Bliss in the rain

A rain-soaked, windy, grey Sunday afternoon on the Deal seafront and around 50 valiant, anorak-wrapped hardy souls are in deckchairs facing the Royal Marines tribute (after the 1989 Deal Bombing, in which 11 Royal Marines died) bandstand listening to the Sandwich Concert Brass Band. Can there be a more enduring English scene? As I stand and observe, I wonder if any other genre of music could attract these people to this place, given the atrocious weather.

Brass bands have warmth, whiffs of nostalgia and an enduring empathy with audiences. We are not in awe of their virtuosity. A brass band is the friendly, helpful neighbour who always has that drill bit or lawn spiker to loan you.

Sir Arthur Bliss came to mind as I sheltered and listened. He adored brass bands and was often astounded by their virtuosity: “Hearing the sound these players can produce, it did not take much to persuade me to write Kenilworth.”

The previous few days I had been listening to a new Chandos CD, Bliss: Works for Brass Band, performed by the Black Dyke Band and conducted by that musical polymath, John Wilson. Kenilworth, F13 was composed in 1936 after a visit to four Lancashire towns and Kenilworth Castle. It has everything – an up-beat march, solemn ceremony, solo fanfares, touches of melancholy and a joyous concluding march. It is music that inspires the spirits and warms the heart whatever the weather.

John Wilson has ranged far and wide across Bliss’s brass band works. A highlight is ‘Things to Come’, a suite for Alexander Korda’s film based on H G Wells’ novel The Shape of Things to Come. Wells invited Bliss to compose the music for the film even before filming began. Bliss joined the production team to modify and embellish the score during shooting. The excellent sleeve notes note that the March melody is sorrowful in character, suggesting a weary humanity locked in never-ending strife, yearning for peace. Plus ça change.

Diaghilev’s Ballets left a lasting impression on Bliss. He recalled that leaving a ballet had led him to board the bus home with a Nijinsky leap. A meeting with Ninette de Valois led to the composition of his ballet Checkmate. The four dances on from the ballet soar and swirl as Love and Death compete for ascendancy. We hear rapid shifts of mood as elation and despair are played out. Hardly suitable for a wet Sunday afternoon in Deal – try evening twilight.

This wonderful CD encapsulates the moods and circumstances of a day, a week, a lifetime. John Wilson cajoles and nurtures the Black Dyke (have we lost all our Mills?) Band across this spectrum of Bliss and his love of brass.

Bliss: Works for Brass Band

Black Dyke Band conducted by John Wilson

Chandos Digital CHSA 5344