Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Royal Artillery Band Farewell To Woolwich 1762-2014

Having served 22 years in The Royal Artillery Band, finishing my service as Band Sergeant Major and Deputy Bandmaster, I knew that the weekend of the 8th-9th February would be a very proud and special two days for me. A celebration of music provided by past and present members of this amazing wind band and orchestra the likes of which we will never see or hear again.

The powers that be whose idea it was to end this magnificent band/orchestra’s 250 year reign as one of the country’s finest is beyond belief. An organisation that simply can’t be replaced – and for what I say to myself. The band/orchestra has always been multi-functional supplying multiple ensembles including Old Time Orchestras, Big Dance Bands, Pop Groups, Brass Groups, Wind Groups, Fanfare Trumpets even Dixie and Umpah Bands, you name it the band had always supplied it right up to the present day.

The new home for the Royal Artillery Band will now be in Tidworth, Wiltshire from April 2014. Amazingly though not one present day member of the band is being relocated there. Instead they are all being placed in various other army bands. In my opinion it seems that the hierarchy want to start with a clean sheet and have a completely new band with not one old member.

The Royal Artillery Orchestra has also been disbanded apart from a handful of string players who will be the foundation of a new orchestra who will be made up from various other bands to create the newly formed Corps of Army Strings Orchestra. To relocate the majority of the R A Orchestra just to bring in players from different regiments is beyond belief.

Saturday 8th February the R A Wind Band and Orchestra gave their last performance in the Woolwich Town Hall. A location where the R A started playing a series of concerts since 1810, the longest running concert series in the country.

The concert opened with the Fanfare Trumpets of the RA playing a fanfare called “Royal Arsenal” which was followed by a lovely selection of wind band music accompanied by the Woolwich Military Wives Choir. The wind band played beautifully and the choir’s contribution was well received.

When the interval came this gave the packed town hall audience a chance to stretch their legs and chat and mingle with RA Band members past and present. In the second half we saw the orchestra take to the stage boosted with some ex-members and wives string players. It started with Eric Coates’ “Knightsbridge March”, followed by Alpha & Omega written by The Director of Music for The Royal Artillery Captain Craig Hallatt, apparently he wrote this piece while the band was serving in Afghanistan. He is to be congratulated it was a very fine piece of writing. As this piece was being performed, behind the orchestra was a large screen that was showing photographs of the band’s history. At this point in the concert my emotions got the better of me and I could not stop the flow of tears. 

It was now time for Frank Renton (Ex Director of Music of the Band)  to speak about the weekend. Frank who was reputed to be the finest conductor to come out of the Armed Forces, a statement which I totally agree with. The speech he gave was very moving and left no one in any doubt that this was a very sad time for the present serving men and women of the band and the end of an era, which can never be replaced. Frank conducted “The Holberg Suite” by Grieg, played by the string section of the orchestra.

It was only fitting that during the concert the orchestra played “The New World Symphony” by Dvorak, as they were the first orchestra in the world to perform this piece. It was now time for some light entertainment – the popular Post Horn Gallop – my wife Pam had my post horn in 2 pieces in her handbag so I had to quickly put it together to perform. I was number 2 of 7. We played it with antiphonal effects all around the town hall and at the end there were some brilliant cadenza’s played, the audience loved it and it went down very well as it always seems to. 

The concert came to an end with the traditional RA Slow March and RA Quick March.

Bravo to the Band/Orchestra a wonderful concert.

Sunday 9th February started in General Gordon Square in Woolwich, a huge screen was on display and written on it in big bold letters was “FAREWELL TO THE ROYAL ARTILLERY BAND”, followed by photos, videos and old pathe news clips, this was the start of mixed emotions for a lot of musicians.

The power of Face Book brought together in a very short time over one hundred past members to make up a concert/marching band. Some past members had not played for years, some had to borrow instruments to play. Music lyres had to be found and 1700 march cards sorted out. A huge task to make this special day work, and special it turned out to be in every way.

The veterans’ band in concert formation conducted by Frank Renton played for about 45 minutes to a very large crowd of spectators friends and families, while waiting for the Royal Artillery Band to enter the square. The present RA Band then played a selection of popular music and medals were given to those members who had been deployed to Afghanistan.  Then the past and present RA Bands played together. It was now time to form up in marching band formation, over a hundred of us 3 Ex Drum Majors and 1 Ex Director of Music. Three pace rolls and then we all stepped off to “The British Grenadiers”, phew what a sound we were now on our way. So much pride – I was almost at bursting point. Could I get up that bloody hill, well we all managed it, at the top of the hill a right wheel in through the barrack gates onto the front parade ground another right wheel and counter march and we halted, where we waited for the R A Band to arrive. It was great for us to play them onto the square and march past. A very sad emotional part of the day.

Then that was it, the end. Well done to all the organizers for putting it all together and a big thank you to Captain Hallatt who allowed us veterans to be part of this great day. In the end it was a celebration of music and this wonderful Royal Artillery Band and Orchestra. 

Later in the afternoon we all mixed together in the Sergeants Mess – The Band Of Brothers, everyone reflecting their time spent with the band – stories galore – mixed fortunes. A memorable day and a privilege to be in the company of past and present RA Band members.

Good luck to the present members wherever you have been sent, at least you have been fortunate to serve in this truly wonderful band.

On a personal note I will never understand why this day had to come whoever had this bright idea may I just say you have got it O so wrong.

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