Tone Poem - The King Of Kings
Eric Walter John Ball. O.B.E.
(Notes by Robert Getz)
(Click and read while The King of Kings piano transcription)
I suppose few, if any, brass band or Eric Ball enthusiasts would hold as I do that The King of Kings is Eric's greatest accomplishment. I have conducted it, played it and listened to it many dozens of times, and somehow feel that the definitive performance is yet to come. I feel that Resurgam received as musically mature a rendering as it may ever receive as recorded by The Salvation Army New York Staff Band under Bandmaster Brian Bowen. One could point to other Ball pieces finding their optimal performances by other bands, but not The King of Kings. Oddly enough it is the last notable piece I ever conducted as an active Salvation Army bandmaster. I was bold and foolish enough to believe that I might visit that sacred territory with the Dearborn Heights Citadel Band. I perhaps did them a disservice in attempting it at all. One thing is absolutely certain. The ultimate performance will not come from any band emulating the contest band orthodoxy. Performance that lionizes technique for its own sake cannot plumb the depths of this masterpiece. It has soul, and requires it of every player and especially of the conductor. While it is, unfortunately, the norm to attempt this piece absent deep study of the texts, it is folly. The best reading I ever heard came, not surprisingly, from The International Staff Band under the greatest bandmaster of them all, the late Bernard Adams. Adams read the entire text of Bunyans The Holy War in anticipation of conducting Steadman-Allen's magnificent piece of that name. It is clear that he did the same with The King Of Kings. How many today would bother? How many could get through Bunyan's challenging text? Ball the literalist-mystic is at his best here, wedding magical music to divine texts. The King of Kings cannot be revealed by notes alone; the meaning behind the underlying text must somehow be conveyed through the music. Herein lies the evasiveness in providing an ultimate reading of this profound score. I previously mentioned being bold and foolish in presenting the score in my last concert, our inadequacy notwithstanding, a Jewish woman found The Lord as the result of even that poor reading - so powerful is the music!
So, this epic tone poem is at the same time one of the most famous scores in the literature and perhaps the most elusive. Each reading reveals something new. As already opined, no performance has yet plumbed its depths completely and perhaps none ever will. One part of the elusiveness of the piece is the spatial aspect and pace. The piece feels bigger and longer than it actually is, and many passages are quite slow and very soft. It can easily degenerate into a rather gray mass that can bog down . . . and frequently does! One of the great challenges is to maintain musical life within the darker and slower passages. Connecting the various sections and keeping Ball's complete rendering of the various tunes from becoming prosaic are challenges that will test the mettle of the best of artists and tap the powers of the most spiritual amongst us (of which Ball was both!)
There is a tendency to stagnate the tempi by maintaining too rigid a pace (whatever the speed). Due to lack of thought or understanding, conductors and players often tend to bog down when they sense that something has profound religious significance. I have dubbed this "religioso comatoso". A sensitive rubato is called for much of the way through The King of Kings. If Eric or any composed desires, there are markings that can be incorporated to indicate a slavish adherence to tempo, which Eric did not employ.
The real point of this music is the subject matter of Ball's effort - Christ Jesus. Fitting the life of Christ into less than a quarter of an hour using a brass band as the medium could only have been considered doable by a young man. But I believe Eric was mature beyond his years both in life and musically, for he left us two thousand years of passion, pathos and love in a tiny bottle which the sum of several generations have not been able to uncork.
The piece dates back to 1930 when Eric was but 27. Once, when given the most extravagant praise for the work, his typically modest reply was, "I can only thank God that it can be used as a channel for His power."
There are no movements as such, but rather five connected musical tableaus representing: Christ's birth, His work on Earth, His agony and death, His resurrection and ascension, and His throne in Glory.
The piece begins with a powerfully ambiguous mix of the glory of the Kingdom of Christ Jesus and the horrible imperious kingdoms of this world into which He was born. The metaphoric juxtaposition of divine majesty and human horror perhaps also represents the wholly incomprehensible mystery of the incarnation of man and God in one being - which is the whole of the message of this wondrous piece.
