Havergal Brian as I knew him (1)

Harold Truscott

Havergal Brian: as I knew him (1) - Harold Truscott Part 1 . Part 2 . Part 3 . Part 4

This article appeared in the Havergal Brian Society Newsletter 32, December 1980

That Havergal was a great composer — one of the two or three greatest in the history of British music - has been axiomatic for me since I first studied the Gothic Symphony and the vocal score of The Tigers during the mid—30s. Further knowledge of his music has only confirmed that opinion. As a man, he was a truly human mixture, although personally I find it difficult to the point of impossibility to reconcile the man I knew as Havergal Brian with the more lurid revelations that have been made about him in recent years. He could be kind, generous, a very good friend, genuinely moved by one’s successes or troubles, and, in the latter case, trying to help as much as he could, if only with real sympathy. Against this, he had a vivid verbal imagination, and would draw on this at times, almost as though he were compelled to do so, and depart from the truth in silly ways. I knew him in all these guises.

I would like to look at him, as I knew him indeed, and as I most want to remember him. I first met him in 1947 through my writing to the late Reginald Nettel. He passed my letter on to Brian and the latter then wrote to me. He said that he would like to meet me but it would have to be a little later on. He wrote again and arranged a meeting for a particular Sunday. He early adopted my wife and I; I was 33, my wife nearly 12 years younger, when we first met Brian. Here is a brief quotation from a letter of his dated 26 August 1949:

Dear Harold and Margaret (he almost invariably linked us in this way — I have some letters addressed "Dear Harold" but more addressed to us both), As you are both so young I feel like a father unto his children. All the same it was a delightful experience to have you both here and I hope you did not return too tired. I have other letters in which he describes us as "a son and a daughter". On 13 July 1950, when we were expecting our first baby, Brian wrote: Whatever else you lack — courage you do not lack. A baby, a symphony and a trio — in a world falling to pieces. We do congratulate you both and are sore the expected will be a comfort to both of you. Later in the same letter he wrote: I hope you will complete your symphony and when I am free I shall expect to see the score. In the same letter, referring to a chance of a broadcast of the overture The Tinker’s Wedding, which seemed to have fallen through, he said: As my father once remarked, ‘In a world of liars — who tells the truth?’; a significant quotation, for Brian, in some ways.
I shall keep autobiography out of these articles as much as possible, but a little there must be, to explain some of the quotations I shall make from Brian’s letters. The baby referred to never materialised — alive. About this time my wife apparently developed a disease which was not diagnosed for some time; I say ‘apparently’ because, whatever it was eventually went away, and it was certainly not what was diagnosed. What was diagnosed was disseminated sclerosis of the spine. The immediate point is Brian’s reaction to this, shown in a large number of letters, of which I quote from two.

The first is dated 22 March 1950: I am really very sorry for you both in such a pack of trouble and you will have to fight to get out of it, for we live in a changing world in which nobody seems to care, things which do change sometimes have a fantastic appearance. Later in the same letter: Poor Margaret, give her my love and if I can get into a mood which will propel this body to you, I will call and see her. But for heaven’s sake take care and let me know what the specialist has to say about her. The second is dated 14 May 1950: I am really very sorry about your doleful letter. I would have thought it was not beyond the skill of doctors to diagnose Margaret’s complaint. If they cannot diagnose it how can they treat it? Do try to brace up your mind and overcome it — I know it is easy to give advice — but, any words are cold comfort.

What actually happened with regard to that first baby was this: the specialist Brian refers to put my wife, through our own doctor, on injections containing arsenic. But the first one laid her out for four hours, quite unconscious, and it was obvious that the injections would not do. Our doctor had it altered to a medicine containing a certain quantity of arsenic. Some months later our doctor gave up practice, virtually having had a breakdown, went away and his practice was taken over by a young doctor. When this one first saw my wife, he looked at her card — she was about seven months pregnant at this time — and said: "Of course, this medicine that was prescribed was stopped?" She told him it had not been, and he was appalled. He had her in hospital that evening, and the baby was born — dead. It had, in fact, been dead from three months.

