Happy birthday Mr. Howarth

An 85th birthday tribute to a complete musician

To the members of Grimethorpe Colliery Band in the ground-breaking 1970s and 80s, he was always Mr. Howarth. To brass ensemble music pioneer Philip Jones, he was Uncle Elg. To his many friends and colleagues in the world of brass music he’s just Gary. As a conductor of international stature, with rare skills in being able to negotiate the most challenging of contemporary scores, including world premieres of Ligeti’s opera La Grande Macabre (Stockholm, 1978) and four operas by his friend from student days in Manchester, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, he is Elgar Howarth, and he celebrates his 85th birthday today, Wednesday 4 November 2020. These days Gary lives in quiet retirement with Mary, his wife of 62 years, in the Suffolk town of Beccles and a couple of weeks ago we spent couple of hours in the phone reminiscing about his varied professional career and remembering those who have had the strongest influence on it.

During these unprecedented times when the collective engagement with live music making – as a performer or audience member – seems almost out of reach, it’s been a particular pleasure to listen with a mixture of nostalgia and satisfaction to some of Elgar Howarth’s orchestral and brass recordings.  We can still relish his brilliant trumpet playing with the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. There are landmark interpretations of the music of his friend Harrison Birtwistle to admire. The clarity of vision in the premiere recording of Grimethorpe Aria still astonishes. The controlled power in his handling of the trumpet concerto Endless Parade keeps me on the edge of my chair.  Finest of all, the four opera recordings – The Mask of Orpheus (ENO, 1986)and Yan Tan Tethera (Opera Factory,1986), Gawain (Covent Garden, 1991) and The Second Mrs. Kong (Glyndebourne, 1994) – are testament both to his genius at revealing the most complex of contemporary music with total authority, commitment and, most importantly, enthusiasm. “Harry and I were friends from college days in the 1950s,” he recalls, “and he trusted me to get his music right. His stuff was right up my street of course.” 

Elgar Howarth is one of the finest musicians it has been my pleasure to know and work with over my musical career. The way he could unpick a contemporary score was uncanny. Whether he was in front of Grimethorpe Colliery Band, Eikanger-Bjorsvik Musikklag, The National Youth Brass band of Great Britain, the BBC Symphony and Philharmonic, or in the pit at Covent Garden, the London Colosseum or the Grand Theatre in Leeds, the method seemed so simple: lay down a clear beat with the right hand, supply all the necessary information with left hand and the face, and then give the musicians space to understand and deliver. It seems obvious doesn’t it, but in presenting difficult and novel contemporary music calmness and clarity are prerequisites, along with complete understanding of the score. Gary possesses both qualities in spades.

He came to conducting in his 30s and never experienced the rigours of a conservatoire conducting course. His learned by example sitting in the trumpet sections of the Royal Opera for four years and as principal trumpet of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. There was one maestro above all from whom he drew most in terms of manner and technique, the German conductor Rudolf Kempe (1910 – 1976). Admired for his interpretations of the great romantic symphonies and operas – Wagner and Richard Strauss in particular – Kempe was a regular guest conductor at Covent Garden and later became the chief conductor of the RPO, as Gary fondly recalls.

I was so impressed with what he was able to do. He could make a whole orchestra concentrate. He was the epitome of the perfect German conductor. The right hand gave an unmistakeable clarity of beat. We knew exactly where we were in the bar, but he was also very expressive with his left hand. It was poetry. Of course, he was very demanding, not verbally, but by facial expression and the degree of information about how he wanted you to play. There was never an showing off.I played for him in Wagner’s Ring, Richard Strauss operas and even Puccini, which was wonderful, not Italian in technique but certainly in style – free, lyrical, unfettered. It was an absolute delight. I got to know him very well because I become the Chairman of the RPO. He was lovely to talk to with great sense of humour.

Gary’s In Memoriam RK (1976) for brass band is a heartfelt, deeply emotional tribute, recalling with affection favourite moments he had experienced under Kempe’s direction by Wagner, Strauss and Mahler, fused together by the little four note signature motif that finds its way into all his most personal works, as if to say, this is my tribute to you….

…Exactly! He was very special. When I heard that he had died on the radio, I burst into tears and cried for a week. 

Gary’s first opportunity to try his hand at conducting came via the London Sinfonietta, the contemporary music specialist ensemble of which he was a founding member.

The Sinfonietta was a great thing for me because I was playing all the music I loved and dearly wished I knew how to write! I mentioned to the clarinettist Anthony Pay one day in the car that I wanted to try conducting and he must have spoken to our conductor David Atherton, who encouraged me from the word go. I modelled myself on Rudolf and made that technique work for modern music. One thing I could always do was conduct different times independently with each hand – like a party trick – and it came in very useful. I didn’t mind being type-cast as a contemporary music specialist because I enjoyed the music and the work came in.

