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PERCUSSION and the BRASS BAND by Arthur Butterworth


In the early nineteenth century, when the brass band first began to be established, percussion instruments played little part in formalised music. Only the timpani had any regular standing in orchestral music. Of course for outdoor music of a military nature, the marking of a firm and regular beat was an essential, so that the bass drum and to a lesser extent the side drum, and occasionally the cymbals added a useful, but purely rhythmic adjunct. Drummers were not specifically regarded as being 'musicians' in the widest sense of the word. However, the brass band at that time being basically an outdoor kind of music making, such rudimentary percussion was more or less de rigueur in order to keep time on the march. The earliest band contests had no cause to employ percussion since the music of those early days was almost invariably transcribed from other sources:opera, oratorio and orchestral concert music of varying kinds; none of which music required much if anything at all in the way of percussion. Apart from the so-called barbaric 'Turkish' music of cymbals, triangle, and bass drum, which Mozart once employed to some effect, little else in the way of percussion is to be found in the classics. Even the later romantic composers who in other respects utilised the vast string and wind resources of the growing modern orchestra did not regard percussion as being of much importance. Even Berlioz and Wagner, or later still Richard Strauss and Mahler, tended to be quite modest, even restrained, in their demands for percussion. The general maxim was that the effectiveness of percussion was in inverse ratio to the amount it was used. Nowhere is this more true than in the last movement of Tschaikowsky's Sixth Symphony, the very familiar 'Pathetique'; when the solitary tam-tam stroke invests an awesome feeling of fate which is stunningly effective. Up to this point, throughout the whole of the preceding forty-five minutes of the symphony, the tam-tam has remained silent; but its one single entry is profound indeed. On the other hand the too-frequent use of mere snazzy noisy bangs, crashes, inane cymbal rolls, all to little musical purpose does the very opposite of its intended effect of calling abrupt attention by its startling quality. In this situation then, that of using music transcribed from other earlier sources, the brass band contest repertoire found virtually no use at all for percussion. it even went so far as to dispense with the one really essential and fundamental percussion instrument, the timpani, These instruments had been (and still are) traditionally used in pairs, and it is only comparatively recently that three or more have been called for. It is an iritating and unjustified confusion and misuse of Italian and English languages to refer to them as 'timps', since the 's' is English and 'timpani' (meaning more than one), is the correct Italian. The singular is timpano meaning just one single drum. We do not refer in such lazy English, to 'corts' when we mean 'cornets', nor 'clarts' for 'clarinets', much less do we say or write 'trumps' instead of 'trumpets'. So why demean the noble timpani by referring to them as 'timps' ? The basic pair of timpani however, have been an essential fundamental to the bass of the harmony throughout almost the whole of orchestral history and it is curious that in band contesting of the past, such fundamental instruments have been thought to be inessential. Yet in some famous band transcriptions quite inappropriate additions of bass drum, cymbals and triangle have been added where they were not needed. This is the case with the band version of Beethoven~ s "Egmont" overture. On the other hand, one of the otherwise most celebrated and well-known orchestral transcriptions, Denis Wright's 1931-version of Brahms' "Academic Festival Overture" entirely omits the essential timpani part, its exposed solo roll is given, somewhat lamely, to the E-flat bass. However, there was a good reason for this at the time:

In the mid-1930's contests did not allow the use of percussion of any kind, not even the timpani; added to which was the fact that, even if timpani had been allowed, few of the bands competing would at that time have possessed a set, so that the publication of a band arrangement which included an essential timpani part would not have had any promise of assured commercial success for the publisher. As far as traditional contesting goes one of the oddest things remains the fact that the enormously popular Whit-Friday march and quickstep contests around Saddleworth, Delph and Uppermill still do not allow the bass drum, side drum or cymbals to take part. Now this is particularly ironic since it is in this situation, a march contest of all things, where tte basic percussion would be expected to come into their own and be at their most appropriate. It has probably been argued in the distant past that the constant - and often mindlessly-unmusical - thump, thump, thump of the bass drum masks a lot of technical faults and omissions of the purely brass element of the performance which (it must be presumed) is what the adjudicator really wants to hear most of all to make his careful assessment and comparison between one performance and the next. It might be an idea for march contests of this kind to revise the old traditional rules and require the inclusion of appropriate percussion playing; this does not mean the casual beating of the bass drum, but the subtle rhythmic support that a properly-modulated beat would give; not a relentless fortissimo all through, but as much a carefully rehearsed part for the drummers as for the solo cornets or 2nd baritone. Whatever personal opinions might now be encountered regarding the appropriateness or otherwise of percussion in the brass band, either at concerts or contests, we must accept that as in orchestral, wind-band, show-band, or any other kind of large instrumental ensemble, percussion instruments of a multifarious kind have become an accepted and often essential element.

