Philip Wilby: Paganini Variations

Context

Commissioned by the BBC in 1991 for their ‘Band of the Year’ event, Paganini Variations was first recorded by Grimethorpe Colliery Band in the same year. In recent years Paganini Variations has been set for the Championship section in the 2011 Brass Band Regional Contest. As the title of the work suggests, Paganini Variations is set around the music of the great Italian composer and violinist Niccolò Paganini. 

In his short programme note for the piece, Wilby talks about his intentions for Paganini Variations:

 

“The intention was to compose a piece that would use more of Paganini than his time-honoured melody, but would also attempt to recreate, in modern terms, something of the wild and romantic spirit of his times. Thus the piece exists on two complementary levels. I have taken the celebrated melody from his 24th Caprice and provided it with a set of fourteen variations aimed to exploit the full potential of modern brass band playing. 

The full flavour of Paganini’s romantic heritage finds its expression in a mixture of extravagantly virtuosic display, and serene and passionate melody. In short, I have tried to combine two strands within my piece, one historical and one contemporary. As with all arranged marriages, the risk seems great, but my hope is that this is maybe a marriage of two laudable elements which devalues neither, but celebrates both.”

 

The Music

Wilby exploits the virtuosity of all players in a brass band, from tight ensemble playing to technical soloistic work, Paganini Variations works everybody hard. Arranged into 16 variations, there are three broad groups that accentuate Wilby’s ambitious style. 

 

Opening 

Beginning with a sequence of character studies, the music grows from nowhere in an ascending triplet sequence. The brakes are put on as the triplets turn to quavers before the top two cornets play call and response fanfares. This duet continues into descending chromatic scales in thirds before the rest of the band reprise the opening triplet sequence. The cornets reply with a similar sequence, this time transposed. 

This leads to the band building chords until Paganini’s famous original melody is played by a solo euphonium. The cornets then answer the euphonium by mimicking the melody and then taking it up an octave. If anything, the proclamation of this original melody exudes simplicity, which, when the rest of the piece plays out, is quite ironic. Perhaps the calm before the storm?

 

Variation I

After securing in Paganini’s original melody, the first variation sees the middle of the band begin to intertwine with one another as their melodies carefully interlock. The first three variations are still quite tame and all very easily achievable for most bands. 

 

Variation II

The second variation is marked by harmon muted cornets who drizzle through chromatic scales in thirds. The timbre of these mutes certainly adds an air of intrigue to the music. Even for Wilby this variation is tame and focuses more on creating effects with mutes. 

 

Variation III

Marked ‘Solemne’, the solo trombone leads this whole variation. Sparsely accompanied by the lower band, the heralding trombone leads the band into the fiery fourth variation. 

 

Variation IV

Out of nowhere, now marked ‘Presto’, a solo cornet runs through fast semiquaver passages. The back row are the only section to accompany the solo cornet, with pinged out muted chords and a short countermelody. 

 

Variation V 

As the virtuosity begins to seep through the band, the cornets take the leads shadowing the fast semiquaver runs that the solo cornet played moments before. The music is becoming more flamboyant as each variation comes and goes. An accentuated descending passage from the cornets leads into the sixth variation.

 

Variation VI 

The soprano cornet and back row lead with the fanfare melody, with accentuation from the front row. The march-like accompaniment from the band and snare drum in particular keeps this section moving along. With dynamic power chords from the upper band, the ensemble unite for dramatic chromatic runs that lead us into variation seven. 

 

Variation VII

Perhaps the first truly virtuosic section, the seventh variation sees Wilby properly testing the technical ability of the cornet section. With cascading scales that are split between the front row and back row, the constant flow of music is key here. The cornets are accompanied by one drone note, making this a really effective section when played right. 

 

Variation VIII

Crashing straight into the eighth variation, this section comes down in both dynamic and tempo. Moving block chords add to the mysterious material played in the lower band. A rumble in the percussion signifies the transition into the next variation.

 

Variation IX

The tumultuous euphoniums play fast semiquaver sequences as the percussion begin to rumble beneath them. The baritones join them part way through and also play these vivacious semiquavers as the tension keeps on building. 

 

Variation X

Marked ‘Marcarto’, the cornets lead with the march-like melody for the tenth variation. This stately canon tests control and pitching for the cornets in particular, but also those who join in for the fanfare at various points. The trombones and baritones signal the move to the eleventh variation as they lead a descending scale. 

 

Variation XI

Marked as a Bolero, the cornets are tested further as fast semiquaver triplets take over the fanfare. Quick tonguing and quick shifts between slurs and detached phrasing makes this a truly fiendish section of the piece. Fast moving scalic runs lead to a dramatic triplet sequence before the start of the next variation.

 

Variation XII

Led by the lower band, the quick change into this much darker section soon unfolds. The basses lead the way with the heavy quaver movement, which sets the scene for the upcoming funeral march. 

 

Variation XIII

A solemn funeral march is primarily led by the solo euphonium. Wilby’s use of dissonance here adds to the colour of the music, with the middle of the band indulging in these harmonies throughout. The flugel also takes the lead on part of the melody, with the two coming ideas coming together before the start of the ever-popular Romanza section.

 

Variation XIV

The soaring euphonium is accompanied by funeral-like tubular bells, who toll the music into three general pauses before the Romanza section begins properly. After a warm set up from the lower band, a set of cadenzas play out, from the soprano cornet and solo horn, to the flugel and solo cornet. This sets up a pulsating rich accompaniment from the band, as the romantic melody is first played by the flugel. 

Wilby explores the timbral colours you can achieve with a brass band, with this flourishing melody being at the beating heart of this work. In his own notes Wilby says that “The full flavour of Paganini’s romantic heritage finds expression in a mixture of extravagant display and serene and passionate melody.”

With gorgeous countermelodies from the soprano cornet and back row, the main melody is then led by the solo cornets and euphoniums. As the melody begins to swell into the passionate climax of this variation. This variation is the longest of all sixteen. 

After a quick change in character, harking back to the dark character that Wilby had set up in previous variations, the bass trombone leads with demonic blasts. The middle of the band begins to play through more technical scales until the back row then joins them. The front row soon joins in too and the blast of sharp muted cornets creates some organised chaos before the percussion blast in to stop everybody in their tracks. 

 

Variation XV

Fast triplet runs that hark back to the opening of the work can be heard from the cornets, as the lower band compete in an entertaining power struggle with the percussion. The demonic fashion of this section makes it one of the most exciting of them all. Intensity is built again with swells from the band coupled with dramatic entries from certain instruments. These fast scalic runs lead us into the final variation of the work. 

 

Variation XVI

The final variation begins after a very dramatic scale that is pulled back to hell before the explosion that is the finale section. Big block chords rumble throughout the band with scales and fanfares decorating it left right and centre. 

Overlapping quaver sequences bombard the flow of this variation and adds to the timbral effect. Wilby creates a really scattered feeling here without losing any texture whatsoever. The band land on the barline together with another block chord before a dramatic descending triplet sequence. Two more block chords are played, the first starts quieter and grows into a huge full dynamic. A highly intense percussion interlude stops the band in its tracks before the final, wholly epic last chord of the piece. The shift the major key in this finale section is classic Wilby and only adds an incredible edge to the end of this incredible work. 

 

Final Thoughts

Now accepted as one of Philip Wilby’s best test pieces, Paganini Variations is often a top choice for the best bands to perform on the contest of concert stage. The variety of variations coupled with Wilby’s natural flair for writing for brass band makes Paganini Variations a timeless classic. 

 

Happy Reading!

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