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Review- Legacy by Tom Davoren

There has been quite a lot of talk, both on social media and around the banding world regarding this year’s First Section Regional Contest piece- Legacy by Tom Davoren. Having worked on it for over a month now, I think I’m clued up enough to stick my head above the parapet with my thoughts on the piece.

Grab a brew, maybe a biscuit or a piece of cake- this is a bit of a long one.

Here we go…


Legacy started life as a Soprano cornet feature, commissioned by the Tredegar Band. It is a celebration of 70 years of the National Health Service and the man who created it, Aneurin Bevan. Tom turned his original piece into the test piece version for the 2020 Regional Contests with the desire to ‘tell a more complete version’ of Bevan’s story.

Set in three continuous movements, Legacy is a musical representation of Bevan’s ambitious politics and personality, as well as the experience of anyone whose life has been touched by the NHS- and let’s face it, whose life hasn’t been impacted by this incredible organisation?!

There’s one particular sentiment in Tom’s notes about his piece (click here to read them in full) that stood out to me and that is the fact that this piece has been written with the primary objectives for bands to create performances that paint ‘a complete emotional picture’ with ‘feeling as its driver’. Too many times I’ve seen new test pieces that are literally just that- a test. No music. No story. Just a collection of technical exercises and I appreciate the efforts made by the composer to create a piece where constructing actual music with feeling, emotion and expression has been the main aim of the piece- after all, isn’t that the point of music?

Opening- The Birth of the NHS

Before 5th July 1948, health care in this country was a travesty. People who didn’t have a stash of cash in their back pocket would either fall into the pit of debt to see a doctor or simply have to go without, resulting in many a disease epidemic and many, many deaths among the poorer citizens of the UK. However, on the aforementioned date, a forward-thinking politician (surprising, I know, I didn’t think they existed either) by the name of Aneurin Bevan set up the National Health Service, which brought together doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists etc, together to ‘universalise the best care’ for all, not just the rich.

The opening, in my mind, represents the conception of the NHS. The cornets all have different but repeated motifs that blend together to create a wall of rhythm that is constant throughout the opening bars. When you see it written out on the score, it’s something that should sound chaotic, but, for me, it symbolises the NHS from the get-go: busy with everyone going about their separate roles but at the same time working together to fulfil their objective. Underneath this rhythmic, ‘busy-body’ section there is a warm and hopeful melodic line, that I would like to think, represents Bevan. I can see him, speaking to his fellow party members in parliament, pushing for what will be one of the most important organisations ever to be founded in Britain.

Just whilst we’re on the subject, does the opening bars remind anyone else of the opening credits to the TV show Casualty? Just have a listen below- you won’t be able to unhear it. Very fitting, I suppose.

As the music builds, so does Bevan’s plan to bring together all health care professionals. There is turmoil intermingled with sections of beautiful melody. At letter D, I feel negotiations have come to a head. The British Medical Association was threatening to boycott the NHS until as late as Feburary 1948. The melodic motif from the lower brass occurs again, I imagine this to be Bevan’s voice stating his case, whilst the cornet line is brash and argumentative- the voices of the opposition trying to drown out Bevan’s plan. When we get to Letter E the opposition has been silenced into mutterings and the flugel entry at letter F is the triumphant birth of the NHS.

Central Section- Life and Death

This central section is the human side to the NHS. It’s families sitting at a relative’s bedside. It’s doctors and nurses working all hours to save a life. It’s years of research and innovation to create drugs, treatments and equipment. I like to think that the solo lines are the lives affected by this care and determination. A mother giving birth to a child she never thought she could have, thanks to IVF. A little girl, who was told she could never walk again, taking her first steps after rehabilitation. A grandfather being able to live to see his grandchildren grow up, thanks to a pacemaker. However there is melancholy mixed in with this myriad of emotion. Failure is part of development, which is all very well until failure is the difference between life and death. Take heart transplants for example. In 1968 the first UK heart transplant was successfully completed, however the patient died 46 days later from infection. A stark reminder that these incredible people have to live with life and death being in their hands every day.

Final Section- March to Progress

A ridiculous amount of progress has been achieved by the NHS since it’s birth, from vaccines for diseases that had previously killed people in their thousands to 3D scans of babies in the womb and it still continues to research and develop more pioneering methods and treatments. With cuts to services happening every year, the pressures staff face and the impact of financial strain, this progress is an uphill climb and this section very much represents that. There is a drive of determination through out this section, with material used earlier in the piece representing the passion of Bevan’s dream still being fulfilled despite the chaos threatening it. At Letter P, I imagine the cornet solo line being the voice of innovation- little medical breakthroughs popping up here and there despite the onslaught of criticism, stress and difficulties this inspirational organisation has to face. The piece does not resolve on a nice pretty note and I don’t think it should. It would suggest that the NHS is in a good place- it’s not. We again find ourselves in pivotal moment in history where the future isn’t certain. Amongst the fear and confusion which is palpable in this section, there is still that unwavering determination throughout the ending- showing that the legacy of Bevan still lives on.

My thoughts

Before I say anything else, I have never written a test piece and have the highest respect for composers as it’s something I know I could never do- far too short an attention span to manage that. I can see everything Tom has tried to represent in this piece and I do commend him for that, as well as creating a test piece where playing musically is the test- I very, VERY much appreciate that. However, this is a piece that has so much potential, but I feel it hasn’t met it just yet and maybe given a bit more time (I appreciate it was written on a strict deadline) it would have done. The final section (from the arresting onwards), is the part I’m going to draw attention to. The energy and drive in this section is great and creates a vivid picture of hard-work, but when part of Letter N is pretty much a copy and paste of the same chunk of music in Letter M, it’s just a little frustrating. Given some of the material in the piece, this gap could have been filled with something so much more.

Sandy Smith made a very good point during his speech at Brass in the Wire that this is not a First Section test piece. This is not a criticism of Legacy, but rather the section it was assigned to. To put it briefly (I will be dedicating a separate article to this point very soon) the next section up is Championship Section. Think of the pieces that have been assigned to that section in previous years- The Torchbearer, Harmony Music, The Devil and Deep Blue Sea. Is this really just one step down from those kind of pieces? Is Legacy really enough of a test considering what promoted bands will be expected to play next year? I’m not convinced.

Those are just my observations. Like I say I respect the time, effort and thought that has gone into Legacy and as a history geek, it’s been interesting to look at the ideas behind this piece. As a concept I really like it, but I still think it has more room to grow.

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