Philip Sparke: Cambridge Variations


Commissioned by Philip Biggs and Richard Franklin for the All England Brass Band Championships in 1992, Philip Sparke’s Cambridge Variations was most recently used at the 2016 Brass Band Regionals for the Championship Section. As the title suggests, the work is set in a form of variations. Each variation is based on the six musical notes that make up the word ‘Cambridge’ (CABDGE). Often used in reverse, each variation takes on a different character, whilst always staying close to the six-note row. 


The Music

Cambridge Variations is set into five variations that are played continuously with no breaks in the music. 


Variation I 

The introduction section starts with the six-note row. As the lower band play the sequence, the upper cornets, muted, play a fluttering ostinato pattern. A chorale section is played by the middle of the band, creating warm and rich timbres. The cornets are still chattering with their ostinato here, creating sparkle on top of the texture. The dynamics begin to rise and the texture becomes even richer as more instruments are added to the mix. After a quick climax, a flugelhorn and baritone duet emerges. Accompanied by pulsating trombones, this section leads to another full band climax. 


Variation II 

With the tempo quickly changing to Molto Vivace, this variation is based around three of the notes in the Cambridge row. The baritones and euphoniums lead with the melody here, with the cornets taking over for the reprise of the theme. Sparke’s technical writing in this movement stands out, with each section being tested on their stamina, technical prowess and fundamental band playing. The unison sections are bold and make a powerful statement. 


Variation III

The third variation is set as an interlude between variations 2 and 4. Starting from the percussion, each section is then featured. Timpani starts, followed by the trombones and then scattered muted cornets. A cornet fanfare breaks out, with each part playing something different, creating a scattered feeling. The bold trombones keep things simple as they merge with the baritones and euphoniums. 


Variation IV

A lyrical cornet melody leads us into the fourth variation, which is now much slower in tempo. The solo, based on the six-note row, tests the soloist technical ability, their range, tuning and sound. The flugelhorn and trombones decorate the solo, which leads to a rich bass feature. The warm textures and timbres showcased in this section are quintessential Sparke, and really rounds the piece and gives it a pivotal central section. As a climax is built up the flugelhorn reinstates the cornet solo theme before the final variation begins.


Variation V

Now marked ‘Vivo’, the quick final variation is initially set up by the euphoniums who play an ostinato theme over the bass theme. This theme is then passed around the band, with the soprano cornet then rising above the band to play a lyrical and much more legato variation of the theme. There are similarities with this variation and the first, with the bold bass notes and frantic cornet writing. As themes from all five variations begin to rear their head in this finale section, the intensity heightens. Rich textures and dramatic dynamics add to the drama of this section.

The opening chorale makes a welcome return just before the coda, this time the chorale is triumphant and powerful. The quick-paced coda leads the band to the epic last few bars where the band unites on big, and fairly dissonant, chords. 


Final Thoughts

Philip Sparke’s Cambridge Variations is a tough test for a band as the piece demands a lot from every seat in the ensemble. From the bold tutti sections to exposed solo sections, Cambridge Variations is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat!


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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