Arnold To Zappa 2004 - Creating A Repertoire

First printed in WINDS Spring 2000

Revised 23/08/2004

In the past twenty years, I have become increasingly convinced that the wind ensemble is the finest training medium for wind, brass and percussion players that exists, in the right repertoire. If your band can play, for instance, Tune from County Derry with balanced brass, with the high wind in tune and making a fine sound, with the range of dynamics from ffff to ppp that he demands in the closing bars, with unanimous phrasing, breathing, its a very good band. The ideal performance happened to me twice, once with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and once when the RNCM recorded the piece for Chandos, but I will not disclose how many takes we made, nor one tiny piece of "faking".

Similarly, a band that can achieve a flexibility of dynamics and subtlety of phrasing needed in the Grainger Colonial Song or the tuning and balance in the second movement of the Holst Second Suite, that can cope with the stamina and rhythmic problems of Elizabeth Maconchy's Music for Wind and Brass, or the problems of articulation, balance and subtle varieties of pace in Magnus Lindberg's new Gran Duo, that band has got horses with professional potential.

Training Through The Wind Ensemble

In the Wind Ensemble, the wind have to cover a vast range of dynamics and a wide tessitura, with good intonation and tone; there is no hiding place behind a blanket of strings. They have to balance up to the brass, as well as playing "kaum hörbar", scarcely heard as Mahler demands. The brass have to be able to thrill and excite, as most brass sections do, but also they must have the control and sensitivity to play as a chamber group with the woodwind. All of the players must be able to accompany and to emerge as soloists, with a perfect internal balance in each section. Meanwhile, the percussion, piano and harp need to learn quickly that the placing of the note varies with the placing of the chord or melodic motif. And everyone, including the percussion, need to re-think their attitude to phrasing, dynamics and balance, conditioned by the melody, the harmony and the architecture of the work.

At the Royal Northern College of Music over two decades, we used the Wind Orchestra as the basis for this type of ensemble training and also as a vehicle for the development of a significant new repertoire. In 1980 it consisted of Holst, Vaughan Williams and Grainger, and Philip Sparke and Stephen Dodgson representing more recent composers. There were also pieces for orchestral wind by Stravinsky and Messiaen, and a handful of hired works by Hoddinott, Musgrave, Bedford and Gregson. Now, thanks to my students at the College, and colleagues in BASBWE, we have about 500 works of different levels and calibre published, and the best works are being played and recorded worldwide.

Top Of The Pops

Statistics can be used in a variety of ways, and often are meaningless, but the bald figures on performances at the Royal Northern College of Music over the past two decades give indications of an attempt to establish a British repertoire for the wind band and wind ensemble in this country. Out of 1032 performances of works, the following composers emerged as "Top of the Pops".

Percy Grainger scored highly because he has written so many shorter pieces, and because we have recorded all of his original wind works for Chandos. However, a work such as Lincolnshire Posy is both standard repertoire and terribly hard; each generation needs to know this masterpiece, and we hope we have added Marching Song of Democracy and The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart to the growing list of substantial repertoire pieces.

The works of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams were quoted by Frederick Fennell as the basis for the whole development of 20th century wind literature, and again Hammersmith is a wonderful training piece; the players who can give a convincing performance of this piece can slot into any Symphony or Chamber Orchestra.

Performances Composer
64Percy Grainger
42Gustav Holst
30Richard Rodney Bennett
26Edward Gregson
24David Bedford
21Anthony Gilbert
20Igor Stravinsky
20Guy Woolfenden
19Philip Wilby
17Vaughan Williams
15Martin Ellerby
14Adam Gorb
11Elizabeth Maconchy
11James MacMillan
10John Casken
10Camille Saint-Saens
9Marcel Wengler
9John McCabe
9Olivier Messiaen
9Thea Musgrave
9Tristan Keuris
8Michael Ball
8David Maslanka
8Nicholas Maw
8Buxton Orr
8Richard Strauss
7Leonard Bernstein
7Hector Berlioz
7Paul Hindemith
7Darius Milhaud
7Wolfgang Mozart
6John Adams
6Michael Colgrass
6Felix Mendelssohn
6Michael Tippett
6Geoff Poole
5Frank Bridge
5Aaron Copland
5John Corigliano
5Ingolf Dahl
5George Gershwin
5Edward Harper
5Arnold Schoenberg
5Gunther Schuller
4Nigel Clarke
4Bill Connor
4Jean Francaix
4Aulis Sallinen
4Ole Schmidt
4Florent Schmitt

