Guy Woolfenden

Guy Woolfenden OBE

Born 12th July 1937

By Tim Reynish, revised July 10th 2012

Gallimaufry - Orchestra Fiati di Valle Camonica

One of the greatest problems with establishing wind music as an important musical genre in its own right is the comparative absence of the repertoire from national and international radio programmes, and the almost complete lack of critical review in the national press. Hence a review in The Independent by the late Robert Maycock of a BBC Radio 3 broadcast of Guy Woolfenden’s Gallimaufry has considerable significance.

In so far as music criticism deals seriously with radio at all, it tends to concentrate on Radio 3, such are the cultural blinkers most critics wear. At the least, this means that good things on the other networks get missed - such as the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra playing Guy Woolfenden last Friday, again on Radio 2. If you're in the new-music business and smirking, ask yourself if typecasting someone as a theatre composer isn't another case of cultural blinkers ...... A piece like Gallimaufry, with its witty ingenuities, expert layout, and a tune that stays with you as long as Carousel's, has helped thousands of players to cut their musical teeth and stirred thousands more with the adventure of living music. Yet how many "contemporary" specialists have heard a note of it? Robert Maycock The Independent

Birthday Treat 1998
Bohemian Dances 2005
Celebration 2002
Claremont Canzona 2006
Curtain Call 1997
Divertimento for Band 2007
Firedance 2000/2002
French Impressions 1998
Gallimaufry 1983
Illyrian Dances 1986
Mockbeggar Variations 1991
Rondo Variations for solo clarinet 1985
S.P.Q.R. 1988

Suite Francaise - Chamber Music Orlando conducted by Guy

A recent email from Jane, Guy’s wife and publisher, led me to look at my article, and of course it is incomplete, I have missed out his Suite Francaise, written for Rugby School for octet with no horns but with flutes. This performance conducted by Guy will give you a very clear idea of his style – wit, charm, felicitous tunes, great scoring – is that a quotation from Act 3 of La Boheme in the middle of the last movement, consecutive fifths outside the walls of Paris on a snowy night – happy memories of Sadlers Wells Opera. The great thing about his music is that, like the music of Jean Francaix, it is genuinely witty.

Guy Woolfenden, composer, conductor, broadcaster and formerly a hornplayer with Sadlers Wells Opera, is perhaps the most successful BASBWE commissioned composer, bringing his experience of theatre to the medium; he was for many years head of music at the Royal Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, with scores for every Shakespeare play to his credit. Two early BASBWE commissions, Gallimaufry (1983) and IllyrianDances (1986) both draw on music he has written for the Shakespeare canon; the language is a pastiche of late English renaissance, looking back to both 16th century and the early 20th century, but with twists in the metrical structure and a harmonic piquancy which avoid the obvious. More direct are Deo Gracias (1985 G&M Brand) and S.P.Q.R. (1988).

Ever since 1983, Guy has been an active supporter of WASBE and BASBWE, and several of his works have been premiered at Conferences For the 1991 WASBE International Conference, he wrote a fine set of variations, Mockbeggar Variations (1991), one of his few works not based on music originally written for a production at Stratford-on-Avon There is a charming film by his son Stephen about how he came to compose "Mockbeggar Variations". It is also a peep into the world of a composer who has made the leap into composing with the aid of computers using "music notation software".

Mockbeggar Variations

Guy Woolfenden - Gallimaufry

Other pieces include Curtain Call(1997), commissioned for performance at the 1997 WASBE Conference in Austria, French Impressions (1998) written for the Metropolitan Wind Symphony of Boston, and Rondo Variations (1999) a movement for Clarinet and Wind Ensemble. Most recent pieces are Birthday Treat (1998), Firedance, (2002), Celebration (2003, Ariel) and the charming Bohemian Dances, which received its first performance in St Paul, Minnesota on 6th May 2005. A year later, he wrote a five minute easier work, Claremont Canzona, for the 150th anniversary of Cheadle Hulme School, and for the WASBE Conference in Killarney in 2007, he wrote aDivertimento in three movements, a wonderful addition to the repertoire. Like Gregson, he has recorded most of the works on professional disc with the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra and other groups; his wife, formerly an oboist Jane Aldrick, has published most of his music under the name Ariel

