Brass Bands Across Borders: Victoria Wood Foundation helps Celebrate Female Composers in a Musical Journey through Normandy

Our band is always on the lookout for new connections and relationships with other bands from across the world. After previous trips to the twin towns of St Helens, Chalon-sur-Saône and Stuttgart, this time we visited the seaside town Courseulles-sur-Mer in Normandy, France. During the Normandy landings of the Second World War, Courseulles-sur-Mer was part of Juno Beach, when the First Canadian Army, supplemented by British, Free French and Norwegian sailors, stormed the beach against relentless Nazi defense. In the first day of fighting alone, the Canadian forces recaptured the town and almost six miles of land, the most of any of the D-Day landings. The town is currently home to the Juno Beach Centre, a museum dedicated to the history of the First Canadian Army, and the role they played in one of the most important days of the 20th century. 

We had a busy few days during our stay in Normandy. There were our expeditions to the World War Two batteries at Longue-sur-Mer and the British Normandy Memorial at Ver-sur-Mur, as well as visits to Bayeux and Arromanches. Most importantly, though, was our joint concert with the local band, Harmonie de Courseulles. Between us, we performed a varied programme – with everything from film music to French classics to heavy metal!

To commemorate our trip, we also had two special pieces commissioned by members of our band.This concert and the commissioned pieces were both made possible with the financial support of Spanjer Chemicals, and the Victoria Wood Foundation. Music composition, especially brass band music, is a male-dominated industry; in memory of Victoria Wood, her Foundation is committed to supporting female artists and musicians in the North of England. With their help, we have two fabulous pieces to celebrate our trip: ‘Arque-la-Bataille: Château Solitaire’, by Karen Unsworth, and ‘Marching Saints Overture’, by Amber Hooton.

Since starting her musical journey at eleven in her school band, Karen has had a long and varied brass banding career, playing with such groups as Trinity Girls, Longridge, and Haydock Band; after beginning with small pieces for school ensembles, she has gone on to become a prolific composer and arranger of brass music. Karen is currently Head of Music at Dixons Broadgreen Academy, Liverpool, having held the position for 26 years, and plays with Valley Brass as their 1st Baritone. A personal highlight of her banding career was playing in the Championship Section National Finals at the Royal Albert Hall, playing alongside her husband Mike, and her brother Phil in the same band.

The composition, ‘Arques la Bataille’, tells the story of the historic French settlement of the same name, and the role the castle played in the climactic 1589 battle between King Henry IV of France and the rebel Charles de Lorraine. The piece’s energetic opening portrays the grandeur of the castle in its prime, when it kept watch over the Normandy borders; the melancholic melody line that follows represents the lonely castle, now in ruins and haunted by its memories. Finally, as the piece closes, echoes of the French National Anthem can be heard, reflecting the castle’s eternal duty to its country. 

Amber Hooton is a freelance media composer and sound designer based in Merseyside. She started her musical journey through Valley Brass, having joined the band through the group tuition held at her old primary school, and now holds the position of Principal Euphonium. She started composing casually throughout high school before deciding to seriously pursue composition during her A-Levels; her music has since been performed at several concerts by the University of Liverpool Symphony Orchestra, the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Society, and the Solem String Quartet. In winter of 2023, she graduated with a distinction from the University of Liverpool’s MA Music and Audiovisual Media course. Outside of her music for the concert hall, Amber also enjoys contributing her musical abilities towards a multitude of online media projects, including award-winning podcasts, international charity livestream events, and personal passion projects to be posted on her social medias. Her compositional style varies from vast, epic orchestral film scores, to energetic, retro-style videogame tracks.

Her composition, ‘Marching Saints Overture’, is a unique twist on ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’; though it is globally known as a jazz standard and Christian hymn, to the people of St Helens it is better known for its association with their rugby team, The Saints. The main melody in ‘Marching Saints Overture’ starts off fragmented, slowly piecing itself together and gradually growing in a chaotic yet exciting crescendo towards one final burst of musicality, where the classic tune is finally heard in full force. The unconventional use of time signature and dynamics constantly builds the piece’s energy, making sure to keep the players on their toes! Throughout the pieces, snippets of the British National Anthem can also be heard, reflecting our cultural exchange with Courseulles-sur-Mer. 

It’s always a pleasure to see how easily music can connect us. We’ve already started uploading videos from the concert to our YouTube channel, so keep an eye out there for more over the next few weeks – and of course, make sure to check out our friends at Harmonie de Courseulles too!

Valley Brass will be celebrating our French successes and our compositions at our Victoria Wood celebration concert, at St. Helens Town Hall, 10th May 2024

Beyond the Sea (arr. Steve McMillan) (youtube.com)

Arques-la-Bataille: Château Solitaire (Karen Unsworth) (youtube.com)

Men of Harlech (arr. Gordon Langford) (youtube.com)

Orchestre d’harmonie de Courseulles sur Mer – Site officiel (harmonie-de-courseulles.fr)