Arthur Bliss: The Belmont Variations
Named after the town in Massachusetts where Arthur Bliss’s wife was born, The Belmont Variations was composed for the Brass Band National Finals in 1963. The piece premiered on the Royal Albert Hall stage, with CWS Manchester band winning top prize. Arranged by Frank Wright, this piece holds much significance as Wright, alongside Gilbert Vinter and Thomas James Powell were the set adjudicators for this big contest. Bliss, largely known for his orchestral works, came across brass bands during his explorative years in the mid-1930s. Bliss purposefully looked for some of the more ‘underground’ parts of English musical culture, and he was blown away by the range of sounds made by a brass band. His well-appreciated Kenilworth Suite was composed during this period, with The Belmont Variations coming later in life.
A four-bar phrase played in unison by the corner players of the band opens The Belmont Variations, which quickly leads into the first theme. Horns, flugelhorn and baritones lay the foundations as the soprano cornet decorates. What comes next are four short variations, all marked differently. Bliss’ smooth transitions keep the flow of this piece going, with very little stop and start phrasing happening.
The subtle changes in rhythm, texture and dynamics all lead to a polished final product from Bliss. Rich orchestral-like textures are planted firmly within the band in all variations, but shine especially in the slower tempi. The quick and intricate variations show skill across the band, as well as Bliss’ confidence in intricate melodic writing. This faster variation leads to a cadenza-like section that is led by the principal cornet, euphonium and trombone. Rich waves of sonority are heard here, with all instruments adding to the overall atmosphere effectively.
With varying lengths of variations, Bliss uses different themes to develop more than others. The slow soloistic sections are developed over more time, all resorting back to the opening four-bar theme. Bliss ensures that all players in the band are tested thoroughly with this piece, be it during virtuosic solo sections, or balanced ensemble playing, all bases are covered.
A bold new theme is introduced principally by the trombones, but the lower end soon join in with this bombastic melody. The cornets use an opposing theme here, with the two working against each other. This rhythmic variation soon comes to a head, and a short bout of silence leads into a beautiful trombone chorale. The soprano cornet develops this chorale theme with a lyrical solo. The middle of the band keep their warm sound as the dynamic is slowly built up through waves of intensity within the music. This smooth section leads into the longest variation, which is based on a Polonaise rhythm.
Opened by the horns and baritones, the cornets soon take over the theme and, with the help of the bass section, create huge proclamations. The snappy rhythm is passed around the ensemble, and between each repetition of the theme, a lyrical section plays out. Bliss’ quick changes of dynamic are effective here, with the band working hard to create light and shade within the music. As the final bars are cleverly built up, we hear Bliss’ most epic writing for brass band. The final chord brings the ensemble back together to finish off this brilliant work.
Ⓒ Alex Burns