Core Repertoire

Looking through the list, a pattern emerges of established composers whose works are the backbone of the "core" repertoire, alongside pieces which either we have commissioned, or which have been "discovered" and brought back to the repertoire. This development of repertoire has been a primary concern, so that while we have played the major works of Stravinsky, Messiaen, Berlioz, Hindemith, Schoenberg regularly, new works have figured significantly. Sir Richard Rodney Bennett has contributed three major works to the wind ensemble repertoire, and this is reflected in his status at number three, including performances at Cheltenham, Aldeburgh and Warsaw International Contemporary Festivals. It is encouraging to think of the generations of wind, brass and percussion students who have played the post-serial works of Bennett regularly, alongside other major 20th century composers.

Gregson, Bedford, Woolfenden, Wilby, Ellerby, Gorb and the late Buxton Orr all have a growing international profile, thanks to the RNCM and BASBWE. Tougher pieces by MacMillan, Keuris, Musgrave, Maw, Casken, Clarke and Sallinen are being increasingly played by the top ensembles in America and Japan. Perhaps we have chauvinistically concentrated on our own composers, and somewhat neglected American stalwarts such as Colgrass, Copland, Corigliano, Dahl, Maslanka, Schwantner and Schuller, though in the earlier years, we presented these regularly, together with composers like Warren Benson, Irwin Bazelon, William Schuman, Chance, Husa, and Varèse.

One proud boast is that all of our commissions are published, most are on sale and readily available. Other works are awaiting publication including three works which we have brought back to the repertoire, the heart-rending Sinfonia In Memoriam Benjamin Britten by Peter Racine Fricker (now published by Maeceenas/Music Masters), Ole Schmidt's delightful Homage to Stravinsky and the complete Versuche uber einen Marsch by Marcel Wengler. It has taken nearly two decades to persuade Ernest Tomlinson to re-orchestrate his splendid English Folk Dances, and this was published in the wind band version in 2000 and played at BASBWE Conference.

In May 2000 we made our fifth commercial recording for Chandos, French Wind Classics to follow the very successful discs of Grainger, Holst and Vaughan Williams, and the recent issue of German Classics by Hindemith, Schoenberg, Hartmann, Toch and Blacher.


One or two regrets linger about no longer being the boss and calling the shots. Had I not retired, I would have certainly explored the European and Japanese repertoire in the coming decade, especially the recent works of Messiaen, and composers such as de Vries. I can no longer look to the School of Wind and Percussion to fund commissions, so at present I have commissioned wholly or partly new works by Steve McNeff for the RNCM, Edwin Roxburgh for Sefton, and a wind arrangement of Little Red Riding Hood by Paul Patterson and Roald Dahl. There are commissions in the pipe line too, a joint commission with the Irish Youth Wind Orchestra from Michael Ball, another based on the Blasket Islands of the West of Ireland from Matthew Taylor, works from Akira Miyoshi, David Del Tredici and Aulis Sallinen for the WASBE Conference in 2003, and another from Luciano Berio for 2004, (this was never written, and unfortunately Berio died in 2003) possibly one from John Adams. I am still as passionate about the medium as I was back in 1981 when I first discovered it, and thanks to email and the internet I am constantly finding colleagues from outside the UK equally enthusiastic. It really is the musical medium of the 21st century, so keep commissioning! And I wish that Arnold and Zappa had written more for the medium and qualified for the Top Fifty.