Havergal Brian as I knew him (3)

Harold Truscott

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

This article appeared in the Havergal Brian Society Newsletter 34, March/April 1980

In November 1958 the Brians moved from North Harrow to Shoreham-by-Sea on the Sussex coast. But that move was very nearly never made. In 1954 I went from individual piano and harmony teaching (which was very poorly paid) to school teaching at Sandwich Secondary Modern school. But I had no recognised teaching certificate and so, after two years at Sandwich, Kent Education persuaded me to do a course at a teachers training college. Purely to get a certificate I spent a year at Bretton Mall, which was a miserable waste of time for me and a nightmare for my wife; but I got the certificate and, as it happened, never needed to use it for, towards the end of the year, I got a post as lecturer in the Music Department of Huddersfield Technical College. This went through a period as a College of Technology and in 1970 became a Polytechnic. From there I retired as Principal Lecturer 18 months ago.

When I knew that I was going to Huddersfield, naturally I wanted to make arrangements to sell my house at Deal. Equally naturally, I told Brian of my plans. He was delighted for me and interested for himself and Mrs. Brian. They wanted to move either to the sea or near it, and they both expressed interest in seeing the house and Deal as a town. So it was arranged that they should come down for a day; this they did and they were both enchanted (this was the word that Mrs.Brian used) with Deal and very taken with the house, which was kept in good repair and which we had improved considerably since we bought it in 1954. They went away to think about it, and about a week later Brian wrote that they felt fairly sure that they would like to make the move, but that they would like to see the house again.
So again they came down, for a weekend, Saturday to Sunday evening. This time they both seemed even more impressed, and I feel convinced that Brian was, and that he had set his heart now, as he told me, on moving to Deal. In the meantime, of course, my house was on several agents’ books for sale. There was no rush of buyers, and it seemed that the Brians would have a clear field. However, they never moved to Deal, as is fairly obvious. On 17 April 1958, just after they spent the weekend with us, Brian wrote to me Dear Harold, I fear you and Margaret will be disappointed — we are already so; for the removal from here to Deal is impracticable. No thought had been given to the costs — I had a vague idea that Deal was not far along the coast from Brighton. Yesterday we started to calculate costs of fares and removal. A return to Deal from here is 32/6 [railway fares have increased a little since 1958] and the cost of only one van load of goods is extortionate — we should have to pay for an empty return, as they call it. So we must reluctantly give up your very kind offer. At the same time it has brought to mind — your number of removes and the money you have had to find for them. There is only one source of income here — pension — and it just manages to stretch over the quarter — and leaves no margin at the end of it. So Deal’s loss was Shoreham’s gain.

From time to time Brian and I discussed composers. He had moods about this. Sometimes it was obvious that he just did not want to discuss music at all, and any attempt to do so was blocked immediately. At times he would insist on talking gardening, which was all right if my wife was present, and all wrong if she wasn’t. He knew it was a subject that did not interest me, and I feel sure he got a somewhat malicious pleasure from continuing to talk about it to me. Once I set out to get a little of my own back. I have an inordinate love for silent films, and I knew from various things he had said that he had little or no interest in films at all. So, before he could start on gardening, or some other subject that bored me, I started talking about silent films; he had once said that he thought Chaplin was the best of them all — not that he had seen much even of him, but it was the thing to say.

Anyway, he stood this for longer than I expected, and after about ½ an hour, he suddenly said "You’ve an amazing memory — and you’re very vivid, even if you do seem to have spent half your life watching films. I could almost see what you were describing". I was taken aback, and before I could say anything he went on: "I only once remember seeing a film that really made me laugh, and I can’t remember what it was or who was in it. It wasn’t Chaplin. I do remember that it was short, and it had to do with someone putting together a prefabricated house, and at one point the house revolved in a gale. I nearly collapsed at this chap’s attempts to get into the revolving house". He laughed as he spoke.
I identified the film straight away — in fact, nowadays I have a copy of it. He’d picked the greatest comedian of the lot — Buster Keaton. it was a film called One Week, and was made in 1920, it certainly did concern Keaton’s attempts to build a house from prefabricated parts, with his wife’s ‘help’, and the disadvantage of a disappointed suitor for his wife who messed things up by altering the numbers on the parts. The house, when finished, was a rather peculiar shape. Like most of Keaton’s silent films in the ‘20s, it was simply one of the funniest films ever made. The attempts by Keaton to get into the moving house included, as it first started to move, his trying to open a door which wasn’t there —each time it had moved as he got to it — and then, when it was going full pelt, his successful attempt to get on to a verandah which ran the full length of the house, and because of his speed and the contrary direction of the house, whizzing along the verandah to find himself off the other end.

