Brian’s Use of Beams

Alan Marshall

One characteristic of Brian’s notation which is very apparent, though rarely problematic, is his beaming of semi-quavers in pairs, as in example 1. Of course, it does not need four bars to make the point, but the familiarity of this passage from near the beginning of Symphony 6 will confirm that it merely reflects what is a perfectly standard rhythmic pattern—just the normal slight emphasis on the first of the four semi-quavers, and a lesser emphasis on the third. It is Brian’s default practice; and rhythmic questions begin to arise when he departs from it. A general point here: Brian’s notation is enormously detailed when it comes to phrasing, dynamics and articulation. Hairpins and other dynamic markings abound, and there are times when it seems quite odd to encounter a note which does not have some sort of articulation mark. We may assume that Brian was "hearing" precise nuances as he wrote, and was endeavouring to represent them. For instance, much later in the same work he beams the bass clarinet, bassoons and side drums without this break, as if to hint that the four notes are to be played evenly, a point particularly relevant to the side drums where emphasis on the first and third notes would obtrude, and where an even rat-tat-tat-tat effect is needed.

In transcribing Brian’s scores by computer, one normally converts the four split-beamed semi-quavers to four through-beamed semi-quavers, and normally it will make no difference to the way it is played in practice. It becomes a bit of a philosophical point, whether there is merit in cleaving to Brian’s notation anyway, for whatever fine nuances might be conveyed. In any case there are also times when the visual effect of the split beam does assist the eye, as in a passage (see ex 2) for cellos from the second movement of his English Suite 3. Breaking the secondary beam is of course also a convenient way of indicating tuplets without using brackets or numbers. Again Symphony 6, from page 4 (see ex 3). Even when the tuplet is marked by number and bracket, the broken beam may help confirm the desired rhythm (also Symphony 6, pp 23-24—see ex 4). Nothing very startling so far, but now look at those evocative instrumental musings from the opening of Symphony 16 (see ex 5).

Let me declare a personal interest here. It was the sound of Example 5 and its continuation which, in the context of a radio talks series by Malcolm MacDonald in 1975, first brought a new planet named Havergal Brian swimming into my ken. That sense of wild surmise, whether on reading Chapman’s Homer or gazing with Cortez on the unimagined Pacific, still comes back whenever I hear Myer Fredman’s performance of no.16, and the last thing I wish to do is knock it. But it is not what Brian wrote. His mental ear was hearing triplets, and the effect is very different. Here, complete with Brian’s varied representation of tuplets with either numbers or brackets or both or neither, his use of marcati where the note stem points downwards and of accents where they point up, and with his combination of a marcato with a sforzando, is a longer stretch of the same music, consistently represented in both autograph scores and the sketches (see ex 6).

Once you allow yourself to be guided by Brian’s use of beam-breaks, the pulse of this music runs more smoothly. I wonder, in fact, whether the parts from which Example 5 was played did follow Brian’s notation, or whether they simply beamed the semi-quavers straight across and left it to the player to infer the beat. Consider the figure at x in Example 5: by playing it as a 1 2, 1 2 the oboe especially had to change the value of the rest before it; but it should be played as a * 2 3, 1 2 * and then it falls into place. There is a similar effect with the figure at y which, if not played as written, has knock-on effect on the succeeding rests and notes. The clarinet (shown here as sounding) actually puts a lot of emphasis on the E flat in its second bar which runs counter to the way it is written.

I cannot now remember how this was played in the Kelleher 1994 performance, though I have a vague recollection of being surprised; and it takes time to adjust to Example 6. The effect is now not hesitant and meandering, as in Example 5, but sinewy: as the sequence continues through flutes (again) and muted trumpet to the point where bass clarinet, bassoons, violas, cellos and double basses come together to carry the idea forward purposefully into the complex polyphony of the next section, the transition no longer seems jerky, rather potent and natural. I submit that we need to pay more careful attention to this aspect of Brian’s notation.

Newsletter, NL 184