Whenever I happen to have a quiet morning in the office with a necessary but non-brain-taxing task, one of my radio discoveries of the year is Essential Classics on BBC Radio 3. Amongst the most interesting parts of the programme is that in which notable public figures are invited to share their love of music and the presenter acts as a kind of ‘personal shopper’ to introduce them to something new. This got me thinking about what pieces of music I would choose to share. Here’s the first of them.
If there’s one single piece of music which changed me from someone who liked music to someone who loved it, it would be Gilbert Vinter’s ‘Variations on a 9th’ for brass band. Vinter was an orchestral and military band bassoonist and later conductor whose quickly found a natural composing voice with the brass band form, writing several test pieces for brass band competitions in the 1960s – most if not all of these demonstrate his gift of writing challenging and (for the times) unusual music which audiences and players nevertheless loved. I first heard the piece on radio 2 in the 1980s, in the original championship-winning performance by the GUS band. Though the ‘variations’ schema provides for a fairly stop-start piece of music, it contains several gorgeous melodies: an early, breezy canter led by the trombones, two different, lovely, cornet melodies both echoed in expansive and spine-tingling variations for full band, a fugal movement of which Bach may have been proud, and, right in the middle, a gorgeous duet for cornet and euphonium with the two melodies winding beautifully around each other.
Variations on a 9th is one of the pieces of music which makes present for me the world as it was at the time I was born (The Long and Winding Road by the Beatles, and some Philadelphia Soul, has a similar effect). When I got a recording of it, I used to turn the volume down and press my ear to the tape recorder’s loudspeaker as if to surround myself with the music and imagine myself transported into the room and the times in which the performance was given, which now, somehow, seemed so distant. When I joined a contesting band aged 14, imagine my delight when it was one of the first pieces of music we rehearsed. Even today, when time to listen to music is so much scarcer, it’s one of those pieces that I can only go so long without hearing, to retain my sense of who I am in the world.