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Percy Fletcher, "Vanity Fair" Program Note

October 24, 2016

Vanity Fair (A Comedy Overture, In Which Several Characters From Thackeray’s Novel are Portrayed)

Percy Fletcher

Born: December 12, 1879, Derby, United Kingdom

Died: December 10, 1932, London, United Kingdom

Composed: 1924

Edited: 2006, Brant Karrick

Duration: 7 minutes

 

Percy Fletcher's Vanity Fair is a light overture, first published in London in 1924, based upon William Makepeace Thackeray's eponymous novel. Fletcher's musical version, a fast-slow-fast, single-movement form with three main thematic ideas, bases each section on an individual character from the popular novel. Originally written for band, Fletcher's Vanity Fair was eventually also scored for orchestra.

 

Thackeray's novel, and Fletcher’s inspiration, was first published as a nineteen-volume monthly serial from 1847 to 1848. Describing the lives of two main characters, Becky Sharp and Emmy Sedley, their friends, and families during and after the Napoleonic Wars, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is a biting satire of early-Victorian society, and considered the “principal founder” of the Victorian domestic novel. The title comes from an allegory in John Bunyan’s 1678 Pilgrim’s Progress, a stop along the pilgrim’s route in a town named “Vanity,” where a never-ending fair represents man’s sinful attachment to worldly possessions. This point is alluded to several times in the design of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, setting much of the novel in the world of a puppet show at a fair.

 

Percy Fletcher, Vanity Fair, ed. Brant Karrick

University of North Texas Wind Symphony, Eugene Corporon, conductor

 

Program note from the printed score:

 

Percy Eastman Fletcher, like a number of his contemporaries, made his living as a Musical Director in the London theatre world, fulfilling this position successively at the Prince of Wales, Savoy, Daly’s, and Drury Lane theatres, and at His Majesty’s Theatre from 1915 until his death. Having received lessons on violin, piano, and organ, his creative activity was by no means confined to the theatre. In addition to producing music for the theatre, Fletcher composed ballads, part-songs, choral works, orchestral suites, piano music, marches, works for organ, and works for military band. His compositions for the British Brass Band National Championships inspired other major composers to engage in the genre, including

 

In 1913, the Irwell Springs Band won the British National Championships by performing Fletcher’s commissioned tone poem, Labour and Love. Prior to this, brass band festival pieces were customarily operatic selections. Other classics specifically composed as test pieces for these brass band contests were to follow, written by major composers such as Holst, Elgar, Jacob, and Vaughan Williams. Fletcher was again invited to provide a piece for the National Championships of 1926, and composed An Epic Symphony. This piece was used as a test piece for the National Championships of 1938, 1951, and as recently as 1976. The three-movement work is highly reminiscent of Elgar, and may well be Fletcher’s most serious work in any medium. Today, brass bands occasionally play Labour and Love and An Epic Symphony, much to the delight of their audiences, but, sadly, most of Fletcher’s music is rarely performed.

 

Vanity Fair is a concise and refreshing overture that is a wonderful example of Fletcher’s light melodic style and first-rate scoring. Described by the composer as “a comedy overture in which several characters from Thackeray’s novel are portrayed,” the fast-slow-fast, single-movement form includes three main thematic ideas. The opening, vivace A section features a vigorously energetic melody that is permeated with scales, sequences, repeated motives, and a variety of color. The second theme, in the dominant key of F, is somewhat slower and delightfully pompous in character. The highly romantic middle section, now in D-flat major, showcases a beautiful melody complimented by exquisite scoring, and is to be played with “sentimental expression.” A transition leads to the return of the opening vivace theme with some variety of harmony and scoring. The stately second theme, now in tonic, leads to an extended and electrifying coda that gains tempo and places the highest technical demands upon musicians, particularly the upper woodwinds. Vanity Fair, one of those uniquely remarkable pieces that is immediately revered by audiences and musicians alike, was first published for band by Hawkes and Son in London in 1924, and was later transcribed for orchestra.

 

- Brant Karrick

 

Additional Resources:

 - The Music of Percy Fletcher, by Philip L. Scowcroft

 - William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair (Wikipedia)

 - Thackeray's Illustrations from Vanity Fair
 - Thackeray's Vanity Fair (complete book) at Project Gutenberg

 

Percy Fletcher, An Epic Symphony

Black Dyke Mills Band, Major Peter Parkes, conductor

 

 

Percy Fletcher, Labour and Love

Northern College of Music Brass Band, Alex Webb, conductor

 

This post also appears on umwindorchestra.com.

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