Havergal Brian as I knew him (2)

Harold Truscott

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

This article appeared in the Havergal Brian Society Newsletter 33, January/February 1980

It occurs to me that to those who read the first article it might appear, in the quotation from a letter dated 11 October 1949 — apart from the Gothic, no attempt has been made to produce any of the symphonies — that Brian was merely referring to Cranz’s having published the score of that symphony. Of course, in part he was, and that thought crossed my mind when I first read the letter. But subsequent conversations, and one remark in particular, led me to believe that he had in mind an actual projected performance of the work. The particular remark was made when I referred to this part of the letter. Brian said "Oh, that, too" — meaning the publication — "but Cranz did go some way towards a performance. It never materialised, of course; he went at it the wrong way. But so often one’s hopes are fruitlessly raised — mine are, at any rate".

Exactly what Cranz had done that was "the wrong way" I never found out, for I could not get Brian to be more explicit, he liked the tale as he told it, but I did get an impression of him sitting there in judgement on those who were making some effort to promote a performance of a work they believed in — and a work that was not easy to get performed. There is a passage which supports this view in the long letter I quoted at the end of the first article, in which he writes: 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. And there is no doubt that he could, and did, take this attitude: he had done his part, in writing the music; it was for others to secure performances.
Up to a point this is fair enough, but I think that at times he went beyond that point, and this may, to some extent, explain some of the neglect he suffered, for he could be bitterly ungrateful for efforts made on his behalf; at least, at this time he could, and I gathered that it was so earlier. For instance, the first work of Brian I heard was Doctor Merryheart, in a concert broadcast in 1934 by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, conducted by Sir Dan Godfrey, a brilliant man who virtually made this orchestra from a reasonable seaside band into the force it has become as the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

On the occasion of my first meeting with Brian, I mentioned this performance and the importance it had for me. All he said was; "Oh, yes; I remember that. I was there. It needs three harps and there was only one. I told him so, too". He said this in a very grim, hard tone, almost as though he were remembering something that had taken place only the day before. He also added a remark I cannot remember clearly enough to quote verbatim, to the effect that he listened to Merryheart from the broadcasting control room. I was disconcerted by his tone and attitude. Even if what Brian said were true, surely Godfrey’s effort merited a better memory than this? This was all Brian said of it, nonetheless, and then turned the conversation to a totally different channel. Godfrey had already performed the English Suite No.3, Fantastic Variations (twice) and Symphonic Variations from The Tigers (twice) — a total of five performances. Whether he would have performed more Brian after this one cannot tell, for he retired the following year, 1935, and died in 1939. He was 71.
But the question now arises: did Godfrey actually conduct that performance? For, in the list of performances included in Lewis Foreman’s book Havergal Brian and the performance of his orchestral music, he gives Brian as the conductor of this 1934 Bournemouth performance of Doctor Merryheart, which is a complete surprise to me, for I have remembered ever since I heard it that Godfrey conducted it; I feel sure that I should have noticed if it had been conducted by its composer — I was already too interested in the activities of Havergal Brian, having bought the vocal score of The Tigers the year before. Also, when I mentioned this performance to Brian I spoke of Godfrey as conducting it and Brian did not correct me. (It is possible, of course, that it suited him to let me think that Godfrey had conducted it, but I do not think this was the case.) As I have already written, he merely said "I was there", adding the remark about hearing it from the control room. Some confusion here. At any rate, it seems certain that part — by no means all, of course — of the neglect of Brian’s music is due to himself, and his own recalcitrant and, at times, curmudgeonly attitude.

The Godfrey episode had a sequel many years later. It was a long time after that first meeting with Brian that I first saw a score of Doctor Merryheart. When I did, I was flabbergasted, for it calls for only one harp! So what was behind the nonsense Brian spoke to me in 1947? It was said, too, so determinedly, as though he really nursed a grudge over this matter. And I think that this really hits a spot in the nature of this extraordinary and many-sided man. I believe that he did really like, at times, to nurse grudges over events that had taken place many years before. I believe, further, that in some cases he imagined a grievance where in fact there was not one. I think that this was part of the defence wall he set up against the fact that be had been neglected as a composer for so long. There was not the slightest doubt in his mind as to his musical worth, and neglect triggered off these recitals of grudges, some of them real, if exaggerated, some of them fantasies, but real, at the time, to him. And in the end, I believe that he often did not know which was true and which was not.

