Agamemnon (2) – Musical analysis and conclusion

Kate Baxter

(2) Kate Baxter

Musical analysis

When studying the score, Nettel’s remarks seem especially pertinent:

‘Written at high speed, many of his scores contained errors which made the music difficult to understand. Accidentals would be missing, for example in compositions where no signature was given and all sharps and flats put in as required by the particular note. Sometimes there were squiggles which could mean one thing or the other; Brian knew what he wanted, and it is understandable that so long as he thought nobody else was interested in his music he need not worry about making his manuscript legible.’ (Nettel, 1976, p199)

Not only in places is the text and music of the manuscript partially illegible, but the stage directions would sometimes be difficult to put into practice. For instance Agamemnon and his attendants seen to enter the stage at two different points - bar 197 and bar 199. Overall, the opera in one act seems also to be in one scene. Set at the Palace at Mycaenae, all the drama unfolds with entries and exits, on a chariot or through a door, although Agamemnon’s death cries come from offstage.

The principal key centre for Agamemnon is D minor; the tragic key. The tonality of the work, however, is very fluid, exploring the boundary between tonality and atonality. Brian does not use key signatures in Agamemnon, but accidentals when they are required. He does however use time signatures, sometimes changing them with intense frequency, as at bars 234-262, during one of Agamemnon’s long speeches. The change in time signature does not seem to have any significance towards either the drama or the characters, although Clytemnestra’s speeches are usually accompanied by a note by the composer such as XX = 120, to increase the tempo, though some of these changes are not in Brian’s hand.

‘The one-act Agamemnon is a work of dissolution … where the music, having disintegrated, dies out, to be followed by a sudden, false, triumphant ending.’ (Truscott 1978.) Truscott’s view is in opposition to that of Foreman, who says that the ‘conclusion would be too swift to make its full dramatic impact.’

On studying this opera, it becomes clear that although Brian was an old man - in his eighties when it was composed - his intellect had grown rather than diminished. As previously mentioned, he had an interest in philosophy and was well aware of current trends in composition. In an interview towards the end of his life he said: ‘I have always considered myself a modernist. I did when I started out, and I do now.’

Agamemnon can also be seen as representing the tension between strong and weak causal determinism. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, with the air of tragic inevitability which it shares with all drama of its genre, and its rigidity of structure and form, shows events surrounding each character to be causally determined in the strongest sense. Brian’s music is lacking in definite structure and form; ‘Brian disliked square-cut form, and strove for rhythmic flexibility’ (Nettel). The effect of this is to show his scepticism regarding the strength of causally deterministic forces. His use of the text is in keeping with this, as he uses only parts of the translation, and adds his own text to it. In this way Brian shows his own views which are contrary to those of Greek Tragedy. The result is a work intended to illustrate that only a very few things in life are strongly determined: significantly, death and music.

On the whole it seems that Brian’s stance in Agamemnon is of a weak causal determinism where action is the result of both circumstance and choice. One can take this argument further by looking at the characters and various themes used throughout the opera. One of the most frequently occurring is the falling octave, for instance at bar 6, shown in example 1.

example to be added

This theme can be described as the epitome of Greek Tragedy, that is the fall of the hero, and the important element of inevitability. Death is closely linked with this theme, and its frequent recurrence illustrates Brian’s acknowledgement of death Man undisputed fact. This is one of the only elements of the tragedy of which Brian does not question the strongly deterministic nature. At the end of the opera Agamemnon’s theme is heard, this time completed by the falling octave (bars 623-635, example 2).

example to be added

Thus Brian is again showing his scepticism towards strong causal determinism; Agamemnon’s theme and the falling octave of tragedy being the only themes that are heard in their complete form again and again. The final notes of the opera do not belong to either of these themes, therefore the narrative of Brian’s Agamemnon seems to be the search for and the final answer to life; the two things which are inevitable in life are death and music.

It is surprising that Agamemnon has never been staged. It has been heard only in concert performance, the first of these being in 1971 as part of a celebration for Brian’s 95th birthday. Of this performance, the musical criticism was varied; Stanley Sadie, writing for The Times, said: ‘Agamemnon is unsuccessful first of all because the heavy, busy brassy orchestration constantly overwhelms even these strenuous vocal lines…’

Leslie Head, who conducted this performance, said: ‘In this work the orchestra does swamp the singers at times, but Brian always wrote with Wagnerian voices in mind and he liked the grand sound. So much depends on the singers. So many of our English voices find it difficult to come through the orchestral texture.’

The vocal lines, especially the epic-like speeches sung by most of the characters, are certainly both lengthy and declamatory in a recitative-like style. This can be likened to the Sprechgesang used by Schoenberg in his music drama Die Glückliche Hand (1908-13). Brian’s use of this form sometimes requires singers to continue for long periods, running the risk of monotony, or places them in competition with sometimes very large orchestral forces. It has to be remembered, however, that this was Brian’s treatment of a Greek Tragedy, and as such needed to include these long passages as well as stichomythic passages both of which are crucial to the structure of this genre.


