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!


Thursday 29 September, 2016

The announcement at the Brass Band Gala Concert, in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall the day after the British Open, that Bram Gay was retiring as its Artistic Director brought to a close a musical career spanning 80 years, much of it in brass bands. An appropriate moment, then, to reflect on the enormous contribution Bram has made to brass banding.

Born a stone’s throw from the Cory pit in the Rhondda Valley of South Wales, where his father and grandfather worked at the coal face, like so many Bram started his banding life in The Salvation Army. His father tried to teach him the cornet but couldn’t and at ten sent him to Reginald Little, then conductor of Cory Band. All Bram cared about was playing the cornet and at the age of 13 he was taken to Belle Vue, Harry Mortimer gave him an audition and he joined Fodens Motor Works Band on repiano. School was of no interest and the attendance registers were fiddled and “finally my parents gave in and said go and work at Fodens and play in the band. They found me a little job and I learned sand moulding, in the old sand foundry, and pattern making in the pattern room with Rex Mortimer.” He was just 15 and then succeeded his teacher Harry Mortimer as principal cornet in 1945, but had to leave Fodens for National Service where he played in the Band of the Scots Guards between 1949 and 1953. As he succinctly put it, “I Trooped the Colour five times, buried the King, crowned the Queen and have the pictures to prove it.”

At the age of 23 he became principal trumpet of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and from there, in 1960, he went to Manchester to a similar position with the Hallé, playing under Sir John Barbirolli. He has also played under Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Charles Groves, Norman del Mar and Rudolf Schwarz. His next stop was London and trumpet with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1969. He was Orchestra Director from 1974 to 1995. That is a mightily impressive musical career! 

Most orchestral players with a brass band background leave the ‘movement’ behind them and Bram was urged to do the same. ‘Forget about the bands; don’t think about them,’ he was told by his colleagues, but he couldn’t. And thank goodness he didn’t because if he had brass bands would be distinctly the poorer. His role from the late 1960s as General Editor of Brass Band Music of Novello and Co. enriched the repertoire enormously. As he told me recently, “the cause was Joe Horovitz’s visit to Salford to hear me play his Trumpet Concerto. At that time my chief interest was the Hallé Brass Consort and this attracted the attention of Novello. I think its head of publishing put Joe up to sounding me out.” Some of the great pieces from Philip Wilby, John McCabe and Michael Ball all bear the publisher’s name of Novello. Other band music published during Bram’s time came from Bryan Kelly, Joseph Horovitz, Elgar Howarth and Buxton Orr.

And then there is Bram the arranger, most notably his reworking for brass band of movements from the Joseph Horovitz Music Hall Suite and, at the suggestion of Elgar Howarth, a significant new version of Liszt’s Les Preludes to replace the old one of William Rimmer. He also prepared a performing edition of The Severn Suite, faithful to Elgar’s original, for the 1996 British Open. Other Elgar arrangements of his include five movements from the Nursery Suite and the Suite from the Wand of Youth, as well as an arrangement of Ludwig Maurier’s Four Fancies and Weber’s overture The Ruler of the Spirits.

When Granada TV took over Novello, like everyone else Bram was asked for ideas about how the two organisations could benefit each other. He wrote a paper putting forward a number of ideas on what Novello could do for bands through Granada. Although not a great fan of contests, but wanting to stir the pot somewhat, Bram suggested the Granada Band of the Year television contest. It took him a year to convince the bands that it was a creditable idea, but it is reasonable to argue that entertainment contests, including those that followed from the BBC and Brass in Concert, grew from this pioneering event. He argued there was a desperate need for the brass band to reclaim its lost ground as popular entertainment for the mass audience. Another product of the relationship was the Novello quarterly magazine, Sounding Brass, of which Bram Gay was one of the joint editors in its early years.

By his own admission, Bram was a better teacher and trainer than a performance conductor. He was the first to acknowledge that “conducting is not a thing that a player can just do,” adding “cornet players pick up the stick, but they are rarely real conductors.” He recognised that conducting is an art that cannot be taught from nothing and that a certain natural aptitude is needed and having got that it is essential to study it seriously. His finest hour was in South Wales at Cory, which he took from 1976-78, including a successful tour of the USA, but his work at Covent Garden made it difficult to combine the two roles. As he said himself, “although I didn’t really fail at Cory - we picked up a fourth at Belle Vue and a sixth and a seventh at the Albert Hall, which is respectable - nor did I really succeed.” 

