Afterlife of Brian
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
I can remember in the early 1990s passing a giant poster in the London Undergroud made up of two contrasting panels depicting the footballer, Paul Gascoigne. Over the first was emblazoned the question "Is this man an idiot?", whilst the second carried the rider "Or a genius?" It turned out to be an advert for Gazza Agonistes, poet and biographer Ian Hamilton's sophisticated literary investigation into what he perceived as the tragic duality of Gascoigne's persona.
I am reminded of this Gazza conundrum whilst contemplating the work of the prolific and problematic British composer William Havergal Brian (1876-1972).
Already in his mid-Twenties by the time the late developing Elgar finally emerged as a dominant figure in English music, Brian lived to express regret at the break-up of The Beatles. Although he did produce some piano music and songs, most of his long and very unremunerative career was taken up with the creation of ambitious works for large forces. There are various orchestral suites and tone poems, five operas, concertos for violin and 'cello and a remarkable tally of 32 symphonies - even more remarkable when you consider that all but the first four were completed over the age of 70. I don't think he was an idiot, exactly, nor quite a genius, but there is something both inspiring and infuriating about him.
I have been led back too Brian's music during lockdown as a result of reading an interesting, irritating book. In The English Musical Renaissance 1840-1940, Meirion Hughes and Robert Stradling assemble a lot of valuable material in support of an argument that clearly has some force - namely that from the mid Nineteenth Century, British classical music was "constructed" to embody what were held to be unchanging national verities, first of Empire (Elgar), then of the pastoral (Vaughan Williams), and that composers whose work failed to reflect these essentially conservative values were consistently marginalised. The problem with their tome - aside from a sniping, self-congratulatory style - is that their "materialist" approach concerns itself entirely with context whilst appearing completely tone-deaf to questions of artistry. Elgar and Vaughan Williams were restless creative figures, whose work can hardly be reduced to mere cultural propaganda. There are easily audible reasons why their music is still widely performed and the dismal Celtic Twilight operas of Rutland Boughton (1878-1960) - whose once popular The Immortal Hour Hughes and Stradling absurdly describe as "the most spectacular lost monument of our musical past" - are not. And they are absolutely nothing to do with Boughton's quixotic espousal of Communism.
Brian is an altogether more perplexing figure. Of working class background (his first job was weighing coal) and almost entirely self-taught, his hard work and evident talent brought him significant early success. In the first decade of the Twentieth Century he had a fair few performances, was encouraged by leading musicians and benefited from an act of local philanthropy that allowed him to devote all his time to composition. Then things started to go wrong. After an affair with a servant girl led to the breakup of his marriage, most of his allowance started to go to his estranged wife and children, whilst the outbreak of the First World War put an end to the run of performances. Eventually he was reduced to a state of near poverty, surviving on sporadic paid work as a journalist and music copyist.
Yet, amazingly, not only did Brian continue to compose during this chaotic and discouraging period but, from 1919 at least, composed prodigiously through several decades of bitter isolation during which his name was all but forgotten. It was not until his re-discovery by the BBC producer and composer Robert Simpson in the mid 1950s that something of a revival got underway.
Brian's "wilderness years" saw a marked advance in style and confidence yet, for all the music's singular qualities - perhaps because of them - it seemed almost to court rejection. Many of the works of his middle-aged flowering are on a simply staggering scale. His opera The Tigers - a sort of WWI Dad's Army, inspired by his own war service - took twelve years to complete, has a huge cast, enormous orchestra, elaborate stage effects ... and has never been produced. It's creation overlapped with that of another even more gargantuan monument - the notorious choral Gothic Symphony (No.1) of 1927. Almost 2 hours long, it requires around 800 singers and instrumentalists for satisfactory performance. (It is not actually his longest concert work; a four-hour setting of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound was lost.) The symphonies Two, Three and Four are modest only in comparison. Number Two is for an orchestra including 16 horns, two pianos, organ and three sets of timpani, Number Three features two prominent virtuoso piano parts and Number Four (Psalm of Victory) is another vast choral piece.
Yet scale is only part of the problem. Over the course of his long life, Brian was exposed to any number of potential influences but reflected them minimally. Though his admiration for Strauss. Mahler and Bruckner is well attested, his own music resembles theirs only in fairly general ways. Other European trends - Debussyan Impressionism. Schoenbergian Expressionism, Stravinskyan Neo-Classicism - appear to have left no mark on him whatever. Instead of responding to external stimuli, he is a striking example of an artistic figure who digs steadily deeper into himself. His idiom certainly did develop from the easy tunefulness of his early English Suites through to the hard-bitten austerity of the late symphonies, but it was a highly personal development.
