Martin Ellerby is an English composer educated at the Royal College of Music, London, where he was taught by Joseph Horovitz. He has written works for orchestra, chorus, concert band, brass band, ballet and various instrumental ensembles, and they have been performed widely across the world. His prominent works for concert band are Paris Sketches and Dono Nobis Pacem.

(This interview was conducted in September 2010)

Tell us something about your early musical influences.

I took an interest in music at school mainly as a listener. I did take classes in trumpet and eventually piano but I was never particularly driven by performance and gave up both instruments at the earliest opportunity. I was subjected to music initially so listened to the main stream of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Perhaps the Beatles were up there too as it was my early childhood!

When I could choose a bit more I tended towards Stravinsky and Britten whilst at the same time having a healthy interest in popular music, films and the musical theatre for example John Barry and Godspell were early into the frame. At college I only listened to contemporary music and lived for some four years with Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Berio and the like.

Then I woke up one day and discovered Malcolm Arnold! I have always held a healthy score and recordings collection and much of my learning in those days was self-taught. I now listen to much more Renaissance and Baroque music and my discoveries of Berlioz and Sibelius have been essential to my own development. The popular music interest has never waned.

Most of your music was written for Brass and Wind Band. Was there anything in particular that kept your interest ongoing?

The simple truth about brass and wind bands is that they exist in abundance and are usually very open to playing new untried music. I started out writing a substantial amount of orchestral music and was fortunate enough to have the vast majority performed – albeit often just the once!

There is the opportunity for multiple performances of brass and wind band music so I have used this availability to develop those ‘other’ orchestras. Also through publication and recordings there is the possibility to disseminate one’s work to a wider, worldwide audience.

What is your perception about music?

Music can be anything you want it to be. Like a fine wine it will go with many occasions. It can be sad, happy, sunshine or rain. It is invincible because it is intangible. It is also a trap – I can do nothing else. As a career it has no end – I can’t imagine having a retirement date!

Do you have a working method to your pieces?

I usually get a commission (few pieces are written without that professional aspect), get as much information from the party in question: standard of band, duration, any particular event/celebration, venue or tour of premiere etc so I have as full a brief from the commissioner as possible. Then I think of a subject and start to mull ideas. I will open a paper file and add sketches as and when they occur.

Depending on the deadline I think about a piece until it’s more or less there in my mind then I go straight into Sibelius and work the piece through. I will of course make adjustments and sometimes they are quite radical but it’s an investment to get it onto the computer system as soon as possible. I input by typewriter keyboard not a piano keyboard.

All I use aurally is a playback system which is very basic and allows me to ‘play back’ the structure more than anything. I do my own set of preliminary parts and send them off to the commissioning body. I take feedback from the conductor and players, and hopefully get a live recording and then correct and improve the score before publication.

My publisher then has a professional set of parts extracted and edited and I only publish after the event so to speak. In recent years I’ve taken to long walks to work out pieces and their problems which has additional benefits too!

Paris Sketches was known as a composition about the city that you hold dear. What and how was it important to you?

Paris Sketches was my first original work for wind band. It was a difficult commission in the sense that a consortium of bands paid for it. Some were more able than others and I didn’t really understand the grading systems too well in those early days.

However it’s not so difficult that it can’t be attempted by most decent ensembles. For some reason, unknown to me, it took off all around the world. I have recordings too numerous to mention from high school bands to the ‘top’ of the range on offer. It’s still important to me as it’s proved to be a key calling card for me worldwide and led to many more adventurous opportunities.

Also since the first year of it’s writing the royalties have paid off my annual summer vacation!

Tell us about one of your works, Symphony For Winds.

It’s certainly difficult. I wrote it as a joint commission from two British wind bands. They also suggested the title and I made it into a tribute to one of my favourite composers, Malcolm Arnold.

I’ve just been listening to a new recording by the Blaserphilharmonie Mozarteum Salzburg conducted by Hans Gansch which is live and quite thrilling. It’s nice when these sort of things just turn up unexpected.

I started out trying to write an abstract work but soon returned to my usual habit of subtitles, hence we have Tribute, Chorale and Display – I found it easier to write the piece with these props rather than Allegro con brio and Andante ma non troppo for example.

In your opinion, which of your works is the most challenging and will demand the higher standards from any band who performs it?

