The title refers to the funeral pyre of the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf which was built on the promontory known as Whaleness. The musical material and processes were suggested by images of that event, the dark smoke, flames, the sea below, a processional with memories of Beowulf's heroic and warlike past. The work is in fact a tone poem and a funeral ode.
It opens and closes with multiple fanfares sounding all round the auditorium which we may imagine as summoning and dispersing the mourners. At the outset these gradually draw the band on stage into the web of sound before giving way to the main section, a long, slow, non-repeating cornet melody - a song of mourning and celebration. The quick middle section suggests the billowing and eddying smoke and flames of the pyre, and the cataclysmic events being celebrated, and in the repeat of the main section more instruments join the m,elody, some getting the notes right and the rhythms wrong, others vice-versa. The bass drum, beating out a low march tread, becomes audible at various points.
FIRE ON WHALENESS was conmissioned by the York Festival with funds provided by the Arts Council. The first performance was given by the Grinethorpe Colliery Band conducted by Elgar Howarth on 25 June 1976 at Selby Abbey.