British wind Music Before 1981

Chapter 9: The Wireless Military Band

First Performance 23 September 1927 - Last Performance 16 March 1943

The history of wind band music broadcasting in this country is as long as the history of radio. The first broadcast ever was on 23 January 1923 by the Band of the Irish Guards and band concerts were a regular feature for most stations. Manchester, as ever to the fore, was the first station to have a civilian military band formed specifically for broadcasting, assembled by Dan Godfrey in 1923 and conducted by the first clarinet of the Halle Orchestra, Harry Mortimer. Godfrey studied at the Royal Academy of Music, enlisted in the Coldstream Guards to obtain his bandmastership, and in 1922 conducted the bands at Harrogate and St Leonard's before being appointed Musical Director for the British Broadcasting Company in Manchester in 1923. In 1924, Godfrey was transferred to London as conductor of the orchestra, where he immediately formed and conducted the 2LO Military Band from the orchestral wind players. However, it was decided in 1927 that a separate band would be required to cope with the growth of work expected and the members of the band were given a choice between playing in the orchestra or the newly formed Wireless Military Band, later the BBC Military Band.

B. Walton O'Donnell, formerly Director of Music of the Royal Marines, was the conductor, joining the Corporation on 7 June 1927. The 29-piece band was contracted from 21 August for three rehearsals and three concerts a week at salaries of £7.10s (£7.50) for leaders, £7 for principals and £6 for rank-and-file. Many of the best players in London were recruited including Robert Murchie (flute), A. Tschaikov (solo clarinet), Walter Lear (alto saxophone) and Charles Leggett (principal cornet, deputy conductor and general supervisor) whose name lives on commemorated by the Leggett Award for brass. Later players associated with the Band were Reginald Kell on clarinet, Gilbert Vinter, bassoon and Philip Catelinet, euphonium. The first broadcast included the March from Crown of India by Elgar, the second and third movements from Mendelssohn's 'Italian' symphony, A Folk Song Suite by Vaughan Williams, a selection from Cinq Mars by Gounod, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and the Symphonic Poem Le Rouet d'Omphale by Saint-Saens.

The Wireless Military Band flourished from 1927 until 1943. It had its own staff arranger, Gerrard Williams, and the repertoire was largely made up of orchestral works scored with great virtuosity. Among those who wrote original pieces were Alan Bush and Gustav Holst, who returned to the medium with his arrangement of Bach's Fuga a la Gigue (1928, Boosey) and the extraordinary Hammersmith (1930, Boosey), still a major undertaking for bands and audiences. Its conductor, Walton O'Donnell was a fine composer; and in fact the late Rodney Bashford asserted that it was O'Donnell rather than Holst and Vaughan Williams who was largely responsible for the development of contemporary band music in the early years of the century, through his virtuoso scoring and mixed metres. With the current interest in light music, perhaps interest will be rekindled in his music, such as Songs of the Gael, (1924, Boosey) and Three Humoresques (1922, Boosey).

Bring Out The Harpsichords and Madrigals

In 1937, B. Walton O'Donnell was appointed Music Director in Northern Ireland and was succeeded as conductor of the BBC Military Band by his brother, Major P.S.G. O'Donnell of the Royal Marines, Chatham. The Band was one of the most popular of the BBC organisations, indeed it had been the favourite group of King George V who once, on a State visit to Broadcasting House, demanded to have O'Donnell to be presented and to conduct. However, in the early forties, the BBC determined to concentrate broadcasting on existing service bands and to axe the Wireless Military Band; a letter appeared in the Daily Herald:

One reads with misgivings of the suggested disbandment of our BBC Military Band, a combination standing head and shoulders above any other military band in the world. At the beginning of the war, listeners had to protest at the lack of military music and eventually our BBC Military Band was given some work to do. Maybe, because of Eighth Army success, they now feel they can bring out the harpsichords and madrigals again.

Questions were raised in the House of Commons, letters to the Press came from all quarters ~ to no avail, and at 9.40 pm on Tuesday, 16 March 1943, on the Home Service, the Band gave its final performance: A Frivolous Overture by Sir John McEwan, dedicated to the conductor and members of the BBC Military Band, the Symphonic Poem Phaeton by Saint-Saens, the Oriental Fantasy Islamey by Balakirev, and Three Humoresques - Pride and Prejudice; Prevarication; Petulance and Persuasion - by B. Walton O'Donnell. On 19 March 1993. this programme was recreated on BBC Radio 2 by the RNCM Wind Orchestra conducted by Clark Rundell, unfortunately without McEwan's Overture which has not yet been located.

Post-War Celebrations - The Sixties and Seventies

The next six decades in England were not entirely barren; Gordon Jacob, student, friend and amanuensis of Vaughan Williams, continued to write throughout this period, and in the Festival of Britain of 1951, his status was recognised by the commissioning of a work for the Royal Military School of Music, the Music for a Festival (1951, Boosey). Although the work was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall, and met with critical acclaim, it is ignored in the listing of his output in the New Grove which mentions only one band work, the Concerto for Band (1970). His own listing contains 14 works for wind band, most published by Boosey and Hawkes, and other works such as the Concerto for Timpani and Band (1984) and Symphony A D 78 (1978) have been published posthumously by G and M Brand/R Smith.

