Genius in the making!

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

American musical magazines are supported in a manner that is a standing rebuke to lovers of music in Europe: teachers and practitioners in the art are clothed in the purple raiment of kings: and books on musical appreciation are bought and eagerly read by a people earnest in the quest of music. And yet nothing seems to happen to satisfy the yearning for an American Beethoven, hearing in his features the rugged grandeur of the Rockies or the appalling magnificence of Niagara. Some say that the Man will not come until America, like Europe, has a record of two thousand years’ devoted service to music; while the cynics declare that nothing will happen until music in America is on a starvation diet. America, and to some extent Europe, seems to think that genius is born in conservatoires, whereas the most that can be said for such places is that they have fostered genius.

I am no firm believer in the idea that when America has a tradition in culture as lengthy as that of, say, Germany, she wil1 turn out men of genius in the arts equal to any ever known in Europe. I doubt it all, because what is put forward is based on the supposition that the Pilgrim Fathers and those who followed during two hundred years were so many barbarians; instead of which English culture in America remained unmixed and undisputed until after the Civil War, though English domination may have been thrown off at the War of Independence. What I suspect is that the later mixture of other races from Europe has had a retarding influence on creative music in America.

Well, America is disappointed with the results obtained so far under the patronage of wealth, and we have the editor of The Musician calling for the foundation of an institution where future American composers can receive training: he also deplores the fact that commerce is inimical to serious music, holding it at arm's length for fear of loss through publication and performance. But similar conditions exist in Europe, and some sort of genius seems occasionally to emerge. As is usual in the States, it is thought that money can do everything, so five million dollars are sought to found a conservatoire for composers, after the model of the Paris Conservatoire.

That seems a good idea, for many great names have been associated with that institution since it started in 1798: it has branches in various other cities, probably thereby checking the growth of nepotism and coteries; and much is done through its famous library to advance interest in the art. But, though most of the recent French composers have either passed through the Conservatoire as students, or later became professors, I do not accept the suggestion that any conservatoire is an ideal nursery for genius. The careers of Berlioz and Debussy give the lie to any such contention; and the scandal over Ravel should prevent any plea for prescience ever again being advanced. The fact is that the old professor is fidgety in the presence of incipient genius, especially when it comes before him in a class. Think of Cherubini chasing Berlioz round the table!

However, apart from the French, the great composers of Europe have had little or nothing to do with conservatoires and scholarships, The editor of The musician makes an awful blunder over Arthur Sullivan, who certainly was a Mendelssohn scholar, though it is farcical to say that from that fact came the comic operas. Leipzig Conservatoire, indeed! Why, no English composer shows less the influence of professional training or of German pedagogy than did Sullivan. He sang because he could not help it, being of the genre of Schubert and coming from Irish stock.

The music of the comic operas is a true symbol of Irish wit stirred into being by the simple oddities of Gilbert. They compare Sullivan to Offenbach: but surely the only likeness lies in each possessing a fund of irrepressible humour. The allusion to Sullivan as a product of pedagogy is most unfortunate, because it throws into relief the fact that he at South Kensington5 was called in to fill a place for which no pedagogue was thought worthy. That five million dollars fund will be wasted except in so far as it provides a pleasant retreat for more or less deserving professors fleeing from a distressed Europe.’

  1. At the Royal College of Music. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, February 1936, p. 395