Philip Sparke: The Land of the Long White Cloud
Born in 1951 in London, Philip Sparke studied composition, trumpet and piano performance at the Royal College of Music. Due to his affiliation with brass, Sparke is known for his many popular works for both brass bands and wind orchestras. Sparke has won notable awards for his services to music, including 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 has become a staple in most brass and wind band rooms, with some of his most popular works including Jubilee Overture (1984), Madrigalum (2006), The Year of the Dragon (1984) and A Yorkshire Overture (1991).
As well as popular concert pieces, Sparke is also known for his contributions to brass band test pieces. Throughout the years Sparke’s works have been chosen as test pieces for both the Regional and National brass Band Championships of Great Britain. His works span over all five sections, with works used including A Malvern Suite (1985; Regional Contest; fourth section), Harmony Music (1987; National Championships; Championship Section), The Land of the Long White Cloud (1995; Regional Contest; first section) and Endeavour (2019; National Championships; first section).
The Land of the Long White Cloud was composed in 1979 and was Sparke’s first brass band test piece. Commissioned by the New Zealand Brass Band Association, the work was intended for the country’s 1980 National Championships. The piece was also then set for the European Brass Band Championships in the same year, which were being held at the Royal Albert Hall.
Subtitled ‘Aoteama’, this refers to the name given by New Zealand by its Polynesian settlers, whose first sight of the NZ islands was a long, flat cloud lying low over the land. Although the name and subtitle suggests that the work is programmatic, Sparke has never published an accompanying programme for the piece.
The work can be dissected into seven different sections, each marked by a new tempo and performance direction. The sections are all interlocking and aren’t official ‘movements’, but instead goal posts within the piece.
Opening with a bold fanfare across the band that is repeated twice, this opening theme is played Maestoso. Some have likened this opening to the surging ocean as the Polynesian settlers arrive in New Zealand, however this has been neither confirmed nor denied by Sparke. The rich textures and sonorous unison sections in this opening explosion of music sets itself up to return later in the piece.
Just as the music begins to die down with the horns, baritones, euphoniums and trombones creating this luscious middle-band sound, the band begins to rise in dynamic. The cornets add a countermelody to the lyrical middle band theme which grows into a spectacular tutti section that is accentuated by tuned percussion. Bell-like effects ring out from the cornets, before the middle band revert back to the glorious warm sounds.
The trombones and cornets play a neat call and response fanfare section. The opposing timbres are interesting here, with the cornets muting with straight mutes and the trombones staying open, the sounds clash creating a unique timbre. A reprise of the opening fanfare is then heard, which is lead by the cornets. This signifies the end of the Maestoso section.
The next section, marked Molto Vivace, is presented as a fast dance-like section. The drive from the snare drum keeps the rolling semiquavers and repeated notes moving along. The upper cornets and soprano take on the melody in this section, with the rest of the band either playing off-beat patterns or playing counter-melodies. Fast runs are heard throughout the band, which keeps the excitement at an all-time high.
Sparke fluctuates between a range of time signatures, which keeps the melody moving and developing as it is passed around the sections of the band. Interlocking syncopated rhythms across the band lead to a quick silence before the next section unfolds.
Marked Larghetto, the haunting soprano cornet solo sings above the band in this section. The delicate soprano cornet is accompanied by the rich sounds of the middle band, who play slow-moving block chords. The solo is taken over by the top cornet, who plays a lower and richer version of the melody. The flugel also takes a line of the solo, with the timbre becoming richer as the soloists bring together the theme. A more structured part of this section follows, with the recognisable fanfare theme coming through via a newly-developed melody. Blocked fanfare chords from the cornets creates a rich texture for this section.
The next Molto vivace section begins from nowhere, with the snare drum pushing the speed along as the whirling cornet runs decorate the repeated middle band phrases. Earlier material can be heard again as Sparke begins to bring together the material from all corners of this work. As the tempo slows, Sparke writes an accelerando which builds up excitement from the basses upwards.
The dance theme is heard again, this time it’s given a fugal twist, which sees a high-level of communication within a band. Muted cornets create the interest in the timbre once more before the band unite to play the opening fanfare from the beginning of the piece. A quick and vivacious Prestissimo leads the band to the glorious and epic end of the work.
The Land of the Long White Cloud was most recently used as the 2017 First Section test piece for the Regionals. The piece encapsulates great qualities of test pieces – melodies, crunchy harmonies, challenging solo and tutti lines and highly communicative ensemble playing. A really exciting work for brass band.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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