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British Tuba Concertos
Vaughan Williams • Gregson • Steptoe • Golland

The tuba, along with most woodwind and brass instruments, was totally ignored as a concerto soloist during the nineteenth century, but, unlike many of its colleagues, it had no life as such before that. The trumpet, for example, enjoyed some success in the eighteenth century both in concertos and as a leading obligato instrument, particularly in sacred music. The tuba emerges during the 1850s as a replacement for such instruments as the ophicleide, used by Mendelssohn and Berlioz. In fact, when Berlioz came to prepare a German edition of his Symphonie Fantastique of 1830 in the 1850s he sanctioned the use of the tuba in place of the ophicleide in a note on the score. The tuba, however, won its greatest lease of life in the operas of Wagner, particularly those in the Ring cycle, where various different types of the instrument appear regularly.

In the rôle of soloist most have come to see the tuba’s potential through the children’s tale, Tubby the Tuba, written in the 1940s by the American composer George Kleinsinger, and made famous through Danny Kaye’s classic recording. The whole point of the story is to highlight the fact that most people would not think the tuba capable of taking a soloistic rôle, and the fact that it can, and very successfully, is amply confirmed by the four concertos here, all written in the years after Tubby.

Edward Gregson was born in Sunderland and studied at the Royal Academy of Music, winning several prizes there. He is at present Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. His compositions range from chamber music, through works for brass and wind band, to pieces for symphony orchestra. He has composed concertos for violin, clarinet and other wind instruments. The Tuba Concerto began life with brass band accompaniment, but this version was fashioned later and first given in 1983 at the Scottish Proms in Edinburgh by John Fletcher, to whom it is dedicated, under Sir Alexander Gibson. The first movement has a sonata-form shell with two contrasting themes, one rhythmic, the other lyrical. A cheeky nod in the direction of the Vaughan Williams concerto flashes by, before merging into the main material. The central Lento is characterized by the string chorale heard at the start and close of the movment. The middle section is more chromatic in character and leads to a powerful climax. The rondo finale is dance-like, with subsidary themes, one broad and sweeping, the other jazzy, as contrast before the virtuosic cadenza, after which the work ends with a resounding flourish.

Roger Steptoe was born in Winchester and read Music at Reading University, later studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he later taught, before moving to France in 1999. He is active as a composer, teacher and adjudicator, and his works range from chamber music and songs to concertos for oboe, clarinet and cello. His Tuba Concerto started life as three pieces with piano accompaniment, and it was James Gourlay who encouraged the composer to develop the work into a concerto and gave the first performance of it in that form at St John’s, Smith Square, in 1986. The three movements, the second and third linked by a cadenza, are marked by an inherent song-like nature arising from the composer’s preoccupation with the voice. Compositionally the concerto is twelve-toned, with the intervallic relationships between the notes, principally major seconds, minor thirds and perfect fourths, colouring the whole work.

Vaughan Williams’s Tuba Concerto is as near a classic in the field as it is possible to be, given the limited extent of that field. It was first performed in June 1954 by Philip Catalinet and the London Symphony Orchestra, and is just one more work of originality and freshness that belies the 82-year-old composer’s advanced years. The concerto is dedicated to the entire orchestra on the occasion of their jubilee, and in form resembles something more akin to Bach than Mozart or Beethoven. In the words of the composer, ‘there are elaborate cadenzas in the outer movements which enclose a central movement of exceptional lyricism and tenderness’. Overall, Vaughan Williams thought the music ‘fairly simple and obvious and can be listened to without much previous explanation’. None the worse for that.

John Golland was born in Ashton-under-Lyne, near Manchester, and trained as a teacher, while studying part-time at the Royal Manchester College of Music with Thomas Pitfield. He relinquished full-time schoolteaching in 1970, but later taught in the Department of Media Studies at Salford College of Technology. His original instruments were piano and violin, but in his twenties he took up the euphonium, and played regularly in a brass band for a while. This led him to write for the medium, including two concertos for the euphonium, and conduct both here and in Switzerland. In later years he wrote and arranged for three television series of Dear Ladies, featuring Hinge and Bracket.

The Tuba Concerto was given its posthumous première in July 1997 by Andy Duncan and the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. It is cast in the usual three movements. The main theme of the opening Allegro is based around the interval of a perfect fourth, while the reflective Adagio pits the soloist, for much of the movement, against the vibraphone whose rising figure is fairly reminiscent of another adagio, that in Khachaturian’s Spartacus. The finale returns to the interval of a fourth and spices up the general flow with passages in the slightly unnerving metre of 7/8. There is no cadenza as such in the whole piece but passages of virtually solo tuba are more than enough to show the virtuosity required of the player.

Philip Lane

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