Grimethorpe Aria was written in 1973, commissioned by Grimethorpe Colliery Band and first performed under the composer's direction at the Harrogate Festival of that year.
In mood it relates closely to The Triumph of Time, the orchestral piece Birtwistle wrote for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1972, being in the same general adagio tempo, pessimistic and bleak in feeling. Texturally too, it has close parallels with that piece, the instrumentation being often dense and multi-layered.
Birtwistle in fact has created a new sound from the traditional instrumentation of the brass band, dispensing with the unison writing normally associated with cornet and tuba sections in particular, giving each player a separate and independent part.
Structurally the piece falls into three continuous sections; a slow, almost reluctant, beginning leading to brief phrases on solo flugelhorn and tenor horn, a middle section where a choir of cornets and baritones are interrupted in their cantilena by fierce, harshly punctuated fanfares from the other cornets and trombones – a section which climaxes in a huge tutti of massive dynamic – and finally an elegiac coda begun by two solo euphoniums and continued to the close by solo flugelhorn and tenor horns.