Brian’s reaction to this was: My dear Harold, I am really distressed (so is Mrs. Brian) by your letter and no words of mine can help, I fear — I should like to know what Margaret’s reactions are, that is, in health; for I’ve no experience through life of anyone I have known giving birth to a dead baby. Under the circumstances you will both have less responsibility during your removal from St. Aubyn’s Rd. For heavens sake, don’t talk about the Gothic or any other symphony until your trouble has cleared.
This much autobiography was necessary to put into focus Brian’s sympathetic reactions — and I cannot put into words how much his letters meant to us both at this time. The reference to The Gothic concerns an analysis of this work Brian asked me to do. I had already studied the mighty work for a considerable period long before I met its composer, and the idea of an analysis had been in my mind for quite a long time. I had so far done nothing about it in writing, however. Brian’s suggestion sparked it off, but I felt that I needed another session with the score, and it was through his trying to get one for me from Cranz that he eventually discovered that the firm had moved to 8 Denmark St ,W.C. And this is where difficulties came in. He was annoyed, to begin with, because they had made this move and had not informed him: on top of that, he could get no satisfaction from Cranz.

On 11 October 1949, he wrote: About the Cranz matter there is silence and I am somewhat surprised that nobody is surprised about it. Cranz of Brussels has not written — although I pointed out to him that when the London firm published the opera I handed to them hundreds of orchestral band parts of the dances and variations which cost me over £100 for the copying. Apart from intervals of lying fallow I’ve never ceased to write and, apart from the Gothic, no attempt has been made to produce any of the symphonies. Perhaps the Cranz revelation of the loathsome underground operation may deter further large works.

I am not sure just what Brian meant by "loathsome underground operation"; certainly by this time he seems to have got it into his head that there was a plot to withhold scores of his music from him, and it may be that his final words "may deter further large works" partly explain — although they cannot be the whole reason — why from that time on there were no more symphonies on anything like the scale of the first four. Why there should have been any such plot I cannot think, and this may have been simply a phobia on Brian’s part; but, for whatever reason, Cranz certainly were behaving peculiarly.

I have no idea to what attempted performance of The Gothic Brian refers; I did ask him once in a letter, but to this query he never gave an answer. It could hardly be a reference to Goossens in Cincinnati, for that never got off the ground; but what else?
To pursue for the moment the question of an analysis of The Gothic; in another part of the letter of 26 August 1949, from which I have already quoted, Brian wrote: Two people, Nettel and Dagg [Norman V Dagg, editor of Modern Mystic] attempted an analysis of it and like most swimmers who attempt the channel, gave it up. When I asked Bantock what he intended to do next, after his analysis of The Tigers, he replied ‘The Gothic Symphony: I have already started on it’. Pity he did not live to complete it — for he was en rapport with it.

I did eventually manage to borrow a score of the Gothic Symphony from Dr. Greenhouse Alt, then Principal of the Trinity College of Music, through a note that Brian wrote to him and which I presented. He lent it willingly, and when I asked him how long I might keep it he replied: "As long as you like, within reason, if we want it back we will let you know". I had it, in fact, for about 3½ years, when at last there did come a note intimating that the College would like it to be returned. But long before that I had gone through a fairly gruelling examination on the work, maintained over a number of visits, by Brian himself. He did it in the form of talk and questions, supplemented by my playing longish stretches of it, mostly from the first three movements but with some from the Te Deum, on the piano: this delighted him, for they were from memory. He told me at this time of Tovey playing it through at sight, from the score, which Brian held on the piano stand for him.

But, well before this examination was over, Brian wrote to me, on 25 May 1950, partly about some programme notes of mine that had had read: I like the programme notes — they are of splendid unconventional quality. I once had a similar enthusiasm as you evince for these 18th century composers, Johann Christian Bach, etc, but I failed to find anyone else who even had the slightest knowledge of or interest in his music. You seem well supported with your 18th century composers. I should imagine that you know all about the Gothic by now and it is a pity that you continue to be hindered from writing your analysis of it.
L ater in the same letter he referred to Bantock and his analysis of The Tigers, which, when finished, made a small book with twenty-six music examples — which was the reason it was refused by Musical Times — its length. Bantock worked at that opera as long as you have worked at the Gothic and I don’t know what happened to his writings. I felt sorry for him when he showed me the letter of refusal. I certainly knew where I stood and was not surprised. I am not surprised, either, but not for Brian’s reason. I am at a loss to understand how either Brian or Bantock ever expected a magazine such as Musical Times to accept for publication "a small book’; it was quite the wrong venue. I mentioned this to Brian the next time I saw him, and he shot a look at me, very penetrating, as though he was trying to size up exactly why I said this, and then said, very abruptly, "You’re right, of course, Bantock didn’t use his brains over that". I could never find out, however, why no more sensible outlet was tried, or if it was. Perhaps there is something about this in the Bantock letters.

