Brian and variation form (1)

Malcolm MacDonald

Brian and variation form (1) - Malcolm MacDonald Although we think of Brian as a symphonist first and foremost, it’s worth remarking that he clearly didn’t for a considerable part of his life. Not, at least, until 1919, when he began his first real symphony, The Gothic, at the age of 43. (He did, certainly, consider The Gothic as his No 2: but the even-then defunct ‘No 1’, A Fantastic Symphony on the evidence of its surviving movements enshrined a wholly programmatic conception - a ‘symphony’ in three (or four?) tone-poems, after the manner of Strauss’s Aus Italien. It appears that this kind of ‘programme-symphony’ idea - much more explicit than in The Gothic and subsequent works - was still uppermost in his mind as late as 1916-17, when he is known to have been sketching a three-movement ‘symphonic drama’ for orchestra entitled Razamoff.)

Practically all of Brian’s orchestral works before The Gothic come under the heading of ‘programme music’. In some the programmatic element is pretty broad and unspecific (eg in For Valour and In Memoriam); in others it is detailed and explicit (Doctor Merryheart and presumably the lost Hero and Leander); even the four English Suites have such elements (including, to judge by the evidence, the lost No 2). All the same, Brian seems from the first to have been aware of the need for a firm structural organization for these works, and to have explored various accommodations with traditional, ‘pure’ forms to provide their underlying designs. For Valour is a modified sonata-form; Festal Dance a ternary scherzo-with-fugal-trio; but the species of large-scale organization he favoured most was that of theme and variations.

Brian’s variation works are, in chronological order: Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme (1903), Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme (1907), the Comedy Overture Doctor Merryheart (1911-1912), which as Reginald Nettel pointed out long ago is actually a set of symphonic variations on two converging themes; then comes the Symphonic Variations on Has Anybody here seen Kelly?, composed 1917 and scored circa 1921: despite its origins in the Prologue to The Tigers, this work stands perfectly well on its own in the concert-hall, and evinces a striking continuity of approach with the three previous variation-sets. (The title Symphonic Variations on an Old Rag, found on some of the orchestral parts, may in fact have been the original title on the missing full score of the Variations, and would seem to point up the relationship to Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme.)

When the symphonic cycle began with The Gothic there were no more variation-works for a long time, with the exception of the passacaglia slow movement of the Violin Concerto (1934-1935). But in Brian’s old age his fancy produced one last capricious set of variations which hides under the guise of another ‘Comedy Overture’ - The Jolly Miller (1962), which for all the differences in language shares a surprising kinship of purpose with the pre-Gothic works; and in the following year the finale of Symphony No 21 finally incorporated the idea of a variation-set into the symphonic canon itself.

I suspect that for Brian - who must have been well aware of the crucial role played by variation and thematic metamorphosis in such programmatic works as Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Liszt’s Faust Symphony, and the early tone poems of Strauss - the form of theme-and-variations offered a convenient half-way house between purely subjective illustration and ‘absolute’ music. In his early years, this was the ‘classical’ form that he favoured most; and so, in one sense, the series of orchestral Variations is the forerunner of the later long line of symphonies. It should also be remarked that, at least before the premiere of Elgar’s First Symphony in December 1908, it was with Variations rather than symphonies that the composers of the English Musical Renaissance were making their mark in the orchestral field.

Brian would have been mindful of Parry’s Symphonic Variations (1897), Elgar’s Enigma (1899), Delius’s Appalachia (1898-1902), Brigg Fair (1907) and Dance Rhapsody No 1(1908) - these last three are all variation-sets - as well as, no doubt, such now forgotten scores as the Symphonic Variations on an African Air of Coleridge-Taylor (1906?), the Helena Variations of Bantock (1899), and Holbrooke’s several essays in the medium, which included a set (1900) on Three Blind Mice (the theme chosen by Brian for his Fantastic Variations) and another (1905) on The Girl I left behind me which is actually dedicated to Havergal Brian.

Of course, one must make a clear distinction between a set of variations on a self-sufficient theme as a large-scale musical form, and the technique of continuous developing variation applied to a number of germinal motives within a much freer overall structure. It was the latter that came increasingly to dominate Brian’s thinking as a symphonist: but it may well have been engendered by his early devotion to the former.

Indeed, it’s my impression that both varieties co-exist in The Tigers: for while the Prologue contains the formal Symphonic Variations on the Kelly tune, the three Acts are all, in various ways, haunted by a myriad figures which seem to be transformations of various turns of phrase from within the tune itself. (In which case, The Tigers should perhaps be seen as a transitional work leading to a full ‘symphonic’ consciousness.) Finally, may we not guess that the abrupt contrasts of character, tonality, rhythm and texture required in the course of a variation-set indicate at least one origin for Brian’s disconcerting symphonic practice of suddenly changing direction, switching to a new topic, and bringing radically different kinds of music into direct confrontation?

I want in the rest of these articles to examine briefly each of Brian’s five sets of orchestral variations (including The Jolly Miller). I will start here by drawing attention to one of the least-known of all his works, the Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme - which, precisely because it is so little-known, deserves treatment in rather greater detail than the later works.

