Philip Wilby: Masquerade

Context

Philip Wilby’s Masquerade was premiered in September 1993 at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester during the brass band British Open Championships. Since then Masquerade has been used for a number of contests including the 2002 Championship Section National Test Piece, the 2005 Grand Shield and, most recently, the 2013 Swiss National Championships. 

The piece is inspired by Verdi’s last opera Falstaff. Wilby explains how he has used the opera to compose Masquerade: 

“Masquerade is a centenary tribute to Verdi’s last opera Falstaff and takes its final scene as the basis for my own piece. Thus I have used some of Verdi’s music, and some of Shakespeare’s plot, and woven them into a fabric with highly demanding music of my own to produce a work in the great tradition of operatically-based brass band pieces. Such scores date from the very beginnings of band repertory and are often not direct arrangements in the established sense, but new compositions produced in homage to a past master. They may still offer performers and audiences alike something familiar interwoven with something new.”

 

Wilby also describes how he reuses some elements from the original story of Falastaff in Masquerade: 

 

“Falstaff has been caught in a web of his own lies by the ladies of the town, who propose to teach him a lesson. The story opens at night in Windsor Green Park. The plotters, variously disguised in Halloween fashion, assemble in the park to await Falstaff’s arrival (musicologists will, perhaps, note a rare use of ‘large bottle in F’ being used during this scene of suppressed alcoholic revelry!). Falstaff’s companions, Bardolph, Piston and Robin enter (represented here by three trombones), and are variously abused by the masqueraders. 

At the height of the Tout an alarm sounds and Falstaff (represented here in a euphonium cadenza) enters as Midnight strikes. From a safe hiding place he watches as the disguised Nanetta (principal cornet) sings a serene solo as the moon appears above the trees. 

With sudden force the others seize him and drag him from his hiding place. As in the traditional game ‘blind man’s buff’, he is roughly turned several times (a sequence of solo accelerandi) until, at last, he recognizes his assailants as his sometime friends. Far from complaining, Verdi’s character concludes the opera with a good-humoured fugue on the words:

 

All the world’s a joke… every mortal laughs at the others, but he laughs best who has the final laugh.”

The Music

With all of this in mind, Wilby stitches together a complex and intricate work for brass band that utilises every single seat in the ensemble. The fast technical work required from many of the players adds to the intensity of the piece. The constant shift in compound times creates suspense, never really knowing where the music will go to next. The sections interlock with complex runs and effects that represent ladies of the story. 

The rip-roaring trombones add a unique timbre to this piece, with the edge of their sound adding to the drama of the music. Muted cornets pierce the veil of the band sound as they play runs, stabs and off-beat patterns. The dramatic percussion throughout also adds to the bravura of the music. 

The sections where the band unites are powerful as Wilby creates a wall of sound. The difference from one on a part to all on one part is striking in the louder sections. The music is bombastic in parts, however the beating heart of Masquerade comes from the lyrical central section. A euphonium cadenza starts the process off, representing Falastaff entering as midnight strikes. 

The principal cornet enters with a lyrical solo as the moon begins to appear from behind the trees. This is certainly the most serene part of the piece, however this is always a sense of tenseness in the soloists movements, which keeps you on your toes. The melody plateaus for a short while until an unexpected cymbal roll Falstaff is captured by the people of the town. 

A grand and pompous middle band melody sings out above muted cornets before an explosion of sound sets off the game of blind man’s buff. Aggressive playing is heard around the band, with trombones and cornets particularly standing out in the textures here. Dramatic swells across the band are accentuated by foreboding percussion. A militaristic snare drum roll leads into the next climax of the piece. 

As the music becomes even more chaotic a quick break for the growing tuba line silences the band momentarily until each playing is adding to the texture. Flourishes from around the band scream out as the final trombone solo is heard before the band come together to create the final fugal section of the piece. 

This good-humoured fugue is complex and highly intricate. The drama of the music builds until the ultimate climax as the band unites to create a powerful sound. The music picks up speed as the final line sings out “but he laughs best who has the final laugh.” Bold repeated tutti notes brings this epic piece to a powerful conclusion. 

 

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Hermann Pallhuber: Titan’s Progress

 

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