Connotations was commissioned for the 1977 National Brass Band Championship finals, held in the Royal Albert Hall, London (the winner, incidentally, of that particular competition was the famous Black Dyke Mills Band).
At the age of 32 Gregson was the youngest composer to have received the honour of such a commission. It came at the end of a productive five years writing for the brass band publisher R Smith. Some of those works – The Plantagenets, Essay and Patterns for example, with their direct and tuneful style, have remained popular with brass bands the world over.
For Gregson, these were the means by which he sharpened the tools of his trade, preparing the ground, as it were, for his finest work to date – Connotations. He thought of calling the piece Variations on a Fourth, but with due deference to Gilbert Vinter perhaps (Variations on a Ninth), he chose a more appropriate one. As Gregson has written, ‘Connotations suggests more than one way of looking at something, an idea, and this is exactly what the piece is about’.
Writing a competition piece brought its own problems. ‘It has to be technically difficult and yet musically satisfying. I didn’t like being kept to an eleven-minute maximum. The inclusion of short cadenzas for less usual solo instruments seems to signify a certain test-piece mentality’.
Gregson solved the problems admirably by adopting a symphonic approach to variation form: Introduction – fanfares, a call to attention, in effect Variation 1; Theme – a six-note motif, given a lyrical and restrained first statement; Variation 2 – a delicate toccata; Variation 3 – typically robust in melody and rhythm; Variation 4 – lyrical solos; Variation 5 – a scherzo; Variation 6 – cadenzas; Variations 7-9 – an introduction, fugato and resounding restatement of the theme.
© Paul Hindmarsh
The two championship pieces concerned are included on this record. One is Edward Gregson’s Connotations: a twentieth-century name for what turns out to be a set of variations. A very good set, as it happens. A high proportion of virtuoso writing is of course in these special test-piece circumstances of the essence; here – as well as being splendidly dealt with by the band – this special variety of writing is fitted naturally into a lively and varied texture of agreeably rhythmic impulse.
Gramophone (September 1978)
Gregson has for many years been one of the leading young composers for brass band, and his music has become widely known to bands all over the world. Connotations is the culmination of his stylistic and technical development during that time…..
…. Each variation generates its own excitement, but seen as a whole, the variations progress naturally, united by clever motivic working; the result is an exciting tight flowing structure which rivets the listener throughout.
Paul Patterson, Sounding Brass (Winter 1977/78)