All seeing eye: review of HB on music, volume 1

Lewis Foreman

A musical journalist of significant historical importance
Review - Lewis Foreman Havergal Brian on music, volume 1: British music, ed Malcolm MacDonald, Toccata Press, 1986, 440pp

Whenever one takes down an old volume of a musical journal, or browses through the musical columns of old newspapers, serendipity immediately takes over and before one quite knows what has happened one has accumulated such a quantity of forgotten but fascinating material that one is in danger of being swamped by it all. Speaking personally, I always find this activity most rewarding when considering the period from the death of Queen Victoria to the outbreak of the Great War, a golden age of voluminous commentary, and a time of great growth and achievement in the musical field. The only way to control a mass of such otherwise ephemeral material is to collect it into volumes and index it, for even with considerable time spent in a library such as the British Library’s newspaper collection at Colindale, it is to all intents and purposes lost.

Collections of musical journalism have of course appeared many times before, and can be categorised by writer, by subject, or in the case of the most useful of all such compilations, The Mirror of Music 1, by journal (in the latter case writings that had appeared previously in The musical times). Malcolm MacDonald has encompassed two of these approaches in his investigation of the musical journalism of Havergal Brian: by author and then by subject — and in his first volume the theme is British music.

Before going on to consider the value of Brian’s commentary we should perhaps briefly take note of his stature as a writer, the demonstration of which is not the least of the achievements of this remarkable book. Havergal Brian has long been forgotten as a writer of vivid style and permanent value, even by his friends who were, perhaps, preoccupied with their first priority of trying to obtain a hearing for his music. Yet we have long known that Brian freelanced as a journalist to earn his living at different times of his life, but apart from Paul Rapoport’s consideration of the matter in his thesis on The Gothic 2, it has escaped the attention of commentators.

Certainly when I helped the late Reg Nettel prepare the revision of his _Ordeal by Music_3 although we may have made passing use of Brian’s journalism as a biographical source, it never occurred to us to make an in-depth assessment of his writings, preoccupied as we were with the music. So we need to renew our thanks to Malcolm MacDonald, not only for his detailed scholarship as far as the music is concerned, but now for revealing the extent and value of Brian’s journalism, which must be the result of long and painstaking reading of a great many columns of old newsprint.

Brian is revealed as a writer of vast experience, who appears to have been present on a great many celebrated occasions, plus (perhaps of even more value) a great many others which would now be completely forgotten without his vivid pen. Brian always makes an occasion personal; he usually can add that fascinating comment only known to the insider, or that apt comparison with some previous similar event. The sequence in which this book has been arranged contributes much to its readability, and a first sitting with it repays reading straight through.

Its 102 essays range from the general, through sections devoted to Elgar, Delius and Bantock (which make the book a must for admirers of any of them), to discussions of particular events including, for example, the Birmingham Triennial Festival of 1906 (halfway through Stanford’s conductorship), to the BBC’s celebrated 1934 series of six concerts. Other composers discussed include 15 of Brian’s contemporaries (they are not always the most obvious ones, including Albert Coates, Dyson, Foulds and Sorabji), six of the older generation and seven of the younger. The range of the latter can be demonstrated by noting the piece on the (then) young Arnold Cooke, whose short cantata Holderneth, Brian found ‘unusually attractive’.

Of the many specific occasions which are given new life by Brian’s commentary, probably the most fascinating is found in his appreciation of the Halford Orchestra, and especially his contention that Rachmaninov wrote a piano concerto specially for it. This would have been the second, and MacDonald contributes an absorbing footnote discussing the options regarding the exact nature of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto’s first English performance. The matter is not finally pinned down, and it is a pity that Brian was not more specific with his reference, for the exact date of the performance is yet to be documented.

What Brian wrote is of the widest interest and deserves this handsome volume for its permanent presentation to most readers. It is made doubly valuable both by Malcolm MacDonald’s sympathetic presentation and for his scholarly footnotes. However, in the last analysis, for reference use we are particularly indebted for the splendid 24 page index compiled by John Grimshaw. This is of the greatest importance, and for anyone researching the period this book immediately becomes one of the first places to be checked. Brian enthusiasts will need no further bidding — this is a really substantial and worthwhile compilation, which incidentally throws a lot of light on Brian the man and the composer.

However, this book is of far wider interest, and when the projected multi-volume collection of articles by Brian is completed it will be nothing short of a major key to research in the music of the period. Certainly all those libraries who bought George Bernard Shaw’s collected writings on music and added them to their reference shelves should place a standing order for this too, for it is a lot more reliable than the Shaw as to opinion and evaluation of the music considered, and almost as amusing for its style. Brian’s sympathies are so much broader: not for him the destructive criticism.

He almost always finds something positive to say, as in this account of the 1937 Leith Hill revival of the shortened version of Parry’s Judith, "If Parry’s technique in Judith lacks modern virtuosity, it does not fail by comparison in depth of expression or continuous thinking. Occasionally he ‘catches fire’ in his choral movements… the grandeur and nobility of Parry’s music was portrayed through the masterly conducting of Vaughan Williams.

This is one of the most important and lasting of the Brian Society’s initiatives: do please support it. No one interested in British music will wish to be without it, and you will certainly not regret having it on your shelves.


  1. Scholes, Percy A The mirror of music 1844-l944. 2 vols. Novello/OUP, 1947. ↩︎

  2. Rapoport, Paul Ernest Havergal Brian and his Symphony The Gothic. Thesis MM, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 1972. ↩︎

  3. Nettel, Reginald. Havergal Brian and his Music, Dobson, 1976. ↩︎

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