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Test Piece Preview: ‘A Brussels Requiem by Bert Appermont’

Updated: May 7

An Exploration Bert Appermont’s Modern Classic for Brass Band

Those of you who have followed my blog for a while will know that Bert Appermont’s ‘A Brussels Requiem’  has been on my bucket list to play for over 5 years. I still can’t believe that I’ve had the opportunity to work on it and I’m beyond excited (and more than a little nervous) to be performing it with Rainford Band at the 2024 Spring Festival in less than a week!

It is an epic work for brass band with plenty to test, but most importantly it is an utterly outstanding piece of music full of visceral emotion, vivid imagery and gob-smacking solo moments. I don’t think I’ve ever played a piece of music that is so illustrative. It covers the full spectrum of human emotion in exquisite detail; from gut-wrenching grief to disbelief and fury to a warm light of glimmering hope and fiery determination to finish. 

This is a preview that I’ve been excited to write and I will do my best to do this piece justice the best I can, as in my view, it is one of the best examples of modern brass writing today. 

Who is Bert Appermont?

Bert Appermont is a Belgian-born composer who has two musicals, two symphonies, an oratorium and more than 100 pieces for wind orchestra, choir and symphony orchestra to his name. He has achieved a double Master of Music certification at the Lemmens Institute and a Masters in Music Design for Film and Television at the Bournemouth Media School in England. In partnership with British composer Graham Reilly he has scored music for over 45 hours of prime TV and film productions. 

A quick delve into the composer’s biography already illuminates the reason behind the style of this piece. Its cinematic and incredibly descriptive nature gives it the feel of a film soundtrack. 

About the Piece

‘A Brussel’s Requiem’ reflects on the tragedies caused by a series of terrorist attacks in the Belgian capital in March 2016 that resulted in the deaths of 32 people and 300 others injured. As is the horrific nature of terrorism, similar attacks have since occurred and continue to occur around the world. In the words of the composer, this work ‘also acts as a prescient touchstone on more immediate tragedies’. 

The piece was commissioned by Brass Band Oberösterreich in Austria and it received its world premiere in 2017 at the European Brass Band Championships in Oostende. Since its premiere, it has been chosen for the 2018 British Open Championships, where the Cory Band’s performance was victorious, and now it is the chosen work for the Grand Shield section at the 2024 Spring Festival in Blackpool. 

Exploring ‘A Brussel’s Requiem’

From the haunting melody provided by the Principal Cornet at the beginning of the piece to the tumultuous representation of anger, fear and confusion and the energetic, rousing finish - this piece uses the full palette of the brass band’s sound, timbre and colour to paint an incredible picture of the human experience in the midst of tragedy.

The piece is written in four movements: Innocence, In Cold Blood, In Memoriam - We Shall Rise Again and A New Day. Although it is a descriptive work, it doesn’t tell the story of the attacks themselves, rather it reflects on why the events occurred and the chaotic montage of emotions the event triggered for the people of Belgium and the wider world, as they came to terms with this catastrophe. 

Mvmt. 1: Innocence

The piece opens with an exposed cornet line. It's a bittersweet theme that will be heard in various forms throughout the piece. Accompanied by twinkling percussion (apt for the subject line of the song this melody is taken from) the cornet solo line is reciprocated with a lyrical euphonium counter-melody, transforming it into a magical duet moment.

A beautiful hymn-like section follows that fully demonstrates the warmth of the brass band sound. The melody is taken from from the French folk song ‘Au Clair de la Lune’ (not to be confused with Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’). Due to its simple melody, it is often used in music education and as a lullaby, therefore is an ideal vehicle to epitomise the innocence who woke up on that morning in March, unaware of the terrible circumstances they were about to experience. 

Akin to Grieg’s ‘Morning’, this section paints a picture of a sunny dawn, so vivid the listener can feel the warmth of a friendly sun on their face, but as the ensemble line develops with flourishes of cornet and soprano, there is an undertone of an anticipatory warning - a musical foreshadow of the darkness that lies in wait. 

The Flugel then takes the solo line - a beam of light attempting to flicker through the traffic of staccato cornets. An ever-growing feel of unease builds before the beat of a timpani thrusts us into the chaos of the second movement. 

Mvmt. 2: In Cold Blood

Before I delved into the background of this piece, the picture that this section painted in my mind was the horrific scene of panic and terror of the attack. However, now I see it as the storm of emotion felt by all involved as they dealt with the aftermath. Anger is portrayed by the syncopated, cornet line; ‘rips’ act as cries of dismay and shock, whilst the rest of the band and percussion are a sea of confusion, dismay - a city rocked by a tragedy never seen before. 

In my mind, the runs of semi-quavers illustrate the footfall of the citizens rushing to aid, to comfort or pacing in fury and despair before a big, chordal passage; an emphatic ‘What on earth is going on?!’ communicated in musical form

The solo trombone steps out with a cry before entering into an ‘improvised-sounding’ solo line that is so vocal, it sounds like somebody trying to anxiously explain the situation or expressing their rage at such a horrific situation. A frantic xylophone solo follows. To me this is a representation of the news being spread around the world - headlines on the television, statuses on social media, people, globally, asking in conversation ‘have you seen what’s happened in Brussels?’. 