There’s a saying “It’s not what you know, but who you know”. In Bram’s case, though, both apply. He knew about brass bands and as a result of his role at the Royal Opera he had close contact with the people who managed concert halls. With support from the Musicians’ Union, Yamaha and Gordon Higginbottom, who was employed at the time by the Japanese instrument company, he started the Palace Theatre Brass Band Festival in Manchester in November 1988. It was, he said, “as far as I can remember, the first brass band festival for musicians rather than for competitors.” At the time he wrote, “There will be no judges, no pots and no decisions. Six of the finest brass bands in the world will play first-rate music all day, and we will all just enjoy it.” 

The first festival included Grimethorpe Aria (Harrison Birtwistle), Cornet Concerto (Ernest Tomlinson), Energy (Robert Simpson) and the first public performance of Partita (Wilfred Heaton). The following year in addition to the Palace there was the Colston Hall Brass Band Festival in Bristol. The latter was repeated in 1990, and 1991, which finally included a performance by Grimethorpe Colliery Band under Elgar Howarth of Alexander Owen’s Grand Selection from Wagner’s Valkyrie; and a first performance of Arthur Butterworth’s Paean. Alas, they did not last and nor did Bram’s Champion of Champions contest, held in 1982 and 1983, which pitted the winners of the top contests against each other to find an overall champion. As Bram explained to me, “It failed in the end because the current champions preferred to stay champions!”

Bram was never formally part of the British Open management. He advised Harry Mortimer, but respected his view that “there was only one Pope in Rome”. However, after Harry’s death Bram had a more active role in supporting his widow, Margaret, on music and judges until she also passed away. During Margaret’s time there were several commissioned test-pieces, no doubt fully supported and encouraged by Bram. However, since 2000 he has been the mastermind behind the Brass Band Gala Concert at Symphony Hall the day after the British Open, his skills once again coming to the fore to provide programmes suitable for a Sunday afternoon. 

In the 1970s he produced several LP records for Grosvenor Records. Through his regular visits to Sweden he was able to record Solna Brass and also perform with it on an LP the Denis Wright Cornet Concerto. Other bands he recorded were Brighouse and Rastrick, Cory and Carlton Main Frickley Colliery.

Player, conductor, teacher, arranger, music publisher, editor and writer, contest promoter, festival and concert organiser, record producer, a friendly and advising ear - Bram Gay has been all of these, but bow will people in brass bands most remember him? They’ll probably say he was that chap who got us on TV - the Granada Band of the Year, always broadcast late at night in the days before you could record anything. I don’t think that’s what he would want. He never thought winning contests was all that important. With Granada it was an acceptance that if you get involved with bands then you probably need a contest. No, it would be the music, and that’s as it should be. Almost 30 years ago, Bram commented that he would like to see bands more genuinely interested in the art of music. He felt they were interested in the band, but not music. He wanted music of substance and provided it, but he also saw the need for entertaining music although as he said, we then “faced the old challenge of the programme builder, to entertain without stooping to junk.” 

He has also been desperate to see brass bands survive, fully understanding why the genre has lost it audience. Whatever the future holds nobody could accuse Bram of not contributing, of trying to make a difference and endeavouring to put the brass band before mass audiences and to gain it acceptance in the wider musical world that he so successfully inhabited throughout his working life. That working life only happened because of his enthusiasm, commitment and hard work, but equally because brass bands were an integral part of life in the Rhondda Valley into which Bram Gay was born. He also wants brass bands to survive, not just because of his love for them and how they helped him down a musical path but, without them, that pathway may close for others.

So, Bram, in retirement what’s next? The last words are left to him. “I have now retreated to my French garden where I shall happily sit on my lawn amongst Mrs Gay’s beloved flowers to hold bilingual conversations with my French Labrador who shares my opinions on brass band music generally. She and I will watch further developments in this field with great, if a little more detached, interest.”

The last words? No, those actually do have to come from all of us - those who have benefited so richly from his endeavours. Simple and heartfelt: appreciation and thank you!