And, for many, a highly off-putting one.
There is something obtuse and humourless about the obsessiveness of Brian's creativity. Across his enormous output moments of poetic inspiration and harsh beauty stand alongside others of clumsy banality, rebarbative clutter and tiresome bombast. One would be tempted to put him down as a sporadically interesting minor figure in the English symphonic tradition, were it not that the music somehow buttonholes the listener in terms that appear to demand acceptance as the self-evident product of towering genius, or not at all. Indeed, it has been hailed as the work of a major master by some, dismissed as the doodlings of a self-deluding amateur by others.
It has also signally failed to enter the mainstream concert repertoire. In fact, it could reasonably be said that Brian's cruelest neglect came not during his life, but after it. In his final years a steady trickle of performances meant that at last he got to hear several of his major works, including the two string concertos and, of the symphonies,The Gothic and numbers 4-12, plus several of the later ones. Even if the operas (with the exception of the 1 Act Agamemnon, given a concert premiere for his 90th birthday) remained unperformed and there were no commercial recordings, he still received a level of attention that all but a few star composers of the time (such as Britten and Walton) might have envied. In 1975 his centenary was marked by the founding of a very active Havergal Brian Society and there were indications that Brian cults were forming in both Australia and the USA. (Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead and SF writer Alan Dean Foster are both vociferous fans). Meanwhile, the BBC continued to display solid commitment, broadcasting a complete cycle of the symphonies and spending what must have been a small fortune on a studio recording of The Tigers (the score of which the composer died believing to have been lost). By the mid 80s, the first recordings had appeared, along with at least two biographies, a biographical play (significantly entitled Awkward Cuss) and Malcolm Macdonald's three-volume study, The Symphonies of Havergal Brian.
Yet all this worthy activity ultimately failed to advance the Brianic cause. If anything, its exaggerated proclamations of greatness were to prove counterproductive. Today broadcasts of Brian's music are rare and live performances rarer. Of notable conductors in mid career, only the admirable Martyn Brabbins, current President of the Brian Society whose 2011 performance of The Gotthic made a decent case for it, has shown any real concern to maintain him as a meaningful presence in concert hall and record catalogue. The CD and subsequent online revolutions have proved a mixed blessing for his legacy. on the one hand making a lot of his music available to curious home listeners, on the other fixing him as an esoteric exhibit in the musical museum, whose stuff is floating about somewhere on YouTube for those sad enough to be interested.
The only live performances of Brian I have heard were at a concert organised by the Society that took place in St. James' Church, Piccadilly, during the summer of 1995. The orchestra were the semi-professional Millenium Sinfonia (who played with some verve) and the evident intention was to demonstrate vitality in Brian's work beyond the symphonies - an aim which was achieved somewhat patchily. Two of the three pieces making up the orchestral suite from the opera Turandot rambled on pretty meaninglessly but the central nocturnal interlude made a powerful (and for me, at least, memorable) impression. More arrestingly, the charismatic Kazakh soloist, Marat Bisengaliev, attacked the Violin Concerto as though he, at least, were utterly convinced of its stature. I'm not sure that he entirely convinced me, however, even if I was sufficiently taken to buy his recording. The piece is a revised re-composition from memory of an earlier work that Brian lost on the train. (A bit like this post, which is my reassembly of an earlier draft I somehow deleted.) This accidental origin may account for it's near schizophrenic style, strenuous contrapuntal workings alternating with surprisingly decorous "Edwardian" big tunes. More successful and controlled are the complex variations of the slow movement. One marked peculiarity is that, whilst the stratospheric solo part is clearly very demanding, it is curiously intermittent, with the soloist often standing idle during long, strident tuttis. The work actually ends with a triumphal orchestral peroration that, with its heraldic trumpets and swooshing harp glissandi recalls nothing so much as one of Korngold's historical film scores. (By a strange coincidence, Korngold's first score of this nature, Captain Blood (1935)) is exactly contemporaneous.)
