Walter Hargreaves, the man

The Sun Life Band did nothing badly; a fine achievement in a part of the UK not brimming with fine players. Part of the secret, at least, lay in its choice of conductors. Roy Newsome, who was there almost at the end, is among the finest of band trainers. Derek Bourgeois, possibly the most distinguished academic musician ever to involve himself actively with the brass band, brought a breath of fresh air into a medium where innovation is very rare. He took from the band, too, his inspiration for several valuable compositions. But when we say Sun Life it is of Walter Hargreaves that we immediately think; the Wee Professor as he liked to be called.   

Walter was never fully valued, despite his many successes. It was his sense of fun, perhaps, which misled people into the belief that he was not a serious musician and a skilled conductor. He was both. His background, gained in the symphony orchestra, was huge, and his technical skills, allied to a finely-tuned musical instinct and splendid ears made him the finest band-teacher of his day. More, he was a creative conductor with a nearly infallible instinct for the right thing in music; the right turn of phrase, the right balance, and above all perfect intonation.

Technically WB was complete. He'd been a player and he knew the answers. Asked how we were to secure good intonation he gave us, typically, only one word: buckets. From that one word we knew the truth, if indeed some of us had ever been unaware of it; that without a mouthpiece of the right size and shape there is no hope for in-tune brass playing. I sometimes think that it was Walter's near-obsession with intonation that produced that sound of his. The in-tune band, well balanced and playing precisely together, is not a common occurrence.

He bubbled all the time. It was quite impossible to keep him in order. I remember the day at the Granada Festival when I reminded him, as I did all competing conductors, that there was to be no applause before the band began to play. "Laddie", he said cheerfully, "wait and see!". That was the day the Sun Life Band began its programme without a conductor, on a seven-pace drum roll; and with the march in marched Walter, beaming widely. Applaud? The old Kings Hall nearly fell down.

We all regret the band's demise. It needed money. It is the weakness of the sponsored band that it never learns to pay its way. Unlike Brighouse, where WB served with equal success, it depended on the assurance company. Things are perhaps less easy for a band in Bristol than in Yorkshire where players grow on trees. But in closing down while at its peak Sun Life, as I have said, did nothing badly.

Bram Gay, 1999