Peter Graham: On Alderley Edge
Commissioned for the 1997 National Brass Band Championships, Peter Graham’s On Alderley Edge was the set test piece for the Championship section. Described as a series of tone pictures, On Alderley Edge’s scene is set by this programme note from Graham:
“The North Cheshire village of Alderley Edge is dominated by a 600 foot wooded escarpment (known locally as the Edge) where evocatively titled landmarks such as Wizard’s Well, Stormy Point and The Devil’s Grave have inspired storytellers for centuries. This work presents a musical portrayal of many of these sites and also recalls some of the legends which have arisen from them.
In dealing with the subjects of the forest, myths and folklore, parallels with the German Romantic Opera tradition became apparent to me and it seemed appropriate to draw upon sources and in some cases the language of that particular period in music history. Hence the references to Weber’s masterpiece Der Freischutz and the ideas of a redemption theme and the triumph of good over evil. This latter notion also has a resonance with the brass band test-piece tradition of Percy Fletcher, Cyril Jenkins et al.
It is therefore perhaps doubly fitting, as we approach the millenium, for a nostalgic reminder of both the ethos and style of this period in the development of the brass band repertoire.”
The piece presents a range of different sections all interlinked and free-flowing. The piece is a test of fundamental band playing, lyricism, solo playing and quick changes in atmosphere and style. One of the central sections of the piece, entitled The Holy Well, is often heard as a stand-alone concert piece for solo euphonium or soprano cornet.
The opening Prologue sets the forest scene. The mysterious character of this opening is supported by the cornets using harmon mutes and the trombones playing with fibre mutes. The long drone notes are slow moving and create the foundation for an off-stage solo horn to play a solo. A duet between the solo cornet and euphonium begins, with both playing perfectly in unison. A short bass motif is heard, before the next section begins.
The Armada Beacon
Once more the solo cornet and euphonium unite for a fiendish passage as the band take their mutes out before a flourish of sound is heard across the band. This part of the piece depicts the highest point on Alderley Edge from where the Spanish Armada was signalled. Shown in the rhythms used, Graham adds a Spanish twist in this exciting section. Bursting with energy, this section tests the technical prowess of the front row cornets and solo euphonium in the first instance, with the rest of the lower band soon playing these devilishly difficult passages.
After a wave of chaos it is the percussion that brings the band back together with traditional Spanish rhythms. The piercing tambourine and triangle combo works with the timpani and bass drum to allow the cornets to flourish with the main melody. The rest of the band keeps moving with fast scalic passages until the big climax, which is followed by a short silence.
The Golden Stone
Said to bear mythical properties, The Golden Stone is represented with a gentle chaconne section. A solo cornet plays the bulk of the solo here, with a gentle fluctuating accompaniment happening in the lower band. The bell tree adds the air of magic to this section, which is a stark contrast to the last.
Engine Vein Mine
The machine-like section that is Engine Vein Mine is faster in tempo and changes into 3/4 time. The powerful crotchets at the start of this section lay the foundation for the syncopated trombone fragments. There is a real sense of driving force in this section with the trombones in particular receiving an interesting part to play. Quick unison passages between sections of the band adds to the difficulty level and when play right is incredibly effective.
The Holy Well
After the machine-like engine section, The Holy Well is perhaps the most lyrical section of the whole piece. After a short interlude to this section, the solo cornet begins the famous melody. The accompaniment starts sparse and begins to get richer each time the soloist reprises the opening melody. The lyrical melody soars above the band, who sometimes reply with fragments of the melody. The euphonium then takes over the solo and the rich tone of the instrument creates a really special atmosphere.
After the lyrical delights of The Holy Well, this next section is agitated and intense. After a thud from the bass drum, the basses begin to play a semiquaver pattern that leads to fast passages from the horns accompanied by syncopated rhythms from the cornets. This section rumbles and depicts a bad storm on Alderley Edge.Within this section Graham writes the Dies Irae theme, which is passed from the bottom of the band upwards. This adds to the foreboding character of this section.
The Devil’s Grave – Epilogue
The final section of On Alderley Edge comes after a climactic note from the whole band. Sustained notes are then held in the horns and flugel and trombones as the euphoniums play fragments of the melody from the Prologue. Here, each section has a small reprise, with perhaps The Holy Well having the biggest reprise of them all. This time the solo is played by the repiano cornet before the rich full band sound starts and the theme is played across the ensemble. The soprano accentuation adds to the emotion of this and creates a somewhat full circle moment.
A quick change to Vivace marking sets the band off with a sparkling build up to the final climax of the piece. Big chords heard across the band before a classic tam-tam roll as the band unite for the final epic chord.
Peter Graham’s On Alderley Edge is a multi-faceted work that takes you on such an exciting journey through landscapes, history and more. It’s a real test for any band with lots of pressure on solo players, in particular principal cornet and euphonium. There is a lot of nuanced writing throughout which, when played right, is absolutely magnificent.
Ⓒ Alex Burns