Alexander Brent Smith’s »Elegy«

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

It has been said that the Three Choirs Festival has not the same hold on the country folk as it had in the late ’eighties: this I cannot confirm but, for my part, as a musician I have an undiminished interest in the new works to be performed in September at Hereford, — Alexander Brent Smith’s Elegy, for soprano and bass soli, chorus and orchestra (Novello, 2s [10p]), and George Dyson’s Quo Vadis, for soprano, contralto, tenor and bass soli, chorus and orchestra (Novello, 4s [20p]).

The Elegy is a deeply felt exhibition of refined, sensitive writing. Whether the means adopted in this miniature oratorio are capable of making a collective impression can only be proved in performance. The atmosphere of a cathedral is ideal for contemplation. The words are drawn from the Psalms, the Epistle to the Corinthians, the Beatitudes, and the Revelation. If the style lacks cohesion or continuity, it is by the composer’s habit of obtaining contrast by frequent antiphonal use of voices and orchestra.

Actually the music is continuous and contains many impressive pages. Apart from the gradual approach to the right mood of the finale (‘For the lamb shall lead them’) in the key of D major, a psychological situation suggestive of the finale of Gerontius in the same key, we are not conscious of Elgar’s influence. Occasionally, as in the ‘Daily terrors now assail me’, we do feel the influence of the ‘Manzoni’ Requiem. Original nuances are ‘Behold, I am Alpha and Omega’, marked pianissimo at Section 31, and ‘He cometh like a flower’ fortissimo, ‘and is cut down’ pianissimo, at Section 13. The outstanding quality of the Elegy is its sincerity and sensitivity for verbal values and musical expression. It is dedicated to the memory of Elgar1.

  1. The remainder of this item, dealing with Dyson’s Quo Vadis will be found in Havergal Brian on music, Vol 1. See bibliography. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, June 1939, p. 777