British wind Music Before 1981

Chapter 6: The Significance Of Percy Grainger

While the innovations of Colonel Somerville in the music at Kneller Hall had a far-reaching effect on all but the British Army, there had in fact been early stirrings in England. It is tempting to dwell on what might also have happened had Beecham continued his interest in the Beecham Wind Orchestra; In The Musical Times of November 1, 1912 we read:

The most interesting feature of the present season hitherto has been the formation and appearance of the Beecham Wind Orchestra or "London Civil Band" under the conductorship of Mr Emile Gilmer. It is the outcome of a desire on Mr Beecham's part to arrest the alleged decline of English wind playing, and to explore new sources of tone colour The constitution of the band or orchestra is as follows:

  • 2 Piccolos
  • 2 flutes
  • 2 oboes
  • 1 bass oboe
  • 1 heckelphone
  • 1 English horn
  • 2 clarinets in Eb
  • 8 clarinets in Bb
  • 2 basset horns
  • 2 bass clarinets
  • 2 bassoons
  • 1 sarrusophone in Bb
  • 1 sarrusophone in C
  • 1 soprano saxophone
  • 1 alto saxophone
  • 1 tenor saxophone
  • 1 baritone saxophone
  • 2 trumpets
  • 1 cornet à pistons in Eb
  • 2 cornet à pistons in Bb
  • 1 bass trumpet
  • 4 French horns
  • 1 alto trombone
  • 1 tenor trombone
  • 1 bass trombone
  • 1 tuba in F
  • 1 tuba in Eb
  • 1 contra-bass tuba in Bb
  • 1 celesta
  • 1 kettle-drum
  • 1 side-drum
  • 1 bass drum and cymbals
  • 1 harp

The scheme has not only been formulated but has been carried to completion and, we understand, tested in public. Familiar music has been arranged for the "wind orchestra" and composers of repute have been asked to write new music for it. Once more we are in debt to the enterprise of Mr Thomas Beecham, who has the brain to conceive original plans, and the energy and other essential means to fulfil them.

Philip Mather researched an article in WINDS which gives some idea of the potential of the venture. The fifty-six piece BWO made its first appearance at a concert at the Alhambra Theatre in October 1912, when the two most admired works were a selection from Die Walkure and Jarnefelt's Praeludium. The orchestra's first veture outisde the capital was to travel north to St Helens, Lancashire where it was to take part in the outgoing Mayor's concert; the outgoing mayor was Sir Joseph Beecham, father of Thomas. The programme was typical of the period, a mix of operatic excerpts and orchestral transcriptions, culminating with Tchaikovsky's inevitable Overture 1812.

What led Beecham to found this orchestra? Was it his acquaintance with Grainger during the first decade of the century, and their joint devotion to Delius and his music. In The Percy Grainger Companion we find Rose Gainger writing to Delius: Dear little Beecham was here last night & was telling Percy all his plans, wonderful aren't they? Grainger and Beecham must have met at the latest in 1908, at the London première of Brigg Fair; in his biography of Grainger, John Bird writes that Beecham invited Grainger to become his assistant conductor. Were the "little Beecham's" wonderful plans for opera or for wind orchestra? Was Grainger to assist with the Beecham Wind Orchestra? We can imagine Beecham carried away by Grainger's excitement about the wind band. In the event Grainger turned the offer down, ostensibly because he wanted to concentrate on composition; though according to John Bird's candid account, the real reason was that Beecham did not have blue eyes.

We know little about this venture, it needs researching, hopefully some of the repertoire recovered; presumably Beecham tired quickly of the restrictions imposed by a wind band, and instead concentrated his energies on the Beecham Symphony Orchestra which he had started in 1909, and the subsequent glittering seasons with Diaghilev's Ballet Russe.

The Significane Of Percy Grainger

It is impossible to categorise Grainger; his international reputation during his lifetime rested largely on his prowess as a virtuoso pianist. As a composer, he was renowned for a number of miniatures which he came later to despise as un-characteristic of his music at its best. He wrote no opera, no symphonies or concerti, no quartets, and most of his music was "dished up" in so many different forms as to make publication and even performance a hazardous affair.

Thomas Slattery points out that with Hill Song no 1 (1901-1902), Hill Song no 2 (1907) and the march Lads of Wamphray (1905), Grainger had written three significant works some years before Holst's Suite in Eb (1909). It was to be many years before these three works were to be published; even the March waited until 1941. Curiously, while much of his music met with acclaim, the early "chamber experiments" of Percy Grainger went largely un-noticed and had little influence on his contemporaries.

The most dramatic example of his forward thinking is to be found in Hill Song no 1; scored for the extraordinary combination of 2 piccolos, 6 oboes, 6 cor anglais, 6 bassoons and contrabassoon, the flow of the music is almost continuous. Bar-lines are added by the editor simply as a convenience. The harmonic language reminds us often of Richard Strauss, the rhythmic vitality of Walton; every voice is treated as a soloist and it was this passion and this chamber concept that was lost in a great deal of the largescale wind band music of the early and mid-century.

In Lewis Foreman's The Percy Grainger Companion, Thomas Slattery writes:

When considering Grainger as an original composer, his significance is not because he initiated particular techniques, but rather that he embraced new ideas and change. From his childhood visions of "free music", through his scholarly notation of folk-songs, his solo wind chamber pieces, his experiments with improvisation, the editing of old music and his experiments with electronic music, Grainger's thoughts, as documented in his writings and his compositions, were always advanced. His concept of woodwind families and woodwind sounds was the beginning of the emergence of a standardization of instrumentation for the wind band. No single composer has done more in this century for the wind band medium.

One of the tragedies of Grainger's career was that public acclaim was reserved for his career as a virtuoso pianist, and for his smallest pieces, works like Country Gardens. Only recently has his stature as a composer been re-assessed, following a number of recordings by conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle and Richard Hickox and excellent new publications by Southern Music edited by Mark Rogers. A number of important books have been published which deal fully with his works for wind; the full flavour of his idiosyncracies and energy is caught in an article written by the late Rodney Bashford.

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