Of Men and Mountains was commissioned by the Netherlands Brass Band Championships for their tenth anniversary contest in Drachten in December 1990. In July the previous year, Edward Gregson and his wife took the Trans Canadian Railway from Toronto to Vancouver. The journey through the Rocky Mountains was the starting point for Of Men and Mountains. Gregson writes that: ‘its high peaks and shafts of sunlight breaking through the clouds, its canyons and ferocious rapids made me understand a little more about the majesty of nature and the fragility of humanity. The eternal struggle between man and nature was personified in the building of this incredible railway… hence my title (after Blake).’
Here is the composer’s outline of the work:
|A||Slow introduction: themes in embryo – fragmented motives.|
|B||First fast section: two main ideas – dramatic and very rhythmic.|
|B1||Second fast section: development of B – scored for separate instrumental groupings.|
|A1||Return of opening.|
|C||Long slow section: new theme – solos for various instruments.|
|B2||Scherzo: re-working of material from B in the form of a gradual, increasingly paced scherzo.|
|D||Majestic: the culmination of the work – main theme now heard in its final and complete form.|
|D1||Coda: a short, triumphant, fast section based on the main theme.|
Of Men and Mountains is dedicated to the memory of Eric Ball, who died shortly before Gregson started work on the piece. As he says in his note, ‘I greatly admired the man and his music and I am sure he would have shared the feelings behind the inspiration for this work.’
… Gregson in his 1990 composition of Of Men and Mountains, which, he explained, was inspired by a Via Rail trip from Toronto to Vancouver. While not descriptive in a literal sense, it had an expansive sweep and unashamed romanticism.
Tamara Bernstein, Toronto Globe and Mail (April 1991
However, the chief object of our interest must be the title piece by Edward Gregson, another composer to find inspiration in William Blake, this time with a line from ‘Gnomic Verses’ – ‘Great things are done when men and mountains meet.’ It is dedicated to Eric Ball and, in characteristic vein, typifies a struggle between opposing forces – man and nature. Yet no imagery is needed. The author of such a distinguished competition test piece as Dances and Arias has provided another winner here; modern enough but with a development that surely can be followed without difficulty even by those concerned only with sounds and technical difficulties rather than form and construction. … it is full of contrasts and colour from a pianissimo opening to a crashing finale, all of which could so well be released by the wind band. It has that great quality, so often overlooked, of ‘listenability’ ...