I did eventually write my analysis of The Gothic, with which Brian expressed himself as very pleased indeed; but I have not got it today, for he never returned it to me. He promised to on various occasions, but when I visited him he said he could not find it, and even intimated that he had already returned it — which he had not. I often wondered what eventually happened to it. However, the best of it is now in the one contained in Two Studies and I wonder sometimes what he would have thought of that.

There is another ironic coda. On 17 February 1958, Brian wrote to me as part of a longer letter: I wonder you never wrote that essay on the Gothic (! — well, he was 82 and his memory was failing). Had you written the Gothic I should have spread myself on the Te Deum and particularly on the climax of the whole symphony in that vast processional line "Judex crederis esse venturus". I don’t think I have surpassed that climax, when the procession is halted by 4 distant trumpets and a long wail in the high register of a distant soprano. Sometimes I wonder whose was that voice. I cannot recall any singer who would suggest it as I heard it. And that "Judex", with its immense orchestra and four distant choirs — crying "Judex crederis" — is my tribute to Hans Richter. I think my old schoolmaster and Hans Richter taught me all I know".

Obviously, the "disappearance" of the full score of The Tigers dates from that removal of Cranz from Langham St to Denmark St in 1949, and its reappearance recently at those same premises, 8 Denmark St, now occupied by Southern Music, seems to indicate that it was there all the time when Cranz could not find it! On a postcard dated 17 September 1949, Brian wrote: I don’t like the appearance of the Cranz matter. Apparently their depot at Denmark St has been handed to Agents at 8, Denmark St. When I rang up the other day the people at Denmark St said they were all at sixes and sevens and Miss Pursey of Cranz was ill and "never comes now to town". When the contracts with Cranz were made originally I wrote to a, then well known, composer and told him of what appeared to me to be a piece of luck. I remember his reply: "Surely — you are not trying to make a friend of your enemy — Impossible!"

Referring back to the question of programme notes and analyses, only two days later, on 19 September 1949, Brian wrote to me: Thanks for letter and MS. This promises to be interesting and what you say in your letter about the manner of approach to it — is, for me, the only way. Composition cannot be taught, in spite of so many official opinions to the contrary. The MS referred to was a study of Schubert’s Forms, which I had written during the War, and in the accompanying letter I had outlined my own idea on this subject; that you cannot teach anyone to compose, you can only induce, develop and to some extent guide the vital spark in someone who already has it. That spark, if absent, cannot be put there, but if it is there and is sufficiently strong there are no extraneous rules it must obey, it can only go its own way, impose its own rules on itself, which is what happened with Schubert — and, of course, Brian.

Now, the subject of The Tigers. Here I come up against that side of Brian which, for whatever reason, would insist on departing from the truth. I had from him, altogether, three verbal accounts of how that opera came into being, and one other, in a letter, which I shall reproduce, for I believe it to be nearer the truth than anything else. Like all artists, Brian needed an audience. As we know, for long enough, as a composer, he was denied one. How much this affected him as a man it is difficult to say, or whether, if the recognition he had begun to have accorded him in the early years of this century had continued and grown, he would have been the same man or developed differently. In the absence of such recognition one can only take him as he was, and assume that that experience of supreme neglect must have left a very big mark upon him.

Naturally, he affected not to care, but that not only did not deceive his listener, it was easy to see that it did not deceive him. No composer goes on writing, producing, as he did, for so long, purely as a reaction to inner creative prompting, and with no thought, hope or care for performance of what he writes. He may not get it, as Brian did not for so many years - nor is he the only one - but it would be foolish in the extreme to suppose that he does not want it, and his attempted pretence of not caring is natural but not designed to deceive anyone, least of all himself.
But Brian needed an audience in a different way. At times he was, it seems, driven rather as Berlioz was, and compulsively told stories because they were, or seemed to be, good stories. These were always very convincingly told; only as contradictions crept in on later occasions — sometimes straight denials — did one begin to realize that he was often romancing, and at times did not even remember his previous romance on the same subject. Such things nay well have been part of his shield against the buffeting he had received over the years.

