Brian and the alternative English musical renaissance

Keith Warsop

Keith Warsop The authors of The English Musical Renaissance 1860-1940, Robert Stradling and Meirion Hughes, contend that this renaissance was ‘largely a fiction, deliberately and in the end unsuccessfully moulded and promoted by a relatively few English musicians for political ends’ 1. Such a theory, and indeed the one the book seeks to demolish, that there was a genuine English musical renaissance starting around 1880 with Parry’s cantata Prometheus unbound 2 depends on proving that such a renaissance was perceived as either happening or plotted to appear to be happening at the time.

In fact, the English musical renaissance 3 is a construct of later historians and musical journalists and their version of events is inevitably coloured by the English music they knew or which was performed during the period at which they were writing; in other words, their perception of the English mainstream at that time. It was otherwise in 1880 as Jeremy Dibble makes clear in his major biography of Parry: ‘The reaction to Prometheus unbound in the press seems to have been mixed’ 4.

So, if Prometheus unbound was nothing special in 1880 (though not a flop, it should be emphasised), was there, nevertheless, any sort of English musical renaissance from then onwards? Although the Newsletter reviewer [David J Brown, NL 122 - JRM] noted ‘marvellously alive and characterful works by Samuel Wesley and Cipriani Potter still ringing in the mind’s ear’ (thanks to BBC broadcasts), the pre-1880 part of the 19th century is still generally terra incognita as far as British music is concerned. When will the nine symphonies of Macfarren (No.7 in C sharp minor of 1839-40!; was this the earliest symphony in the key of Brian’s Third?), the overtures and mature G minor symphony of Sterndale Bennett, chamber music of F E Bache (another who died tragically young), orchestral works of Pierson and S S Wesley and others be revived? After all, it was from such a background of English musical culture that the young Elgar developed and it was to Elgar that Brian looked for his inspiration and his ideal. Any English musical renaissance that has no room for the Elgar tradition (and, allowing for their iconoclastic period, both Bliss and Walton can be seen as belonging to this) is an incomplete one.

If we look at English music up to 1914 there is an extremely wide range of compositional endeavour being greeted. Brian, along with Bantock, Holbrooke, Cyril Scott and many others received support and a hearing at this time. Those such as Vaughan Williams and Holst who looked to folk song, the Tudor composers and Purcell for their inspiration for a genuine English music were just one wing of the rising generation. Others found that the development of the German/Austrian tradition at the hands of Strauss and Mahler proved equally inspiring, while the Russian school, both nationalist and theosophist, Debussy and other French masters and the attraction of Celtic and Oriental culture (cf Bantock, Bax and Scott) made an important contribution.

Only in the inter-war years did the idea of an ‘English’ tradition based mainly on the Vaughan Williams model (the ‘pastoral tradition) become prevalent, but cultural and economic matters surely played some part in this. The anti-German feeling generated by the First World War produced a more inward-looking atmosphere among English composers (and French, too), seeking a greater national feeling in their music: thus, those whose works smacked of Teutonic size or influence (Brian, Holbrooke, the later Bridge) were at a disadvantage. The cost of putting on works for large orchestras or choirs must also have affected a composer’s chances of performance. Brian must have been aware of these factors. Circumstantial evidence is the concentration on his English Suites at this period (No. 2 1914-15; No. 3 1919; No. 4 1921) while, from 1919, working away surreptitiously, as it were, at his ‘ideal’, the gigantic Gothic symphony; whose size and scope outdoes, but stays true to, his Teutonic heroes while also importing the ‘English nationalist’ element (first movement, second subject).

Since the death of Vaughan Williams in 1958 there have been many changes in musical fashion. One has been the re-emergence of Vaughan Williams himself as one of the greatest English composers; his standing is higher than ever and even his last three symphonies, which were somewhat disparaged at their first performances, are now accepted as important works in their own right.

Other composers who can be loosely described as in the English pastoral tradition such as Holst, Howells, Moeran and Finzi have also made a comeback (The planets, of course, never went away) but, importantly, many who did not belong there have also been heard. Apart from Brian himself, Bantock, Bax, Bridge, Harty and, more recently, Berners, Holbrooke, McEwen and Scott have stood up to revival; while, from a slightly earlier period, so have Mackenzie, Parry, Cowen, Stanford, MacCunn, German, Coleridge-Taylor and Hurlstone.

From our vantage point, with our knowledge of these and other composers, we can say emphatically that, if there was an English musical renaissance from the last quarter of the 19th century, then it advanced on broader fronts than that of the pastoral tradition.

