The great British brass band tradition has been fostered since 1860 by an annual competition for bands. Held in the Crystal Palace until that edifice burned in the 1930s, it is a major event at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Each year there is a new test piece, required of all bands and in 1957, Ralph Vaughan Williams (by then a revered, grandfatherly figure in British music) was finally persuaded to write a composition for that purpose.
The 12-minute composition comprises a theme and 11 variations. The brief variations are in a variety of moods and styles, including a waltz, a polonaise, a chorale, a canon, an arabesque, and a fugue. It tests ensemble coordination, command of and flexibility concerning styles, and richness of sound.