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My Top 10 Philip Sparke Brass Band Pieces

From Dragons to Heroes: Exploring the Music of Philip Sparke




I'm willing to bet that there isn't a brass band musician out there who hasn't played or at least heard of Philip Sparke's music. From the illustrious major works that have graced many a contest stage to his concert repertoire that is capable of entertaining the masses, his brass writing talents are widely respected and his works are frequently performed by brass bands around the world.


Like many of us, I'm a huge admirer of Sparke's music and I would like to take you through some of my favourites. So, whether this post offers the opportunity to revisit some of your favourite Philip Sparke pieces or introduces to some that are new to you, I hope you'll join me on an exciting musical adventure.


So, let's get on with it, shall we?


1) Year of the Dragon



It would be criminal of me to not start this list with one of the most iconic and recognisable pieces of repertoire penned by Sparke (that happens to be my favourite)- Year of the Dragon.


Written for the Cory Band to celebrate their centenary in 1984, the three-movement work is a colourful celebration that was intended to (in the words of the composer : "display the talents of [the] remarkable band".


The piece opens with a vibrant, punchy 'Toccata', moving into a mellow 'Interlude' featuring a suave solo trombone moment and a heroic, rhythmic finale. Altogether, it is a masterclass in brass writing and astounding to listen to live. I had the privilege of watching the Cory Band perform this live at the 2024 RNCM International Festival of Brass and it was absolutely sublime.


2) The Land of the Long White Cloud (Aotearoa)



The Land of the Long White Cloud was Sparke's first test piece, commissioned by the New Zealand Brass Band Association for their 1980 National Championships. It was also chosen as the set work for the European Championships, held at the Royal Albert Hall in the same year.


The word Aotearoa (as you may have guessed) translates to 'the land of the long white cloud', which is what New Zealand's Polynesian settlers christened their new home, as their first sight New Zealand was of a long white cloud hanging low over the country.


The Land of the Long White Cloud is an energetic, illustrative and beautifully descriptive work which paints a vivid musical picture of the piece's subject matter. Not only does it provide an engaging challenge for performers, it also offers an enjoyable listening experience for its audience.


3) Pantomime (Euphonium Solo)



Commissioned by euphonium solo virtuoso and now, world-renowned conductor of the Black Dyke Band, Nick Childs in 1986, 'Pantomime' is designed to show off both the lyrical and technical playing of the soloist.


The work opens with a warm, expressive melody with sympathetic accompaniment and emotive solo cornet moments. It really offers a chance for the soloist to showcase their sound, musicality, as well as tease elements of their technique that will be further demonstrated in the more energetic sections of the piece. After a cadenza section, listeners are thrust into the throes of the main, mischievous section of the piece. It's a bouncy, fun affair with the band and soloist working together, tossing the main theme around in between segments of virtuosic technical playing from the soloist. It is a superbly scored piece with plenty of technically-demanding challenges for the soloist, whilst remaining a delightfully entertaining piece for the audience.


4) Summon the Heroes



I know long-time readers of the blog will be rolling their eyes saying, oh god she's not talking about this piece again, surely?! Feel free to skip through to number 5 if this is the case - I admittedly do go on about this piece a lot - but for good reason!


Alongside his outstanding original works for brass band, Sparke is also an incredible arranger who has tailored a variety of fantastic music, from film scores to pop songs and classical works for the brass band medium.


'Summon the Heroes' is a huge, anthemic piece from the pen of the inimitable John Williams. Written for the 1996 summer Olympic games. This one-movement composition consists of an opening fanfare, a heroic solo moment for trumpet (cornet in Sparke's brass band arrangement) and a driving, rousing section finishing with a triumphant finale. It's the piece I listen to on contest morning, before I have an important day at work or basically whenever I need to feel like I can take on the world.


Sparke's arrangement stays true to the original with all the panache, drive and drama of Williams' writing, expertly scored for brass band.


5) Flowerdale (Soprano Cornet Solo)



Taken from Sparke's seven-movement suite for brass band, Hymn of the Highlands, this iconic solo regularly graces the stages of brass band concerts around the world.


Hymn of the Highlands was commissioned by legendary conductor, musician and educator ,Professor David King, for the Yorkshire Building Society Band to perform at the 2002 European Brass Band Championships Gala Concert in Brussels. The piece was designed to feature the soloists within a brass band, with one of the solo movements being Flowerdale, which was written for one of the most respected and highly regarded soprano cornet players of all time, Peter Roberts.


