Havergal Brian and Elgar

Philip Scowcroft

Philip Scowcroft

A comparison between Elgar and Havergal Brian may at first sight seem strange to the casual observer, for the former is recognised as one of the greatest, if nthe greatest, of all British composers and was widely regarded as such during his lifetime, while the latter, despite a long life and a prolific output, has always been an obscure figure and even now his music is known to relatively few concertgoers.

Yet there are several striking parallels. Both came from the Midlands, which have contributed at least their fair share to the sum of creative music-making in this country. Both were largely self-taught (Elgar, being virtually born into a music shop, had perhaps the better opportunities). Both had a long struggle to have their music recognized and both, though each composed widely in other mediums and in fact began their careers as church organists, lived for the orchestra. Furthermore, the two men knew each other quite well for a time and ,as we shall see, their acquaintance was of mutual benefit.

Brian first became aware of Elgar’s music at the premiere of the latter’s King Olaf at Hanley 0n 13 October 1896; this work, notably in its orchestral writing, had a great effect on him and much later he wrote ‘I still believe there is no music so instantly arresting as those opening bars of King Olaf’. Shortly afterwards Brian, who at the time held an organist’s post at Odd Rode Church in Cheshire (it is curious, by the way, that no organ music by him is extant), sent an anthem of his own composition to Elgar for comment and received the encouraging observation that it was original, if involved, and that he should keep on composing.

Brian had enquired about how to obtain tuition in composition. Elgar replied ‘I have had to get on without it, but I am afraid this will be cold comfort to you’. Far from being this, however, it was an inspiration to the younger man (he was just 20); what Elgar had done, surely he could do?

From that time Brian eagerly followed Elgar’s music. He bought the score of The Dream of Gerontius and immediately recognized its genius. He played the prelude one Sunday morning as an organ voluntary end then prevailed on his friend Arthur Bailey (who had heard him) to use his influence with the North Staffordshire District Choral Society to perform the oratorio. This was a daring undertaking as the work at this time (1902-3) was still deep in the shadow cast by its disastrous first airing at the Birmingham Festival of 1900, but the choir took up the challenge. At the final rehearsal Elgar said to them ‘You must be angels for you sing like angels’. After the performance he placed them ‘in the highest rank’, describing their singing as ‘almost flawless’, and asked them to perform The Dream in London which they subsequently did, triumphantly. This was the first time it had been heard in the metropolis.

It is well known that Elgar thought highly of the Northern choral festivals - he had them in mind when he said in his Birmingham University lectures that ‘the living centre of music in Great Britain is not London but somewhere farther north’ - and he wrote many part-songs as test pieces for these occasions. Brian too was attracted to them, describing them collectively as ‘the most remarkable movement in English music for several centuries’. His works include some half-dozen choral songs written in the first decade of this century for competitive festivals at Blackpool, Morecambe and Barrow.

The first of them, set to Shakespeare’s words Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, was written soon after the first London performance of Gerontius mentioned above and sent to Elgar for comment. The other man was interested, so interested that he recommended the song to the Morecambe Festival organizers who adopted it as the principal choral test piece in the next Festival. Elgar for his part continued to like the piece, asking for it to be encored when it was sung in a private concert at his home. Soon afterwards he invited Brian to the Worcester Three Choirs Festival (1905).

Havergal Brian benefited, along with a number of other younger British composers, from the short-lived Musical League, of which Elgar was president. The first Festival promoted by the League in 1909 included Brian’s choral work By the waters of Babylon which had been written some six years previously; Sir Edward personally expressed his warm appreciation of this to the composer after the performance.

Brian’s admiration of Elgar’s music was such that he was greatly incensed by a performance he heard in Hanley in October 1909 of the first symphony, conducted by Beecham, admittedly never a sympathetic Elgar interpreter. He wrote indignantly to the Musical Times: ‘The first movement was cut down one half; part of the development was cut out and some minutes sacrificed in the succeeding movements… an insult to the composer and and also those responsible for the concert. This is surely not the use to which so exceedingly fine an orchestra should be put, to say nothing of the misuse of the genius with which nature has endowed Mr Beecham’.

Curiously, Elgar did not take kindly to this advocacy - he was always, of course, on the side of the performer, however misguided, rather than that of the critic, however favourable, and we should also remember the severely cut versions of some of his major works he himself conducted on early gramophone records. The two men, indeed, gradually drifted apart after this incident, though this was also due, as Reginald Nettel has pointed out, to Elgar turning from oratorio to orchestral music and moving as a consequence from the Midlands to London which had most of the best orchestras, and also perhaps to Brian’s own development as a composer which was inevitably causing him to write music of greater modernity than Elgar’s own. In any event the acquaintance had never been intimate and, furthermore, Sir Edward‘s moodiness and abruptness in several of his personal relationships are well documented; Brian, too, was never the easiest of men to get on with.

Elgar’s musical influence on Brian is a topic which deserves a fuller study than space allows here. Naturally enough, this is strongest in the works the younger man wrote in his ‘first period‘, up to the First World War_. By the waters of Babylon_, which, as we have seen was, admired by Elgar, shows the latter’s influence in harmony. The breezy scoring of the First English Suite may recall Elgar to some; the March of Heroes section of the Comedy Overture Doctor Merryheart (really a set of symphonic variations rather than an overture) owes much to Elgar; and In Memoriam has been compared to the elegiac slow movement of the older man’s second symphony. Even in later life Brian’s tunes often have an Elgarian feel about them, for example in a symphony as late as No 21; the writer recalls being attracted to Brian’s music years ago on admiring in a broadcast performance of the ninth symphony, especially in its superb final climax, a breadth and imagination which seemed Elgarian.

Comparisons should not be pushed too far; no composer, of course, works in a stylistic vacuum but Brian’s mature music owes less to earlier example than most composers. It could be argued in any case that Bantock, Richard Strauss and Mahler, to name but three, had an effect as great, if not considerably greater than Elgar. Certainly Brian’s later orchestral technique, at least, seems little influenced by him, though admittedly both men share in this respect an admirable professionalism and a love of orchestral colour for its own sake, in particular in their bold, often flamboyant, writing for brass instruments.

Although Elgar and Brian moved apart after the first decade of the century, the latter retained his admiration of the former. He said to an American visitor only five years before his death: ‘There once was a great man in this country. His name was Edward Elgar. And Elgar was great, not because he belonged to a ‘modern’ school, but because he was not afraid to be himself musically. That is why he started a whole musical tradition and why his music is not only national but international in its appeal’. This tribute reflects Brian’s own early love of Elgar’s music, so vital to his initial musical development, and much of it is true of himself, though it still remains to be seen whether his music will ever enjoy as ‘international’ an appeal as Elgar’s.

1977 / NL12

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