On the edge of history

Issue 5946

Cory Band looks to make further history at the RAH on 8 October. All about the National Final and much more in the latest packed edition of BB!

Journey of the Lone Wolf

Thursday 29 September, 2016

Simon Dobson (b. 1981) has been writing brass band test-pieces since 2002, when he was commissioned to write for the 4th Section of the 2003 Regional Championships. He was 22 and a student at the Royal College of Music in London. Of particular interest in Lydian Pictures was the way Simon was able to write appropriately for that level of community banding, with more than a nod towards the traditional dances and tunes of his native Cornwall, while creating harmonic spice and edge with the deployment throughout of the augmented or Lydian fourth; hence the title of the work. 


As his music has matured and grown in depth and refinement, Simon has maintained that fascination with non-diatonic modes alongside the diverse range of musical ‘isms’ that have given his music a distinctive harmonic colour, rhythmic bite and, above all, a direct, sometimes visceral impact. Simon writes of the sheer physicality and thrill of the brass band sound, particularly in the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall on National Final day, which he experienced for the first time when he was nine.

Earlier this year he was conducting a very different kind of music at a packed Royal Albert Hall with the Parallax Orchestra and the metal band Bring Me the Horizon. Armed with his trumpet he was also to be heard and seen on stage at Glastonbury this summer. His crowd-funded 2014 debut album Euneirophrenia places the brass band - his first love - within the context of popular contemporary genres. Here we can appreciate the full range of Simon Dobson’s creativity and the way he is able to draw on so many seemingly disparate musical styles to create a very personal and highly communicative narrative style.

I use the work narrative advisedly because all the extended brass band works he has composed since Lydian Pictures are about something. Whether that’s the Cornish myth of Tristan and Isolde and the lost land of Lyonesse (2005 National Youth Band Championships), with the ghostly tolling of a bell deep below the surface, the tartan-tinged historical subject matter of …and when the river told… (2010 Scottish Open) or, best of all, in Penlee (2008 Cornwall Youth Band commission), he is able to create dramatic or emotional impact that remains with the listener long after the music has ended. Having worked on many of Simon’s scores prior to publication, this writer can attest to the range and detail of the scoring and the extensive palette of percussion sonority that contributes to the physicality and emotional intensity of the writing.

In works like The Drop (2007 European B Section), its ‘big brother’ The Drop: Remixed and the highly personal symphonic essay Torsion (2010 Leyland Band commission) - one of his finest works to date - Simon adopts a more abstract approach, adding into his creative mix electro-acoustic elements, DJ and Drum ‘n’ Bass techniques. Some might consider bringing the music of the club or festival scene into the brass bands as a step too far, but for this writer it adds a welcome freshness and personality to a genre that is in danger of becoming stale and formulaic. 

When he was at school studying for his A Levels, Simon encountered for the first time the music of Olivier Messaien and Bela Bartok. These master composers of the 20th century transformed the musical landscape for generations of composers in the way they constructed and coloured their music. Messaien invented his own system of transposable modes. Bartok (1881-1945) created his distinctive approach to tonality out of the essence the folk music he and his friend Zoltan Kodaly collected in Hungary and Romania at the turn of the 20th century. While the Lydian (augmented) fourth that dominates the sound world of Lydian Pictures comes straight from Bartok, the impact of both composers on the colour and character of Simon Dobson’s most extended brass band compositions to date is even more far-reaching. 

Symphony of Colours, which was commissioned by Fairey Band to perform at the 2011 European Championships, is Simon’s Messaien tribute. Journey of the Lone Wolf, commissioned by Black Dyke Band and premièred at the 2014 RNCM Festival of Brass (Bridgewater Hall, Manchester), is his Bartok work, charting the composer’s often lonely and ultimately tragic life. 

In researching the background for this musical journey, Simon found Bela Bartok to be intensely private and introspective, which seems at odds with the character of so much of his music, which Simon observes, ‘bristles with colour and energy, gathering its roots from the very earth of his beloved Hungary’. 

As a child Bartok was often alone, prevented from playing with other children by illness after illness. He found solace in the folk music his devoted mother taught him to play on the piano. Bartok went on to study piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, where he met Zoltan Kodaly, who was to become one of his closest friends. Together they would take extended trips into the countryside, armed with manuscript and wax cylinders to record the music and songs of Hungary’s peasants. Kodaly used the songs as the basis for hundreds of vocal and choral arrangements. Bartok followed a more academic path of documentation and analysis, extracting particular modes, melodic shapes and colours that would govern his own music, particularly in his famous six-volume piano method Mikrokosmos

Simon Dobson got to know Mikrokosmos while he was at school. Within the clamour of percussion and polychords heard at the outset of Journey of the Lone Wolf, he introduces a motif based on one of the old Hungarian folk scales from that seminal work. You’ll hear it cascading down the band and articulated on vibraphone [Ex. 1]. You might think of this as the Bartok motif, in which augmented fourth (F sharp) and perfect fifth (G) create a characteristic tonal ambiguity. This scale, or mode, provides the foundation for Simon’s musical journey, which he divides into three contrasting movements.