As the music descends into a muted passage (both in dynamic and timbre), you can feel the panic and fear building as the reality of the situation sets in. Technical passages cascade around the stand as the dynamic increases, a spiral of rhythmic thoughts and emotions, before the anxiety spills over into a rallentando that heaves, like the crest of a sob, into a musical scene of pure devastation. The shift of the opening theme into a minor setting is an incredible use of motif from the composer that truly illustrates the colossal destruction of the innocence outlined in the opening movement and the deep pain this loss caused. 

Once again, the opening melody can be heard from the Solo Horn as the percussion rings a funeral knell and the ensemble fades - anger subsiding into sorrow - as we enter into the third movement. 

Mvmt. 3: In Memoriam: We Shall Rise Again

Offstage cornets open the movement with the first cornet repeating the Au Clair de Lune melody and the second cornet morosely accompanying with ‘last post’-esque bugle call. A final farewell and respects paid to those lost in the tragedy. This is followed by a dark, funereal processional from the trombones and rolls of timpani. The mood is heavy, stifling even, with the weight of loss and sorrow of those affected. The sun felt in the warmth of the opening movement is gone, and just as it feels like it will never rise again the euphoniums enter the mood with a melody that brings about a tonal shift. It provides a comforting arm that lifts the listener from the pit of sadness, with a promise that we will indeed rise again from the desolation we have just experienced. 

A deeply emotive, solo cornet line offers some of the most heart-breaking brass writing I have ever heard. The epitome of innocence questioning why it has been so unjustly and inconceivably assaulted. But, just as we're about to fall into despair, the solo euphonium and solo baritone take our arm and reassure us that goodness will prevail with a nod to the opening melody. This optimism is greeted and expanded from the flugel line - rays of sunlight peaking above the horizon that spreads throughout the band with an ascending melody line and determined fanfare from the cornets. As the music builds you can see the people rising (represented by every instrument in the ensemble), arm in arm, defiant in the face of terror - shouting in its face that, “we will not be intimidated nor defeated” before they turn to face the sun in all its glory. The dawn of a new day.

Mvmt. 4: A New Day

We are thrust into the bustle of a city rebuilding itself. Samba-like rhythms transport us into the throes of determination, as the people of Brussel’s and the world come to terms with what has happened and heal the wounds left behind. A fiendish cornet solo follows (kudos to every single cornet player that has and is currently polishing this solo for their performance - regardless of results, you are superstars for dealing with the task of this solo!). 

Another busy section around the stand leads into a glorious, triumphant ‘good-overcomes evil’ theme with a glittering sop and lashings of percussion, banishing the darkness of the previous movement. 

Holding tears back in this section on Saturday will be hard (I’m getting sweaty-eyed just writing this as I’m listening to the piece in the background), which is a little bit of a worry given the beautiful duet moment between the top two solo cornets that occurs as the ensemble subsides. Note to self: you can cry at the end, if you must, but don’t cock up this moment!

The cornet duet is a lovely moment of reflection. A look over the shoulder, accepting what has passed, healing from it and looking to the future. 

A John Williams-esque section with measured semi-quavers from cornet and sparkling percussion leads us into the finale of the piece. A rallentando pulls us back, like a slingshot before we are launched into a funky, rhythmic, hell-for-leather rush towards the end. It’s got all the bells and whistles of the conclusion of a film. The darkness is gone. The ‘innocence’ motif can be heard again, but it is fierce, it is strong, it’s a stamping of the foot - a declamatory “we will not be beaten” (I made that up, but it does fit the rhythm and I’ll be writing it on my part!)  before one final flourish of a run leads us to a defiant last note. 

One Final Push

It is a relentless, emotionally exhausting (for both the player and the listener) rollercoaster of a piece that is, in my opinion, an absolute masterpiece. It’s a rare piece of music that stays with you long after the last note fades into the ether. I will be genuinely sad to say goodbye to this piece - I’m so glad I’ve had the opportunity to finally work on it! It's still

From a player’s perspective, I know every ounce of effort, energy and determination it takes to even attempt to play this piece, let alone bring it to life. From its constant technical strain, stamina pressures to its need for thoughtful musicality. It’s the biggest challenge I’ve faced for a contest and that’s without the pressures that the soloists face. 

Speaking on the topic, I have to express the awe I have for all soloists around the stand in Rainford Band and the hard work they have put into this piece. The solos are not for the faint of heart and the amount of work that has gone into this piece has not and will not go unnoticed regardless of what happens next weekend. 

I am already proud to sit in the band who are doing everything to get this piece performance-ready, as I hope all members are within the bands at the Grand Shield (This piece is relentless, so give yourself a pat on the back for getting through it!) and regardless of the result this pride will remain. 

We’ve got one last week to give it everything we’ve got. To Rainford Band, it’s a privilege to work on this piece, but even more so working on it with the hardworking musicians who make up our band. To everyone in the Grand Shield, we’re nearly there! Wishing you all the best in the last week of preparations and good luck for the day. 

See you in Blackpool!

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