First Prize – Oliver Picken

RPS Young Classical Writers Prize 2023

Legitimising a genre: A Moorside Suite by Gustav Holst

I owe most of my musical upbringing to brass bands. Yet it was only recently while playing in my university band that I was formally introduced to what could be considered one of the most significant works in the banding repertoire – Gustav Holst’s A Moorside Suite. I had heard of Moorside before, the piece is naturally more cherished in brass band circles than in the wider classical sphere. However my play-through of this historic piece inspired me to investigate further into its landmark status, and how Moorside changed brass banding.

At the peak of their popularity in the late 19th Century, brass bands formed a vital part of British musical identity. In contests, a band’s technical skill was applied to a set test piece, typically an arrangement of music from the orchestral repertoire like selections from an opera. For working class audiences, it was through brass bands, not orchestras, that they would hear the ‘art music’ of the day.

It was not until the turn of the 20th Century that contest organisers would strive towards a distinct stylistic voice for banding. Attempts made by the committee of the National Championships to ‘woo' conservatoire graduates were mostly unsuccessful, bar a handful of younger composers like Percy Fletcher, who penned Labour and Love for the 1913 Nationals. As Holst wrote extensively for youth orchestras throughout his life, it’s perhaps no surprise that he was the first English composer of serious pedigree to recognise the potential of the amateur brass band movement, with a new work for the 1928 Nationals.

Inspired by his affection for walking along the North York Moors, the suite explores modal harmony that was a hallmark of Holst’s later writing. In contrast to the likes of Fletcher, Holst was bold enough to venture far from simply a pastiche of the operatic selections of the past, writing a suite in three distinct movements and exploring the full range of tonal colour of a brass band. Holst’s writing draws on the bright sound of brass, from the brisk folk-like melody of the Scherzo, to the lyrical solo for the principal cornet in the Nocturne. From my own experience performing the work, there are clear technical hurdles for a band within Moorside. However, Holst moves away from the idea of test pieces as a technical challenge simply for flushing out the bands that cannot keep up, and instead tests musical expression over twiddle. Holst, satisfied from attending the 1928 contest, wrote that he heard ‘musicians, conducted by musicians’.

With Moorside, Holst legitimised the brass band in the world of classical music by giving banding a voice. Today, while the banding movement has formed its own canon of esteemed composers of both concert works and test pieces, we celebrate works from contemporary orchestral composers like Gavin Higgins’ Concerto Grosso for Brass Band and Orchestra, recipient of the 2023 RPS Award for Large-scale Composition, that shine a light on banding just as Holst did 95 years ago.