works are restored to the repertoire, and I believe that within the much shorter history of wind music, a similar development must happen as we re-assess the recent past.
Like Rakhmaninov and Mahler, Maslanka and Colgrass, Bourgeois is drawn to the epic, and in two of his recent works, A Cotswold Symphony and The Mountains of Majorca, a wide range of influences and techniques are subsumed into large-scale canvass. These two large-scale works of recent years have been given fine performances by the Royal Symphonic Band of the Belgian Guides under their conductor Norbert Nozy.
A COTSWOLD SYMPHONY
A Cotswold Symphony (recorded on ES 47.409 CD) runs for some thirty minutes of continuous music, but breaks into six easily followed sections. The shades of Ravel linger over the openingPastoral: Dawn Mists rise over the Vale of Gloucester but the idiom is securely fused with Bourgeois' own. The same is true of the scherzando second movement entitled Maypole, full of virtuosic high-spirits which turn cold and link to the frightening and implacable The Iron March of Rome. This begins with a typical Bourgeois angular theme, the melodic contours very familiar to me from the recent Symphony for William which I commissioned in July 2004, angry, inexorable music with the occasional ameliorating descending sequence, strangely out of place. The square cadential structure here seems apposite to characterise one of civilisation's greatest war machines. The March runs into Church Bells, another genre piece beginning with what Derek terms a "grand tintinnabulation" which gives way to a moment of rare peace, a bridge to the next section, The old City, Gloucester.
There is no doubt in my mind that Derek is capable of creating what is very rare in art of today, passages of ravishing and melting beauty, alongside witty scherzandos which are really funny. This fifth section is worthy of Elgar at his best, virtuosic, ingenious, with a fine striding march to which the scherzando material becomes an incredible counterpoint. Here the Edwardian bombast and cliché of imperialism seem well controlled, moving seamlessly into an Epilogue of impressive breadth. Play this, if you dream about the loss of major symphonic works for band by Elgar or Vaughan Williams.
MOUNTAINS OF MALLORCA
The Mountains of Mallorca is even more magnificent in concept, a symphony of seventy seven minutes, two parts each comprised of three movements dedicated to the major mountains or ranges of the island; Part 1 - Serra de Tramuntana and Part 2 - Serra de Arta. Each movement represents a mountain or (in the case of the 5th movement) a mountain region. and again at its best, this music makes a tremendous impact; I guess as with Mahler, we must accept the trivial with the profound.
Derek's programme (quoted in italics) notes are brief and to the point; you will learn more about the geography of the island than the music of the symphony, again there is no bullshit with this man.
Massanella is the second tallest mountain on the island in the middle of the Serra de Tramuntana range, and is a beautiful shape with twin peaks. Both summits are walkable. The symphony begins with mysterious and fascinating chord sequence for thirty seconds, and then moves into a inconsequential waltz tune for cor anglais and other woodwind, immediately attractive but in the way of the light orchestral music which we used to play in the BBC Welsh Orchestra. Derek is basically writing for himself, and his recent works are a biographical expression of his and Jean's life in Mallorca, and the problems of Jean's life-threatening illness, and a Symphony is for him a release from the desperate problems of everyday life. So he writes what he wants to, and he cares not a jot for a putative audience attending a future performance of a 70 minute symphony and finding itself plunged into an opening perfect for Homeward Bound.
A most charming scherzando follows, he really does this kind of music so very skilfully, an artless tune which in turn becomes a countersubject to the slow waltz - what skill in the counterpoint of these melodies and in the ravishing orchestration, and has anyone written Light Music Symphonies before?
The second movement is called, Puig Major, after the tallest mountain on the island, but unfortunately is closed to visitors and climbers because there is an important military installation on the top. What better excuse to make the movement a march? There are sinister undertones, some very original scoring, and an omnipresent motto theme which goes through some extraordinary transformations, but it is a theme which here I find too predictable and trite.
