Philip Sparke: Year of the Dragon


Born and raised in London, Philip Sparke studied composition, trumpet, and piano at the Royal College of Music. Known as being one of the leading brass band and wind band composers, Sparke has won a notable amount of awards. Some of these include the Iles Medal of the Worshipful Company of Musicians – for his services to brass bands – (2000) and the 2011 BUMA International Brass Award – for his contributions to brass music. Sparke’s music is often a staple in every band room, and his 1984 composition, The Year of the Dragon is no exception.

Composed between 1984/85, The Year of the Dragon was originally written for brass band, but has since been orchestrated for wind band (for the purposes of this blog I will be referring to the brass band version). This work is in three movements, although generally the work is played with only very short gaps between them. The movements are as follows:


I. Toccata

II. Interlude

III. Finale


The Year of the Dragon was created from a commission from the Cory Band, one of the oldest brass bands, in 1984. That year, the Cory Band were celebrating their centenary anniversary, and to mark this occasion there would be a new piece composed by Sparke to feature in this special concert. Sparke comments on the commission saying:

“At the time I wrote ‘The Year of the Dragon’, Cory had won two successive National Finals and I set out to write a virtuoso piece to display the talents of this remarkable band to the full.”


The Music
I. Toccata

The first movement starts with bursts of sound from the upper brass and snare drum. The intricate tonguing from the upper brass is purposefuly placed, rigid and very military-like. The lower sections play a counter theme which is bold, powerful and slightly unnerving. Toccata is centered around large bursts of colourful sound, and surrounding this are more intricate sections.

Sparke writes a dichotomy of timbres at times, with the upper brass using mutes for a large proportion of their melodic lines, whereas the lower brass are not using mutes. The light and shade of each micro-section of Toccata play a role in the larger picture of this whole work. This first movement builds the melodic foundations for the next two movements.

There is a central dance-like section of Toccata, which is accentuated by the quick passing of the main melodic material. The dance-like section is vastly different in atmosphere and mood from the rest of the movement, and you certainly know when the dance section is over. After a loud exclamation from the band, the movement ends with faint echoes of the opening melodic material.


II. Interlude

As the longest and slowest movement of The Year of the Dragon, Interlude is a “sad and languid solo for trombone.” After a signature Sparke burst of musical colour to open the movement, the dynamic and orchestration quickly dissolves until we are left with the solo trombone and a muted chorus of cornets and horns. Overall, the mood for this movement is quite blue, perhaps even in some way defeated. With the first movement being quite aggressive and bold, this is a vast change in atmosphere.

At the core of this movement is a stunning chorale for the whole band. The incredibly quiet dynamics slowly grow to show off a band’s control and sound quality to the maximum. This chorale gives a tinge of optimism after the lamenting trombone solo. The chorale grows over a few minutes, until the ultimate climax where the whole band release together to create a stream of glistening sound, which is sure to pull on your heartstrings.

This winds down to a reprise to the opening solo, with the first part played as a duet between the principal cornet and solo trombone. The movement, like the first, ends very quietly after the trombone solo begins to die away peacefully.


III. Finale

Beginning straight after the Interlude has finished, Finale is a “tour-de-force for the band.” A rapid sequence of semi-quavers dominate the opening part of this movement. Overall, this movement bold and heroic in sound. Similar to the first movement, the Finale has lots of small sections which are all very different.

After the bold section, there is a quieter, muted section which builds the basis of a fugue, and shows off virtuoso players of the band such as the principal cornet, horn, and trombone.

The end of this movement is wholly exciting and the work comes to a stirring end. With the heroic theme returning with the drive of the snare drum behind it, the band head towards an exciting accel, which leads into the double-tongued opening motif from the first movement. This fast theme is now in the lower brass, with the rest of the band answering with the bold theme. The work ends with an exciting octave drop from the band who are in unison.


Final Thoughts

Philip Sparke’s The Year of the Dragon is a dynamic work for brass band, which poses many challenges for a high-level band. The tricky valve work for the whole band, creating emotionally-driven climaxes and keeping tempo with some of the harder unrelenting sections. A thrilling show of musicianship, intonation and dexterity, this work is a triumph in every way.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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