And this film had made its impression on Brian. He told me eventually that shortly after he saw it he began to plan an overture which sprang into his mind directly from his reaction to this film, but that he never finished it, and that what he had written went into other things. I wonder what other things — and when. He would never tell me. It seems that we nearly had virtually a Buster Keaton Overture from Brian (it would have been actually his second comedy overture, and those to The Tinker’s Wedding and The Jolly Miller the third and fourth) — but what sort of music that would have drawn from him it is impossible to say. What can be said is that comedy of the order of an artist such as Keaton projects all sorts of things beyond and around itself. I have often wondered what became of the original of Brian’s unfinished overture. Probably it did not get beyond the sketch stage, but it should still exist somewhere, unless it is another of the "lost" works, or it was hidden away and never recovered.
Some years ago I mentioned this to Reginald Nettel. He was genuinely surprised. He said that on only two occasions, so far as he could remember, had films been mentioned in conversation, and each time it was he who mentioned them. Each time Brian’s reaction was abrupt, and he made it clear that films as such had no interest for him. What quite bewildered Nettel was my speaking of the partly worked overture inspired by Keaton’s One Week. In all their conversation over years about Brian’s work the latter had never so much as referred to it. I could see that he felt hurt. But, as he said, that was so like the man; he had had so many exasperating experiences with Brian, from the time he first began to plan Ordeal by Music. By the time I spoke to Nettel about this his newer book on Brian was complete and he was having a great deal of exasperating trouble with Dobson’s over it; it was too late for any mention of the Keaton overture to go in.

I have referred elsewhere to my disappointment at the fact that Brian wrote so little piano music, and that in his later years he did not write any large scale work, such as a sonata, for it. I once suggested to him that he should, and here is his answer, in a letter dated 27 October 1949: "I am sorry that your suggestion of a Piano Sonata makes no more appeal to me than if you asked me to write a concerto for that damnable crossbreed — Saxophone. I have used pianos in my third and fourth [now second and third] symphonies — only for the dramatic amplification of the orchestra and to impart a tone colour of which the orchestra itself is incapable — not because I wanted to see 3 women sitting at the piano with their elbows crooked. So that was that; I was amused at his assuming that the pianists in the symphonies would automatically be women rather as Belloc in his essays and novels would sometimes refer with gentle sarcasm to his reader (singular) who was always female. In the same letter, on quite a different subject: When Adrian Boult suggested that I should write my reminiscences — I told him they were better unwritten —for if they were written nobody would believe them.
Coming back to the piano. I quote from another letter dated a little earlier, 4 September 1949: Thanks for your letter — I am pleased to hear how much the D minor and major Prelude and Fugue appeal to you. I also was somewhat surprised when I unearthed it for I don’t remember attaching much importance to it. Before I continue the quotation I must refer the reader to what I have written concerning Reger, and Brian’s reaction, in my second article. It should be remembered that (a) Brian did not know a note of Reger, (b) I discovered works by Reger in his music stool, (c) Brian referred to playing the Symphonic Fantasia and Fugue, Op 57, in earlier days, and remarked that Reger must have written this about the time he (Brian) was writing Doctor Merryheart (1912); also, my correction of this, and Brian’s stunned reaction when I told him that Reger was only 43 when he died.

All this, it is true, took place after I had received the letter I am quoting. In this letter Brian went on: ‘Your reference to Reger is interesting — for up to now I have not seen nor heard a note of Reger’s music. I threw up my organ work at 26 [that is, in 1902] and parted with my library at the same time- I shouldn’t think anything of Reger’s had been published then. Of course, by 1902 a good half of Reger’s total output had been published. Later, I told him that the Op 57 Fantasy and Fugue was written and published in 1901, which shook him. For the moment I did not answer the letter, leaving what had to be said until I saw him again, with results of which I have already written in my second article, continuing the letter: At that time I had not reached the plane necessary to understand J.S.B. - although I did play a number of the shorter fugues. Understanding J.S.B. came through my study of the B minor Mass and hearing a performance of ‘St. Matthew’ Passion under Hans Richter. It is strange, though, that there should appear a Reger mannerism. When the two last Fugues were issued a lady wrote to me, after seeing them, and said she thought I was much influenced by Berlioz, and Keys, to whom the first fugue is inscribed, said he thought Mussorgsky might have written the third fugue in C minor. So there we are.

Yes, there we are. Brian was proud of his memory, but there were times, I think, when it was definitely cloudy, either intentionally or genuinely. So where are we? So far as the lady and Robert Keys are concerned, I must say that, for my part, neither Berlioz nor Mussorgsky have ever suggested themselves to me in connection with the piano Preludes and Fugues. The Reger mannerism, of course, is in the Double Fugue for piano — a type of writing which is similar to some of Reger’s, although the sound is not. But, unique though Brian is, there is one earlier composer I have encountered who at times, and in one work especially, did get some of the sound that we find in The Gothic. That work was written in the mid ‘80s, when Brian was about 10 years old. I realise, too, that some way back I began to write of discussions Brian and I had about other composers, and I got sidetracked. Both of these items will be treated in the next article.

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Newsletter, NL 34