The Concerto started life at the suggestion of trumpeter Rhydian Griffiths, after he performed the solo part my 10-piece brass work The Four Dragons in January 2006 at Christ Church, Oxford.
My Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra is so named (rather than simply “Trumpet Concerto”), because the orchestra has — as a whole — almost as important a part to play in the work as the solo trumpet. In contrast to the many familiar concertos for solo instruments written in the 19th and 20th centuries, this work makes use of the older idea of the concerto as dialogue between soloist(s) and orchestra. The narrative of the work is retold in an ongoing musical dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. Nonetheless, the solo trumpet part is as extremely demanding as any concerto!
The piece is structured broadly into two halves, the first running straight into the second. The second half is essentially formed of a slow movement and a fast movement. Therefore, the usual structure of a three-movement concerto is present, but somewhat hidden.
The music begins with little repeating pattern in the violas, two alternating tones followed by a bluesy turn. This motif continues throughout the first movement of the Concerto, passing from section to section, and makes a return at the end of the second (final) movement. The first solo entrance in the Concerto is - unusually - a cadenza: traditionally, the cadenza in a concerto is at the end of the first or final movement. The soloist then explores the "bluesy" motif from the opening through a sequence of increasingly virtuosic variations. Beneath this rapid-moving surface, a much longer, deeper melody lurks and surfaces from time to time. Therefore, we have a contrast between surface and depth, slow and rapid, soloist and orchestra.
The tension of these contrasts is only partially resolved by the end of the first movement, after a sequence of rather threatening, angry outbursts as the repeating motif fragments. The first movement ends with a single note in the solo trumpet, held over an ominous bass drum roll.
The opening section of the second movement is built of several ingredients: a plaintive recitative, a slow, meditative, song-like “Arioso”, and a fast, chromatic fugue. The fugue appears twice: the first time, the melody is a descending figure, but the second time, it is turned upside-down, becoming a rising, more optimistic melody. This leads directly to the finale of the work in which the opening bluesy repeating pattern of the first movement makes a return.
The Concerto closes with a juxtaposition of both major and minor chords, neither "happy" nor "sad", or perhaps both. This arises from the "blues" element of the opening motif, which features both major and minor intervals, just like a blues scale.
Updated, Autumn 2018
Over time, I have wondered what narrative I had in mind with such an intricate structure, especially in the second movement of the Concerto. At the time of writing - late 2018 - the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day is upon us, and in fact the Concerto is to be performed the night before 11th November itself by Simon Desbruslais. I have come to imagine - coincidentally, or not - that my Concerto tells a story, and the more I dwell on the story, the clearer it seems to become in the music.
I imagine a young man going away from home at a time of war. It could be the First World War, but it could also be any war. He is not a soldier - perhaps he is a stretcher-bearer, a role traditionally given to army musicians. Indeed, perhaps this young man is a musician as well - he could even be a trumpeter, given the instrument's martial connections.
At first he is nervous, then excited, to be embarking on a grand adventure. On the surface he might be shaking and anxious, but beneath that he is stirred with conviction. This accounts for the opening of the Concerto, the blend of the rapid "bluesy" motif and the slower melody hiding beneath. But - all too soon - he is met by the realities of mechanised, industrialised conflict. In the music, we hear this in the tumultuous, loud outbursts interspersed by tense near-silences, toward the end of the first movement. Maybe these are shells exploding nearby? And if so, then our trumpeter-musician must now begin his grim duty as stretcher-bearer.
In the music, this leads us to the second movement: distant rumbling in the bass drum, then silence, broken by weak heart-beat of occasional chords in the strings, and the plaintive song-like melody in the solo. Are we reminded, perhaps, of the further duty of the military trumpeter or bugler - to sound The Last Post?
The music becomes fast again, with the entrance of the first fugue. It is a descending, tight, chromatic melody: our trumpeter and stretcher bearer must be depairing at the sights before him, his initial optimism twisted and wracked by doubt. The tortured fugue ends, and the plaintive song returns briefly.
But, eventually, the war ends, and those who can, return home - including our trumpeter. The self-doubting fugue returns, but inverted, rising: his spirit lifts, although his character is forever changed. The opening motif returns - changed, of course - and as he returns home, a different man, the work ends. The ending, however, combines major and minor - happiness at returning home, but tinged with sorrow and anger.
I cannot say that I had this story in my conscious mind when I wrote the Concerto, but it seems to fit extremely well. Perhaps it was in my subconscious: my musical education was at the hands of Royal Marines bandsmen at Christ's Hospital school. As well as many years playing trombone daily in a military-style band - performing at national sports stadiums such as Twickenham and Lords, and ceremonial marches through London - the same bandsmen taught us jazz and blues, and the military band doubled as a swing band. When I later returned to education, at Oxford, I met Rhydian (the dedicatee and first performer of this Concerto, and we played in swing bands as well as orchestras. It seems very likely that these influences may have entered this composition, through the subconscious route if not consciously.
2nd March 2007 by Oxford Millennium Orchestra, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford; soloist Rhydian Griffiths, conductor Charlie Wilson
2 (+picc).2.2.2 4hn 2tpt 2tbn btbn tba perc timp solotpt strings
Also available: set of parts — please contact me if you require these