It is, in a sense, like Grieg's Homage March for which no ensemble ever conceived could be large enough to adequately render the implied mass of the last section. Perhaps more on the mark might be the opening Kyrie of Bach's B minor Mass of which Tovey said, " . . . is so vast that it seems as if nothing could control its bulk." He also notes that, " . . . it reaches its last note with astronomical punctuality." The vast bulk that Ball bites off at the beginning of The King of Kings has that same sense of size, but it is controlled. The dramatic low-brass octave leap, sustained and then ripped asunder by the wrenching sixteenth notes which collide with the dark brooding chords that follow, only to be repeated on the dominant and again still higher, almost screaming. That this is followed by an argument in the low brass again over the wrenching sixteenth motive heightens the drama. But Eric isn't finished. He returns us to the imperious music of the opening bars, but in place of the dark brooding passage an upward soaring figure almost screams before the arguing sixteenth notes return - this time subsiding with only partial resolution . . . almost questioning . . . ending with "astronomical punctuality".
His Birth -- After the introduction sets such a stupendous stage, the soprano cornet yanks the listener back to not only earthly reality, but the humblest of human reality - a divine King born amidst the dung of a stable! The soprano cornet seems the most fragile voice in the band which aptly depicts Christ's birth-lullaby - Bethlehem ('Dans cette etable - "In This Stable" - also known as "Cradled All Lowly") - by Charles Gounod. Ball makes it even more banal by using an almost drone-like accompaniment over a sustained bass pedal-point for seven bars! The sense of serene space provided here is unique in brass band writing, which is generally preoccupied with cramming as much into every bar as is possible. The beginnings of the first two verses of the song illustrate the divine metaphor of the incarnation which was musically alluded to in the introduction: "In the poor stable, how charming Jesus lies . . ." and "See here God's power in weakness . . ." The lullaby continues episodically for a time, but even it becomes transformed into a reminder of the cruel world of the introduction. The hammering cruelty returns for eight bars, leading away from the idyll of his birth into the working of His mission.
His Work On Earth -- With the Birth section providing a musical and thematic introduction in its closing bars, Ball gets right to the point here with the euphonium's straight forward offering of To Heal The Broken Heart He Came, with a thinly scored accompaniment. Knowing the text can be helpful in understanding the music here, which is most often played without knowledge of the words and consequently misinterpreted.
"A hiding place from every storm,
A shelter that defends from harm,
A light that cheers the path of gloom,
Is Christ to all who to Him come.
To heal the broken heart he came,
To free the captive from his chain,
The blood He spilt when He was slain
Brings guilty sinners home to God."
As the last notes of the chorus melody fade, the basses again introduce a sinister mood and the trombones seem to murmur from the back of the crowd in cowardly tones, "crucify" almost as though testing the crowd on the issue. The euphoniums and baritone answer the taunts with a positive passage that could be interpreted to say "Christ came to bring eternal love". "Crucify" . . . "Christ came to bring eternal love" . . . then "CRUCIFY HIM!!" punctuated by the sixteenth notes from the introduction and again "CRUCIFY HIM!!" and then all pandemonium breaks loose!
Nails are driven, mock royalty proclaimed, hate . . . hate, the piercing of His side - light of day turns to deep blackness, "And behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent, and the graves were opened . . ."
Crashing descending patterns are followed by harsh ascending ones over a driving scale pattern in the basses. The intensity is compounded over and again with wailing and jeering and hate and the military presence is felt and nails are driven and then the sudden quiet of a high pitched cry followed by a HORRIBLE scream. Eric's screeching portrayal of this horror sent early-day Salvationists away in shocked protest (recall that this was The Salvation Army, three quarters of a century ago!) Little wonder, for the chord he used is a whole-tone cluster containing the most unstable of intervals, the augmented fourth, often called the "devil in music". Under this scream a descending whole-tone scale completes the horror and leaves us empty, tired, confused . . . perhaps even frightened.