There were certainly times, I am convinced, when Brian said what had occurred to him at the moment, and always most persuasively, whether or not it was the truth. Nor were such occasions confined to the matter of possible grudges. Maybe, at the moment he said it, it was the truth, to him, even if it really was not true. An instance occurs to me concerning Reger. One day when I arrived Brian was playing the piano — the Busoni transcription of Bach’s C major organ Toccata — and playing it superbly. He stopped as soon as I went into the room, and seemed somewhat annoyed that I had heard him playing, which I could scarcely have avoided. After a moment he said "I don’t mind you so much, but I don’t like snoopers". I will quote from a letter on this same subject a little later.
For the moment, he went to the music stool, opened it and put away the Bach. As we talked I spoke of his own Double Fugue for piano, which I had lately been studying and playing, and said that its themes and some of its textures and layout reminded me of Reger, although the sound of the music did not. Quick as a flash he said "Don’t know a note of Reger", and he said it triumphantly, almost as if inviting me to pick the bones out of that. I did not follow it up, but his remark connected in my mind with something I thought I had seen as he slipped the Bach into the stool. Later he left the room to get some tea ready and I took the opportunity to look into the stool.

I had not been mistaken. Under the Bach was Reger’s Op.99, six Preludes and Fugues for piano, in two books; both books were there, and showed some use. Under that, a little way down the pile, I came across Reger’s Symphonic Fantasy and Fugue for organ, Op 57, as well as miniature scores of the D minor and Eb String Quartets. Something else, I was pleased to note, was there too, a work already a favourite of mine, the Weihnachtsmysterium of Philipp Wolfrum. I said nothing more about Reger to Brian on this occasion.

On a later visit, obviously having forgotten the episode I have just recounted, he said "you’re keen on Reger, aren’t you?" This was out of the blue, à propos of nothing we had been talking about. I admitted that I was, and he went on "I was, at one time. Still am, for that matter, only I don’t get around to it these days. I used to play the organ Symphonic Fantasy a lot at one time — on the piano, mostly". I said that he must have a marvellous technique, and he answered that Reger was good for the fingers. "You know", he went on, "Reger’s music always looked as if it could do with having half the notes removed. Some people have said so, but they’re wrong. I know, I’ve tried. What an ear that man had: he’d heard everything he wrote — and every note’s essential.". This was so exactly my own opinion of Ringer that I could have kissed Brian.
I didn’t, of course, but merely said that that was the opinion I had come to too. And I told him of a friend of mine who maintained that some pruning — he actually said a lot of pruning —would improve Reger’s music. I invited him to try; I left him alone with the slow movement of the C minor Piano Quintet, op 64, the piece which had produced this remark. After half an hour he was all but climbing up the wall. No matter how he tried, the absence of the note or notes was obvious to the ear. He came to the conclusion that the piece actually needed all the notes Reger had given it! Brian laughed at this, and said he sympathised, he had been there. He laughed still more when I said that my friend’s conclusion reminded me of Weingartner’s orchestrating Beethoven’s Op 106 Piano Sonata, in order to reveal its greatness as the piano could never do, and, having done this and performed his orchestration, admitting that Beethoven had been right — the piano was the proper medium, and all the striving was necessary to the music, while the orchestra removed it all.

There is indeed a further story, which did not occur to me when I was with Brian, which also illustrates the foolishness of some people. Tovey recounts it in his essay on Chopin’s E minor Piano Concerto in Vol III of Essays in Musical Analysis, and I have seen the edition concerned. Karl Klindworth, editing the Chopin Piano Concertos, decided that the orchestration of the F minor Concerto could be improved to make the whole work more exciting. He set about doing so, and then found that he had to rewrite the piano part to fit. He added a footnote to his edition to the effect that those who wished to use Chopin’s original piano part would, of course, need to use also his original orchestration. Which seems to me a long way round to prove that Chopin knew what he was doing in the first place.

