Some reflections on my input into the International Staff Band CD of my music: Larsson in Brass.
‘LARSSON’ and ‘brass’ are two words not usually associated with each other. But they might have been, for as a teenager I was band crazy. My parents were officers serving in Argentina, and I played in the dozen-strong band of Palermo Corps in Buenos Aires. I read The Musician from cover to cover whenever it arrived from London. I listened to every 78 rpm band record I could lay my hands on. I was a true trinitarian: I worshipped God, Eric Ball and Ray Steadman-Allen!
I ventured into brass composition when I was made a bandmaster at the age of 17. I learnt by doing. When we wanted to play ‘Star Lake’, I wrote out the score by repeatedly listening to the ISB recording of it. I wore out the record but it was a master class in scoring for me. The only music we had was age-old second series journals that naturally featured British songs not known to Argentine listeners. So I wrote selections for the band based on South American melodies and these proved popular.
But what might have seemed like a budding brass writing career came to a sudden halt when I entered the International Training College in London at the age of 18. Without any sense of regret I cheerfully said goodbye to what until then had been my chief focus. I was now going to be an officer, and all my energies would be devoted to the new passion in my life.
Music composition came back into my life some years later when, as a member of staff at the training college, I was asked to write music for the cadets’ commissioning pageants. And it came back big time when John Gowans and I were commissioned to write a musical for Youth Year 1968. My focus had switched from brass to vocal.
As 10 musicals with more than 200 songs rolled out, and at the same time I wrote other music for songsters, it became ever clearer to me that the special gift that God had entrusted to me was the gift of melody. Melodies just flowed. And when I began setting the lyrics of John Gowans to music I found that the melodies came so easily that I sometimes wrote several tunes to the same words. My idea was to select the best one in the end. But I soon gave up that way of working, for only one melody could live and the others had to die, and that proved too painful!
I have many times thanked the Lord for giving me this gift for melody and rejoiced at the way the melodies have lived on. I was pleasantly surprised to discover in 2015 that I am the majority shareholder in the tune book for the new English-language song book – and by a long shot. Perhaps being a melody maker is going to be one of my chief legacies to the Army. And it is certainly the input I have had into the making of the CD Larsson in Brass by the International Staff Band (ISB).
Over the years I have been grateful to brass arrangers who have taken hold of my melodies and based brass compositions on them. There are many such arrangements, and it has been fascinating to work with Stephen Cobb, the ISB bandmaster, to distil this abundance into 16 tracks of classic and new items written for the CD. The chosen tracks are by some of the most brilliant arrangers of Army music. They range from major overtures of our musicals to items based on a single melody, and from exquisite devotional arrangements to sparkling cornet and trombone ensembles. Thirty-nine of my melodies are featured in some way on the CD, and the booklet contains the lyrics of them all.
Let me mention three tracks with which I have an even greater personal connection. Stephen suggested I should write a new theme for the CD – to be arranged for brass by our son Kevin. I demurred. I told Steve that I had not composed anything for the past 25 years, and that my creative interests had moved into the field of authoring books. I was also older. Perhaps there were no more melodies left within me. Stephen was careful not to overpush, but he did remark that Vaughan Williams wrote some of his best symphonies when in his 8Os. I said I would think about it.
It was the mention of Vaughan Williams that did it. Ought I not at least to give it a try? So I set to and before long a ‘theme without words’ had formed in my mind. I scored it for piano and sent it to our son. Kevin produced what I can only describe as a masterful arrangement based on it. Commissioner Keith Banks then wrote lyrics for a songster version which gave it its title: ‘Spirit Breeze’. At a recent ISB concert, I heard Stephen Cobb say that it would be worth buying the CD for this track alone. Quite some commendation.
Another track I want to mention is Kevin’s hauntingly beautiful African-style setting of ‘They shall come from the east’ which has captivated audiences ever since it was written. The sound is almost ethereal as the band quietly sings in Swahili ‘Come from the east, come from the west – sit down and worship him’.
And then there is my little march ‘It’s New’. It has the distinction of being unique – for it is my one and only published brass number! When as General I travelled the world with Freda, enterprising bandmasters looked for something of mine that they could feature. They found only one: ‘It’s New’. So wherever we went around the globe it was the sound of that march that greeted us.
When Stephen shared that he was thinking of including it on the CD, I countered that it might be a rather modest effort compared with the others. ‘But it works,’ was his verdict. And I could not have wished for a better tribute to it. For my aim has always been to write functional music. Music that works. It was for this that the Lord entrusted me with the gift of melody. So every time I play the CD I listen with pleasure to ‘It’s New’ – yet again.
The 16 tracks are by some of the most outstanding arrangers past and present of Army brass music. They range from major overtures of our musicals to items based on single melodies, and from exquisite devotional numbers to sparkling cornet and trombone ensembles. Thirty-nine of my song melodies from the musicals and beyond are featured in one way or the other on the CD, and the booklet contains the lyrics of them all.