The Brian revival

Robert Simpson

Robert Simpson

In the early 1950s Havergal Brian, if he was thought of at all, was supposed to be some kind of megalomaniac eccentric, largely due to the mythical Gothic Symphony, which few had seen but many had reproached at their prompting. Some of the few had looked at the score and made crushing reports for the BBC. When I joined this majestic organization in 1951 it was in innocence of this that I thought to take advantage of the facilities to investigate a number of ‘neglected composers’ of whom I had heard but with whose work I was largely unfamiliar. Some were foreign, some British; among them was Brian.

The Eighth Symphony was the first thing of his to reach my desk; it was so impressively original that I at once sent for the reports on any other Brian works that had been submitted to the BBC, going back as many years as possible. These included some of the earlier symphonies, among them Wine of Summer. The reports proved consistently negative and sometimes derisory, especially about the comically saurian Gothic Symphony. This work I had seen once some years before, but only briefly, and I now wondered if the composer of the Eighth Symphony could ever have perpetrated so grotesque a folly. A proper study of the giant score made it clear that some of my most respected colleagues had missed something (it should be added that these were mostly not BBC colleagues — the reading panel in those days consisted entirely of distinguished ‘outside’ musicians) . So I set about trying to get the matter put right.

The first thing to do was to get No 8 played: Adrian Boult as always was willing, and did it characteristically better than most first performances. It attracted serious attention, and so began the long process. At that time Brian was composing his Tenth Symphony, so the process in part consisted of trying to catch up with him. Making up the backlog tended to come afterwards, since the later works, being on the whole smaller, were easier to get into programmes. It was also (and still is) my feeling that the symphonies between The Gothic and Das Siegeslied were transitional, that their inconsistencies would prove more interesting in the light of later developments. Das Siegeslied would have to wait until its enormous difficulties and cost could be broached. Since no one else would volunteer, I had to make the decisions — and to cajole funds for the projects.

The purpose of looking at all these ‘neglected’ composers was not to find causes to champion; it was to improve my education and largely to find out, so far as my own judgement permitted, if injustices had been done. In all cases except Brian’s I had to agree with the neglect; as Tovey said, time is not wall-space. You can exhibit fifth-rate painters without too much waste, but time, which music must illuminate, cannot be wasted, and only a small proportion of music is worthwhile; in this field we are the more compelled to discriminate. There is a danger in thinking that if a composer is neglected he is likely to be something special! Even so, we must find out - both advocacy and rejection should come from knowledge, not hearsay, and it is in any case the duty of a public body like the BBC to give the listener, within obvious limits, the chance to judge for himself; most listeners can’t read scores and their only means of judging is through the ear. And it’s the listener’ s right to ask for it and to receive a sensible, fair reason for non-compliance.

Even for a professional, score-reading can be difficult, especially if the music is complex and, as in Brian’s case, original. Complexity itself is hard to auralize from the paper; no one but a sight-reader with a phenomenal technique could cope with, say, Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum. I pored for years over this music, only gradually synthesizing the sounds in my head. Even then it was impossible to gauge whether the music, as a whole, possessed the power of suggestion that makes all great music look beyond itself, signify dimensions greater than its physical size.

This is something you can perceive only after the sound itself can long be taken for granted. Eventually hearing it (admittedly in a performance littered with wrong notes and seriously wanting in considered observant faithfulness, recorded unwisely at a public recital when it should have been carefully done with a good microphone balance in studio conditions to allow accuracy, in the playing as well as clarity in the musical meaning) it so happened that I was disappointed but not altogether surprised to find that far from suggesting more than itself, the vast work seems obsessively ingrowing. Even so, this impression could be dispelled by a better performance in better conditions — though the Devil knows how difficult it is!

What has this to do with Brian? It underlines the fact that his orchestral scores are notoriously difficult to read, and that their performance is equally so. In fact, orchestral first performances are nearly always bad, as many composers have reason to rue. Economics brutally limit rehearsal and an orchestra normally sees an unfamiliar work for the first time a day or two before the performance, which becomes a tightrope act of more or less success, a purely physical, not an artistic, achievement. Only when a composer’s idiom is rooted in the minds of musicians can they perform him properly, putting technical problems in their place and adding the essential spark that comes from their own considered and spontaneous responses to the music itself.

So there is still a long way to go before Brian’s best work is assimilated; in the meantime it has been satisfying to find his cause adopted by so many fine champions, notably Malcolm MacDonald with his remarkable volumes on the symphonies, written with the kind of insight and enthusiasm that make the reader want to hear the music. Like all pioneers in such fields he will find disputants and will no doubt change his own mind on some things - but I am certain that HB himself would have been both fascinated and delighted to have evoked such advocacy. It has also been a pleasure to watch the growth and activities of the HB Society, with its remarkable achievements it is lucky to possess so lively and imaginative a nucleus, the secret of all successful movements.

There’s still a long way to go, and it’s possible that Brian will never be a ‘popular’ composer; but at his best he is durable. That is better than becoming the centre of a vogue, the sure sign of eventual collapse, and steady, discriminating support for his music will make sure that Brian is always there. In the long run the occasional good performance is better than a rush of bad ones, which can do untold damage. There are some formidable composers who rarely stand in the limelight but who will always be returned to - Busoni, Reger, Pfitzner, Alkan and some more — Brian I think will belong to this perennial band.

NL52/ © Robert Simpson 1984

Newsletter, NL 52, 1984