My own attitude to this evolution has, in recent years, become rather an ambivalent one. More than thirty-five years ago when my First Symphony was performed by the Hallé Orchestra the percussion element was considered to be original and imaginative in concept, and the Hallé percussionists were grateful for the opportunity it gave them to use their instruments in an expressive way. Its success persuaded me to exp1ore percussion writing even further in a whole series of works that followed, both orchestral and brass band scores. However, I have to admit that in recent years some doubt and self-criticism has crept into my mind. The Organ Concerto of 1973 (Organ, Strings & Percussion), I now look on as very over-written as far as the percussion writing goes, and were this work to be performed nowadays I should most certainly make a drastic reduction in the percussion parts. In spite of this self-criticism I have also to admit a fondness for some percussion sounds, and to having made a lot of use of them in all kinds of musical situations. At heart I realise that I am fundamentally a traditionalist and have a classical outlook. Most of the more exotic percussion sounds: Afro-Caribbean, Latin-American, Oriental or Indian sounds find no place in my musical utterances. However, there are and I suppose always have been, some timbres that have a particular appeal and suit my musical purpose. My scoring generally, whether for band or orchestra tends to darker colours, so that the Tam Tam (which is so often, but never should be, confused with the various kinds of Gongs) is a sound which I find fascinating and awe-inspiring. The Bass Drum is subtly different from the Timpani, and in this I confess to following the example of Sibelius by using the bass drum in several places where the timpani might be thought to be the more obvious or routine instrument. I tend to use the Side Drum less frequently than the Tenor Drum. I have constantly searched for just the right kind of bell sounds, and in general I have used the Tubular Bells (known in America as Chimes) fairly frequently. Similarly I find Crotales very subtle in their immensely delicate expressiveness. The Cymbals while having a universal utility I come more and more to feel are often just plain noisy and inexpressive, a too-frequent musical cliché used by composers to hide a lack of anything better to say. Of the other tuned percussion, I have only infrequently used the Glockenspiel or Xylophone, while the unctuous, saccharine tones of the Vibraphone or Marimba virtualy never. Some of these 'new' instruments do not appeal at all, they conjure upthe wrong sort of musical situation for me: Jazz, so-called 'ethnic' music of many different but to me quite alien cultures. All right for those who like that kind of thing; it just so happens that I do not. Whatever one's personal taste, however, the adjudicator has an obligation to listen to the music offered and assess it for what it is, not what he might think it ought to be. So that in band contest adjudicating we treat all instruments the same: we expect a comparable efficiency and musicianship to be displayed by percussionist as that displayed by cornet players, trombonists or indeed any other kind of instrument: piano, organ, strings, harp, wind instruments or vocalists. We do not disregard poor percussion playing as if it made no difference to a band's performance. If the composer writes for any instrument at all, then we regard it as of equal importance to anything else in the score. Finally, the question might now be asked: Has percussion writing invaded the new brass band music to an excessive degree ? This is purely a matter of personal taste and depends on the composer's emotional intention, what he wants to convey through his music, and of course the design and structure of the work, whether percussion is a necessary material in its overall purpose. I have come to the conclusion that as far as my own brass band works go, I think (but could be absolutely mistaken) that one of my best works virtually uses only the timpani: the "Passacaglia".

But a more practical question concerns the commissioners of new band music; if they want it to be widely played it might need to be stipulated in the 'specification' that it should be limited in its requirements for percussion resources so that more modest bands can take part. This has always been a truism of writing music: if you want your music to be widely performed write for instruments that are likely to be available and do without the exotic rarities which might only be available on hire at considerable expense, an expense by the way, which often, with hindsight is considered not to have been all that worth-while if the instrument proves to have had very little to play after all! It has to be said that a lot of new brass band music is pretentious rubbish that after its prestigious first performance is deservedly consigned to utter oblivion. This is, admittedly a terribly prosaic way of looking at things, (perhaps not worthy of the lofty idealism of a composer who should have no thought for economics. but only 'art for art's sake'), but a good composer is a realist as well as being a head-in-the-clouds idealist.


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