Edward Gregson: Of Distant Memories

 

Context

Commissioned by Black Dyke Band and the Worshipful Company of Musicians, Of Distant Memories marked the centenary of the first original test piece for brass band for the 1913 National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain. The work is firmly in Championship standard repertoire, and was subsequently used for the 2013 Brass Band Championships.

The first test piece that was composed in 1913 was by Percy Fletcher. Entitled Labour and Love, the work has been used over 80 times for various world wide brass band contests. Gregson took inspiration from this anniversary and set out to write a work that pays tribute to the style of the early test pieces. Gregson continues in his programme notes:

 

“The list of composers is a distinguished one of course, including well-known names such as Holst, Ireland, Elgar, and Howells, alongside less familiar ones. The brass band tradition owes much to them, for through their music they established a truly homogenous ‘British’ brass band sound that has spread throughout many parts of the world. That tradition flourishes today and remains important for today’s composers, even if their musical language is far removed from that of their predecessors.”

 

The work is built as a traditional tone poem for brass band, which reflects the form often used in early test pieces. Of Distant Memories is to be played in one continuous movement that takes you through various styles and atmospheres. Gregson talks more about this in his notes:

 

“Of Distant Memories pays homage to these composers and their music, and in the process summons up a kind of subconscious memory bank of the musical languages, styles and forms used by them.”

 

The Music

Opening with a slow “broodingly Romantic” melody that builds across the band, this opening phrase becomes a key reference point throughout the piece. The chorale-like music builds to a climax which sees the band sound flourish as soloists appear from within the band. Cascading melodies above deep and rich harmonies makes the opening one of the highlights of the whole work.

As the band begins to die away, a thunderous bass drum enters us into the next fiery section. A virtuosic scherzo leads the band into twists and turns whilst always developing the core melody. In this section the music bursts into a new lease of life, with fast scalic runs, fanfares played across the band and a unique blend of textures shining out. This section is heroic in character, especially during the following march section.

Gregson’s use of duplets and triplets during this section is accentuated by the fluent cornet duets on the front row. The music here is bold and powerful and shows the true strength of a brass band, with the unapologetic bass sound supporting everything above.

The music begins to calm more as the next folk-themed section blossoms. The music transports us to the world of English modal folk songs, with Gregson creating thinner textures to support soloists that emerge from the band. A cornet solo leads us even further into this section, showing the transformation of the opening melody. A solo euphonium takes over, supported by muted cornets and basses. Gregson’s use of orchestration and ensemble colour shows that this work was composed in 2013 and not 1913. He’s able to keep the general structure and atmospheres similar to that of past works, however Of Distant Memories also encapsulates the new style of writing too.

After the enchanting slow section, the fast pace returns and quickly sweeps across the band. Based around fluid triplet swirls, the euphoniums and baritones lead into this next section, with the upper band soon following. A trombone interlude is accentuated by stabs in the upper band. This takes us into a mysterious section that sees spiky muted cornets and ominous basses battle it out until a climax section. 

A majestic recapitulation of the opening theme returns with the band out in full force. The upper band play fast-moving semiquavers as the lower band proclaim the main melody once more. The modest percussion accentuates the band with the snare drum and tubular bells adding to the interesting textures created by Gregson. The triumphant coda suddenly stops before a fitting final note is played by the whole band.

 

Final Thoughts

Composed in homage to test pieces composed in the last hundred years, Edward Gregson’s Of Distant Memories poses a unique twist comprising of music old and new. From the exciting climaxes to the luscious opening melody, the piece highlights the power of genre in brass band music.

 

Happy Reading!

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