On that occasion, too, Brian said that Reger must have been writing the Symphonic Fantasy and Fugue about the time that he, Brian, was writing Doctor Merryheart (1911). I shook my head to this, and said that Reger’s Op.57 had been written and published in 1901. This shook Brian. "1901? Why, he was hardy 28 then". I said yes, he was, but it was the truth nonetheless. Reger started very early. "He most have", he growled. "In fact" I added, "in 1911 he had already started conducting the Meiningen orchestra and helping to ruin his health thereby, and was on the final spurt of composition. He was only 43 when he died". Brian seemed stunned. "I had no idea he was so young", was his final comment.
To return for a moment to Brian’s piano playing. I wrote from a letter dated 25 February, 1958: Thirty years ago I commenced playing piano arrangements of pre-Bach composers: Buxtehude, Georg Böhm, etc, each morning before leaving home for the office of Musical Opinion. I followed these with Busoni’s editions of the Bach 48, the chorale preludes, the prelude and fugue in D (which I got HJ Wood to do at a Prom in Respighi’s orchestral arrangement) and the two big Weimar Toccatas in C major and D minor. The two Toccatas were exciting, particularly the D minor, and took time to master.

We then lived in a place, a large house made into two maisonettes. We lived in one and a young married couple in the other. One day the lady from the maisonette stopped my wife and said: ‘I was at a Courtauld—Sargent concert at Queen’s Hall the other night and I listened to Horowitz playing the Bach Toccata in D minor — I must say I enjoy your husband’s performance of the Toccata far more than the Horowitz’. That was a surprise. I do not like snoops —so my piano playing ceased, and today I don’t even listen to a piano — no matter where. We have no radio here — only the TV and that is Mrs. B’s possession. It is noticeable that in spite of his writing "my piano playing ceased", it obviously did not do so entirely, or I could not have heard him.

I make no apology now for referring to and quoting from letters concerned with some of my own activities, both as writer and composer. First I quote from a letter written on 4 September 1969. a few days after John Ogden had broadcast two of my piano sonatas, one of which was No7: Dear Harold. How pleased we were to learn so much of your musical activities from Bennett Tarshish a few days age, and my appreciation for your dedication to me of your 7th Sonata. Ever since you played that sonata to me at Harrow I’ve talked of the impression it made on me when I had an opportunity to talk to anybody about it. He continues, in this same letter, about the article I had written about him for the then new Pelican book, The Symphony: Your analysis of the symphonies in the Pelican — wonderful penetration and wonderful to read and think about, We missed your broadcast because we have not a radio. Very sorry about missing such an opportunity.
When I first met Brian he asked me, in the course of conversation which ranged widely, if I composed. I think, while he may not have lost interest if a musician did not compose, it certainly increased his interest it one did. I replied that I did, piano music mostly, but some chamber and orchestral music. His comment was not encouraging. "Ah, yes, piano music; so many young people today sprawling about on the piano because they think its easy and anyone can do it. Believe me, it is not easy. No composition is easy — if it’s composition. But writing creditably for an orchestra is easier than writing well-conceived and controlled piano music". (I wondered, later, when I thought about it, how, without a radio, he kept abreast of what was going on.)

By this time I was feeling a bit flattened. He finished: "Anyway, let me see some. Bring something with you next time". In some trepidation I took a piano sonata with me next time — my Third, in G sharp minor. As it happened, the evening so went that my wife and I were on the point of leaving for home before he mentioned it, and I was in some hope that he would not ask for it. However, he did, right in the middle of talking to my wife quite enthusiastically about gardening, in which she is interested, and so was he. I fetched the score and put it on the table in front of him. He glanced at the cover, but went on talking to my wife; as he did so, he opened the score, glancing apparently idly at the first page, still talking. Then he closed it. A few minutes later we left, and he said "I’ll have a look at that sonata tomorrow, and see what you’ve been up to".