Within no time, Gary’s flair and skill with new music was being noticed. As his diary began to fill up with conducting engagements – at the BBC, eventually the Proms and throughout Europe – his trumpet playing took an increasing back-seat. By 1976 he had put his trumpets away in their cases for good. One day in 1972, out of the blue, he received a phone call from Ken Hirst, the long-serving secretary of Grimethorpe Colliery Band.

Ken rang me and said in his typical manner something like, ‘We need a conductor. We’ve heard you are OK. Can you give me a reference?’. I replied that I’d never been asked for one. Actually, I was quite keen to do it – the fulfilment of boyhood dream really to conduct a top band – but I wasn’t going to tell him that, so I said it’s obvious you don’t know anything about me and I don’t know the band, why don’t I come up and spend the day with the band to see how we get on. ‘How about next Wednesday,’ Ken said and that was it.

Thus began a 35-year association between Grimethorpe and Mr. Howarth, as he was always known, that changed the face of banding. There were two sides to the association, one appreciated by the banding community and the other more by the wider musical and cultural scene. Not having been part of the band scene since his teenage years, Gary wasn’t familiar with the current concert favourites, so he wrote his own and with that demonstrated that a brass band doesn’t need simply to play arrangements and transpirations to be entertaining.

I didn’t know the repertoire, but I could see that they wanted something that could win them competitions, so I wrote Pel Mel for my first Granada Band of the Year and we went from there. I made things that were light, fizzy, technically quite demanding but also melodically sympathetic in a variety of styles. They suited the original band in the 70s. They were a good lot and very funny. I loved their humour.

The other aspect was at the cutting edge, bringing something of the contemporary world in which he was entirely comfortable to the brass band, using his connections and friendships to enable Grimethorpe to commission new work just as the London Sinfonietta did. 

It had to be Harry Birtwistle first. When I asked him if he would write something for Grimethorpe he agreed as long as he didn’t have to compromise. He stuck to his guns and that was just what I wanted.

Grimethorpe Aria (1972) opened up a new world of modern music to the brass band. It’s a moot point how much Gary’s vision impacted on the mass of the banding community, but without question, the commissions he curated and the performance opportunities he enabled for Grimethorpe and others transformed the perception of what a brass band was capable of achieving in the wider cultural frame. And it still resonates today.  In the wake of Grimethorpe Aria came Henze’s brilliant Ragtimes and Habaneras for a famous BBC Prom, and later the first performance of Heaton’s Contest Music in 1976, a commission from the prodigiously gifted teenager George Benjamin, now Sir George, (Altitude, 1977), The First Shoot by William Walton and new pieces by Michael Blake-Watkins and Anthony Payne. There were concerts in University environments, landmark BBC broadcasts and hugely successful international yours, including to Australia and the USA. Grimethorpe Colliery Band’s resident musical director during the later years of the Howarth ‘era’ as the band’s musical advisor was Garry Cutt:

From 1991 we became close friends during our time together at Grimethorpe. It was a huge thrill to share the concert platform with him, but maybe the most significant thing we did together was when he was Artistic Director to the NYBBGB and he appointed myself and Nicholas Childs as his associates. He said from the outset he would only do five years and before he’d even started in the role, and he had mapped out all ten programmes and guest soloists for each concert. I’m honoured that he wrote a work to celebrate my 15th year as conductor to The Marple Band, Crystal for GC which was given its first performance in Uppermill Civic Hall, with Howarth conducting. 

Conducting the world premiere production György Ligeti’s theatrical extravaganza Le Grand Macabre Gary at the Royal Swedish Opera in 1978 sealed his international reputation as an outstanding interpreter of complex, new opera. On a return visit to Sweden three years later Gary conducted the Malmö Symphony Orchestra in a concert featuring the concerto debut of a young trumpeter who has since gone on to become one of the international superstars of the instrument, Håkan Hardenberger:

Having admired him as a member of Philip Jones Brass Ensemble I soon found a true mentor and friend. He introduced me to British brass bands, but also to institutions such as BBC Proms, the RPO and most importantly composers such as Birtwistle, Ligeti, Henze, Takemitsu, Gruber and many more. All life changing. Gary’s importance to my career and life cannot be overestimated and he remains one of the most well-read, civilised and kind person I ever met. A great friend.

