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Colston statue's demise inspires NYBBW commission

Sunday 26 July, 2020

The tearing down of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol proved to be one of the enduring scenes of lockdown, a symbol of the anger at the way the merchant, philanthropist and politician – who was heavily involved in the slave trade – had been held up on high. Now plans are underway for the National Youth Brass Band of Wales (NYBBW) to premiere a new work inspired by the events which unfolded during the summer of 2020.

Composer Ian Stephens had been commissioned to write a piece for the band by Philip Harper and National Youth Arts Wales. Moved by the sight of the slave trader’s statue being torn down and thrown off the city’s harbour as part of the anti-racism protests which took place in cities across the UK, Ian opted to base his commission on the historic events, with Colston Falls now due to be performed by NYBBW in 2021.

Speaking to British Bandsman, he said: “The symbolism of that was so strong; for this statue to be tipped into the exact body of water where Colston’s wealth, earned for him by the labour of the slaves he owned, arrived in Britain. I was a student in Bristol in the early 1990s (that’s where I met Phil Harper) and it was quite something for this event that captured the world’s attention to be happening right there in the middle of the city I know well.

“There’s been much debate and argument about the rights and wrongs of this event, and other statue-toppling, with strong feelings on both sides, but it was summed up really nicely for me by my teenage daughters, who said: ‘A statue in public celebrates, a statue in a museum informs’. I agree with this. The statue – along with the red paint, graffiti and scrapes it picked up on the protest day – is headed to a museum in Bristol, where it can continue to inform the public, but is no longer on the streets of Bristol, actively celebrating a man so invested in the slave trade.”

Philip Harper commented: “I commissioned Ian Stephens to compose something for NYBBW's summer course this year and while the course won't happen in 2020, Ian was inspired by the events surrounding the statue in Bristol and decided to compose a piece based on this.

“When we première it next year, I'll be making links to black communities in Wales and taking the opportunity to hear from community leaders about black history and present-day experiences, to improve mine and the young people's learning, and to hopefully add a level of authenticity to our performance.”

The piece is framed by a tutti morse code rendition of the date of the protest, 07/06/2020. There are three main sections, beginning with the wild, surging chaos of the protest in the minutes before the statue was downed. Lots of percussion polyrhythms and clashing harmonies feature, along with a crowd scene in crescendo, complete with a chant of “bring it down, bring it down” on flugel, horns, baritones and latterly timps.

After the statue falls (listen out for the cracking sound), there’s a grinding mechanical section which depicts its halting progress along the road towards the harbour. Celebratory bells are heard after it is thrown in as part of an eight-bell change-ringing method called Bristol Surprise Major, which acts as a counterpoint to the beginning of the final section. This final section is Ian’s reflection on the protest and the event itself. He sought a traditional Welsh tune associated with the anti-slavery movement and after some searching, came up with the 18th-century Welsh ballad tune, Gwêl yr Adeilad (See the Building). This was the tune to which an early anti-slavery ballad in Welsh was intended to be sung – the verses were written in the early 1790s by Edward Barnes, a Methodist from Wrexham. He got in touch with Professor E Wyn James of Cardiff University, the author of the research paper in which it was mentioned and the professor provided a transcription and translation of Barnes’ verses, which can be found in the piece’s programme notes.

The melody first appears in reflective fashion, with a flugel solo leading to a short trio for principal cornet, solo horn and first baritone, before turning into a full-on triumphant version."

Ian added: “Phil Harper and the commissioning organisation, National Youth Arts Wales, have both been encouraging about this idea, and very positive about the finished piece.

"I can see that the piece chimes with the current drive to increase diversity in the brass band world. I’m really pleased to be playing a part in this movement.

“My younger daughter Lily, who plays flugel in St Helens Youth Brass Band, is pretty thrilled about the whole thing too and we’re all massively looking forward to hearing National Youth Brass Band of Wales perform it in summer 2021.”

Image of Ian Stephens: Mark McNulty.

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