I wrote of the premiere:

While it is relatively easy to find exciting and energetic music for the less experienced band, too many composers drop into sentimentality all too easily. A movement which I found quite beautiful was the second movement of Guy Woolfenden's new Divertimento, a traditional three movement work with a slightly contemporary feel to the first and a cheerful bounce to the third. Guy came to BASBWE and WASBE and wore his seventieth birthday lightly, conducting a wonderful performance in Killarney of his first wind work, Gallimaufry. If you only know Illyrian Dances, try Gallimaufry, Divertimento or Mockbeggar Variations, all containing movements of sheer lyrical charm.

The works of Guy Woolfenden are perhaps typical of a new wave of music for wind orchestra of the past three decades, demonstrating both charm and wit, grateful part-writing for all players, enough harmonic, melodic and rhythmic twists to entertain both players and audiences with music rooted in tradition without ignoring developments of the last hundred years. I believe that it is ignorance of the medium, which leads to this repertoire being largely ignored.

A review in the Online version of the Music Teacher's Journal perhaps sums up Guy's style:

Guy Woolfenden's Rondo Variations is a graceful work written in a beguilingly simple style that skilfully avoids an overtly saccharine flavour. The rondo theme exploits well the instrument's character with playful leaps across wide intervals, a compact variation form that takes the listener through a series of mood changes away from the quirkiness of the opening towards more plangent and fluid melodic lines in the slower section; Merrick and the orchestra combine to make these changes highly effective.

I find it difficult to be objective about Guy's music. He was a close colleague in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, at Cambridge and in the Sadler's Wells Horn section, he was my best man and the first composer I commissioned for BASBWE, together with Philip Wilby.

In an interview in WINDS with John Robert-Blunn, Guy said of our early days together:

I first met Tim Reynish in the horn section of the National Youth Orchestra, For three or four years we played together on every course. Ruth Railton felt that I needed a different teacher. She suggested I went to Aubrey Brain, father of Dennis, which was a wonderful idea. Tim and I then found that we'd got scholarships to Cambridge University. We went up there on the same day. We spent the next three years playing in every orchestra, pinching all the best horn parts. I also started conducting, which Tim resisted until later. One of our tutors, Raymond Leppard, was the Music Adviser to the RSC, which needed a Deputy Music Director. He thought I would fit the bill. Initially I turned the job down as I was expecting to be called up to do my National Service as soon as I finished my degree. Tim meanwhile continued his professional horn playing career. He moved to London, where he was principal horn in Sadler's Wells Opera Company (now English National Opera). When they needed a fourth horn doubling second, he suggested me. I was auditioned by Colin Davis, and got the job. Thanks to Tim I had a wonderful year playing under many fine conductors, including Charles Mackerras and Reginald Goodall. Then our ways parted. I went to Stratford-upon-Avon, where I was deputy Music Director, then Music Director, then Head of Music. Tim started conducting, and founded BASBWE. Later on I was Chairman for a while.

All of his music for wind orchestra over the past twenty nine years is attractive, superbly written for the instruments, and is basically musical, by which I mean that you can discuss phrasing, balance and articulation in a way which is impossible in more prosaic functional music.

He is a fine conductor, and I wrote in 2007 after the BASBWE Conference that it was fascinating to hear the opening of the slow movement of Illyrian Dances where he encourage the horn and woodwind to think orchestrally sharing the phrase as if handed seamlessly from cellos to violas. This kind of sensitivity in timbre and dynamics was sometimes lacking in performances during the weekend. With Guy, we celebrated the 21st birthday of Gallimaufry, commissioned by the RNCM for the first Manchester BASBWE Conference in 1983, we explored Illyrian Dances commissioned by Tony Veal for the first Warwick BASBWE Conference,Mockbeggar Variations commissioned for the joint WASBE/BASBWE Conference in 1991, and two recent works, Curtain Call and French Impressions, while the Saturday evening gala had a performance of Fireworks.