Of the third movement Derek writes: Teix is a spectacular mountain with gorgeous views to Deia in the north, where Robert Graves lived and worked, and Soller to the East. The way up is known as "the bridle path of the Archduke" where a corpulent nobleman of old used to ride on a large white horse. Derek's motto theme becomes a twelve bar blues, and the prosaic thematic organisation, which annoyed me earlier, now seems totally apt.
The fourth movement Morey reminds me so much of that noble slow movement of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, with its walking bass line accompanying another march, this time chorale like with many typical Bourgeois harmonic twists and turns, paying special attention to the English cadence, a flattened 7th clashing with the raised 7th. We can only sit and marvel at the ingenuity of the man. He writes: Morey is the tallest mountain in the Serra de Arta range. It has a sheer face to the north looking out to sea over the bay of Alcudia. The climb from the south side is very steep and very long. I lost both big toenails reaching its peak, which goes a long way in explaining the sombre mood of the music.
THE ARTA FUGUE
The chorale of Morey becomes an introductory passage to Arta Fugue, and then the fugue itself. This is a fine movement, measured, wonderfully evocative of that great West Country cathedral, until a typical Derek passage, a jazzy version of the fugue subject, which I can almost take (shades of Alec Templeton) but this is followed by a short vapid series of descending sequences - but it might work in performance! Tragedy strikes, the mood is wrenched aside and the fugue proper returns inverted, tension heightened throughout.
Arta is the capital town in the Serra de Arta range. It is a charming old town with narrow streets, which, like so many in Mallorca, were never designed for the motorcar. Arta has a progressive Arts policy and a magnificent new concert hall. The temptation to write a movement with this title was overwhelming, but it was a lot of hard work!
Mont Ferrutx is a mountain of most imposing shape. From the north it looks an unclimbable, sheer, monolithic edifice. It's name is very close to the Mallorquin for ferocious which suits it looks admirably. However from the south side it is a fairly easy stroll to the peak. I have been up this mountain several times and it never ceases to thrill, although it is not for the vertiginous.
The finale Mont Ferrutx begins impressively with the passion and sweep of the Tchaikovsky ofFrancesca da Rimini, but after a strong storm sequence of considerable power we are back with Derek Bourgeois of what was known in Manchester as the "cow-pat school" before erupting back to the crazy cross rhythms of the opening and more devilishly ingenious development. Again the broad grandiloquent tune emerges, incredibly scored against swirling wind scales, interrupted rudely by a coda, which harshly explores snippets of most of the themes, ending with a single sound of a bell. What a coup de theâtre, what technique, what an intriguing mix of styles and tastes.
Derek and Louis are always pragmatists. You can purchase each movement separately, and I have bought two; for me the strongest movements are Teix and Morey, respectively the Bluesand the Mendelssohnian march, but any bands capable of mustering the forces and concentration for a Maslanka or Colgrass work should consider tackling one of Derek's five major works for wind band in toto.
Since the summer of 2004, Derek has written a series of works for school band with a generic title of weather - Storm has references to Beethoven and Rossini, Snow brought forth an emailS'no joke writing this piece! I have yet to see scores of this series, but even on a midi disc they sound good fun, sometimes too difficult for a junior band. There is also a Foxtrot, originally written for his successor at St. Paul's Ian Fox and Symphony no 16, which is a four movement song cycle setting poems by the Mallorcan Poet Miquel Costa i Llobera (1854 - 1922) for Soprano and large orchestra. For orchestra there is also the vast seventeenth symphony, with its heart-rending last movement called Love, a version of the Violin Sonata, which he wrote in a night for Jean when he first met her at Cambridge, but this time rudely and tragically interrupted.
SYMPHONY FOR WILLIAM
The anger over his wife's terrible illness has perhaps crept into his Symphony for William; he agreed to write a "pastiche early-Bourgeois work" for us as part of the memorial series for our third son, and after we left Mallorca, daily a new episode would come through the email, the whole 15 minute work being completed and fully scored within the week, three movements, each of about five minutes. I am a little too close to give an objective assessment, but colleagues who heard the first performance at Tennessee Technical University said that it worked.