A few days later he wrote to me, a letter from which I cannot quote with verbatim accuracy, as I have in other cases, since it is mislaid, no doubt it will come to light, probably when I am looking for something else, which is the way I find most things that go missing. He began by saying that he put my manuscript away very carefully before going to bed that night, and that next morning he woke up with a theme running around in his head, which he could not place; he knew it was nothing of his. It recurred at various intervals during the day.

That evening he took out my sonata to read it and at the very beginning was confronted by the theme that had haunted him during the day. His idle glance had taken it in very quickly, so that it was there uppermost in the morning. He went through the work in a most approving analysis, discussing my handling of various passages, and finishing by saying that this was real piano music, ha had not encountered anything like this work before, and I should concentrate on piano sonatas, for I had obviously a great gift in this direction, with something new to say.
To say that I was pleased gets nowhere near what I felt. If I’d ever wanted reassurance that I could do what I thought I could do — and I had needed it — I had it, and this was something no one could take away from me. Brian also offered a suggestion which I was pleased to adopt. There was a passage where I had rapidly repeated chords in the left hand, with a sustained version of the same chord in the right. He suggested that the upper chord should repeat, as well — and he was absolutely right. The alteration was made.

Returning to the letter dated 25 February 1958, from which I have already quoted, there is a further passage concerning my piano sonatas, which is one of my best memories of Brian. The letter followed an occasion on which I played to him my Fifth Sonata, in B minor (written in memory of Nicholas Medtner, who died in 1951), and the Seventh, in C, a single-movement work. It was on this occasion that he described the Seventh as a tour de force, and this caused me to dedicate the work to him. It was a description he repeated in the letter. He wrote: These sonatas of yours somehow remind me of Bach and Brahms idiom, a healthy sign. The music is after my own heart, impulsive and unhesitatingly fluid. I offer no criticism for — ‘it is easier to be critical than to he exact’. I admire the smooth skill of the inverted melodies — no folking. You seem most attached to the C major. I have spent some time on the B minor with its thunderous first movement. Do you think — at foot of page 17 the passage to the Poco Allegretto is abrupt? I suggest inserting a bar of rallentando to liberate the mind.

Middle of page 23 — 3rd section, reminds me of Brahms (I think it is slow movement of No.3). On page 22, Poco Allargando — does that bass figure lose effect by its repetition? I put a pencil suggestion and also on page 29. A four note figure is often made more emphatic by the elision of first or fourth note. This movement is big stuff. Of the 11/4 — I should mark it pp throughout, like a closed swell on the organ, and only gradually open the shutters to mf at the middle of page 32, and closing to pp before entry to the finale. I appreciate the dedication of the C major — but — I am not a lucky person. What I have written about the influential idioms and manipulation of your technique applies to this extension in one movement. It is a tour de force. Did you offer to play them to the BBC auditors? Why not send them to a publisher, Oxford Press, Augener, Lengnick, Schott, and offer to play them?

In making the remark about the passage from the bottom of page 17 of the first movement of the B minor sonata to the Poco Allegretto over the page, Brian had not noticed that the end of page 17 had a double bar line after it; he thought it was meant to go straight into the next page without a break, and he had obviously forgotten that when I played the sonata to him I had made a break at this point. The end of page 17 was also the end of the first movement —a rather startling end, but the end, nonetheless. I wrote and pointed this out and he understood straight away; he said he was relieved that there was a break between the two.
The matter of the four note figure with the first or fourth note omitted, and the pencilled notes on pages 28 and 29, made a little mystery that was never cleared up. I understood well enough what he meant, the point of rhythmic relief and subtlety of which he wrote, but it did not apply in either place he had mentioned. At both these points the bass had a three-note figure which was repeated for a number of bars. I wrote and pointed this out, but when he wrote next he did not mention the matter. However, when I visited him next I took the score with me, and showed him the two places. He studied them for a few minutes, then said "I’m getting old; I just don’t know what I had in mind. I was being too clever". Well, he was over 80 years old at the time.