Malcolm MacDonald says in his introduction to the recorded concert performance that Brian added the voices to this opera after he had completed the orchestration. The opera is scored for the following instruments, according to Brian’s own score.

4 Flutes (4th takes Piccolo)
2 Oboes
1 Cor anglais
2 Clarinets (B flat)
1 Bass clarinet
4 Fagotti (4th takes Contra fagotto)
4 Corni (F)
3 Trombe (C)
3 Tromboni
Tuba contrabassi

3 Timpani
Glockenspiel, sounding one octave above written
Xylophone, sounding as written
Tamborine militaire (3 preferred)
G cassa tamborine


Brian makes no note in the score of the number of strings, though it may not have been unusual for him to omit such details while having definite numbers in mind. In 1972, Leslie Head found it necessary to visit Brian to discuss this issue regarding the coming performance of his 2nd Symphony, and found that ‘(he) was particularly emphatic on the number of string players he wanted, and went so far as to write to emphasise the point: 18 first violins, 16 seconds, 14 violas, 12 cellos, 8 basses, if student bass players are available then add such ad. lib.’ (Foreman 1976 p68.)

In view of this, and Richard Gandy’s comment on the orchestra after singing the Watchman’s part in the 1971 concert production that ‘the volume of sound was terrific’, it can be surmised that Brian knew exactly how many string players he wanted, but did not feel it necessary to include this detail on the score. This was a work kept in a cupboard, and he obviously did not expect it to be performed. From the two comments, though, it is clear that large string forces were used in the 1971 concert performance, and it seems that this is what Brian intended.

From studying the score, and listening to Agamemnon, it appears that Gandy’s following comment is a little unfair. ‘The use of a large Elektra-type orchestra was too constant, there was not sufficient light and shade.’

There are two definite pauses, both dramatically and musically, at bars 17-18 and 546-554. In addition, there are several passages of orchestration which are significantly thinner in texture. One of the longest is at bars 124-133, as the Herald sings unaccompanied, followed by solo horn to the end of the section. Further examples are to be found at bars 32-4, where the strings, pp, accompany the voice of the Watchman, and at bars 116-118, as Clytemnestra is accompanied by first the strings and then the wind.

Brian makes great and sometimes extended use of percussion. An instance occurs as bars 114-121, as Clytemnestra awaits the Herald: another is during choral passages. The tamtam is reserved until it is used with great effect as the death of Agamemnon approaches - bars 545-552. Military-style marches abound, as do very strong bass parts. Even at the age of eighty-one, the influence of Brian’s experience of music from his youth appears obvious.

‘Between the ages of ten and twenty he learned to play the church organ, the violin, the piano, and the cello. He sang in the church choir and in other choirs, he became deputy organist of St. James’ Church Longton, full-time organist at two other churches… He played violin in one orchestra, the cello in three others, was pianist and arranger for a small dance band, began seriously to compose, and studied the scores of Schumann, Grieg, Liszt, Wagner, Bach, Beethoven, and many others. Along with these he diligently read the Symphonic Analyses of Ebenezer Prout.’ (Easthaugh 1976, p20)


Malcolm MacDonald says in his introduction to the recorded concert performance that ‘Our attention is directed away from the characters to the events in which they take part, and in musical terms this means away from the voices to the orchestra.’

The voices used in the opera are as follows:

Agamemnon - Tenor
Clytemnestra - Soprano
Cassandra - Mezzo soprano
Watchman - Tenor
Herald - Bass
Old Man - Bass
Chorus - SATB

One can see from this that Brian retains traditional equality of vocalism. A conscious upholding of such tradition in a work where Brian ‘the modernist’ strives for origina1ity must be intended to focus attention on the drama itself, and the motion of the music, both orchestral and vocal. This can be seen in some of the long declamatory passages which Richard Candy found so effective when he sang the part of the Watchman in the 1971 concert performance.

Declamatory passages are used frequently by Brian, typically Clytemnestra’s defence of herself to her people after she has murdered her husband and Cassandra (bars 573-577). She is accompanied by syncopated rhythms in the woodwind and the brass. This device can be seen as fulfilling Wagner’s idea of word-tone synthesis, which he discussed in the third part of his essay Oper und Drama (1851): ‘Tonal language is the beginning and end of verbal language, just as feeling is the beginning and end of reason, myth the beginning and end of history.’

This can be seen in Das Rheingold. when, in Scene 4, Alberich sings ‘Bin ich nun frei?’, The voice is underlined in the orchestra by a syncopated rhythm. It can therefore be seen from these examples that Brian had not forgotten the lessons he had learned many years previously, when he studied Wagner’s essays and works.

