Brianus ellipsus

Martyn Becker

Martyn Becker

A response to Brian’s productive discontinuity - John Pickard, dealing with HB’s use of abrupt and often incomprehensible changes, and A sense of discrimination - PJ Taylor, which argues that enthusiasm for Brian’s music is blind to his weaknesses.
See also Preconceptions and the anti-symphony - Owen Toller

I freely admit to having enjoyed these articles enormously. Not so much for their specific contents, but more for what they helped to crystallize in my mind; something that has lurked around the more remote areas of my musical consciousness for a long time.

The various and fascinating comments on Brian, his technique, his musical background, and his sound world contained in these articles brought home strongly to me why Brian’s ‘productive discontinuities’ (as John Pickard called them) have never to any great extent surprised or worried me as much as they obviously do PJ Taylor, who mentions this aspect of Brian. My curious lack of worry (if I can term it so) has in fact much to do with what John Pickard’s admirable article highlighted in terms of the similarities of orchestral layering operated by Havergal Brian and Anton Bruckner.

It is interesting to note that reaction to both these composers is usually of the extreme variety: love or hate. There appears to be very little middle ground — very little ‘pleasant indifference’, if you like — and it seems to me that the reasoning behind this all boils down to one thing: patience, and how much of it the listener is prepared to spend in getting to know a composer and his traits. Getting to know a composer can be relatively easy, or relatively difficult, according to the particular composer’s mode of expression, and his public eye. Tchaikovsky, for example, is easily amenable to most music lovers, but that does not diminish his great melodic and orchestrative genius.

If Tchaikovsky makes it relatively easy to come to terms with his style. Brian and Bruckner do not. Stylistically Bruckner is long-breathed and architectural; Brian, terse and monolithic. Both composers, however, require a different kind of patience from their listeners: Bruckner in the sheer timescale required for his symphonic logic, Brian in the rapid changes of direction in the compact later symphonies. Taking all this into account, it still seems to me that if you love Bruckner, then Brian becomes less of a hard nut to crack.

Having thus framed Bruckner with Brian in this way, there in fact appear to be even more relevant aspects to their musical relationship than John Pickard brings out in his article, although I appreciate that his were self-confessed introductory thoughts. There are certain similarities between the two composers, the hiatuses and the registration effects in the orchestration to name but two. Their developments in terms of symphonic language, though, are entirely different. Whereas Bruckner’s cycle of eleven symphonies displays organic growth, and an increasing sense of maturity and confidence from post-Mendelssohnian delicacy to pre-Schönbergian paranoia, Brian’s cycle is tonally eclectic, and not as fundamentally developmental from work to work as Bruckner’s.

Brian’s is more of a metamorphosis; from the large, multi-layered, extended early symphonies to the massive, condensed later ones. The moving from the longhand writing of a schoolboy to the more direct, enforced shorthand of a student working against time to get the lecture notes down on the page.

Then there is the question of the sonority of Brian’s orchestra, and its relationship to that of Bruckner. The hiatuses in Brian’s more mature symphonies would indeed provide an impressively long decay time in a resonant acoustic, as may be heard in the Brian Centenary Alexandra Palace performances of the mid seventies. The early symphonies appear to me to be a different matter entirely, though. Would the tortuous chromatic choral lines of the Gothic Symphony really sound that good in the cavernous spaces of a cathedral acoustic, or would they just mush together into unintelligible noise? The notorious Royal Albert Hall ‘sound’ is perhaps not the ideal venue for decision-making on the acoustic requirements of The Gothic; much less so than for Mahler’s eighth, say, which is less complex, musically, spatially, and structurally.

Staying on the theme of Brian’s sonority for a moment, the recent performance of the third symphony at Maida Vale No 1 (a studio most kindly described as ‘acoustically damped’!) was actually enhanced by the lack of reverberation, because it was possible to hear clearly the internal workings of Brian’s orchestration. Without doubt, the performance of a Bruckner symphony in a cathedral is a spectacular and uplifting experience. With Brian, it is much more ‘horses for courses’ as far as this acoustic aspect is concerned.

A s such, this facet of Brian’s symphonism may indeed have been something of a miscalculation on the composer’s part, perhaps due to the lack of performance of his music and therefore the lack of opportunity to ‘fine tune’ the orchestration as Mahler frequently did, or revise on a major scale, as Bruckner was prompted into. Having said that, I hope it does not come across as sheer effrontery on the part of a layman such as myself to question the workings of a major musical mind! Perhaps it must be admitted, as PJ Taylor rightly points out, that Brian was not perfect after all. He was, however, a good deal more perfect than a large number of lesser composers.