The slightly earlier Second Symphony (1931) provides a weightier demonstration of Brian's frequent stylistic inconsistency. He appears to have thought especially highly of it, though he never heard it performed. At around 50 minutes, it is considerably shorter than some post-Romantic symphonies, but the tangled counterpoint, overwrought harmony and air of doomy tragedy that dominate three of its four movements might put off all but the most dogged listener. The short third movement, however, is something they could almost get away with on Classic FM, as scattered groups of horns sound haunting battle cries over a pounding accompaniment of pianos and timpani. It allows a little fresh air into the generally strangulated proceedings. To be fair, this is music that presents formidable problems of phrasing, pacing and balance, and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra recording I have been listening to, though perfectly serviceable, leaves clear room for improvement. If only I could convince myself that greater clarity in sound and performance would reveal the masterpiece the work so aspires to be.
And yet, I have come to the conclusion that there is at least one genuine masterpiece in the Brian canon. Dating from 1948, the Seventh is the last of Brian's truly expansive symphonies. It is inspired by Goethe's autobiographical description of his student days in Strasbourg and each of its movements ends with sounds suggesting the bells of that city's great cathedral. The wonderfully bold opening features four trumpeters (representing the four trumpet-blowing angels on the cathedral's tower) blasting out thrilling fanfares over a tattoo of side drums and cymbals. The atmosphere is one of open air festivity and, although there are refreshing moments of repose, the drumming, accompanied by varied brass motives, erupting joyously throughout the movement. The drums feature again in the steadier second movement, built upon a heavy-footed asymetrical bell-like pattern in the bass. Amongst various vibrant episodes is a particularly delightful and imaginative solo for oboe.
Then, half way through, the tone of the symphony changes almost entirely, as a mysterious horn call sets of a swift but ghostly scherzo. Fragments of melody from the flute, silvery runs from the celesta and spectral muted strings create an atmosphere both delicate and sinister that is gradually revealed to be the elaborate prelude to an intense, rhapsodic slow movement. An ecstatic violin solo and chime sounds offer some resolution, but there is still a substantial "Epilogue" to go. Driven by a quiet repeated march rhythm on the horns, this weathers several rackety onslaughts and fades into the distance before the final bars, where a valedictory bell sounds, quite magically, from an unexpected key.
This splendid, generous, big-boned symphony, with its colourful orchestral writing, wide emotional range and lingering sense of mystery has stood up to repeated listenings. It is the Brian work that, more than any other I know, deserves to be well known. At the time he wrote it, the 72 year old composer may well have felt that he was saying farewell to the symphony, as Goethe was to say a permanent farewell to Strasbourg. If this were the case, however, it was not long before he decided otherwise.
Coming hot on the heels of its predecessor, the Symphony No.8 arguably marks the beginning of his fully mature style and is a work much prized by hard core Brianites, though it does not give up its secrets easily. It certainly shows that Brian had one of the defining qualities of creative genius - a strong power of renunciation. Most of the features that make the Seventh so appealing are here cast aside. Gone are the Romantic warmth, atmospheric half-lights and gossamer delicacy. Instead these is a new starkness and compression of effect. Scored for a less extravagant orchestra and unfolding in a single 25 minute movement, it again grabs attention with a most unusual opening. In adjacent keys, and reinforced by side drums, euphonium and tuba advance and retreat to a grotesque, not quite comic march rhythm. After a silence, a desolate horn signal sounds out over a soft, long-held chord, followed by a slow downward scale for piano and harp. It is a bleak soundscape, suggestive of a tense ceasefire in some futile, bitter battle. Gradually the music builds up in a lumbering crescendo, punctuated by a rather theatrical two-chord gesture with cymbal clashes. This fails to bring the expected release, however, and the centre of the symphony alternates threatening military sounds with episodes of rather wary lyricism. Eventually, a stabbing motif on lower strings serves as the basis of a remarkable passacaglia (set of variations over a repeated bass), with writhing, almost jazzy, trumpet and clattering wooden percussion, again fizzling out in impotent fury. A final strenuous buildup, culminating in an altered repetition of the two chord gesture collapses into the stasis of the opening, with the horn again sounding over a pessimistic minor chord and a decaying tam-tam stroke.