"O come and look a while on Him,
Whom we have pierced, who for us died;
Together let us look and mourn,
Jesus our lord is crucified."
Coming literally from nowhere a cornet solo floats out of the chaos with supreme pathos supporting the above text with the tune Calvary . . . the first three notes of which are three downward whole steps, reflective of the previous horror but more sedate. I have only heard one man interpret this section to near perfection, the late Lt. Colonel William H. Scarlett in the Chicago Staff Band. He was not preoccupied with notes, but rather the message of the words, which poured out of his bell like the tears of The Christ Himself. One did not hear a cornet, but music with a message of suffering and sacrifice. He did not make it "pretty" as most do, but rather beautiful in its pathos.
Another tune also called Calvary is brought in via the horns and baritones, pianissimo. Eric here harmonizes the music in a most ambiguous way utilizing harmonic rhythm to frustrate the meter providing a temporary sense of aimlessness. It also is proof of His sensitivity to the text by going out of his way to place harmonic stress on the word "dark" which, being on the weakest beat of the bar stress would not be there otherwise.
"On Calvary, dark Calvary,
Sin's power He broke for me,
By dying there in agony,
On dark, dark Calvary."
Ball pauses on the word "agony" before the darkness of Calvary is again intoned. The previous mutterings of "crucify" seem to have been transformed to "He is dead now", accompanied by rumblings from the basses that seem to say, "Jesus is dead in the grave . . ." when the soprano cornet literally bursts forth with what must be "Christ Jesus died to set me free . . ." The litany is repeated but now the euphonium claims . . . "Christ Jesus died to set me free . . ." This whole section seems to be a kind of sorrowful banter as though the disciples were reflectively weeping in their hiding. A final "Christ Jesus died to set me free" is interrupted by the beginnings of an Easter fanfare which incorporates Up from the grave He arose! and more fanfare that hints at Halleluia! Christ arose! in a minor mode in the basses before Eric finally lifts us inevitably to "He arose!"
His Resurrection and Ascension As we reach "Halleluia! Christ arose!" an urgency-building episode interrupts the flow, as though Eric is overcome by the weight of the pronouncement. It feels like we are in for a tremendous finale to the piece as he reiterates "Halleluia! Christ arose!" However, Eric well understands that there is more to the story of The King of Kings! He pulls the musical rug from under the listener with an almost questioning section that confuses the listener as to where it is all headed. Still more reflection and pondering all of which seem to somehow represent the appearance of Jesus after the resurrection, perhaps the doubting of the disciples.
More urgency is built by progressing arpeggios that seem to lead nowhere but to a loud, unresolved dominant which ends abruptly. "So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, He was received up into Heaven . . . and sat on the right hand of God."
His Throne In Glory -- Here Ball presents the real finale which is the most noble statement humanly possible of the tune Diademata, "Crown Him With Many Crowns". Low brass present the tune with cornet fanfares that are majestic in their uncluttered simplicity and fitting elegance. There is a five bar coda which ends the piece with sufficient weight in those few bars to balance the overpowering introduction.
For my last attempt at this masterpiece I penned the following words and had the audience stand and sing with the band in this final breathtaking section of the work. Performance inadequacies notwithstanding, we worshipped together, Christ's promise was fulfilled and our destiny assured . . . and a soul was redeemed that night, which is the very point of Eric's wondrous work.
"Crown Him The King of Kings,
Who on His throne resides,
With Father-God and Spirit, one;
His glory fills the skies!
Empowered through Christ's blood,
We claim Eternal Love,
Incarnate suffering paid the price,
To dwell with Him above."
Only at this point can we begin to be ready to study the music of Eric Ball's masterful score -- The King of Kings.
God bless you!
You can hear it on piano by clicking here
Go To The Home Page
Return to Transcriptions Catalog