1. Capturing the Peasants’ Song
After the extravagant cacophony of the opening gestures, the first part of the movement is all about the folk-song collecting trips that occupied Bartok and Kodaly for many summers before World War I. On their travels in the Balkans through Hungary, the Transylvanian region and even across to Romania and Bulgaria, they would encounter a wide range of idioms from gypsy songs to traditional folk dances, with their spicy harmonies and often high-kicking syncopated rhythms. The euphoniums and basses are the first to step out onto the dance floor with high-stepping enthusiasm [Ex. 2], but soon all the principal players are given a moment to show their paces. The trombone trio is especially exuberant in its leaping about.

A short but spirited general dance follows. After that the music becomes increasingly dominated by folk song and this provides an opportunity for the band principals to deliver more extended solos. The centrepiece of the movement is an elaborate encounter between solo cornet and euphonium, full of finger-flying semiquavers and athletic leaps and bounds. The musical ‘tone’ then changes, via a cleverly hidden reference to Bartok’s masterly Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste (an important source of inspiration throughout Journey of the Lone Wolf by the way), as a quirky homage to Bartok’s well-known Romanian Folk Songs. Simon’s re-imagined versions - soprano cornet and solo horn [Ex. 3] - will need sensitive handling, especially in the written-in rubato across the phrases. 

The scene changes abruptly once again, as an ominous shadow is cast over the music. The outbreak of World War I cut short Bartok’s folk collecting trips and threw his country into chaos. Simon’s powerful transition is suitably disruptive.


2. Night Music

Many of Bartok’s slow movements are full of spectral effects - fragmentary themes and gestures with a nocturnal, often-haunting atmosphere. In the slow movement of Journey of the Lone Wolf, Simon pays direct homage to Bartok’s nocturnes with some Night Music of his own; but, whereas Bartok’s seem to objectify a nocturnal atmosphere, rather like experiencing the sounds of night from a safe distance, Simon draws us in with a stronger emotional core. His Night Music begins with a solo flugel horn, alone in the darkness, one cold image, surrounded by the sounds of night (on pre-recorded sound track). There is a melancholy air about this cadenza. This is Bartok alone with his thoughts perhaps. The atmosphere warms somewhat as the romantic side of Bartok’s personality is suggested. He was always close to his mother. Brief but intense affairs speak of a love he could only long for. Then, following a somewhat unsettled first marriage, he fell in love and married a piano pupil, Ditta, with whom he enjoyed a strong personal and professional relationship until his death. 

For Simon, sombre John Coltrane-inspired jazz provides the nocturnal reflection in an extended trombone solo, hinting perhaps at the kind of music Bartok may have heard in the USA at the end of his life. There is a steely intensity just below the surface of the more angular baritone solo that follows. Simon reminds us in his writing about the work, that the euphonium and cornet solos concluding Night Music should retain a delicacy of approach. These solos are set against a constantly shimmering background texture. Contol and finesse are key here. The final bars of offer a brief moment of tonal resolution, suggesting perhaps that Bartok enjoyed some moments of emotional contentment. 


3. Fight or Flight

The evocative nocturnal imagery of Night Music gives way to a more intense and threatening darkening of tone. Bartok was a staunch anti-fascist. When war broke out in 1939, Hungary sided with Germany and the following year Bartok and his wife were forced to flee their homeland. They travelled to the United States, where Bartok never really settled. Although he found some work as a pianist, he found it hard to compose, often giving up altogether. Money was short, and he relied on the financial help of friends and colleagues. The commissions for Concerto for Orchestra and the unfinished Viola Concerto were intended to alleviate some of these financial worries, especially following a diagnosis of leukemia. When he died, in September 1945, he was putting the final touches to a third Piano Concerto, intended for Ditta. 

There is a palpable sense of rage in Simon’s musical response here, especially the way in which the cornets spit out a Hungarian ‘folk song’ in angry unison [Ex.4]. Simon’s first experience of the National Finals was hearing Robert Simpson’s Energy in 1991. He was bowled over by the organic sweep of Simpson’s music, especially as momentum gathers towards the end. Journey of the Lone Wolf ends with a similar drive, although there is more of a biting edge to the sound - all pounding drums, tam-tam and flutter tonguing - until the Bartok motif is sounded one last time on tubular bells. There is anger in the tolling of this funeral bell and a ‘bitter sting’ (the composer’s words) about the final minor chord. In September 1945, only ten people attended his funeral. In death as in life Bartok was the Lone Wolf.

Study scores of Journey of the Lone Wolf (Faber Music Ltd.) will be on sale at the World of Brass trade stands in the Royal Albert Hall on 8 October.