Less companionable than the Seventh, the Eighth is a notable achievement that set the prototype for most of the later symphonies. Its immediate successor, however, was more conventional in design, consisting of an imposing introduction, a turbulent first movement, a contemplative Lento and a triumphal Finale. In fact, the Ninth Symphony is a work that one could imagine becoming genuinely popular, were it not for the absence of memorable melodies. The scurrying clarinet theme of the first movement and the bleak cor anglais call of the second are arresting enough at the time, but will hardly send you away singing, whilst the noisy finale, with its organ and tolling bells, is let down by an absence of suitable big tunes. This avoidance of relatable melodic material becomes a notable feature of the later symphonies, where it can feel like a strength. Within the relatively predictable rhetoric and layout of this symphony, however, it seems somewhat perverse.
The Eighth and Ninth were the first of the symphonies to be professionally recorded, by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Charles Groves in 1977. Exactly a decade later, the same orchestra recorded the Seventh with Charles Mackerras. Both these veteran British conductors showed a strong insightful commitment to this sometimes elusive music and the 2002 EMI re-release of their performances (alas, currently deleted) is the best introduction to Brian that i know. Mackerras throws in the extremely compressed 31st symphony - 13 minutes of granitic counterpoint spun, with rather alarming intensity, out of an innocuous four note theme - and the Second Comedy Overture, salvaged from an abandoned opera and here brought off with great swagger.
In 1962, Brian wrote a Third Comedy Overture, The Jolly Miller, to celebrate his daughter's wedding. Sadly, she was to pre-decease her father and neither of them ever heard it, but the piece is curmudgeonly fun, consisting of rough and ready variations on the minor key folk song, The Miller of the Dee. It is not hard to imagine that the song's words, I care for nobody, no not I, and nobody cares for me! held considerable personal significance.
It is probably the case that few will ever really care for Brian, even amongst the minority of people who listen to classical music. And maybe that's as it should be. It sometimes feels as though his work would be robbed of its intermittent brilliance were it not to continue defiantly resounding in some vast isolated chamber almost entirely outside the public domain. I have been dismissive of him in the past, and could certainly survive without him on a desert island. However, after having devoted a fair amount of time to him over the last month, I must admit a grudging admiration. Perhaps current circumstances have lent an added poignancy. At the moment, the resumption of live orchestral music-making feels a long way off. When it does finally resume (assuming it ever does) the repertoire presented will presumably be in every way "safe". Large, quirky works by outsider figures like Brian will be even less likely to muscle in on an active British orchestral canon that sometimes seems to consist of little besides Elgar, Vaughan Willams, Walton and The Planets, with the odd five minutes of Butterworth or Delius thrown in. Part of me agrees with Messrs. Hughes and Stradling, not so much in their assertion that these are the wrong composers to place at the heart of the English pantheon, as that they seem to have pushed out anything else. I am not proposing an enforced torrent of Brian as an antidote to this situation, but it would be nice if a future British concert repertoire could find just a little space for the likes, not only of Brian, but of Bax, Bridge, Foulds, Lutyens, Rubbra, Moeran, to name just a few.
Certainly it would be nice if the Seventh Symphony, and perhaps the Eighth were to gain some general recognition. Of the other orchestral music, I would nominate the symphonies nos. 5 (a song cycle), 6 (salvaged from another abandoned opera), 9, 16, 31 and 32 as well worth an infrequent airing, together with the Violin Concerto (a bit bonkers, but never dull), and the Second and Third Comedy Overtures. The outsize demands of the first four symphonies will always restrict them to special occasions, but I'm surprised there have not been more such for the Third and Fourth.
The operas are another matter. I have heard The Tigers, and it is hard to imagine any opera company mounting it, even in healthier times. Its boisterous overture stands well on its own. I have not heard Agamemnon at all and only the aforementioned suite from Turandot. The Cenci has an interminable overture and apparently disappointed those who heard it in concert in the late 90s. I am looking forward to the imminent release of Brabbins' recording of Faust.
Aside from The Tigers, this unstaged operatic harvest dates entirely from Brian's mid-seventies onward. The sense of self-belief this implies is pretty amazing. All the same, one wonders if he wasn't deliberately courting his own obscurity, or even reveling in it. None of these stage works was written with any prospect of performance, and his providing two of them with libretti in German would have reduced their chances of obtaining one even further. Or was that just another symptom of his habitual cussedness? The choice of subjects is odd, too. I know he revered Goethe, but did it not occur to him that after Berlioz, Gounod, Boito and Busoni, the world might not be clamouring for another Faust opera? Was he somehow unaware that Puccini had made rather a successful stab at Gozzi's Turandot? Did he care?
I don't know. Was the man an idiot?