BRITTEN’S KING ARTHUR

Thursday 2 August 2018

 

On Sunday 16th September 2018 music by one of the 20th century's greatest composers, Benjamin Britten, will be a major brass band competition for the first time. A suite arranged from music for a 1937 BBC radio drama the challenge First Section finalists at the National Brass Band Championships
of Great Britain in Cheltenham. 

  King Arthur
Scenes from a radio drama

arranged for brass band
by
Paul Hindmarsh

1. Overture: Fanfare, Coronation and Wild Dance
 2. Galahad, Merlin's Spell and the Holy Grail
3. Lancelot and Arthur
4. The Death of Arthur: Doom, Battles and Apotheosis

Benjamin Britten was about eight years old when he started compose. We know how prodigiously gifted and productive he was because he wrote as a child he himself preserved for posterity. There are reams of short pieces for his own instrument - the piano - copious songs, pieces involving violin and viola (which also have played) and a number of string quartets and orchestral pieces, but nothing for brass. As a teenager, 'Benjie' was encouraged by his mentor the composer Frank Bridge (1979-1941), who has visited composition lessons in the school holidays. the woodwinds. From his teens to his 60s, Britten's command of string textures was formidable, with the peerless technique,
Probably the closest young band was at Lowestoft's South Pier bandstand, just around the corner of Kirkley Cliff Road. His writing for brass instruments is not the same as his string writing, but there are moments of true brass genius, especially in the masterworks of his later years. He used the full brass for his reinforcing power, as well as a provider of fanfares, marches or jazzy moments. The huge quantities of music at the GPO film unit, several left-wing theater companies and the BBC are sharpened his skills in this area.
How the mature Britons viewed the personality in his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra(1944), in which the dextrous trumpet material derives from fanfare intervals, the trombones are bold and heroic, the tubas humorous and lugubrious and the French horns subtler and more refined in sonority. The majestic tutti brass sounds in the fugue command our attention, as they do in his opera, Gloriana (1953). The pump and pageantry of Elizabeth I 's Royal progress through Norwich in the opening scene is brilliantly conveyed in a high - tempo dance on the basis of conventional fanfare material.
ff As Britten's music became increasingly transparent in texture and economical in detail in his later years, he began to exploit brass technique and sonority with greater originality and freedom, as in the Fanfare for St. Edmundsbury (1959).The symphonic ensemble fanfare at the start of the Dies Irae in A War Requiem (1961) is every bit as bold and visceral as the passage in Verdi's Requiem that is clearly inspired. The transformation of fanfare to lament in the setting of Wilfred Owen's Bugles's Sang that follows the Dies Irae is truly inspired. Fanfare for DW (1969) is in essence a lively three-minute overture for brass based on favorite operatic moments of its dedicated David Webster (former General Director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden). [My brass band adaptation was performed by Black Dyke Band at the RNCM Brass Band Festival in 2013].Best of all, perhaps, is the 'exotic' writing for alto trombone and D trumpet in two of his Church Parables ( The Burning Fiery Furnace , 1966, and The Prodigal Son , 1968, respectively), the woodwind and brass fanfares of the prelude. to Owen Wingrave (1970), his television opera, and the lilting brassy overture of his final opera Death in Venice (1973). In one sense, Britten came in the circle of death in Venice because of the transparency of the film, drawing a maximum palette. of color and thematic content.
Listen to any of his orchestral scores from the 1930s to the 70s.Like Prokofiev, he lets his string textures breathe, using doubled octaves sparingly except for the big climaxes and special sonorous moments - as in the Peter Grimes storm. This feature limits, for me, the number of works of Britten's that lend themselves to a comfortable realization on brass band, without excessive breaking of lines or phrases. The texture is likely to become too compressed. However, I have come across a few pieces where, because of the subject matter, brass and wood wind dominate the sound, making brass band versions more appropriate.
BBC radio was in its infancy when Britten started broadcasting as a pianist and composer in the 1930s, during which the Corporation became a leading cultural, vocal, and vocalist.Among the pioneering assistants (or producers) tasked with inventing these programs were Scottish writer and poet Douglas Geoffrey Bridson (1910 - 1980) and actor and director Val Gielgud (1900 - 1981), elder brother or John Gielgud, appointed Head of Productions in 1929 Between 1946 and 1952 his influence was directed towards the fledgling BBC Television drama department.
In the spring of 1937, 23-year old Britten was approached to compose the music for King Arthur and his Court, written by DG Bridson. Britten was actually Bridson's third choice composer for the project, Arnold Bax and Rutland Boughton having declined the commission.He was not long out of college - he studied at the Royal College of Music - but had already heard about the musical establishment with a number of publications and significant London performances to his name. King Arthur was the first of no less than 28 scores which British delivered to the BBC over the subsequent decade.
He produced the music at the top, like a film score, during March and April and it was just in time for the live broadcast performance on April 23rd (St. George's Day) 1937, shortly before the coronation of George V (on 12 May ). A distinguished cast for this 90-minute epic included Michael Redgrave as King Arthur. The broadcast was directed by Val Gielgud with the music performed by the BBC Chorus and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Clarence Raybould.Bridson was delighted with the contribution of the young composer, who noted in his diary that the music 'certainly comes off like hell!'. The drama - part pageant, part play and part cantata - was laid out in 18 scenes, beginning with Arthur's coronation and concluding with the final fateful battle. Each scene was prefaced by narrative fresh in the style of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1485). Britten was less than enthusiastic about Bridson's script, which he considered dull, stilted and uninspiring, 'a pale Pastiche or Malory' added in his diary.
The score includes 22 musical items or varying lengths and substance, including vocal soloists, choir and orchestra.For the 1995 BBC Radio 3 series I prepared a 25-minute orchestral suite, organizing the most substantial items and some unused sketch material into four symphonically proportional movements. It was recorded at the BBC Philharmonic by Richard Hickox and released on Chandos CHAN 9487. In 2014, I fulfilled a long-held personal ambition or fashioning some of this dramatic, brassy music into a second much more concise suite for brass band. I selected purely orchestral cues requiring minimal manipulation, other than occasional transposition down an octave to 'fit' onto the band. I did not need to leave any musical lines out. My overriding concern was to create a coherent structure with sufficient contrast.
    For the most part I followed the narrative sequence except for aWild Dance , in which all the jealousies and intrigues at Arthur's court erupt 'like every demon in hell', as the script tells us. Britons reused this spectacular virtuosic music in his Ballad of Heroes (Op.14). I have placed it on the basis of an Overture , offering a challenging workout for cornet soloists and horns, with an important role for soprano cornet. This is set against a repeating bass line, which I have muted, mirroring the light, athletic sound or pizzicato strings in the orchestral score.   