John Pickard mentions two distinct types of ‘productive discontinuities’ (what a lovely phrase!) in Brian’s music — the related and the unrelated: the former is based on an apparently pointless insertion of contrasting material into a musical paragraph, and the latter is an abrupt change of direction and texture. Having compared Bruckner’s sonority with Brian’s, it is interesting to note that there are similar discontinuities to be found in Bruckner’s music also.

Pickard’s example in Brian’s 17th symphony of a flute interpolation within a passage containing related musical material finds a parallel in the Adagio of Bruckner’s eighth (Haas edition) where an interpolated quiet passage (coincidentally containing a prominent part for the flute) separates two tutti passages, and therefore throws the musical argument into relief. Fascinatingly (and again coincidentally), this happens to be the very same passage excised from this movement by Leopold Nowak in his edition of the eighth symphony Similar discontinuous logic may be found within the finale of Bruckner’s third in its 1877 version.

The above comparison with Bruckner is instructive for two fundamental reasons. Firstly, the remarkable similarities and obvious differences between the music of the two composers stand out starkly. Secondly, that Bruckner, together with Beethoven and Sibelius, was among the select band of composers who were most influential on the development of symphonic form in the 190 years since the turn of the 19th century. Bearing in mind the first reason, the implications of the second reason are there for all to see.

L astly, in terms of Brian’s connection with Bruckner comes the vexed question of ‘crackjaw platitudes’. Robert Simpson uses the phrase in his book The essence of Bruckner regarding a theme within the second subject group of the finale of Bruckner’s fourth. Simpson’s reaction to this particular theme appears to be embarrassment, which is of course a valid reaction. Whether you agree or disagree with Simpson’s point in the context of the book is neither here nor there (for the record, I don’t!), but the concept is easily applicable to Brian, as well as it is to many other composers. By dint of strange coincidence, there is to my mind an example of this in the music of Havergal Brian currently staring us in the face. Even after countless playings of the EMI recording of the seventh and 31st symphonies, I still cannot quite listen to the first ten seconds of No 31 without a slight wince at the plain, almost banal, throwaway beginning. The remainder grips me more each time I hear it, although as a performance I marginally prefer Mackerras’s 1979 reading for the BBC; but oh, that beginning!

I also agree with PJ Taylor in respect of Brian’s unevenness — but then name one major composer who is not guilty of this in some measure. It is all a matter of degree, and not one of the great composers is immune to it. Beethoven’s Eroica is balanced by the hardly-inspired Rage over a lost penny; the Emperor concerto by the Choral fantasia. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture is balanced by his workaday symphonic poem Fatum; and so the list could go on. Thus while I agree with PJ Taylor in principle, the extent to which I agree differs. Yes, the 32 Symphonies contain chaff amongst the wheat, but I would venture that perhaps there is not so much there as may be thought.

L ooking at Brian’s symphonic oeuvre, the unique Gothic has to be set aside as a special case, as Malcolm MacDonald says in his third volume on the symphonies. Indeed, who would dare to cast aspersions on such a work as that, even if the aspersions could be justified? Not me, certainly: I would gladly chicken out of that one. Personally I would expand Taylor’s ranks of quality Brian symphonies from the four of the group 6 to 9, to the group 3 to 11 of the earlier works (with 3, 4 and 11 being major pieces), 15 to 19 in the middle, and the odd-numbered 25, 27, 29 and 31 (even with that beginning!) as fine examples of Brian’s late style, with the trilogy of Nos 22-24 tagging along behind.

This amounts to approximately two thirds of Brian’s symphonic output. The remainder may be curate’s eggs, but what David Brown says in his piece can certainly be applied to them. The single performances to which some of his symphonies have been treated can be confusing in any appraisal of them, to say the least of it. Nos 28 and 30 still escape me, due maybe to Stokowski’s and Newstone’s readings respectively — and despite Malcolm MacDonald’s advocacy of the latter work — and they still await good performances.

There is more good Brian by far than there is mediocre or bad Brian (even if there are the odd mediocre patches in the good works!) — a sign of quality in the music of this major composer. For ‘uniformly eulogistic’ as Taylor refers to, I would use the word ‘enthusiastic’, because no member of the Society is going to regale the pages of its Newsletter [or website] with destructive criticism — I hope. As a Wagner Society would not publicly dwell on the derivations and extent of, say, his wellknown anti-semitism, then our Society should be aware of Brian’s shortcomings, which of course do exist, but which should be discussed constructively. Constructive criticism is of course the essence, and certainly does not undermine what the Society is attempting to do; namely bring the name of Havergal Brian before a wider musical public.

NL84 / © Martyn Becker 1989

Newsletter, NL 84, 1989