Guy is of course long retired from the post of Head of Music of the Royal Shakespeare, but is still extremely active, conducting and composing. At a recent meeting at a concert by Birmingham Symphonic Winds, (April 9th 2011), I was given a score of his Divertimento for Band and had the pleasure of hearing it again - it is so easy to forget how good a piece is at a Conference, and this was the first time I had heard it since 2007. I made it Discovery of the Month and wrote:

Divertimento for Band is strictly not a Discovery of the Month, since I first heard it at its premiere, conducted by Guy, at the WASBE Conference in 2007. I thought then that it was a particularly strong piece, and I was delighted to hear it again played by the Birmingham Symphonic Winds in their concert at the CBSO Centre on 9th April. It is through composed but falls into three sections, inevitably fast - slow - fast but with Guy the melodic invention is perennially fresh, phrase lengths are often not what you expect, and there are harmonic quirks, rhythmic subtleties and felicitous scoring which make the work as attractive as any other piece he has written.

His own descriptions of each section cannot be bettered:

1: Toccata

The Toccata pits a four-note motif (which always appears with its mirror image) against several other derived ideas, including a sour horn (later trumpet) figure, a tiny lyrical passage initiated by a solo alto saxophone, and a more gentle, but still staccato episode. Many polytonal devices keep the four-note motif active.

11: Aubade

The Aubade contrasts a lyrical pastorale with a more intensive central section on the brass.

111: Scherzo

The Scherzo finale has three main ideas; a tune for principal bassoon and euphonium of a playful child-like nature, a rushing figure for the woodwinds later developed by the full band. And na solo for trumpet and clarinet, involving a descending scale and a lyrical wide-leaping recovery. The exuberant coda is derived from themes from the previous two movements.

Many of the principal musical ideas for Divertimento for Band are derived from music I composed for a documentary film called Country Camera, which celebrated the work of the earliest photographers who recorded a way of life which vanished at the outset of the First World War. The three movements are played without a break.

The world premiere of Divertimento for Band was given by Birmingham Symphonic Winds at the conference of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles in Killarney, Ireland, on 13th July 2007 conducted by the composer. Divertimento for Band is affectionately dedicated to Keith Allen, Jayne Rollason and Birmingham Symphonic Winds.

Guy Woolfenden - over the top!

I recently worked in Portsmouth with the Royal Marines and in our concert was a performance of his delightful French Impressions. I wrote:

French Impressions was written some thirteen years ago in 1998; I was delighted to hear this work, to my shame, for the first time, and it should be far better known. Mea culpa. Guy has drawn inspiration from four paintings by the pointillist George Seurat, though he has not attempted to reproduce that technique musically. However, certainly in the first movement, Prelude there is a wonderful fluidity and lightness, this is a real wind ensemble rather than a 'band' piece, while the high spirits of the Can Can return us to the normal wind band world, two wonderfully contrasted and complementary pieces.

Guy Woolfenden - Can Can

Like so much of Guy's music, I am thinking of the second movement of Illyrian Dances, the scoring of the first movement is beautifully transparent with a chamber quality. The indication andante espressivo is the clue to the movement stylistically - un poco piu mosso - rall - accel - rall - a tempo appear all within five bars at one stage. This is hard to bring off, but Sam Hairsine captured the lyrical spirit to perfection, giving solo passages plenty of space, moving through crescendi to settle back on harmonic changes, while the shifts from compound to simple time were beautifully judged. The last movement is a bit of 'over the top' (Guy's words to me on the telephone) fun, but here again are challenges. Guy, like Mozart and almost every other composer, writes ff for the tutti band, the conductor and the band have to sort out a balance hierarchy in the melodic and harmonic progressions, and Band Sgt Hairsine managed this with aplomb. It helps of course to have such an expert group as the Portsmouth Band, who have a natural feel for good balance.

In short, Guy has produced a steady stream of significant works since 1983, works of charming melodic invention and felicitous scoring. For anyone unfamiliar with his music, may I urge you buy the CD of Guy conducting the RNCM, and to explore the Ariel publications