Bach and others in America

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

As each generation of Bach enthusiasts ‘arrives’ , we hear the almost inevitable allusion to the growing popularity of the master. I doubt that the number has or ever will increase beyond the old ratio among ordinary music-lovers. In Germany Bach has a fervent following, drawn from the ranks of serious-minded musicians, and it has in addition the Bach-Gesellschaft, which came into existence for the purpose of publishing Bach’s works still in manuscript. Previous to the activities of this society, even Germans knew little of their greatest Church musician, who now may be said to have risen from the dead and succeeds in holding a devout band of followers around him, in Europe if not in the States.

In that land of the Questionnaire (a newspaper device for making ‘copy’), they have been settling the status of certain composers in their midst. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra sent out thirteen thousand quests about a programme to celebrate a series of broadcasts, and, wonderful to relate!, received in answer twelve thousand requests. Scrutiny of the results will astonish nobody, least of all the impresario. Lionel Powell knew and said that the public, in paying numbers, would only go to hear familiar works, and that was why Queen’s Hall was sold out weeks in advance of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra concerts.

The New York plebiscite is interesting, and particularly so because it reveals a taste and choice vastly different from what we proudly imagine of our own high culture, relative or positive. Bach, Haydn and Handel were not placed: but Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and Tchaikovsky romped home, carrying 1878, 904, 788 and 648 requests respectively. Among those placed in the living composers’ handicap were Sibelius (1888), Ravel (910), Strauss (616) and Stravinsky (418).

In these results I trace the influence of those dominant conductors who have ruled in the States: composers, dead and alive, are at the disposition of those white-gloved hands, though, judging from my own observation of American programmes, Sibelius must have won through despite neglect by conductors. Of course, I assume that no undue influence was evoked to secure the votes indicated, nor even undue activity on the part of the dominant party in charge of music in America. I wonder how many native composers were among the 175 who polled less than twenty votes each.

The mention of conductors in America reminds me that now they are not all Slavs, Czechs, Teutons, or Latins. There is Eugene Goossens, who recently scored a hit with a performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre, given in English in Cincinnati. He had a successful career in England, and frankly I regard his as the most brilliant musician born among us since Elgar: so why is he never here as a guest conductor, and indeed why did he go away? I am not much concerned with the answers to either question. for general regret will still remain. But Goossens a success with Wagner’s opera comes at the end of a long discussion in America as to how far opera given in English by translation can be successful. Opera at the Metropolitan is always in the language to which the music was set. Translators of librettos, however, can point to the success of German versions of Shakespeare’s plays in Germany.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, January 1936, p. 301