Pt.1 The Album: British Folk Music for Brass, Vol. 1 – The Music and its Importance in the Present Day

‘History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this?’

Upon the death of Neville Chamberlain 

House of Commons.

12th November 1940.

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, DL, FRS, RA, Nobel Prize in Literature (30 November 1874 – 24 January 1965)

This album was recorded in November of 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic and we hope that if nothing else it expresses to the listener our sheer joy as performers in being given the chance to make music together after a year of being unable to do so.

London is unique in terms of its orchestral culture where a tradition of freelance playing has led over many years to the establishment of certain unspoken conventions which are passed down in the institutional memory of players, teachers, and ensembles. Musicians will very often hold positions in multiple orchestras over the length of their careers, and it is not unusual for players to leave a safe job in an orchestra in order to freelance; their reputation for being able to deliver on even the most challenging programmes in one rehearsal might best be understood in the context of a musical culture based around gigging, somewhat analogous to New York’s jazz scene or Dublin’s folk scene in which players are trained to perform spontaneously with ensembles familiar with a shared repertoire and style.

The Ensemble of the Golden Bough reflects this heritage not just in the performances captured here, which were recorded without prior rehearsals, on the day, by musicians playing with each other in this configuration for the first time; but also in the selection of composers who, like our members, have a connexion with The Royal College of Music: Percy Grainger, John Foulds, Frank Bridge and Benjamin Britten. All of these men, in addition to being composers, were avid performers who would have been very familiar with the itinerant lifestyle that is still a hallmark of classical music in Britain today; it is easy to imagine them, like us,  stumbling in their evening tails, laden with instruments from concert hall, to pub, to the last train home from Kings Cross. 

Our ensemble takes its name from the extraordinary work by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer entitled ‘The Golden Bough’. Readers may recognise the name from Yeats’ poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ or from the countless other poets, musicians and artists like D.H. Lawrence who were profoundly influenced by Frazer’s work. The book explores myths from cultures right across the world and the way in which ritual and ceremony is used to harness the power of the unconscious.  

Though in Britain we are accustomed to examining other cultures in this way we are less accustomed to approaching our own cultural and magical rituals with the same sense of reverence. The Ensemble of the Golden Bough is a means of turning the magnifying glass back on ourselves; though the druids have long since disappeared from these isles, artists still have a recognised role in contemporary society as gateways to the mystery of existence beyond the realms of rational description. The music in this album is all based on folk song and we have therefore striven to capture spontaneous live performances rather than relying on endless takes, splices and recording software. 

The Music and its Importance in the Present Day

As we reach the end of the year 2021 it is not uncommon to hear political observers describe contemporary Britain as ‘divided’. Young and old, city and country, working class and middle class. Not for the first time in our history we have engaged in a period of collective introspection in search of our individual, regional and national identities. This search for identity can be seen all around us: whether it be in discussions about class, sexuality and ethnicity, the re-establishment of Celtic languages and customs amongst the four nations, or the United Kingdom’s place in Europe.

The role of the musician throughout history has been to create and perform works which reflect the universal experiences of humanity using the language and conventions that are particular to their own culture. As a British ensemble we’re fortunate to be able to draw upon Percy Grainger’s recordings and transcripts contained within the British Library. We offer this album to the public in order to help facilitate a greater respect for each other through a deeper understanding of our shared history; music allows us to enter history through the gate of the heart rather than the mind and reminds us that these composers and their contemporaries felt and experienced life with the same poignancy and intensity that we do. History comes alive when music is performed. 

Our first album British Folk Music for Brass Ensemble, Vol. 1 ‘The Land Without Music’ is a document of a similar sort to the type that Percy Grainger created in the first decade of the 20th century when he visited the very same Cathedral Cities and Market Towns that EGB players perform in today, plying local folk singers with ale in the hopes that they might perform ancient songs to him and his early recording device before these oral traditions were lost forever. 

With the exception of the Britten, the first half of the album consists of arrangements of works based around folk songs by the above mentioned composers; the second half of the album from ‘Lowlands’ onwards consists of new compositions based on folk songs captured in Percy Grainger’s Ethnographic Wax Cylinders, and informed by the compositional techniques of Grainger and his approach to ‘elastic scoring’ particularly. We explore these fascinating and little-known techniques in videos and articles available on our website if readers wish to find out more.  

Britten’s Fanfare for St Edmundsbury, performed here with guest trumpet – Phil Cobb, was premiered in 1959 at the Bury St. Edmunds Pageant of Magna Carta. Magna Carta acts as a legislative bedrock for the English speaking democracies of the world as it established within law the then radical principle that any person, including the monarch, was subject to the same common law. Three of the clauses remain on the statue book in the UK today: 

‘No free man shall be seized, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or ruined in any way, nor in any way proceeded against, except by the lawful judgement of his peers and the law of the land.’ ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.’ 

Both Molly on the Shore and Ye Banks and Braes o Bonnie Doon,  ingeniously orchestrated for brass by our trumpet player and composer-in-residence Ryan Linham, were originally set by Grainger for many different combinations of instruments. These settings not only immortalise the folk melodies but preserve in some measure the feeling that the songs seek to express: the rejuvenation and joy that one experiences when communing with nature. Most importantly in this age of environmental awareness these folk songs demonstrate that at the very heart of western culture there is a philosophy which sees humanity as a part of nature. 

‘Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon,

How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair;

How can ye chant, ye little birds,

And I sae weary, fu’ o’ care!’

Jonathan Heeley’s beautiful settings of English Tune with Burden and Cherry Ripe bring this music into the world of brass for the first time. Both Frank Bridge and John Foulds are fascinating characters and Foulds in particular is not nearly as well known as he deserves to be. A modern character in every sense, he was shunned by many of his peers for amicably divorcing his wife in order to marry violinist Maud MacCarthy.  Maud introduced him to Indian music and he eventually moved to the subcontinent where he became one of the first Western composers to write for traditional Indian instruments. 

Frank Bridge’s ‘Cherry Ripe’ is one of the clearest examples on this album of seemingly ‘light music’ made more moving by historical context. Written in 1916 at the peak of The Great War it stands as a testament, much like Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, to the sensitivity and deeply felt romanticism of the 19th century and likely as a tribute to the many friends that he lost to the war. There is a fierceness to the joy in this folk-song setting and Bridge’s approach stands in stark contrast to the Second Viennese School and its abandonment of cadential movement and diatonicly based harmony. Innocence and ecstasy in the face of mechanised brutality. 

For further information on this work, as well as the new commissions on the second half of the album please visit our website where you can not only find articles written by the composers, but documentaries which explore the process of combing through the folk song archives, researching the lives of the composers and singers, and then writing the compositions in a historically-informed manner. 

Christopher Barrett – Rochester, Kent 2021