John McCabe: Salamander


Composed for a commission by Michael Webber for the English Heritage to celebrate their 10th birthday of the Historical Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, Salamander was premiered in June 1994. Grimethorpe Colliery and David Urquhart Yorkshire Imperial Bands, conducted by Geoffrey Brand, united at Kenwood Lakeside for the premiere. 

The intriguing name of the piece is explained by McCabe:

“According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, a Salamander was, in ancient times ‘a mythical lizard-like monster that was supposed to be able to live in fire, which, however, is quenched by the chill of its body. This was adopted by Paracelsus as the name of the elemental being inhabiting fire (Gnomes being those of earth, Sylphs of the air, and Undines of the Water). It is the latter definition that was the inspiration for this piece, which is in the form of a passacaglia (variations on a ground bass).”


The Music

Opening with a prominent bass line and cascading chords from the upper band, rising and falling of the chords initiate the passacaglia structure. The unison sections are bold and powerful, with a bass drum adding drama and intensity to the music. After the foreboding introduction, McCabe writes a series of contrasting variations. All of the variations refer back to the cascading chords from the opening of the piece. 

The slower and more lyrical next section shows a big contrast from the opening. Lots of call and response work from the cornets as the middle of the band fluctuate between chords. The trombones and basses keep the line of mystery high with long sustained pedal notes. The tempo picks up again as the music is thrust in a completely new direction. The intensity grows within the middle of the band as the flitting cornets mutate into a fanfare-like section. 

Multiple lines of interest all emerge at the same time with the cornets and trombones in particular fighting over who can play the loudest in the band. The thin use of percussion is intriguing here, with the timbre adding an interesting twist on the texture. A solo euphonium emerges as the dust settles. Accompanied only by muted cornets, this thin texture is a welcome change from the section that came before it. A solo cornet, imitated by a solo horn, sounds from in the distance. 

A warped chorale-like style is presented from the horns and baritones as the cornets continue to pursue the cascading chordal theme. The dynamic begins to swell from the bottom of the band upwards, with the muted cornets having the final say in this section. The music then begins to tie together the music from the whole piece to culminate in a fiery fugal section. There is lots of drive here, especially from the basses. 

A cornet interlude stops the music in its tracks as the big fugue is set up. The main theme is then repeated again through this fugue and the opening version of the ground is also heard. The band grow to the final epic climax with the final blazing statement of the theme before a big trombone chord that alerts the cornets to play quick scalic passages before the final blow from across the band. 


Final Thoughts

John McCabe’s Salamander is not only a really exciting concert piece, but also it has been used as a test piece. It’s premiere contest was the 1994 British Open, which saw BNFL Leyland win that year. It is often chosen as an ‘Own Choice’ test piece as well. From the rumbling beginnings to the fiery end, Salamander is a truly exhilarating work for brass band. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

Image Source (Gareth Arnold)


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