The piece takes its name from a forest in Wester Ross, Scotland, which is known for its beautiful waterfall. This sweet, melodious work beautifully illustrates the charm and serenity of this location and is a lovely addition to any concert programme.



6) Hymn to the Fallen

Featured in my 'best John Williams arrangements for brass band' article, Hymn to the Fallen, is another fantastic arrangement by Sparke of Williams' compositions.


Written for the 1998 film, Saving Private Ryan, starring Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, Hymn to the Fallen, is a haunting yet heroic piece that can be heard during the closing credits of the film. Alongside the iconic brass writing that John Williams is known for, it is the strings within this piece that provides that real heart-wrenching emotional pull. Trying to capture such emotion within an all-brass ensemble can pose a challenge that requires intelligent scoring to accomplish, which Sparke achieves with his arrangement.


From the subtle use of dynamics to the skillfully-crafted ensemble writing that enables the warmth and heart offered from the brass band sound to carry Williams' emotive writing in a way that still tugs at the heart strings (potentially even more so than the original, in my opinion)- this is an arrangement that really demonstrates the composer's powerful musical skill. Just incredible.


7) Queen Symphonic Highlights



As one of the biggest fans in the world of the best band of all time (no question about it), this superb arrangement of four of Queen's most well-known songs had to make the list. To be fair, to simply call it an arrangement is an insult to its ingenuity.


The piece is based on Bohemian Rhapsody, Bicycle Race, Who Wants to Live Forever and We are the Champions artistically intertwined in a symphonic medley of epic proportions. It's a challenging blow, but it is worth it.


I'm grateful that many brass band composers seem to be fans of Queen, as there are so many fantastic arrangements of their musical catalogue and this arrangement is up there as one of the best!


8) Sambezi (Trombone Solo)



Taken from his Trombone Concerto, Sambezi is a lively solo work featuring elements of samba and jazz music that shows off the virtuosic talents of the soloist.


The concerto this piece is taken from was originally written for and is dedicated to German trombonist Olaf Ott and was commissioned by the Deutsche Bläserphilharmonie. Sambezi is the last movement of the original concerto and it starts with an optimisitic opening with a carefree samba tune before moving into a jazz-influenced section that explores the higher register of the trombone. This is followed by a duel-style competition between the soloist and the band's trombone section, with the section trying to out-play the soloist with the soloist being the triumphant victor. Following their win, the soloist celebrates their victory with a recapitulation of the samba melody moving into a virtuosic flourish of a finale. It's an absolute cracker of a solo.


9) Music


This arrangement of John Miles' Music has held a special place in my heart since I was a teenager. The lyrics of the 1976 hit are simple, but resonate deeply with me and I'm sure many of us amateur musicians:


Music was my first love,

And it will be my last,

Music of the future,

And music of the past.


To live without my music,

Would be impossible to do,

In this world of troubles,

My music pulls me through.


The song mixed elements of pop and classical music, in a way that felt like it was a few different songs joined together and was ahead of its time. Music is the song that Miles is best remembered for and it earned him an Ivor Novello award.


Sparke's arrangement includes all of the heart and drive of the original, but he has transformed it from a forward-thinking pop song to an anthemic work that wouldn't be out of place in a stage musical or movie soundtrack. Just brilliant.


10) Variations on an Enigma



This final space was a hard one to fill. There are so many more of Sparke's works that could easily have made this list - Between the Moon and Mexico, Dances and Alleluias, Song and Dance and Tallis Variations to name a few! However, I couldn't not include Variations on an Enigma, for a couple of

reasons.


Obviously, it's a fantastic piece of music. I've had the pleasure of both listening and performing this work and it's a fantastic challenge, as well as a beautiful piece of music, which made it a very rewarding piece to work on. I've spoken at length about this piece and you can read a full review here.


The main reason why this piece has made the list, other than being a brilliant piece of music is that it will remind me of how much I enjoyed the Regionals this year. I've spoken quite a bit about how much I am loving my time at Rainford Band and I don't think Variations on an Enigma will be the only piece that will have happy memories with this band attached to it - I'm sure there are many more to come.


That is the wonderful thing about music isn't it?


A piece that may have been commissioned for a contest or for a particular band or an arrangement of a well-known movie soundtrack can suddenly become the backing music for a core memory or a brilliant musical experience or a funny story with band friends. I don't think Mr Sparke wrote Variations on an Enigma (or many other pieces in this list) with the intention of soundtracking some fantastic memories and experiences of this bander from Wigan. But I think it's nice to know that the music you've worked so hard on has a place in people's hearts for a variety of wonderful reasons.


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