Beliefs and deceits

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

When we remember the occasions of our royal and learned societies giving gold medals to charlatans, one does not marvel that musicians, rarely learned in the same sense, should fall victims to forebodings of evil that perhaps never come, or of fear of changes that will not happen until our minds are changed and ready to receive them. We deceive ourselves as often as we are deceived by others: but never more completely than when we worry ourselves to anger about the form to which music is wending.

Many estimable people, even in the days of Stanford, were alarmed about the future of music: but if his ‘Ode to Discord’2 were performed today, not one would raise an eyebrow, except perhaps at the unnecessary alarm of our parents and their startled credulity. Thirty years previously the world of music was in a state of consternation about Brahms and Wagner, but had the disputants gone on living until 1936, we should have seen them in amity and peace. The reason is that Brahms’s work is essentially a matter of line and balance based on and developed from the classics, essentially a chamber music style, and thought out for concert room performance.

Wagner’s art was not that of line alone, but consisted of many components, music being only the nerve and heart centre, the whole created and born in the theatre. The difference was like that of things sacred and secular, and there could be no reconciliation. When today we sit and listen calmly to the music of both men, it is not because their ideals have been reconciled, but because we do not rage and tear about differences, in this case at least, that must for ever ebb and flow.

The followers of Brahms had convinced or deceived themselves that the works of Wagner, Liszt and Berlioz were spurious, perhaps to be taken only as de Rougement adventures from the unknown3. Liszt’s career as a piano virtuoso seemed to favour that view: and even now, in various ways, we cannot but regard his as a sad mixture of tinsel and truth. Even the Pecksniffs of his day regarded the operatic fantasias with suspicion, and this suspicion turned to charges of dissimulation when he was garbed as an abbé.

But neither Wagner, Liszt nor Berlioz ever confessed to ‘taking a rise’ out of their public: only once do I remember such a confession having been made, and that was when the winner of the £2000 Schubert Competition of 1928 said that his offering was only a _jeu d’esprit_4. It was urged, in reply, that the composer was surely deceiving himself, because more than a hundred thousand records of the winning composition had been sold. A strange contention, meaning that the truth of a statement is relative to the number of people who believe it.

A feeling prevails, more ardent than beliefs in the days of Wagner and Brahms, that many works now noised abroad are unconfessed practical jokes: it is into this belief that men retreat when they find themselves unable to make either head or tail of what is presented to them. Those who make it their business to check musical genealogy tell us that many of the ‘isms’, and the most important of them, may be traced to the Elektra and Salome of Richard Strauss. But Strauss has not the slightest sympathy with either atonalists or polytonalists, and obviously regards both as spurious forms of art. Is that so?

Since the sixteenth century, there have been two tendencies in music, the contrapuntal and the homophonic, two distinct schools of expression, one alternating with the other in periods of popularity. At the moment, Counterpoint seems to be outstripping Homophony5. We need only listen to the music nearest us (that of Vaughan Williams or Arnold Bax), which the scoffers, lacking insight and adequate expression, term ‘highbrow’. But whilst Vaughan Williams has a tendency to become more complex and ‘ultra’ in his works, several of his younger contemporaries favour music of a simple character.

It should be obvious that the work of composers who themselves do not conform to the usual (such as Bartók, Berg and Schönberg) should not he considered from the angle most usual; nor should we turn from it in disdain. Rather, we should say that here is something we do not at present understand, wrestling with that something until the light dawns.

There is no heroism in despising what is new. New music, like other new things, may be unpalatable to those satiated with the old; indeed, few men over fifty will willingly tolerate any innovation6. This conforms to their psychology, and has nothing to do with either fashion or progress. And it is well to remember that new music is no more a joke than new architecture: both are incidental to the period in which they are found.

  1. Stanford’s Ode to discord (1908, to a text by CL Graves) limply satirizes the musical avant-garde of his time with passages of whole-tones, ‘sickly’ chromatics, and lots of wrong notes. Like most such squibs, it now seems very damp indeed. ↩︎

  2. Unidentified. ↩︎

  3. Brian Society members should need no reminding that this was Kurt Atterberg, and the Competition the one for which The Gothic was entered. ↩︎

  4. Although Brian made broadly similar statements in other articles at different stages in his career, the way he has formulated this one — written very shortly after his long and appreciative obituary of Alban Berg — makes one wonder if he had not recently examined Berg’s now-famous article in the Bach issue of Musik which compares Bach — who belongs "with equal right to the period of polyphonic music, of the contrapuntal, imitative style, that lay behind him, and the period of harmonic music —with Schönberg, who belongs "with equal right to the period of harmonic style that lay behind him, and to the period of polyphonic music, of the contrapuntal, imitative style, that sets in again with him". Certainly. in his implied rejection of the antithesis "tonality/atonality" and concentration instead on "homophony/polyphony", his thinking appears much closer to the composers of the Second Viennese School than to that of his British critical contemporaries. His practice, of course, remained entirely his own! ↩︎

  5. Brian had turned 60 earlier in the year. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, July 1936, pp. 833–835