I followed his advice with regard to the publishers, but none was interested in either seeing or hearing the two sonatas. As to the BBC, I had already submitted the same two to the panel of the New Music programme, and had them returned with a polite little note to the effect that they could not see their way to broadcasting them. After Brian’s letter I wrote to Dr. Robert Simpson and asked him if I could resubmit them, offering to play them. Apparently I could, for he arranged that I should go and play them to Eric Warr. I played them, went out of the room, and after a few minutes Dr. Simpson came out and said that Eric Warr was not interested in them. He did not put it like that, but that is what it came to. As Brian put it in a letter I quoted in my first article, "I knew where I stood" — and my music. 13 years Later, in 1969, the Seventh Sonata was one of two, the other the tenth, which were broadcast by John Ogdon. But Warr had departed by that time, though whether peace reigned in his stead is debatable.

However, it was like a breath of fresh air to have Brian so solidly at the back of me. That he could do nothing practical towards performances for me did not matter. His support did. I was more concerned at that time with performances of his music.

In March 1958, I contributed an article to The Listener on Brian’s music, in preparation for the broadcast of the Ninth Symphony on 22 March in that year. I told Brian I was doing this, and he sent me the score. Later he sent a second package, and a postcard dated 11 January 1958. (This was an error on his part, as the card is postmarked 11 February.) Dear HT, I sent you a second reg. packet last Wed. (5th inst.) containing sketches and Nettel’s book Ordeal by Music . You will see from the sketches I now have to ink then in before I can use them. I can no longer see pencil sketches on my stand. I thought Nettel’s book would give you some information, as regards your fancies and certain things. I already had a copy, which Brian knew, but had forgotten. Before publication the Tigers was known as The Grotesques! When I listened to Boult’s broadcast of ‘The Wild Horsemen’ I fancied I heard bagpipe tunes, Chevalier’s ‘Laugh, laugh I thought I should have died‘ and his ‘Knock ‘em in the Old Kent Road‘, but it could only have been fancy. The 7th Symphony to be exact — consists of three movements and an Epilogue (a long movement) called ‘Once upon a time’. I told Clarence Raybould it needed lots of rehearsals and he could have it for his student orchestra. He said be could not make head nor tail of it.
The reference to the Seventh Symphony, which seems to come from nowhere in the postcard was in answer to a remark I had made about it in a previous letter. I always had a greet respect and admiration for Raybould as a conductor and musician generally, and I was surprised to learn of his reaction to Brian’s Seventh, which I have always regarded as one of the clearest to understand of all Brian’s symphonies.

Before I sent the article to The Listener I sent a copy to Brian for him to approve or otherwise. He wrote, on 17 February, Thanks for the script, a splendid thoughtful piece of writing. I think you should mention the date of performance of the Ninth — 22nd March. That is the only suggestion I can think of. I had not included the date in the article because The Listener always gave the date of the broadcast concerned at the head of the article, and it did on this occasion.

Brian had already, on 1 February 1958, written to tell me he was sending a full score of the Ninth. In the same letter he wrote: You know a lot about my work — the ‘Gothic’, ‘The Tigers’ and the fugues, etc — so you are in a position of authority. If you spread yourself in The Listener — please do not forget to mention my music dramas ‘The Tigers’, ‘Doktor Faust’ (in German), ‘Turandot’ (in German), ‘The Cenci’ (in English), ‘Agamemnon’ (a one act tragedy from Aeschylus in English) - I did not have room to spread myself in the article, but I did mention all he wanted me to, as well as some other works, apart from the symphonies — up to No 12, which was as far as he had reached at that time.

Of the Ninth Symphony he wrote in the same letter: What caused the 9th I don’t know. Most of my symphonies are a growth from poetry or the drama — but I cannot recall anything about the dramatic qualities of the 9th — except that they are there. They certainly are; but, although, like Berlioz, Brian seems more often than not to have drawn initial inspiration from outside sources — usually, as he says, poetry or drama, as with the Eighth Symphony, which found its origin in Goethe’s Die Braut von Corinth — his music seems always, to me, to run away from the thing that sparked it off; in other words, it is, as far as music can be, absolute music. No music can be without the human element, unless it is designed as an abstraction, and even that probably has some such thing in it somewhere, but Brian’s music left obvious programme far behind, and became universal.

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Newsletter, NL 33