The first movement begins with a devilish scherzo, mostly in 3/8, but with brief episodes in simple triple and 5/8. Brilliantly scored, it is classical in outline, with a mysterious coda before the shortened recapitulation, here in pp. reappearing at the end in a vicious triple forte version.
Dianthus Barbatus (Sweet William)
Derek was right; I complained that I found the slow movement horn tune "cheesy", but after the harshness of the first movement coda, the simplicity of this opening provides welcome relief. The movement is a traditional ternary song, and I found myself singing the main theme from time to time, something I don't often do with the works of the avant-garde.
The finale bursts in angrily, with a pair of angular themes crashing out, until eventually one becomes the basis for a brief canonical section. The opening motif returns, the tempo increases by a third and we enter one of those crazy film-like chases - Dick Barton meets Shostakovichwas how Derek described this genre of this music - Dick Barton for those not in the know was a BBC radio detective of the mid century, with a memorable theme tune. The chase suddenly ceases, the chorale material is re-introduced and the work fades with a little tag of the greatest pathos.
THE ENIGMA FILES
On my computers I have hours of Derek's music, orchestral, choral, chamber, brass band, wind band. His output reminds me of that of our old Professor at Cambridge, Paddy Hadley, an idiosyncratic Irishman of greatest charm, who could write a passage of ineffable beauty alongside what was frankly trivial and commonplace. It is perhaps almost inevitable that a thoroughly professional composer who composes music as easily as the rest of us will compose an email should write works which are unequal in quality.
HIS TIME HAS COME
Derek's music does have a strong character; his works over forty years show his love of late 19th - early 20th century romantic music, of cartoon ditties, of the pomp and circumstance of British imperialism, of parody, of mock academic procedures. However, for me, these influences led to a stylistic over-simplification, which replaced the vital exuberance of the music of the seventies and the eighties, and it is still those earlier works, which I would like to play again now.
Someone suggested that in 1981, the musical world, let alone the wind band world, was just not ready for works so unashamedly romantic and on so large a scale. Now with more and more composers rebelling against the grey face of Darmstadt and writing tunes and harmonies, which would not bring a blush to a maiden aunt's cheek, perhaps we are ready for Bourgeois. Technically they are still a challenge, but now a new generation of brilliant young players would relish that challenge, and audiences and players would certainly identify with the lush romanticism and the sheer athletic energy of Bourgeois the symphonise. And despite all of my reservations, I would love the opportunity to conduct any of the three late symphonies; I suspect that behind what I perceive in my cheerless hotel room as jokey, cheesy kitsch, lies tomorrow's masterpiece, if superbly played - and conducted. Certainly my chauffeur of today adored the Cotswold Symphony, and I am certain that many others will love the latest works alongside the rest.
Meanwhile, the pace of composition in his beautiful island home shows no signs of slackening. Since the summer, Derek has written several little pieces for school band based on various facets of weather. He has also written a virtuoso work called Fribourg - the old City as a present to the La Concordia Band which he conducted there in the autumn. His nineteenth symphony for orchestra is completed and can be heard on the Sibelius website. His is a remarkable talent, and his contribution to wind music is huge. It is time we re-assessed his works, both major and minor.
Derek Bourgeois now describes himself as "semi-retired"; he lives in the village of Wool, Dorset; a visit to his website, http://www.derekbourgeois.com will assure all readers that his computer is alive and very active.
His last few works are:
|Op 301||Round: Blue Pig Thinks Rhubarb||SATB||2010|
|Op 302||Symphony No 62||3333/4331/Timps/5 perc/Harp/Piano doubling Celesta/Strings||2010|
|Op 303||Symphony No 63||3333/4331/Timps/7 perc/Harp/Piano doubling Celesta/Strings||2011|
|Op 304||Sonata for Tenor Horn and Piano||Tenor Horn / Piano||2011|
|Op 305||Symphony No 64||3333/4331/Timps/5 perc/Harp/Piano doubling Celesta/Strings||2011|
Singapore November 2004
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