The case of Brian, The Tigers, and I is an example. His first account to me of the writing of that opera ran in this way: about 1916 Beecham began to press Brian to write an opera for his British National Opera Company, and for a time Brian, being occupied with other things, put Beecham off. At last Beecham cornered him — on the steps of Birmingham Town Hall — and would take no answer but ‘Yes". Brian gave in, put aside what he had been doing, wrote his libretto, on a subject that had long interested him, and wrote the music, after numerous sketches. Brian did not say how long all this took. When the score was complete he packed it up and sent it to Beecham in London. Two years or so later he had heard nothing from Beecham, not even an acknowledgement of the receipt of the score. He had to go to London on business, so decided to visit Beecham and find out what had happened to the score.

When he arrived Beecham was not there, but someone from the Official Receiver’s Office was, going through Beecham’s flat - the conductor having one of his periodical bankruptcies. Brian said what he had come for, whereupon the man fished around in a stack of items and came up with a huge parcel and handed it to Brian asking him if that was what he wanted. It was - unopened, exactly as Brian had sent it- Beecham had not even looked at it. The O.R. told Brian that in going through Beecham’s things he had found over 2000 unopened letters stacked away in a cupboard. Now this is what Brian told me on that first occasion: except that I have put it into the third person, it is practically word for word as he told it to me.

Some months after this, Brian started again on the theme of The Tigers; he began to tell the same story, including the steps of Birmingham Town Hall, and I was on the point of reminding him that he had already told me about it; but something stopped me. It may have been that I sensed that he would not like being interrupted. Anyway, I was glad I let him run on, for what followed was a different story. He grumbled because he had allowed Beecham to persuade him, only to find when he was in the middle of writing the opera that the B.N.O.C. had broken up for lack of funds.
"So I was left with it on my hands", he growled. "Having got so far, I had to finish it. But there was no performance, and no chance of any". "You never sent it to him?" I asked him. His reply was a facer. "Of course not; what was the use?" I just goggled at him. "But you told me before…" I said, and went on through the earlier version of the story. He listened to me quite calmly, and did not bat an eyelid. He simply denied that he had ever told me anything like it, and said that I had a marvellous imagination, but he wished I would not use it on him- I was deflated, and left it at that; I was not looking for an argument with him, still less a quarrel, and that, I am sure, is what it would have meant if I had persisted. That was version no 2.

No 3 came a few months later again, when he returned to the subject of The Tigers. At this period he seemed, so far as I could see, compelled to talk about the work, and I believe that, on each of these occasions following the first one, he had quite forgotten that he had spoken to me about it before, or what he had said. He had also forgotten a letter he wrote to me on the same subject.

With no 3 I wondered what was coming, and even thought for a moment that he might be going to repeat no 1. However, although it started like the other two, with Beecham, Brian did this time complete it and send it to Beecham, who returned it later saying that he wished he could do it, for it was the most original opera he had encountered; but it would be almost impossible to stage, and there were no funds available, etc. That was the last of The Tigers, in Brian’s conversations with me. He maintained, at the same time, that he had discussed the opera with people well versed in stage technique and production (no names mentioned) , and they had agreed that, although difficult, it was possible to produce The Tigers, with the right sort of stage — and of these there were not many; only Covent Garden and Drury Lane, in fact, in this country.
On the occasion of version no 2 Brian asked me if I would write to Sir John Anderson at Covent Garden about the opera. Brian said, rightly, that if he himself wrote it would have no effect, for naturally he would be biassed; but that if I, a member of the public, wrote about it persuasively enough, adding a list of other signatures — Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and Lennox Berkeley were among the names he suggested — it might at least get the work looked at. I agreed, but my letters to VW and the others were never answered.