Scenes from a radio drama is announced with a ceremonial Fanfare, the score's principal 'call to arms' motif
founded on a dominant 7th [Ex.
1]. 

 

 

 

 

 

 This leads directly to Britten's short introduction, Arthur's Coronation Scene, announcing a second extended hymn-like theme, which British associates in the work with Arthur himself [Ex. 2]. 

A bridge passage for the original French horn becomes a high-wire cadenza 'moment' for solo euphonium connecting Coronation Scene to the Wild Dance.     

The second movement, Galahad and the Holy Grail , left three musically related scenes underscoring Galahad, Merlin's spell and a vision of the Holy Grail.

 
They are all based on a lyrical subject derived in its sinuous arpeggiated line (mixing major and minor thirds) from the fanfare motif [Ex. 3.]. Flugel, soprano and solo cornet are challenged to show off their subtle expressive skills in a lyrical middle section. Britons reused the melody as the theme for his Piano Concerto (Op. 13).

Because of time constraints, the third movement, comprising a Galloping sequence for percussion and Death Music lamenting those lost in the first battle, is not being played at the Cheltenham finals on September 16th. Instead the Holy Grail music links to a sombre sequence of chords appropriately titled Doom Music by Britten. The fanfare version which they support is a portent of the brutal battle music that follows. Here, the two main themes are set against each other to fight for supremacy. I have brought the two battles scenes from Acts 2 and 4, which is Arthur's last and fateful battle, building to a searing climax.The moment of Arthur's death and the lament are vividly captured by the composer. There is plenty of detail to be discussed, which recedes to almost cinematic Apotheosis,  'Down the pathway of th' immortal waters', and Arthur's final journey to Avalon. 

King Arthur, Scenes from a radio drama is published under license in the Faber Music Band by Chester Music and the British Estate. www.fabermusicstore.com

Paul Hindmarsh, August 2018

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