Peter Graham: On the Shoulders of Giants


Peter Graham was born in Scotland in 1958. He is most known for his works for brass and wind bands. He studied under the tutelage of Edward Gregson, where he completed a PhD in composition from Goldsmiths College, London. 

Many of Graham’s works are now staples in brass band concert repertoire with notable works including Brilliante, On the Shoulders of Giants, Summon the Dragon and Shine as the Light. Many of these works have also been arranged for wind orchestra and other similar ensembles.

Graham was Music Associate with Black Dyke Band between 1997-2004, and has also held the post as composer-in-residence with Her Majesty’s Coldstream Guards Band. His works are often rich in melodic and harmonic content, as well as being challenging for bands and accessible for audiences. 


The Music

On the Shoulders of Giants was commissioned by The Cory Band and The National Youth Brass Band of Wales. The work was published for the 158th British Open Brass Band Championships, 2010. The work is certainly one of Graham’s most epic works for brass, with it also arguably being one of the most challenging too. 

In Graham’s opening programme note to the score he describes his ideas much more clearly:


“The art of brass playing embraces a range of diverse approaches and styles. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the musical melting pot of the USA. On the Shoulders of Giants pays tribute to this diversity and to the great American brass virtuosi whose legacy has provided the foundation for countless brass giants of today.”


The work lasts around about 16 minutes and is in three distinct movements. Each movement represents an element of American brass playing that Graham admires. As the quote above suggests, On the Shoulders of Giants represents the diversity, dynamicism and legacy that has led to the many ‘brass giants’ of today.


Movement I – Fanfares

Opening with a movement in homage to the absolutely legendary Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) brass section, the giant theme creates an earth-shattering beginning. The lower band take immediate control of the fanfares before a flourish of cornets enter with a peppy fanfare reply. The dialogue set up between the two halves of the band is impactful and is further accentuated by the bold percussion parts. 

The music bursts into a Vivace section which highlights the dexterity in the top cornet parts and also the effective syncopated full band parts. This opening movement is fiery and daring at every turn. The fanfares are intertwined before a climax is created with the upper band playing rigid triplet scales and the lower end, namely the trombones, repeating their opening fanfares. The two opposing ideas battle it out until the ultimate climax of this movement. The upper band lead on their opening fanfares once more before the percussion segue the band into another triplet-driven section. 

A slightly less aggressive fanfare is then played by the band before the seamless segue into the next movement arrives. 


Movement II – Elegy

American jazz is at the heart of this second movement, with Graham paying homage to leading brass players Miles Davis (trumpet) and Tommy Dorsey (trombone). Graham acknowledges that jazz owes its origins to Negro spirituals, so he underpins the whole movement with the gospel song Steal Away. 

A sultry jazz atmosphere is created with the flugelhorn and solo cornet playing a sweet duet. This leads to another duet between the solo cornet and soprano cornet. The slow moving accompaniment jumps in and out of the melody, except for the bass which keeps the music ticking along in the background. 

There is an air of mystery in this movement, with much of the music feeling slightly off-centre. The snare drum starts a slow swing rhythm which leads to the feature cornet, and then trombone, solos. The jazz style here is at its most obvious, with Graham’s use of swung quavers and performance directions. 

After tying up the various melodic features of this movement, the music slowly dies away with the soprano cornet and solo horn playing a neat duet. The music begins to get slower in the ‘Delicato’ section, which leads to a peaceful end before the epic finale movement.


Movement III – Fantasie Brilliante

Opening with a motif from the first movement, the finale movement pays its homage to the turn of the century brass virtuosi of Sousa Band fame. According to Graham this movement “finds Herbert L. Clarke, Arthur Pryor and Simone Mantia stepping from the mists of time to deliver snippets from their greatest solos.” 

The fast and exciting movement from the upper band steadily builds the tension of the movement before the ensemble come together to play dynamic syncopated motifs. This movement is sewn together by various individual virtuosity from all principal players before the incredible conclusion. 

Solos from cornet, horn and euphonium act as the centrepieces for this movement, in between the fleeting unity between the band. The use of compound time signatures gives the music a lilting feeling at times, often coming in ebbs and flows. The soloists show their technical dominance during the final flourish of the work before the band lead to a series of spine-tingling power chords.

Before this, however, is a bold ‘Maestoso’ section which sees some of the band playing decorative parts, such as the solo cornets who play an interlocking scalic theme. Whereas many other parts are playing the final fully developed theme. 

The final power chords tie together the whole work. These chords represent the giant footsteps that were heard, but are now even stronger at the end. The lower band initiate the chord, with the upper band answering with their unexpected dissonant chords. This power chord progression is heard five times before the resolved final chord. 


Final Thoughts

Throughout On the Shoulders of Giants, Graham utilises each and every part to push the players to the top of their abilities. From speed, dexterity, stamina and tuning, this work properly tests a band’s tenacity and drive. The bold opening makes a stunning statement, with the middle movement taking the tempo down a more relaxed route before the chaotic and dramatic final movement. 


“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”

Isaac Newton (1676)


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Edward Gregson: Of Distant Memories


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