The HBS Archive

John Pickard

We are delighted to announce the acquisition by Bristol University of the Havergal Brian Archive. Created in 1997 by the Havergal Brian Society and held until earlier this year at the University of Keele, the archive was developed through the tireless efforts of David Jenkins, librarian at the British Library lending division and enthusiastic admirer of the composer. With retirement beckoning, David decided the time was also right to step back from overseeing the archive, so a new home was sought.

Brian worked for most of his career in obscurity and neglect, producing work after work in the face of a public indifference that only started to change when he was in his 80s. Undoubtedly the major catalyst for that change was the composer and BBC producer Robert Simpson, who took up Brian’s cause in 1954 after seeing a score of the 8[th] Symphony. The Archive contains all the known letters from Brian to Simpson, charting those early performances, through to the triumphant first professional performance of the mighty Gothic Symphony in 1966 at the Royal Albert Hall under Sir Adrian Boult, an event masterminded by Simpson. One of Brian’s very last letters to Simpson, from 1 July 1972, gives his touching response to the news that Simpson had elicited a promise from the BBC that it would perform and broadcast all Brian’s symphonies over the coming years (a project eventually completed in 1979):

This is the most wonderful news I have ever received. Bless you. I thought I had reached sublimity when you pulled off that Albert Hall performance of the Gothic – again a realised dream and now the Symphonies. Unique in my life and yours . . . I hope I am making things clear . . . for I have not yet got over the news in your letter this morning. What a lad you are[;] what a sterling friend . . .

A collection of many hundreds of Brian’s letters forms the heart of the Archive. In addition to the Simpson correspondence and the letters to the composer and writer Harold Truscott (all of them originals), the Archive holds copies of the letters to his closest friend, Sir Granville Bantock and to the writer and critic Ernest Newman. The latter correspondence has been somewhat overlooked by scholars but covers the years either side of the Great War – a crucial period in Brian’s development as a composer – and casts a fascinating light on the composition of two of his most ambitious works, the Gothic Symphony and the ‘burlesque opera’ The Tigers. Originals of the Bantock correspondence were originally purchased by McMaster University in Canada and copies were kindly made available to the Brian Archive. Likewise, the Newman correspondence originals are housed in the National Archive of the British Library.

Letters to the composer are few in number. Brian seems to have retained very little of the correspondence he received, but a few special items are preserved, including letters from Vaughan Williams, Sir Henry Wood and Richard Strauss (to whom the Gothic was dedicated). There are also letters from the likes of Leonard Bernstein, André Previn and Leopold Stokowski (mainly just very short handwritten notes) that Brian did not personally receive, but who people working on his behalf did. And there is a particularly fascinating piece of memorabilia in the form of Brian’s address book, which seems to date from the ‘20s and ‘30s when he worked for Musical Opinion. It forms a veritable Who’s Who of musical life between the wars, from John McCormack to Bartók and Schoenberg, as well as Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar Wilde’s ‘Bosie’) whose poem Wine of Summer Brian set as his Fifth Symphony in 1937.

The rest of the ever-burgeoning collection includes books, newspaper and journal articles, photographs, scores, recordings and the archive of the Havergal Brian Society itself. For a ‘neglected’ composer, the Brian literature is extraordinarily rich: nine monographs, two edited volumes and three volumes containing substantial chapters on the composer, not to mention hundreds of articles and reviews. Most of these are held in the Archive which now contains over 1,300 separately catalogues items. It should be remembered that Brian himself was also a prolific writer on music, since this was his principal source of income for some two decades. The Brian scholar Malcolm MacDonald has so far edited two very full volumes of Brian’s writings on British Music and European and American Music (Havergal Brian on Music, Toccata Press, 1986 and 2010) and a further four volumes are projected.

On disc too, Brian is increasingly well represented: 29 separate CDs of his work (including three different performances of the Gothic) are currently in the catalogue and most of these are held in the Archive along with most of the half-dozen or so deleted LPs. Three more discs are planned for 2013, including at long last a commercial release of the wonderful BBC recording from 1983 of his astonishing comic opera The Tigers (in my view, his greatest single work). An important further addition will be the inclusion of all the extant non-commercial recordings of his works. These we plan to hold as sound files on hard disc.

The Archive holds a sizeable collection of copies of Brian scores: pretty much everything that has been published and quite a bit that has not (including a copy of the MS of Part One of the Gothic; Part Two having been missing for many years). The symphonies are all available on microfiche, but we hope to acquire paper copies in due course. The original MSS are nearly all held in the Royal College of Music library, though a few items are at the British Library. One important item not to be found in any of these locations is the full score of his vast setting of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1937-44). Like Part Two of the Gothic, it is lost; unlike the Gothic, it was never published, so all that we have of this immense – probably four-hour – work is the vocal score. And that is how things will probably remain . . . unless you know different . . .

Until recently, a major obstacle to furthering awareness of this important archive was that its catalogue took the form of hand-lists only. All that is about to change, thanks to the generosity of the Havergal Brian Society and the Bristol Institute for Research in the Arts and Humanities (BIRTHA), who have jointly funded the digitisation of the entire catalogue. This massive process is currently being undertaken by Fabian Huss and is nearing completion. In the next few months we should be able to provide a searchable online catalogue that will be publicly available through the University of Bristol Library.

For many decades Havergal Brian was characterised as a ‘lone warrior’, the forgotten man of British music. With an upsurge of recent interest in his work, including the Australian premiere of the Gothic at the end of 2010 and the international release of a highly successful documentary film concerning the event, this image is starting to crumble. Bristol University’s acquisition of the Brian Archive and the international availability of an online catalogue should help to consolidate his position as a unique and important voice in 20[th] century music.

David Jenkins’ original article on the Archive at Keele University can be found here.