Edward Gregson: Connotations
Edward Gregson’s brass band test piece Connotations was initially commissioned for the 1977 National Brass Band Championship Finals held at the Royal Albert Hall. The winners of that year were the Black Dyke Mills Band, who further won the British Open in 1983 with the same piece. Since then, Connotations has been used around the world for various contests including the European Championships (1988), Swiss National Championships (2000), the French Open (2001) and most recently the Danish National Championships (2019).
Receiving the commission in 1977 made Gregson the youngest composer to receive this commission at the age of 32. The 70s proved to be a fruitful decade for Gregson, with some of his most popular brass band works born from this period of time, including Partita (1971), The Plantagenets (1973) and Variations on Laudate Dominum (1976).
Connotations proved quite the hit and became known for being one of Gregson’s most intricate and well-thought out works. The piece was initially set to be called Variations on a Fourth, in homage to Gilbert Vinter’s Variations on a Ninth. However, this was not meant to be and Gregson found a more suitable name – Connotations. Gregson comments on the name and how he went about composing the work:
“Connotations suggests more than one way of looking at something, an idea, and this is exactly what the piece is about.
It has to be technically difficult and yet musically satisfying. I didn’t like being kept to an eleven minute maximum. The inclusion of short cadenzas for less usual solo instruments seems to signify a certain test-piece mentality.”
Gregson remedied some of the problems he had whilst composing Connotations by adopting a symphonic form and variation structure. The piece is split into 9 variations, plus an introduction and coda:
Introduction & Theme (Variation I)
Variation II: Toccata
Variation III: Robust melody section
Variation IV: Lyrical solos
Variation V: Scherzo
Variation VI: Cadenzas
Variation VII: Scherzando
Variation VIII: Fugato
Variations IX: Reinstatement of main theme
Each variation is linked to the next with certain motifs recurring throughout the piece.
Introduction & Theme
Opening with a fanfare motif which calls between the cornets and the lower band. The interlocking fanfares become a neat call and response between the sections. Gregson’s use of dissonance here is profound as he builds up cluster chords around the band. The biting dissonance adds to the timbral colours in this opening proclamation.
Lively repeated semiquaver patterns scatter throughout the band. Starting from the top the fast descending scalic passages quickly trickle through the band to set the scene for the next variation.
Muted cornets sit on top of a semiquaver-dominated lower band, before long block chords even the texture out. The initial cornet motif is then answered by the horns. Starting this section with muted cornets highlights the difference in timbre when the upper band re-enter without mutes. The warm sound gels with the harmonious lower band, which leads into the lyrical fourth variation.
The longest and most lyrical variation of them all, the fourth is slow in tempo and highlights the glistening melody through some of the corner seats of the band. Sombre euphoniums team up with the horns and baritones to create an awash of luscious sound. The textures that Gregson creates here are some of the most effective of the whole piece. The rich lower band writing sparkles as the upper band reinstate the theme with them.
A stark change for the fifth variation as staccato semiquaver patterns emerge from the upper band. Strictly in time the subtle fluctuation in time signatures is effective here. These rhythmic changes make parts of this intricate section syncopated, creating quite a different atmosphere. The spikey muted cornets pierce the texture here, with the lower band adding weight to the pattern formations. Reinstatement of the opening fanfare and call and response figures can be heard intertwined in this variation, adding some form of familiarity to the music.
Comprising of cadenzas for solo cornet, horn and euphonium, this variation highlights the strength of some of the principal seats. Starting with the cornet solo, which initially is intertwined with another cornet, bursts out to play a lyrical solo accompanied by muted cornets and horns. The horn takes the second solo, accompanied by the lower band and decorated by muted cornets. The euphonium takes the third solo, which again varies the solo after the previous two.
A lively scherzando initiates the start of the seventh variation. Another stark change from a largely lyrical section, this variation sees fast moving call and response dialogue between different sections of the band. Quaver patterns dominate this section with the constant repetitiveness being the driving force. Staggered entries on the theme build up the intensity as the cornets and soprano cornet accentuate at the end of phrases.
Announced by the horns, variation eight is a fugato movement. Based on the first phrase of the piece, this section sees muted cornets piercing through the texture once more. Short cadenzas from the solo horn and euphonium are heard as the latter leads the band into an explosion of sound. Based on the opening material, the re-exploration of this material is all the more effective after being pulled in different directions.
A majestic reinstatement of the opening theme dominates this section. Neatly leading on from the last, the boldness and grandeur of this section just knocks up the impact. The rich textures and burst through and this is perhaps the most ‘symphonic’ writing of the whole work.
The coda, similarly to previous sections, is also based on the introduction. The fanfare motif and the percussion accentuations are at the core of this work, and this is made perfectly clear here. Upper cornets rip through fast scalic runs to decorate the lower band’s grand melody. The short general pause makes way for the opening fanfare once more as Gregson builds up the texture once more with staggered fanfare entries.
The flourish of the sound at the end sees two important chords. The tonic chord shines through before a strange twist to a chromatic alternative which adds harmonic colour to the end of the piece. The lower band proclaims their last chord as the upper band slowly builds up to the epic final chord.
Edward Gregson’s Connotations is full of exciting twists and turns. Through a theme and variation structure, Gregson has been able to create a piece based on the idea of connotations, described in the dictionary as “an idea or feeling which a word invokes for a person, in addition to, its literal or primary meaning.” What does the piece mean? We’ll let you decide…
Ⓒ Alex Burns