I duly wrote to Sir John Anderson without the benefit of their signatures, pointing out, with detail, the great originality of the opera, and the fact that if it had been performed at the right time, we should not now be naming Peter Grimes as the first great modern English opera. I cannot now remember how I put it - but this is what it came to. Obviously, if I had been sending a letter which had Benjamin Britten’s name appended to it, I should have omitted the reference to Peter Grimes. But since Britten was not interested I saw no reason why I should not state my real belief, even in a mild form; for I really believed (and still do) that The Tigers far surpasses Grimes in sheer artistic merit and stature. Needless to say, my letter to Sir John Anderson remained unanswered.

Finally, on the subject of The Tigers, here is the letter to which I have twice referred. It is dated 24 July 1949, and came between the first two verbal versions. Except for a few lines in the middle which did not concern music I quote it complete. It will he noted that there is already a suggestion of my writing to Sir John Anderson, a suggestion he expanded when he launched into verbal version no 2 a few weeks later:

Dear Harold, Thank you for your letter, which pleases me. I also am fond of The Tigers! It was written in the evenings as an escape from desultory war work and without a piano. When the sketches were complete I hired a piano and I played it for hours and loved every note of it. It met with many vicissitudes due to my selling my place as it stood at the close of the first war under the impression that things would naturally fall into place again. But they didn’t.

Eventually vocal and orchestral scores were completed (about 11 years after the sketches were finished) and Cranz took it up. He felt he had another Die Meistersinger and was sure it would go the round of the opera houses in Germany which possessed a stage large enough for it. He sent a copy to Fairbairn the opera producer, whose report was so enthusiastic that Cranz offered to have it produced at Drury Lane at a cost of £l2,000. He offered to put down £6,000 if I could find someone who would put down the other £6,000. I sent both Fairbairn’s and Cranz’s letters to the late Samuel Courtauld and asked him to think it over. He did. At the end of a week he returned both letters and said ‘No’.
In the days of the Thames Wharf BBC Studio Bantock broadcast with the BBC Orchestra three of the dances from The Tigers, and Adrian Boult also did the same set a few years later. D. [Dan] Godfrey at Bournemouth produced the ‘Kelly’ variations from The Tigers and afterwards wrote to me and said that it had caused more excitement with his audience than any work he had ever played at his Symphony Concerts. Those are facts, and all I can tell you about the work. I say it without conceit that to me The Tigers is the happiest large scale work in British music. Performances of such works need some manoeuvring - and I’m no diplomat. The creative side of music has always dominated me — the productive side hardly at all. Also — Cranz the publisher did not stick to his guns. After spending £2,000 on the full score of my Gothic Symphony and the vocal score of The Tigers — he gave up and broke all his contracts and I haven’t seen him since 1932. If he had put his back into it The Tigers would have been produced ere this. But — he just funked! He may be dead for all I know…

Mind you — as you like that work so much — it might result in something happening if you wrote a letter to Sir John Anderson — who is the presiding spirit at Covent Garden — and got others to add their signature to your letter, drawing attention to the work, and ask him to recommend its production. It is not for me to do this and there are only two stages in England capable of putting on The Tigers — Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Actually, the work was written for Sir Thomas Beecham — he was the inspirer of it — for he was always urging me to it and when I left him at Birminghan Town Hall in 1916 I told him I should do it. But I haven’t seen him since 1916.
Yours sincerely, Havergal Brian

This is a fascinating letter; part of its fascination for me is that, although Brian writes "Those are facts, and all I can tell you about the work", there is no reference to the "facts" he had already given me, or did again after this letter, nor is there in his reference to Beecham, except that he was "the inspirer of it". No further consent is necessary - but I have often wondered what is the truth about the inception of The Tigers: I think the letter I have quoted is as near the truth as we shall get. In actual conversation the temptation to romance was often too strong. As to whether Beecham, who is at least constant as the force that pushed Brian into writing The Tigers, ever saw the work, I do not think so, because I do not think Brian ever sent it to him.

One last point on the subject of this opera. Supposing that VW and the others had agreed to support a letter to Sir John Anderson, and the latter had actually agreed eventually to mount the opera, what would Brian have used for a score? By that time, it was, presumably, for all practical purposes, lost. Or was there more than one? Brian writes of Cranz sending Fairbairn a copy — but a copy of what? The score? Or a vocal score? The more one goes into this business the more the mysteries pile up.

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Newsletter, NL 32