The Burlesque Variations has never been performed [MM is writing in 1978, the première and only performance to date (1999) was in 1980]; has never been written about beyond the bare mention of its existence; and even its existence was shrouded in oblivion between 1907 and 1974.Yet it possesses several distinctions that would lend it significance in Brian’s oeuvre even if it was musically worthless (which is emphatically not the case!). It is the earliest dated manuscript by Brian that has survived.

It is possible, since there are grounds for doubting the ‘official’ dating of Psalm 23 and For Valour (supposedly 1901 and 1902 respectively), that it may be his earliest surviving work using large orchestra - and the earliest that he thought worth preserving, since by 1907 at the latest he had clearly suppressed the pre-1900 Requiem and Tragic Prelude. Most startlingly, it his largest, and in some ways most ambitious, purely orchestral work that has survived from the period before The Gothic. This last fact is purely accidental: it seems very likely that Hero and Leander, and possibly the English Suite No 2, were even more ambitious - but the fact remains that in sheer size, and even in demands on orchestral virtuosity, the Burlesque Variations goes beyond the six works that were eventually published by Breitkopf and Härtel in 1913-1914.

Why the Burlesque Variations should have evaded publication is something of a mystery. Internal evidence would seem to suggest that the score was still in Brian’s hands around 1912. The only references to it in the musical press during Brian’s lifetime date from 1907. The first is in the puzzling list of works with opus numbers published in the Staffordshire Sentinel of 15 January, where ‘op 3’ is curiously designated ‘Burlesque Variations and Overture on an Original Theme, for large orchestra’ (the score carries no opus number; the ‘Overture’ bit will explain itself presently). The second is in the programme notes (unsigned, but almost certainly written by Alfred Kalisch) for the London premieres of English Suite No 1 and For Valour at that season’s Proms, where a set of ‘Burlesque Variations’ is mentioned among Brian’s other orchestral works. That is all, and I have yet to discover a letter, article, or recollection of a conversation in which Brian himself ever alluded to its existence.

A ll admirers of Havergal Brian have, therefore, ample reason to be grateful to OW Neighbour of the British Museum (the authority on Schönberg and Byrd), who spotted the autograph score of the Burlesque Variations being offered for sale in a pre-publication copy of a catalogue issued by Maggs Bros, the booksellers, in March 1974. He immediately informed the present writer (who would not otherwise have known about it), and the score was eventually purchased by Graham Hatton, thus saving it from a probable second disappearance.

The manuscript apparently came to Maggs as part of the estate of Ernest Newman, whose personal copies of the printed vocal scores of By the Waters of Babylon and The Vision of Cleopatra, with autograph dedications and corrections by Brian, were also advertised in the same catalogue. All one can conclude is that Brian gave the score to Newman (or lent it, and forgot, or preferred to forget, to ask for it back), probably before the First World War; and that Newman doesn’t seem to have done anything for or with it while it was in his possession.

The score consists of 135 pages of Breitkopf & Härtel 24-stave paper, bound in a red cloth cover with the single word VARIATIONS printed in gold on the spine. The pages are numbered as follows: 3-7, VIII-XIII, 14-77, four unnumbered, 80-135, and have been slightly trimmed in the process of binding. Others have evidently been removed, still others are insertions, some have been pasted over original versions, and pages 4 and 5 are in fact only the outer folios of a solid block of four pasted-together sheets. The four unnumbered pages comprise Variation VI, which is an interpolation, substituted for a rejected variation (presumably on the missing pages 78-79).

A ll this suggests a difficult gestation; but the score, in blue-black ink over lead pencil, has furthermore been much amended at a later date, in a slightly paler ink and in a much bolder hand more characteristic of the scores of In Memoriam and Doctor Merryheart (and thus presumably about 1910-1912). The spidery writing of the original is typical of the earliest Brian manuscripts we possess. The original title-page seems to have been removed (might it have said ‘Burlesque Variations and Overture’?), and instead the first endpaper carries the legend: ‘Burlesque Variations on an / Original Theme / by / W. Havergal Brian / Composed during the Spring and Summer / of the year 1903 / Finite September / Hartshill / Stoke-on-Trent’. At the foot of page 95 is the pencilled note ‘week ending August 22nd 1903’; and the last page is signed and dated in ink ‘September 1903 / WH Brian’.

So much for the physical appearance of the score. Its contents are even more fascinating. It shows, more clearly than Psalm 23 or For Valour, Brian’s immediate roots in the music of the Romantic era, and his basic originality in striking away from those roots. There are certain features which seem to betray inexperience on the part of the young composer: haphazard alignment of notes, confusing accidentals, some problematic notation (especially in the harp part), long stretches without breathing-spaces of any kind, a tendency to keep the first violins cruelly high in their register - on at least one occasion forcing them higher than the instruments’ wildest capabilities.

