Havergal Brian and the bare fifth

Rodney Stephen Newton

Rodney Stephen Newton Apologies for the lack of music examples, which will be added shortly - JRM

Rodney is sub-principal percussionist with the English National Opera Orchestra, as well as being a prolific composer. His orchestral Symphonic prelude after JRR Tolkien, ‘The Silmarillion’ was premiered by Barnet Schools Orchestra, 23 April 1978 and Byzantine Sketches for clarinet quartet (three Bb and one bass clarinet), was premiered by the Gillian Hopwood Clarinet Quartet at the Barnet Festival on 15 July.

Over the period of a composer’s creative life certain mannerisms appear which may be identified as representing the essence of that composer’s personal style - musical fingerprints, if you like. One might draw attention to the spikiness of Stravinsky, the fragmentary austerity of Webern, the lush, modal melodies of Puccini, and so on. With Havergal Brian there are a number of these fingerprints which pervade the vast majority of his scores, from early days right through to the late symphonies, and tell us as we listen ‘yes, that’s Havergal Brian all right’ - even if the work we are hearing is unfamiliar.

One of the most commonly occurring of these is Brian’s use of the bare fifth - that is, the root of a chord together with the note five steps above it (counting the root as one) but with no third. Brian employs this interval as we employ commas and full stops in written English - to close sections of a work, a movement or a piece as a whole. The fifth obviously held a special significance for Brian and, in order to attempt to understand this, we should first of all consider his interest in early music.

To composers of mediaeval days (and right through to the Baroque era) the interval of a fifth represented perfect balance. Music of early times frequently comes to rest on a bare fifth or an octave, thus signifying that balance has been achieved. Listening to music by Dufay, Dijon, Gesualdo, Josquin des Prés and Lassus will provide many examples of this, and also of other devices that Brian admired and, in some cases, adopted. Thus, the appearance of the interval of a fifth at cadential points in Brian’s music seems to imply pretty much the same sort of thing as it did in the music of his beloved Gothic era - that equilibrium has been achieved.

The psychological implications of this practice are also worth considering. Take, for example, the closing pages of the 10th symphony of Brian. After storms, angry disjointed marches and searches after peace, the music dissolves into an anxious, questioning phrase for a solo violin supported by softly shuddering strings. The answer to this question is really a non-answer:

[add example 1]

Slow moving bass instruments move into place like the cogs of some vast engine to reply to the violin with a twice-stated final cadence, each time ending on a bare fifth. Thus the work ends neither hopefully nor tragically, but with a feeling of ‘what will be - will be’ - a cold, impersonal, impassive comment on all that has gone before, but one perfectly in accordance with Brian’s personal philosophy. (In this particular example I beg leave to differ with my good friend Malcolm MacDonald, who seems to hear an implied C major in these closing bars.) 1

Brian does not always approach his closing bars in the same way. Sometimes the final fifths appear as the summit of a great progression, as at the conclusions of Symphonies Nos 16 and 24:

[add example 2]

Sometimes they appear abruptly, as if to halt the music in a head-on collision, as in Symphony No 17:

[add example 3]

In a few instances, the fifths arrive as a soft answer to a shout of protest, as in Symphony No.28:

[add example 4]

Frequently, an ordinary perfect cadence is given a peculiarly ‘Brianesque’ flavour by the absence of the third of the chord, as at the end of the opera Turandot:

[add example 5]

With characteristic perversity, Brian sometimes ends on a major chord, but often the major third is restricted to a couple of instruments, the rest sounding out the fifth so strongly that, at first hearing, the piece still sounds as if it has come to rest on a bare fifth, as at the end of Symphony No 20. This also illustrates a favourite harmonic twist of Brian’s, whereby the final bars of fifths are wrested from the preceding harmonies by sheer force of will - dropping down a semitone. It seems that, whatever the foregoing argument, Brian always intends a balanced ending - albeit sometimes rather grudgingly.

A further feature of Havergal Brian’s music is the manner in which he employs movement in parallel fifths. Many composers use movement in consecutive fifths another device springing from the Middle Ages - and I would imagine most readers will have come into contact with such composers as Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bax - or even the film composers Franz Reizenstein and Miklos Rosza. All these are fond of parallel fifths in their music, but Brian never seems to sound like any of them. With true independance he creates a distinctive sound-world of his own, involving almost an obsession with movement in fifths. This imparts to the music much of its rugged character, but steers clear of the tone colours of the other composers mentioned above by virtue of the fact that Brian uses his fifths in a contrapuntal manner, whilst Holst, Bax and Co tend to use parallel fifths as a harmonic device, often underlying a melody:

[add examples 6 & 7]

Paul Hindemith is one of the few composers resembling Brian in his contrapuntal use of parallel fifths, but once more the resultant sound is totally different.

The stark sound of a bare fifth seems to sum up the character of Havergal Brian perfectly - unyielding, tough, uncompromising and with that touch of fatalism that was inherent in Brian’s nature. Many examples of similar uses of the fifth may be quoted from the works of other composers (readers may like to investigate the Brian-like endings of the first movements of Liszt’s Dante Symphony and Respighi’s Church windows as well as the astonishingly modern-sounding Prelude to Haydn’s The seasons), but none using the interval quite as distinctively or with such unfailing regularity as Havergal Brian.

NL18 © 1978 Rodney Stephen Newton


  1. Malcolm MacDonald The Symphonies of Havergal Brian, Kahn & Averill London, 1974, vol 1 p182 ↩︎


Newsletter, NL 18, 1978