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Exploring Philip Sparke’s Variations on an Enigma

An Exploration of “Variations on an Enigma” by Philip Sparke

black and white photo of Besson Prestige cornet with Mercer and Barker mouthpiece on top of a copy of Philip Sparke's Variations on an Enigma

Philip Sparke is a composer to whom banders need very little introduction. His music has filled the stages of many a concert and contest. From his first major work for brass band in 1979, 'The Land of the Long White Cloud' to ‘Year of the Dragon’ and ‘A Tale As Yet Untold’, I think it is fair to say that his music has reached iconic status. Always inventive, with elements of energetic vigour and emotive melodies, his music has always been an enjoyable challenge to sink my teeth into. The Championship Section test piece for 2024, 'Variations on an Enigma’ has been no different. 

As a member of one of the 12 bands looking to crack the ‘Enigma’ code in Blackpool at the North West Regionals, I thought I would embark on a journey to explore Sparke’s bold, lively and elusive work for brass band and unravel the mystery behind the music. So, if you’re working on the piece in preparation for your Regionals competition, or just want to find out a bit more information about a brilliant piece then let’s go!

Unravelling the Enigma - Background and Inspiration

‘Variations on an Enigma’ was commissioned by Howard Snell for the Desford Colliery Band who first performed the piece in September 1986. According to Sparke’s website the ‘Enigma’ is “a short snatch of a phrase taken from a well-known brass band test piece”, although he doesn’t state which test piece it is in this description. My quest to understand this piece began by trying to figure out which piece had been used as inspiration for this piece.

First I turned to one of the few people I know who may know the answer, one of my best friends, musician, composer, conductor and walking musical encyclopaedia, Matt Shaw. Within about a minute, my phone pinged with the response ‘I think it's Heaton’s ‘Contest Music’, isn’t it?’. Oh the blessing of having fellow music geeks as friends! 

So, there we are, Enigma solved.

If you already knew this then gold star for you - if you didn’t, now you do!

An Exploration of Variations on an Enigma

A Besson Prestige Cornet on top of a copy of Philip Sparke's Variations on an Enigma with a pencil in the foreground.

As suggested by the title, the form of the 14 minute piece is an opening theme, followed by a series of variations. The phrase taken from ‘Contest Music’ is used as a basis for, in the words of the composer ,“a sort of concerto for band with each section featured in turn”.  The piece takes us through a range of varied moods, from the energetic to the funereal with a spirited, rousing finish and offers many moments for soloists from around the stand to make their mark. 

I love the opening - it’s big, it’s bold, slightly pompous with fanfare-style brass and flourishes of cymbal and slightly menacing moments leading us into the first variation. 

The cornets are first up in Variation 1, with Solo Cornet 1 leading the way with the Enigma theme. If you're not sure what it sounds like - it's basically a sped up version of the theme starting at the bar before H in Contest Music, but transposed down a major 3rd (I think). I had a bit of a play about on my cornet and if you slow the semiquavers down to quavers it does sound the same (just a major 3rd below - I think, it’s been a while since I brushed up on my music theory). 

After this, the phrase is passed to the horns and flugel in Variation 2, with a “delicate and decorative” version of the theme. Trombones are up next, taking it in turns to play their own little tune before coming together in a lovely, jovial little moment.

Following a cadenza from the euphonium, there is a sombre, funereal variation featuring the principal cornet, as well as euphoniums and baritones which is interrupted by a “rhythmic, syncopated variation” from the percussion and basses. 

Following a theme which sounds similar to both ‘Maria’ from West Side Story and the beginning of the Simpsons, Bar 297 drives us down a rousing, regimented, dramatic route to a brief pause. 

Variation 6 is a fugue (based on the enigmatic theme) starting with the basses. Throughout this final variation we can hear snippets of themes and colours from previous variations. Muted cornets at bar 315 remind us of the fanfare entries in the first variation. Horns and flugels reiterate their romantic melody from the second variation above an energetic bass line. Cornets lead with the ‘enigma’ theme in full force, as the music continues to build. 

From bar 365 reiterations of this theme are thrown around the band as the rest of the ensemble sound like the rhythmic, well-oiled parts of an engine, chugging away underneath the theme. The cornets return with a semi quaver theme and trombones slide about in a moment that sounds similar to the ‘Mambo’ out of West Side Story; this entire variation is very Bernstein-esque, in my opinion, I love it. 

Then we’re into the Giubiloso, which I can only describe as beautiful chaos. Cornets are tasked with frantic semi-quaver runs, as the middle of the band take the Enigma theme in all of its glory, before there is a sudden quell in the madness at bar 389. Like a wave building towards the shore, the band drives forward towards the ending. A rousing run erupts like a mexican wave across the band before it’s the timpanist’s time to shine with an ‘emphatic’ final statement. Finally, the band put whatever they have left in the tank down their instrument in a triumphant final chord, as a percussionist gives themselves tennis elbow, thrashing the hell out of a cymbal roll. 

The crowd goes wild (or at least stop munching on their Werther's originals long enough to offer a brief applause) and we all exit stage left, to the bar. 

Ready for the Challenge

A copy of Variations on an Enigma by Philip Sparke next to an It's Not a Trumpet InstruMental Practice Sheet with a Besson Prestige cornet.

All in all, it is a bit of a blow and I think this is going to be a test of stamina, as much as it is a test of technical skill. A piece opening with such a loud dynamic always runs the risk of nerves taking over and we end up giving too much away at the beginning, which results players having nothing left for the later variations and finale with everything sounding tired and a bit lacklustre. 

Mute work I think holds the power to trip us up too, as within the acoustic of the Opera house, these areas could get lost or detail can become muddy, so articulation is something I’m really trying to work on with my mute in. 

Dynamic contrast may also be a challenge that bands will have to face, as with so many loud dynamics across the piece, it can all become too loud and dynamically flat, which won’t allow the quieter moments to speak as effectively. This will be a shame, as it’s the quieter, delicate moments that really provide the light and shade this piece needs, in my opinion, in order for the details to show. 

I reckon the bands who make a clear distinction between the delicate piano and mezzo piano moments, the mild but energetic mezzo fortes, the bold but controlled fortes and saving the full-bifter fortissimos and fortississimos that are scattered throughout this piece - will be the ones on the podium. But I’m not an adjudicator - so this is just my humble opinion. 

The Movie in My Mind

Now, those of you who have followed the blog for a while may notice that this review has been quite chilled, compared to previous test piece previews I've written - take Triumphant Rhapsody as an example. I usually end up rambling about some storyline my imagination has put to the music.

Truth be told, this review did start life as that with a wild tale concocted by the music, my imagination and a few metaphors that had been posed to the band by our conductor to help us understand the type of sound we need to create. However, by the time I got to the end, I had literally written a short story about a castle, a king and queen and a joust that ends in disaster. So, I cut that out and I'm thinking I might post that as a blog blog in its own right, what do you think? Let me know if you fancy it and I might share it!

I’m looking forward to a few weeks of hard work, getting this piece ready for the area. There’s lots to learn and lots of technique that I need to brush up on, but I’m absolutely loving getting stuck in to this piece with the lovely people of Rainford Band. 

To everyone who is attending the North West Area in Blackpool - I’ll see you there!

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