Written by Gustav Holst in 1928, "A Moorside Suite" is largely considered to be the first important classical work composed for brass band. Written for the British National Brass Bands Championships of that year, the piece is rather difficult, not because of technique but due to the complicated nature of the harmonies involved. The first time the suite was performed it was played once by each of the fifteen competing bands. In a row. Worst. First date. Ever.
Personally, I had my doubts. It's rather hard to get away from the preconception that large groups of brass instruments should only get together at half time or while stamping around in the snow, attempting to impart a bit of Christmas cheer to red-nosed holiday shoppers and little children, trying to avoid the inherent stupidity of holding two pounds of brass up to one's lips in subzero temperatures. The whole exercise seemed militaristic and strange to me.
The first time I listened to it I couldn't help but thinking, This sounds like Bach. In a kilt. S'what it is, essentially.
The piece is of three movements, a Scherzo, a Nocturne and a March. The Scherzo starts simply enough with a bouncy, tramping-o'er-the-hills-and-dales sort of feel that quickly gains in complexity, the melody mirrored and twisted by the low brass - musical stress is introduced undynamically, by the addition and subtraction of instrumentation and through ebbing and flowing levels of dissonance. It's powerfully quiet - Hindemith was probably ecstatic.
Contrary to that, the nocturne is driven forward by a walking bass in the low brass while the horns swell overhead. It's stately, with a beautifully accidentalized trumpet lead.
The March is just that, a march, but is surprisingly agile. It's the only movement that uses percussion at all, and its sparse usage will probably force you out of your chair. The buildup of tension here is slow, insistent and totally appropriate, peaking with a B section that sounds like a parody of a sharp, defined echo, an echo that would ring in one's head like an insistent preacher if it were heard in a concert hall.
The piece is rarely performed nowadays, mostly because of its length and its instrumentation - my recording clocks in at just under fifteen minutes, which is a silly amount of time to assemble a band of this nature for a performance without some other heavy hitting brass band works on the bill. Not only is it fun for the historical aspects of the enterprise, but because its character (apart from being blatantly, well, Scottish) is so hard to pin down. It's confusing in an utterly delightful way.