Eric Ball . . . a perspective
Eric was an intimate friend of mine for decades. There was clear mutual respect evidenced throughout those years, right up to my last visit with him just before he died. I highly recommend Peter Cooke's fine biography to any who are interested in the man and his music.
It must be mentioned up front that he was not a "brass band composer" but a composer who wrote for brass bands, ergo his great success in the medium. His musical intuition and experience was far broader and deeper than the small pond of contest banding - which contesting aspect was not especially attractive to him.
The hallmark of Eric had nothing whatever to do with music, but rather with Christ. The Master dominated every fiber of his being, including his music. While he was not a credentialed man, he was very "learned", musically and otherwise. His spirituality was not the characteristically shallow and rigid rote of fundamentalism, but a deep, searching and VERY personal relationship. My point here is that while it is possible and rewarding to discuss Eric from a purely musical perspective, as was done in the DVD produced for his 100 year anniversary, such was a grave mistake, for nothing he did was purely for music, it was ALL for the Lord.
The subject of my quest herein, while steeped in that spirituality, relates to two interesting preoccupations he had, and to the way he manifested both in his life and music - though not being preoccupied with having done so. The two preoccupations were: 1. The search for the "timeless" in music, and 2. The search for the first "authentic musical genius" in The Salvation Army.
Of the latter, he casually drew attention to Emil Soderstrom and Erik Leidzen, but it was not intended to be taken literally. Clearly, both of these gentlemen were "ingenious", but neither fit the deeper definition Eric alluded to. My saying this may surprise some who have read my biography of Emil, who himself decried such inferences of genius with a "Bah!" It is clearly a different thing to "have" genius or be "ingenious", and being a genius like Bach or Mozart. Clearly, one need not have the same degree of talent as Bach, Mozart or Beethoven to qualify as a genius.
There may be a few simple criteria to consider one a genius. First would be the intuitive aspect, precocity, meaning the results of the creation were spontaneous and good. Then there would be the qualitative aspects - is the product technically perfect? Then the timeless aspect comes to play - will it last beyond the current aesthetic? Perhaps last, would be consistency - does the body of work hold fast to the previous named requirements? There are doubtless more, but these will suffice for this discussion.
The only name I ever heard Eric explore in this genius perspective was Ray Steadman-Allen, a solid candidate by any measure! Yet Eric never pronounced with finality on that suggestion that I am aware of. I will not herein pronounce either, as I have not the knowledge of Ray's entire output. Having said that, I should like nothing more than to have the time and energy to further explore that . . . if a betting man, I'd bet "yes!" Ray is easily the most prolific brass writer, the most diverse and unique and challenging, and possesses a very secure technique. But that's another story for another time.
There is an aspect of this with regard to Eric that I have never heard reference to, and only recently discovered myself. That is the precocity of Eric. To virtually everyone alive as I write this, Eric was always the wise old man with a white pompadour. His hair turned white early. So when we listen to any of his music we associate it with this "old", white-haired man. I contend that while he was not always old, he was always wise. He was wise in not only music but the realm of the Spirit. He was the darling of the international Salvation Army musical world while in his twenties! He was Bandmaster of two of the Army's historically best bands well before he was 30, the SP&S Band and a little later the International Staff band, also as a young man. His conducting technique was impeccable . . . and 100% intuitive! (at the least self-taught.)
Let's begin with a sample of his precocity, the march Star lake. This piece is as elegant an example of true genius as one could imagine. It deservedly has been the most frequently performed and recorded march in Salvation Army history - an icon. The structure and content are the soul of elegant simplicity. This was not written by the white-haired old man but by a dark-haired 34 your old. To have the depth of spirit and security of technique to write such a march at 70 would constitute genius. I own the original manuscript and can tell you that it was quickly put down, with total security, and is the manuscript of one far older than the young man who wrote it.
During the same Star Lake Musicamp where he was asked to write Star Lake, he also performed another march of his that was already a world classic, and remains even more so today - Torchbearers. It is easily as masterful as Star Lake, very much more musically mature, and has remained nearly as popular around the world since the early 1930's. This, by an even younger Eric Ball.
Also products of those years well before Eric would see his 4oth birthday were such mature masterpieces as Exodus, The King of Kings (age 27!), Songs of the Morning, Psalm 150, The Challenge (securely in Sonata Allegro form, by an untrained youth!) and many more. Each of these and more from his youth remain venerated classics today. Though still youthful, Eric tackled the challenge of portraying the entire life of Christ (The King of Kings), the great Exodus of the Old Testament, and other major tasks - all of a staggering scale convincingly accomplished with ease and elan.
In another exposition, I have written at some length about The King Of Kings, which I aver is his greatest work because of his mastery of music, scale, and profound spirituality. (see http://www.injofferings.com/King%20of%20Kings%20TEXT.htm)
Based upon these few examples, Eric passes the test of precocity, timelessness, security of technique and consistency. When one takes his entire body of work into account there is hardly a small bump in the road. There is no question that his very best efforts were for The Salvation Army. There are a small few pieces written for the contesting band world that might have been better, but only a few. He certainly never wrote anything nearly as mediocre as Beethoven's Wellington's Victory! With the above-mentioned masterpieces in the past, we had such works as The Kingdom Triumphant, Journey Into Freedom*, Songs In Exile, Clear Skies and Resurgam* yet to come, and dozens more - all of the same or even better quality and timelessness. (*contest pieces now "at home" in The Salvation Army.)
The young Eric was a wonderful and capable euphonium player (A Song of Faith, written for himself!), a virtuoso pianist, and a highly skilled and inspiring conductor . . . ALL with essentially no training but his own keen mind and his unending curiosity and exploration of the music of the Masters, wherein he gained his own secure and masterful technique. During most of his lifetime he was the ONLY brass band writer totally secure in, and often using of classical forms such as the aforementioned Sonata Allegro.
So, while we may discover that there were other authentic geniuses within the ranks of the Army, there is little doubt in my mind that Eric was our first such discovery - authentic by every test. Though one suspects Eric was aware of his genius, he would humbly deny it and be embarrassed by the mention of it. He would, without doubt, say of it as he said to me when I once pronounced on The King Of Kings: "I'm only pleased that it could be used as an instrument for His power." Therein perhaps lies the true mark of Eric's genius. God bless you!
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