Kenneth Downie: St Magnus
Last used as the championship test piece for the 2014 Regional Area Contest, Kenneth Downie’s St Magnus is a terrific work for brass band. The piece was commissioned by the Scottish Brass Band Association for the 2004 European Brass Band Championships in Glasgow. St Magnus is dedicated to Downie’s “inspirational music teacher” Alastair Massey.
As the title suggests, St Magnus is attributed to the famous tune St Magnus by Jeremiah Clarke. The work is a set of theme and variations with the opening theme reflecting the words Thomas Kelly’s hymn setting:
“The Head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now”
Opening with a simple theme by the soprano and solo cornet, the two-bar phrases consist mainly of crotchets and minims. Although simple, the strength found within the band on this simple theme is quite remarkable. This atmospheric opening gives the audience two listens of the theme, starting with the soloists and then with the full band. Downie explains how he has used this theme in St Magnus:
“It [the theme] returns again in the middle of the music and is stated again near the end. This has been done quite deliberately in the hope that there will be an appreciation of what material is being developed by the listener, as well as by those with access to the score, who are able to see the visual connections.”
The whimsical mood of the first variation shows Downie’s playful side as the teasing rhythms entice you in. There are interlocking rhythms between sections in the band, with short solo passages ringing out from the soprano cornet. The skittish rhythmic structures add to the light-heartedness of this variation. The patterns shadow the theme, which creates the musical link between the theme and variation. The fast tempo is accentuated by lively percussion interludes.
The opening chords of the second variation relate to those chiefly used in Variation I. The lyrical melody played by the solo cornets changes the mood from animated to cantabile. A series of short solo passages begin to link together before a reprise of the opening solo cornet theme. The textures created by Downie here are rich and full of life and promise for what’s to come. The lyrical interchanges between sections creates a blanket of sound always moving around the band. This variation ends serenely, with a clear nod to the theme.
Cross rhythms are the basis of this variation. A more frantic approach to this variation shows Downie utilising the skills of a band. From fast and technical passages to sound control, this section tests it all. Considerable energy bursts through the score in this variation, with Downie beginning to thin the texture out to highlight virtuosic corner players. There is a sense of instability throughout this variation, which is a stark contrast from the last. This does not last long, however, before a quick reinstatement of the theme is heard. The style is now ‘Maestoso’, and the music takes on a different character. A euphonium cadenza leads the band into the next variation.
Seen as a set of cadenzas for euphonium, cornet, trombone and Eb bass, the fourth variation tests the chops of a band’s soloists. Horns and baritones accompany with a serene and pensive reinstatement of the theme.
The final variation is marked ‘Allegro’, and sees lively technical demands for the front row cornets and euphoniums. Downie plays with dynamics and tempo here, with the slowing and speeding up creating an interesting fluctuation in the melody. This variation requires lots of control from the players so that the united sections sound as one, but the intricate one-to-a-part sections also fall exactly in the right spots.
The theme becomes an ostinato which leads to a chaotic climax around the band, which is soon cut by a short and dramatic silence. The opening figure returns and the music begins to come down once more. Tubular bells marks the return of the theme and the lead into the Finale section.
A barrage of semiquavers flood across the band creating an innovative counterpoint spectacle. The band unites for a powerful ‘Meno Mosso’ section, before they go their separate ways again. The fast and furious coda ramps the tempo up again with a reinstatement of theme being heard from the middle of the band. After a quick beat of silence, the band, now united, play a sequence of slow and gran semibreves. The use of dissonance here is at its highest, with clashes seep through the band.
After a statement of theme is heard, the percussion begins to build tension. Cymbals, bass drum and tam tam build the intensity before the band explode to play the final epic chord.
Kenneth Downie’s St Magnus is a great test for any high level brass band. From technical work to the simple, but very effective, opening theme, St Magnus has it all. A real treat to hear.
Ⓒ Alex Burns