Another high achiever in the brass work who can call Mr. Howarth both mentor and friend – is Black Dyke Band’s music director Nicholas Childs:

During an interval at a Grimethorpe rehearsal he enquired what I would do once I finished playing the euphonium. I was initially shocked as I thought he was guiding me to my resignation!  Following further discussion, he asked who was my conducting teacher. I said I didn’t have one. He explained to the band that rehearsal was over, but that he wanted a group to stay behind as he was going to give me a conducting lesson. The lesson wasn’t on contemporary music but on hymn tunes. He suggested I should take a post-graduate degree and during my studies at Salford he was my conducting teacher. I recall he quoted Rudolf Kempe on more than one occasion, ‘Remember Mr. Childs there is only one down beat in every bar!’

As my horizons began to widen with his guidance, and as MD of Doyen Recordings, I released a number of projects with Howarth as the maestro, including a series of his own music with Eikanger and featuring fantastic soloists including Håkan Hardenberger. His series with Grimethorpe The History of Brass Band Music remains a major resource. One of my fondest memory was sharing the podium in a performance of Asendit in Coeli which required two conductors. My score was signed by him, ‘To the sorcerer’s apprentice!!!’ Happy birthday Mr Howarth – a great musician, conductor, composer who I’m honoured to call a friend!!!

Mention of Ascendit in Coeli brings to mind Gary’s father Oliver Howarth, to whose memory this evocative work is dedicated. It is essentially a contemporary take on the hymn tune. Howarth senior adored them, as he did grand opera. Largely self- taught, Oliver Howarth was a true inspiration to his son, when it came to making the most of his talent on the cornet and his gift for composing and arranging. Oliver Howarth was, in his eldest son’s words…..

…a brass band addict and was crazy about hymn tunes. He was bandmaster at the Eccles SA and I joined the junior band on cornet. He came from Cannock, where I was born, and was a decent pianist in a rough sort of way, but far better than I was ever able to.  He took a correspondence course in harmony and counterpoint from the Victoria School of Music and Drama. He was a strong disciplinarian. I enjoyed practicing but woe betide me if I missed a day without doing at least half an hour. I had a knack for the cornet and could get away with murder really without much practice. I loved playing the technical solos but I knew I didn’t have a great sound. I could whizz round all the solos by Hartmann like Rule Britannia and Cleopatra, all that stuff. I played them from memory at concerts with the Barton Hall Works Band, which my father took on after he left the SA. I didn’t find it that hard.”

When he was about 16, Gary’s technical prowess was rewarded with the award of the Alexander Owen Prize, named in memory of the great brass band figure best remembered as the professional conductor of Besses o’ th’ Barn Band (1883 – 1920). The same year, Gary composed a suite for brass band which his father let him conduct. It was full of 5/4 and 7/4 bars inspired by hearing Mars (from The Planets) and The Rite of Spring played by the Halle under John Barbirolli at schools’ concerts. Unbeknown to Gary, another gifted young musician was probably in the audience for those concerts. He was Peter Maxwell Davies (1934 – 2016) from Salford. They met for the first time at Manchester University. Max was a year ahead of Gary, a fellow student on Manchester’ unique joint course, which combined academic studies in the university’s music department with performance studies at nearby Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College). Max was already a prolific composer, although his modernist tendencies had brought him into conflict with the professor Humphrey Procter-Gregg. Gary had shown enough creative potential for Procter-Gregg to admit him without having studied music to A Level.

I thought that I wouldn’t get in at the university because I hadn’t done A Level, so I  kept my options open, but I did. The joint course seemed perfect for me because I could do the trumpet. I thought it would be an easy switch over from the cornet, but didn’t realise how very different it would be – not just the instrument, but the style and the repertoire. I’d never played in an orchestra.

However, with the guidance of Cecil Kydd, principal trumpet of the BBC Northern Orchestra, Gary made the transition successfully, so much so that Maxwell Davies composed a Trumpet Sonata, which he designated Op. 1, for Gary and the eccentric genius of the piano John Ogdon, was Gary’s first taste of truly modern music.

I was hooked.  I remember vividly the first occasion we tried it through. John Ogdon pulled the piano part out of the plastic bag and after apologising for not having had a chance to look at I and sight read it brilliantly. It’s a fiendish piano part.

Gary and his friends formed New Music Manchester Group and gave the first public performance in the University’s Arthur Worthington Hall, not in the music department as Procter-Gregg had not allowed it. Max considered this atonal, virtuoso work to be his breakthrough piece. He submitted it for an SPNM young composer’s platform concert in London. ‘If this is what Manchester has to offer to us now, God help us in London,’ was the reaction of the Guardian critic Neville Cardus after its London premiere on 9 January 1956.