The composers of that tradition turned away from adherence to German aesthetic ideals and instead espoused those they thought they found in the best of earlier English music and in folk song. In so doing they perforce had to reject the aesthetic underlying the teaching of Parry and Stanford at the Royal College of Music; Heirs and Rebels in the title of the published letters between Vaughan Williams and Holst. If Parry and Stanford believed they were part of an English musical renaissance they behaved strangely with their faithfulness to German models. In fact, they thought the most important factor in producing good composers was a high professional level of technical ability and for this to come about a good standard of teaching was necessary. It was this point which orientated them towards Germany where they saw such standards in daily operation, rather than an attraction to German subject matter, poetry, myths and general culture. When it comes to subject matter they were as British as any. Ironically it was Elgar who was more inclined to favour German subjects, such as The Black Knight, From the Bavarian Highlands or King Olaf.

But the weight of the German tradition impinged on all composers; those embracing it and those attempting to evade it. Symbolically, it was the gigantic figure of Beethoven who personified this tradition and forced his way into the subconscious of composers of widely differing outlooks. Here is Brian describing ‘the most extraordinary and vivid dream I’ve ever experienced [about 1909].’

I was in an old-world town (I felt sure it must be Nuremberg), walking by the side of a drowsy, narrow river. I remember the curious gables which appeared to intrude on the river path. I left the path and turned into a medieval church with a lovely Gothic interior. I sat down near the entrance to study it. As I did so I saw an extraordinary sight in the distant chancel. There in front of me was a magnificent-looking horse with its head towards the altar; on one side was a lady in riding habit, on the other side a man also dressed in riding habit. The decorative colours of the horse’s saddle and the riding habits were strange and bizarre. I got the impression that the two people wanted to talk to each other and they were trying to touch hands but could not do so because of the horse’s unusual height. I then left the church and made for the house where I was apparently living. I opened the door and walked inside a wide spacious hall. The wide staircase ran up one side of it and across the top which gave it an appearance of a verandah. As I walked up the ancient stairs, the vibration from my ascending steps shook particles of dirt off the ceiling which as they fell on me became phosphorescent, making an uncanny effect in the gloomy hail. As I left the verandah the phosphorescence ceased. I entered my bedroom, undressed and got into bed. I was awakened from my sleep by a brilliant white light and as I pulled myself up in bed I saw an open panel before me with the unflinching, inscrutable face of Beethoven, the flames rising and curling over it. In my consternation at this sight, I fell sideways from the bed and saved myself by putting my hand out on the floor As I did so, I felt something thick and hairy brush past my wrist, and saw a dog, a black retriever. This fright woke me up, and I found myself with my body half out of bed resting on my right hand on the floor, but not at Nuremberg, but at Hartshill, Stoke-on-Trent. 5

And here is an English composer with different ideals. Arthur Bliss, coming up with a dream remarkably similar:

My introduction to Beethoven [in the early 1900s], through practising his Andante con variazioni op 26 and then through hearing in London his Coriolan overture and fifth symphony, fired me with a longing to find out all there was to know about his personality and life. The image of this tragic figure became so vivid to me that it resulted in a recurrent dream the scene of which has not left me till this day. I was to have a lesson from Beethoven himself - I dreamt that he was living in some broken-down hut on the Thames, such a hovel as would have suited Quilp’s Wharf (I must have been dipping into The old curiosity shop at the time). I knew I was late as I started to run, music case in hand, through the ever poorer and poorer streets of London towards the waterside. As I desperately hurried, suddenly the sound of what was then called a German band brought me to a stop. There was something threatening in the music, and I turned aside in fear down a parallel street. Again the strident and forbidding sounds halted me. Frightened I darted hither and thither to avoid the very sight of those players, till at last almost distraught I flung myself through the danger, and panting and dishevelled hurled myself up the steps of the poverty-stricken house where Beethoven was waiting for me. I had no sooner hammered on the door than a veiled figure appeared at the entrance and in a low voice said ‘The master is dead’. 6

While we have no report of Vaughan Williams having such dreams, the waking composer certainly followed the model of Beethoven’s fifth symphony in the way he linked the scherzo and finale together in his fourth symphony. In fact, it is noticeable that in rejecting the Teutonic technical ideal of the Parry-Stanford era, Vaughan Williams and others of his persuasion did not reject its broad formal application in their symphonies. Eight of Vaughan Williams’s nine symphonies are in four movements (the Antartica has five), all have a scherzo even if not always so called, and all have a time span which matches that of repertoire pieces 7.