Gordon Jacob was the first President of BASBWE, and was Guest of Honour at the Banquet in the 1981 Manchester International Conference. He spoke movingly of his life-long love of the sound of wind, brass and percussion.. Although an excellent teacher and musical craftsman, Jacob unfortunately did not have the major talent needed at this time to put the wind band on the musical map.

Alun Hoddinott

During the sixties and seventies, a number of important additions to the wind ensemble repertoire were written, most of which still need recording, regular performance and recognition. The first was Alun Hoddinott's Piano concerto no 1, op 19, (1960 OUP), a fine work scored for orchestral wind, brass and percussion. Hoddinott followed this with the equally fine Ritornelli (1974 OUP) for trombone and chamber ensemble and a year later with the charming Welsh Airs and Dances (1975 OUP) for symphonic band. His last work for wind was written for Roger Boudreau's American Wind Symphony, Welsh Dances, Suite no 4 (1990, Peters).

Elizabeth Maconchy

Because so many wind works are pièces d'occasion, very often they lie neglected. One such work is Elizabeth Maconchy's superb Music for Wind and Brass (1966 Chester/Music Sales), written for the Thaxted Festival founded by Gustav Holst, a magnificently crafted work for orchestral wind 2222:4331:T, forgotten even by the composer until restored to the repertoire in the eighties. Maconchy has an original voice and an a sure technical ability. It is sad that, she like so many, wrote only one work, but wind players would be well advised to explore her Clarinet Quintet (1963) the works for solo wind instruments, and her superb Variazioni Concertante (1965) for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and strings, all published by Chester/Music Sales.

BBC Commissions

A work by yet another distinguished lady composer, the South African Priaulx Rainier, is Ploermel (1972, unpublished but recorded on RR 007); written for the BBC Symphony Orchestra wind and brass, this was a commission for the BBC Proms. The idiom is exciting abrasive, owing something perhaps to the sound-world of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, but with her own primitivism, derived from her native Africa. Did someone at the BBC have a guilty conscience about the death of the Wireless Military Band, because the Proms have continued to commission wind works; Alan Bush's Scherzo for Wind Orchestra (1969, Novello), Elizabeth Lutyen's Symphonies Op. 46 was commisisoned for 1961and Harrison Birtwistle's Panic for 1995.

Hoddinott's Welsh Dances, Buxton Orr's John Gay Suite (1973 Novello) and John Gardner's English Dance Suite (1977, OUP) continued the folk-song based traditions of the earlier part of the century; the first "modern" work from this British "Dark Age" was Metamorphoses (1977 Novello) by Edward Gregson. Written for orchestral wind, brass and percussion ensemble without saxophones but with piano and basses, it explores simple aleatoric and electronic techniques, with an echo effect for solo flute and clarinet which is magical. It remains both an excellent introduction to contemporary music and a most enjoyable piece for audiences.

British Youth Wind Orchestra

A fine series of commissions for the British Youth Wind Orchestra, now the National Youth Wind Orchestra, was started in the seventies by Andrew McGavin and Harry Legge: Most are available only from the composers, though some are published and on hire, including Concert Dances & East Coast Sketches from Faber. Quiet from OUP, (a beautifully restrained work which should receive many more performances), Theatre Fountain, available from Camden Music, and Philip Sparke's Sinfonietta no 2 published by from Studio Music.

Commissions By The British Youth Wind Orchestra

Year Work Composer
1972 Introduction & Rondo (clarinet choir) Gordon Jacob
1974 Work for clarinet choir Edwin Roxburgh

Wind Symphony Stephen Dodgson
1976 Concerto for Wind Orchestra David Morgan

Tonada Sefardita (clarinet choir) Leonard Salzedo
1977 Symphony 8 The Four Elements Wilfred Josephs

Epigrams from a Garden (sop & Cl choir) Stephen Dodgson
1979 Processiones Leonard Salzedo
1980 Scenes from an imaginary Ballet Graham Williams
1983 Sinfonietta Derek Bourgeois
1984 Ultramarine John Hopkins
1985 East Coast Sketches Nigel Hess
1986 Quiet Gordon Crosse
1987 1984 Dominic Muldowney
1988 Concert Dances Howard Blake
1991 Theatre Fountain Gary Carpenter
1992 Sinfonietta no 2 Philip Sparke

Symphony Our Hopes like Towering Falcons

Colin Touchin

Bandwagon Stephen Dodgson

There was similar activity north of the Border, where the Scottish Amateur Music Association gave full support to Rodney Bashford's policy for the National Wind Band of Scotland, programming his own arrangements of standard orchestral works, traditional repertoire by Holst, Vaughan Williams, O'Donnell and Gordon Jacob, with new commissions, sadly again few published:

Commissions By The National Youth Wind Orchestra Of Scotland

Year Work Composer
1974 Sinfonietta for Band Arthur Oldham SAMA
1976 The Eagle Stephen Dodgson comp
1977 Matelot Stephen Dodgson com
1978 Scottish Tune Adrian Cruft Joad
1978 Beowulf Peter Naylor SAMA
1979 Caledonia Caprice David Dorward SAMA
1980 The Wee Cooper of Fife Cedric Thorpe Davie SAMA
1984 Tam O'Shanter Learmont Drysdale SAMA
1985 Ronde for Isolde David Bedford Novello
1985 Celebrations Bruce Fraser Bandleader

Information about any of the above works can be obtained from SAMA:
National Youth Wind Ensemble of Scotland
Scottish Amateur Music Association
18 Craigton Crescent, Alva
FK12 5DS

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