I’ve written quite a few brass band test pieces that have difficulty built into them as they are conceived for contest purposes and need certain technical challenges in order to fit the bill.

Incidentally one of my works, Terra Australis, is the selected test piece for the championship section of the Nationals at the Royal Albert Hall in London this October. That piece was originally a concert piece but I added a cadenza section to make it eligible as a test piece.

I think it will raise a few eyebrows as the main test in that work is ‘musical’ and it seems that ‘technical’ has somewhat taken over in many quarters of that field.

I also (usually) make wind band versions of all my brass band pieces as the market is slim for concert works for brass bands and if they’re not also possible test pieces it’s a sorry story. Strangely enough they often work better for wind band, given the greater colour possibilities and come out easier as one has a less ‘stretched’ instrument to play with.

I rarely write wind band pieces thinking of making them difficult on purpose but obviously a Symphony for Winds needs to challenge the performers and can be less ‘commercial’ in concept than a more light listener-friendly work. Tristan Encounters is probably my most challenging brass band piece and Via Crucis and Meditations the same for wind band.

Of course I’ve written several concertos that also seriously challenge the soloists though I try to make the band parts less arduous. When I first wrote my Euphonium Concerto for Steven Mead only he could play it, certainly in its entirety.

Now, as time moves on, many more soloists can give excellent accounts of it – most are past students of Steven’s which tells another story! I don’t think there’s much virtue in virtuosity for its own sake – it’s far harder to deliver a sound musical argument that fulfils a satisfying journey for players and listeners alike.

Apart from Wind Band works, you have also written up to date about 32 pieces for solo instruments and small ensembles. How is the method in writing different from writing full band works?

Most of the pieces in this aspect of my catalogue (which I keep as a separate entity from my other works) were specifically commissioned by either music publishers or in the case of several others the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) for specific use in graded music exams.

Writing for these instruments or ensembles often comes with a specific brief according to the grade in question though not always as there are times when pieces are graded after the event.

As it’s a great contrast from writing original extended concert works I find it a relaxing pastime plus I’ve always thought (right or wrong) that it introduces your name to lots of performers in their formative years so that when (and if) they continue their studies and join a band they know who you are!

It is known to the Euphonium world that your Euphonium Concerto was written for Steven Mead in 1995. How did this work come about?

A few points regarding this piece have already come out in my response to question 6 but the immediate answer is relatively simple: Steven Mead asked me after some recording sessions in Scotland.
It was a great opportunity to write for not only a master exponent of his instrument but a thoroughly intelligent musical performer. His main brief was that I could do what I wanted BUT he had to be heard so no over-scoring and ‘hiding’ of the solo part.

This is a fine principle to hold in mind while writing concertos and one I’ve endeavoured to stick to in my other efforts. Of course you can have a compositional technique whereby the band start to take over from the soloist but one should do this on purpose not by accident!

I originally scored this work with brass band accompaniment but have subsequently made versions with wind band and symphony orchestra backings. Then you have to do a piano reduction so it’s a lot of time spent with the same piece. I have recordings of all versions by a variety of soloists and I still consider it to be one of my most consistent efforts.

Finally, what aims do you hope to achieve in the next 5 years? Is there anything that you are working on right now?

I’m usually working on some brass or wind band score; possibly a concerto plus I spend quite a lot of time putting works into print. I’ve just finished a piece for a brass band in Switzerland and am now on a US wind band commission.

Before the end of the year I also have to address a saxophone choir piece, another wind band work, a tuba sonata, the piano reduction of my saxophone concerto and an arrangement. Then the path is clear for 2011 commitments!

I do hope to be able to spend more time on chamber music in the future. I used to do this quite a lot in the early days but there is a great tendency to become typecast and although I’m not complaining there can only be so many decent brass and wind band pieces in a composer! I have some other more unusual projects that I want to write but have no commissions for so I intend to make time to do one or two of these occasionally.

I did a string orchestra piece earlier this year (which was a commission) and a clarinet quintet (with string quartet) last year (now recorded on Naxos) so I’m making a start. It’s always nice as a composer to be wanted so I’ve really only done what most other writers have and that is to follow the ‘market’ and its trends.

Perhaps my pension in the form of royalties will allow for a greater future freedom of choice…


Written By Editor

A contributing editor at TBP.