Many of the passages for chorus could, musically, stand on their own, particularly bars 197-233, as the chorus greet Agamemnon. Of this, Malcolm MacDonald says ‘I always think of [this] as Brian’s farewell to part-song.’ If the farewell was intended, it was to a genre in which Brian had worked since his early days of writing part-songs for local and northern music festivals, for instance By the waters of Babylon, which was first sung at Hanley by the North Staffordshire District Choral Society in 1907, and two years later, at the Musical League Festival in Liverpool.

The choral passages are often accompanied by the full orchestra. As with the strings, Brian did not write details on the score for the numbers of voices he intended to use; but by viewing the number of players in the orchestra, it becomes clear that a large vocal force is necessary.

Thematic material

The early influence of Wagner on Brian is most apparent in Agamemnon, with the recurrent use of thematic material of various lengths. Wagner outlined the use of the orchestra for presentiments and reminiscences in Oper und Drama as he discussed what were to became known as leitmotivs. As in the Prelude to Das Rheingold, Brian uses thematic material as presentiments to prepare the audience for an emotion that is to come. An example is heard at bars 4-5, in the flutes and oboes, Example 3.

example to be added

It is the most commonly used theme; the two-note falling octave reflecting the fall of the hero. Throughout the work it is heard in various voices and instruments, sometimes as it was first heard, and with special significance in the penultimate bar of the opera.

Brian also uses thematic material for a character’s reminiscences. These are of vital importance to the advancement of the drama, this importance dictated by the ‘stream of consciousness’ style. So, the Tragedy theme is also used as device for reminiscence.

Other themes include that for Agamemnon; it is first beard in the oboes at bars 1-4, thus opening the drama, again in the bass line of the chorus at bars 210-11, and finally, as it disintegrates into the tragedy theme, at bars 623-5.

Cassandra’s theme is first beard at bars 382-3 in Agamemnon’s speech, then at bars 449-51 in a speech by Clytemnestra, and again in a further speech by her at bar 469.

There are many similarities between this and Agamemnon’s theme, perhaps reflecting the extent to which their fates are intertwined. Cassandra’s theme is also the theme of prophecy, as Cassandra and prophecy are one and the same. This theme sounds very similar to the theme of the Perfect Fool in Parsifal which, like Brian’s Agamemnon, culminates a life’s work. (I am indebted to J Parsons for bringing this similarity to my attention).

In Act 1 of Parsifal, Kundry names the Perfect Fool, and the theme is heard for the first time. Kundry as many similarities with Cassandra; their main role is that of prophecy, although the outcome of Kundry’s prophecy is far more positive than that of Cassandra’s (the Perfect Fool becomes the hero, Agamemnon is the falling hero). The prophecies and fates of these two characters are strongly determined by the drama. It is significant that, as Cassandra silently dies, her theme, and that of prophecy, mirrors her fate and is not heard again.

The last theme to be discussed here is that of Clytemnestra. Orchestrally it is more complicated than those of the other characters, bringing attention to Clytemnestra’s vital, yet less than inevitable, role as the instrument of the tragedy. It is first heard at bar 60 in the string and wind instruments, these being the most common combination of instruments chosen to present this theme. It is then heard regularly throughout the work, examples of which occur at bar 307 in the celli and bassi, at bar 446 in the strings and winds, and finally at bar 610, the dramatic significance of her words being heightened by addition of glockenspiel and xylophone.


Brian struggled through a life where music was sometimes an object to be loved, and often to be hated. Whichever, it dominated his life from his earliest years until his death nearly a century later. The world that shaped him as a man and a composer and writer saw vast cultural, social, and musical changes, brought about primarily by the Industrial Revolution, the demands of which Brian had first hand knowledge of, through his youth spent in the Potteries of North Staffordshire.

Musical developments included a change in the attitudes of working-class people in the newly industrialised areas of England. Tonic sol-fa opened up a world of music for members of the choirs that flourished, particularly in the North of England. At the same time, there was a new and serious interest in the composition of art music in England, the epitomisation of which was the opening of the National Training School of Music in 1873.

However, a demand for English music by British composers did not follow. Despite this, some members of the British musical establishment continued to campaign for recognition of their ideals. British composers continued to compose opera in English, and struggled for recognition of their work in the country of their birth.

Brian was one of those struggling composers. He earned money by means other than his composition, and never became accepted as part of the musical establishment. Due to this, he resolved to write his music for himself, never expecting it to be performed. It was not until later in his life that circumstances, such as the easing of financial pressures, resolved themselves; allowing him to become one of Britain’s most prolific composers.

It can be concluded from this dissertation that Brian’s Agamemnon is neither a music drama nor an opera, but, as he wrote on the first page of his manuscript, ‘A Tragedy’. It does not use music and drama as equal partners, as Wagner demanded, although presentiments and a strong use of reminiscence are clear. Further, though elements of opera such as long passages for solo voice interspersed by intricate choral writing are apparent, Brian’s developed modernist style draws together elements of tradition and innovation. Agamemnon is an exploration of Tragedy, both the Hellenic art, and the Tragedy of life itself.

NL 130 © Kate Baxter 1997

Newsletter, NL 130, 1997