Eternal City
for 26-piece brass ensemble


- Instrumentation: -

26-piece brass ensemble

- Duration: -

Approximately 24 minutes.

- Recordings & Soundclips: -

Several recordings available - some of these are open-air live recordings slightly compromised by background noise (enquire via Daniel X Music).

- Score: -

Available from composer - please enquire.

- Origins/Commission/Dedications: -

Originally commissioned by The BT Brass Band (now Stockport Brass).

- Premieres/Performances: -

‘Eternal City’ was premiered by The BT Brass Band outside The Design Museum, Butlers Wharf, London, 1991.

- Press: -

The Independent:

"Messianic, mystical, visionary... a spectacularly doomy piece for massed brass, all heart – bursting chords and cascading scales."

What's On Magazine:

" axis of largely consonant harmonies, lifting stray phrases high above the main architecture."

The Guardian:

"...('Eternal City') makes all the intellectual demands of Mills and Boon pulp fiction; it deals in emotional commonplaces. It's music by the yard. The conspiracy among BBC and critics claimed by Burstein and his allies is wrongly identified: it isn't a conspiracy against conservative neo-romanticism, it's against bad music like this."

- Composer’s comments: -

This early work in my career was the largest scale piece I had produced at the time of writing it. I was in the process of composing a memorial piece for the victims of the Marchioness boat disaster of 1989. ‘Eternal City’ emerged from an early concept for memorial music to be played on the river in a procession of boats, sound travelling wonderfully across water.

The music I sketched out for this purpose was never completed because the memorial music project evolved into the far more ambitious ‘Marchioness Requiem’, which remains perhaps the largest of all my works so far. The planned 1991 ‘Requiem’ premiere never happened, due in part to the Patron of the project - Princess Diana - giving up her charity work after her separation from Prince Charles. However, as part of the preparations towards the premiere, I came into contact with a fundraiser who also worked in the BT management. This fundraiser was in contact with the BT Brass Band, and arranged for them to commission a new work from me.

I was able to use the ‘Marchioness’ river music as a basis for the commission, and so the mood of those sketches flowed into ‘Eternal City’. The title does not refer – as one might think - to Rome, but is a quote from a poem of mine about London. Consistent with its origins, a funeral procession is evoked, the sense of a magnificent progressing along the river. The work was already related to the outdoors, and was conceived from the start to be played in the open air. Of the various venues in which it has been played, my favourite was Hays Galleria on the Thames. I recall the music taking advantage of the fabulous acoustic within that space, with the backdrop of the City of London towers (at the end of the Galleria that opens onto the Thames), the drift of boats and the ethereal counterpoint of aeroplanes plotting their way across the sky. Further performances took place indoors.

In 1994, this piece was revived for a concert at Southwark Cathedral, at which it was played alongside 'Leavetaking' (another of my brass works) and 'Heaven's Embroidered Cloth' (an excerpt from the 'Marchioness Requiem' arranged for chamber ensemble). During this period, I was involved in high-profile debate about New Tonality and the place of atonalism. At that point I had not yet evolved my more recent concept of Super Tonality, although I find retrospectively that my distinct brand of tonality had always been what I now identify as ‘Super Tonal’. In the sometimes heated atmosphere of debate it was clear to me that some critics had been dispatched specifically to discredit my work, and some extreme comments appeared.

Over the years I have found that much commentary on my work has been positive, but at this specific time there was a consciously directed campaign of hostility. Thus the mixture of comments on ‘Eternal City’ (which you can read on the left). In passing – and in the spirit of “right of reply” - it is worth analysing the quote from the Guardian review, which referred to “conservative neo-romanticism”, alleged that I have cited “a conspiracy among (the) BBC and critics” and savaged ‘Eternal City’ as possessing “all the intellectual demands of Mills and Boon pulp fiction.”

Firstly, the review imposes a false assumption that "neo-romanticism" is "conservative" - as though that is an uncontested fact. My music, far from being steeped in a conservative refusal to listen and learn from the twentieth century, is the direct product of my having lived, breathed and performed within the most experimental twentieth-century atonalism for many years before breaking out and through. How many of those who raise such issues or make such accusations have themselves conducted Birtwistle, Stockhausen and Boulez professionally (and to the highest standards of dedication and honesty) as I did for ten years with my ensemble, The Grosvenor Group?

In my experience, the Super Tonal fusion can be developed only by those who were fired in the white heat of the atonal avant-garde and who dedicated themselves to that depth of knowledge and practise within the most highly-charged furnaces of experiment. This greater experience leads directly to a command of the wider horizon of New Tonalism and Super Tonality: a horizon that carries atonalism and all the other -isms with it, and creates a forward-looking fusion. It is not - as implied by the review - the complacent product of ignorant ingenues who know no better.

Secondly I have never claimed "a conspiracy among BBC and critics". As I’ve mentioned above, most critical response to my work (outside the immediate swelter of antagonistic fire-fights) has been good, and the BBC has represented my ideas and the debates arising from them very fairly.

Finally, I don’t believe that music that articulates five- or six- part polyphony and uses it to build close to thirty minutes of musical architecture – as ‘Eternal City’ does - is intellectually undemanding. Nor is the piece’s hot pursuit and love of dissonance the work of a “Mills and Boon” composer. Even in the embryonic first stage of development, my work sprang fully armed into the world with a new rotating constellation of dynamics, this time feeding off the unlimited source of all music – tonality – and using it to release the expressive power of dissonance.

What lies behind this particular example of vituperative criticism is a familiar, ossified and all-too-pernicious fallacy: one which is consistently peddled by that moribund, atonalist dogma which still strangles the new classical music domain (even in its insipid and endless endgame). This fallacy states that the intrinsic worth of a musical piece is defined solely by its “intellectual” content; and that the degree of intellectuality is signified entirely by the degree of atonalism involved in its construction.

After a hundred years of the same dogma, this particular idea ought to be dead in the water. Only those without independent thought could still be mentally trapped in the basement of the spirit which it represents. Any student of Western classical music knows that one of the defining characteristics of its greatest works is the balance of intellect and emotion, the two working in perfect harmony. The people need a music of the spirit that once again seeks and finds that mysterious balance of heart and mind. The time of arid intellectual posturing is over. It is up to us to step over this horizon of the imagination, and out of the straitjacket of dogma.

- Keith Burstein, 14th November 2009



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