Gary’s trumpeting skills were also noticed, but composing was just as important to him.  His first success as a composer for the brass band was Mosaic, written in 1957, the year after he graduated, for a BBC competition organised by Harry Mortimer. It won and Arthur Butterworth came second with A Dales Suite.  Gary was on his National Service at the time and a member of the Central Band of the RAF. Mosaic is a fresh sounding miniature, full of life and energy – perhaps not in itself a major work, but significant in what it tells us about the music that matters most to its composer. The spritely four-note motif with which it begins, and on which the whole piece is founded, became the Howarth musical signature that reappears in all his best and most personal works.

After National Service, Gary set out on his professional trumpet playing path and it was in 1962, when his beautiful tone featured strongly in Michael Tippett’s second opera King Priam, that he came to the attention of Philip Jones, as his widow Ursula Jones recalled in an 80th  birthday letter.
Dear Uncle Elg,
Congratulations! You said to me recently that there was hardly a day even now when you didn’t think of Philip, even though he has been dead for nearly 16 years. But friendship lasts forever and Philip often said that you were his only true friend. It was a stroke of luck when, in May 1962, you met in a little café near the Royal Opera house during the lunch break of a rehearsal of King Priam. The inspiring work between you resulted in splendid performances, and in so many superb transcriptions, arrangements and original compositions.
Probably the most popular was Pictures and an Exhibition. If I remember correctly, you were discussing new PJBE recording projects one day with Decca, who fancied a brass/organ record. Neither of you liked the idea, and when Decca became impatient and asked “what do you want to do then?’, you answered Pictures and an Exhibition (I think it was meant as a joke). You made a fabulous and unique job with it. You stayed with PBJE until 1976, when your conducting career began to take off, but Philip was always delighted that you continued to arrange pieces and to conduct the group when it performed in larger formations. Most important of all, you remained his best friend until he died in January 2000. Thank you dear Uncle Elg!
All good wishes for a very happy birthday.
With love from Ursula

On a personal note, I first heard his brilliant technical playing in the late 1960s when the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble [PJBE] gave the first professional performance in 1968 of the early  Brass Quintet by Edward Gregson. “We have remained friends and colleagues ever since,” Gregson says, “even sharing notable birthday celebrations at various RNCM Brass Band festivals. Happy Birthday Gary – and many more of them!”Gary’s consummate and chameleon-like skills as composer and arranger were largely unknown to the wider musical world until he began to compose and arrange first for PJBE and for Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Once established as a producer at the BBC in the 1980s recordings of his PBJE arrangements, not least the classic ensemble version of Pictures and an Exhibition, provided much listening pleasure for myself and I hope Radio 3’s drive time audience when I was producing. By the time I came to work on the BBC (later RNCM) Festival of Brass, I had got to know Gary professionally and personally. In Memoriam RK had become one of my all-time favourite brass band scores. I still admire the ingenuity, energy and skill of Fireworks (1976, British Open) and his gift for high-class pastiche in The Bandsman’sTale.

It was a privilege while I was at the BBC to provide a platform for some of his most personal inspirations, including the brass band versions of the early Trombone Concerto (1958) composed for his brother Stanford, the Trumpet Concerto, which he wrote for himself to play originally with orchestra and Stories for Saroyan, a collection of family portraits for euphonium and band which he wrote for Robert Childs.  Perhaps the best of all is the hugely underrated Songs for BL (1995), a BBC commission that Gary considers, with ample justification, to be one of his finest works. More recently, his presence has lit up the RNCM Brass Band Festival, as conductor of Grimethorpe or the RNCM Brass Ensemble or composer of some new treasures, such as Sonatina for cornet and band which he prepared for one of his favourite cornet players of the present time, Richard Marshall, who writes:

      Mr Howarth, for many years you have been a real inspirational figure.
      Whether it’s your musical genius or your witty remarks I can honestly say that being
      in your company meant a great deal and something I will always cherish.

A final greeting from Garry Cutt:

We in the banding community are indebted and privileged to have had such an influential and complete musician involved with the brass band movement.   

And so say all of us. Happy birthday Maestro.

Based on a feature first published in British Bandsman, October 2020

2 thoughts on “Happy birthday Mr. Howarth”

  1. Delighted to read all this about a much-admired colleague. I’m just writing to point out (surely I’m not the first?!) that the photo immediately above this comment is of Gary himself, not “Edward Gregson”.

  2. I remember talking to Gary just after Kempe died in 1976 and he told me the lovely story of Kempe (when Gary played in the RPO) saying: ‘I can tell when you have been playing modern music – but after a while you are normal again!’. I also remember him saying that, conducting in Germany, players would say ‘You conduct like Kempe!’ which I’m sure was intended as a huge compliment.

    Thanks, Paul, for this fascinating post – a valuable resource and very interesting.

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