The truth is that hardly any composers of the ‘English pastoral tradition’ seem to have allowed their enthusiasm for earlier English music to extend to their symphonic forms; few tried to import the traditional ‘Fancy’ or ‘Phantasy’ into their symphonies. Indeed, its adoption in chamber music in the early years of this century came about only through the crusading of W W Cobbett and his sponsored competitions in which he specifically requested such attempts 8. Left to their own devices, most composers (Bridge was something of an exception) reverted to the standard multi-movement groupings. Which brings me to the single-movement symphonies of Havergal Brian, all composed after the Second World War when the ‘pastoral school’ was being pushed aside by the talents of Britten, Tippett, Rawsthorne and others of this generation and long after Cobbett’s competitions had ceased.

Some of these symphonies do, though, seem to absorb something from the ‘Phantasy’ idea envisaged by Cobbett. We may have been too quick to assume that a masterpiece such as Sibelius’s seventh was the only valid model for a single-movement symphony. Might it not be that Brian in the 1950s and 1960s put the crown on the attempts initiated by Cobbett to transfer the Tudor or Jacobean Phantasy into the twentieth century? Perhaps Brian did not consciously set out to do this, but we must bear in mind that the Cobbett competitions were contemporary with the young Brian so that we cannot rule it out.

Whether consciously motivated or not, such a formulation makes Brian a central figure of an alternative English musical renaissance, for some of his single-movement symphonies 9 go back to English roots and so, from the formal point of view, are more ‘English’ than any of the symphonies of the hero of the pastoral school, Vaughan Williams himself!

NL124 © Keith Warsop 1996

  1. This is David J Brown’s summary of the main theme of the book. See HBS Newsletter 122. ↩︎

  2. First performed at the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester on 7 September 1880. ↩︎

  3. Strictly, this should be ‘British’ but has always been known as ‘English’ and the phrase has become standard. Jeremy Dibble in his C Hubert H Parry: His life and music (Oxford, 1992), page 193, says: ‘It was probably Ernest Walker who was responsible for establishing the now popular belief: if we seek for a definite birthday for modem English music, September 7, 1880, when Prometheus saw the light at Gloucester and met with a distinctly mixed reception, has undoubtedly the best claim. [Footnoted: E Walker, A History of music in England (Oxford, 1907; 3rd ed, revised and enlarged by J A Westrup, Oxford, 1952), 331.] It has also been tempting to interpret Elgar’s practical ‘starting-point’ of 1880 in his inaugural lecture at Birmingham University in 1905 as being an indirect reference to Prometheus though he made clear that this was purely a date of convenience. Since then the emphasis on Prometheus as the vital breakthrough as stated by Howes, Colles and Howells has continued to gather weight.’ ↩︎

  4. Dibble: C Hubert H Parry, page 186 ↩︎

  5. Havergal Brian; How the Gothic symphony came to be written, Modern Mystic (December 1938). Reprinted in Havergal Brian’s Gothic symphony: two studies (HBS. Herts 1978), page 85. ↩︎

  6. Sir Arthur Bliss: As I remember (London 1970), page 19. ↩︎

  7. Ranging from A sea symphony at around 70 minutes to No 8 at about 28 minutes. ↩︎

  8. Cobbett, quoted in Frank Bridge: A thematic catalogue 1900-1941 by Paul Hindmarsh (London, 1983), page 35: ‘[A] new convention is wanted to stand side by side with the old one [sonata form]. which, though conceived on a less ambitious scale, is deemed worthy of academic sanction. It was stipulated that the Phantasy was to be performed without a break, and to consist of sections varying in tempo and rhythm: in short, to be (like the ‘Fancies’) in one movement form, and to last no more than twelve minutes. The parts were to be of equal importance.’ (From a lecture given by W W Cobbett to the Concert-goers Club, Royal Academy of Music, 1 February 1911.) ↩︎

  9. See the analyses by Malcolm MacDonald in The symphonies of Havergal Brian (3 vols London, 1973-1983), especially Sinfonia Tragica, vol 1, page 122; No 10 in C minor, vol 1, page 175; No 13 in C major, vol 2, page 22; No 14 in F minor, vol.2, page 33; No 16, vol.2. page 57; Concerto for orchestra, vol 2, page 157; No 24 in D major, vol 2, page 193; and No 31, vol 3, page 45. See also in vol 3, pp 100-103 (the Early Music section of the chapter ‘The roots of Brian’s symphonies [I]’) where Brian is quoted as writing ‘These Elizabethan composers of instrumental keyboard music were extremely skilful and their resources and contrapuntal ingenuity were extraordinary.’ MM does not enlarge on this, confining his comments to the songs and lute pieces of Dowland, the masses of Byrd, and the part writing of the madrigalists, though he does mention that Brian was familiar with some of Purcell’s string fantasias. Nowhere, though, does he suggest any formal influence on the single-movement symphonies. ↩︎

Newsletter, NL 124, 1996