But at the same time the intentions are never in doubt: this is a young eagle stretching his wings, putting his orchestra through its paces with a will and producing music of enormous confidence and vitality in the process. And oddly enough this music is far less ‘derivative’ than the pieces he was to produce in the next decade, with their echoes of Elgar and Strauss. It doesn’t sound all that much like Havergal Brian, though there are features which, with hindsight, we can recognize as characteristic of the mature composer. But it doesn’t sound like anyone else, either. And it is splendid testimony to the sheer energy of Brian’s creative urge, right at the start of his career.

The orchestra is not much different from the one he was to favour for his late symphonies, 60 years on: triple woodwind including piccolo, cor anglais, bass clarinet and double bassoon; four horns, four trumpets (in F, as in all the early works), three trombones, tuba; strings; timpani, bass drum, side drum, cymbals, gong; harp (a second harp in Variation VI is marked ad lib but is highly desirable); and, in the final pages, organ (also marked ad lib, but I should think it indispensable except in conditions of dire necessity).

The work consists of a theme and seven large scale variations, which I set out below with their respective keys (titles and spellings are Brian’s):

Theme : Andante (quasi Allegretto ma serinso) - B minor

Variation I (Imitando) : Allegro - B minor/major

Variation II (Tempesto) : Vivace - C sharp minor / D minor

Variation III (Elegy) : Andante languido - E flat major / B minor

Variation IV : Allegretto grazioso - G major

Variation V : Allegro resoluto - B minor, then G minor

Variation VI : Adagio e Rubato e mistico - B major

Variation VII (Finale en form d‘Overture) : Allegro (determinato) - B minor…

… leading to Chorale : Largamente e Grandioso - B major

As a whole, therefore, the work could be said to be ‘in’ B minor, and does not share the concern with the keys of C and E manifested in so many of the other early pieces. Nevertheless the predominance of E flat in the important third variation, and then of G in both fourth and filth, reflects, even this early, Brian’s habit of conducting an argument around the mediant and submediant degrees of the scale (E flat being the mediant of B major, which is installed with great expressive force in the transfiguring sixth variation, and at last revealed as the work’s ultimate goal in the panoply of the final Chorale).

The ‘programmatic’ element in the work is pretty subdued, but is betrayed by the titles affixed to the first three variations. In fact Variation IV at first also carried a title - ‘Question & Answer’ - but this has been heavily scored out, and thereafter the page-headings are mute, except for Variation VII whose title, like that of I, is purely technical in nature (and incidentally tells us where the Staffordshire Sentinel got its ‘and Overture’ from). But it is as difficult to believe that no extra-musical impulse prompted the remarkable ‘mystic’ Variation VI as it is to believe that the surprisingly powerful Elegy of Variation III has no specific subject.

Here now is Brian’s Theme, announced at once by woodwind, two horns, timpani and strings (Ex 1).

Apart from the teasing asymmetry of the five-bar first phrase, what strikes one most about the tune is its simplicity: a stolid, little minuet-like idea, not quite sure whether it ought to insist on its dignity (‘quasi Allegretto ma serioso’), and certainly not designed to strike fire in the listener’s heart. It is from this fact, I think, that the ‘Burlesque’ element in the Variations stems: for Brian takes this plain, unambiguous idea and thrusts it willy-nilly through every conceivable kind of orchestral devilment: it is forced to produce heroism, drama, grief, experience a tempest, and so on.

The music is not itself funny - what is funny is that from such unpromising material so much life, colour and incident can grow. It is as well to say here that this is consistently Brian’s creative stance throughout all the variation-works: he deliberately chooses subjects which, when composed by himself (as here and in Doctor Merryheart) are of almost mindless simplicity, and when taken from other sources have such a homely, dog-eared familiarity, that the idea of constructing a virtuoso orchestral piece from them is in itself bizarre.

Variation I immediately demonstrates what I mean. The simplicity of the theme vanishes in a welter of polyphonic invention. Justly is it entitled Imitando - Ex 2 will give a faint idea of how deeply and obsessively the idea of canonic or quasi-canonic imitation is built into the whole texture of the music. It is impossible to reduce this music to less than four staves, and then only by omission of certain elements - an indication that, from the first, Brian naturally thought directly in terms of the orchestra, not the keyboard; and that counterpoint was already the motive force behind his musical thinking.

The main responsibility for melodic variation is carried here by oboes, cor anglais and bassoons; later it is the full brass that develop the Theme proper, against a stream of ‘imitations’ from woodwind and strings over long-held pedal-points in timpani and basses. The continual cross-rhythms of two against three, already obvious in Ex 2, are equally pervasive throughout Variation II, the Tempesto, whose beginning is shown in slightly simplified form in Ex 3.

There is certainly a strong element of scene-painting in this variation, and though Brian has a long way to go yet to the ‘storm’ sequence in Symphony No 10, this is still an effective and exciting piece of writing. A central section in D minor intensifies the fury of the tempest before a terse apassionato codetta ends on a triad of C sharp minor. In both Variations the statement of the Theme, and the theme’s three-note upbeat has begun to acquire importance as a motive in its own right.

With Variation III, the Elegy, comes a complete change of mood. Muted strings give out a new, sombre version of the Theme in a richly Romantic harmonization (Ex 4).

After an even more richly-harmonized statement, we meet an early example of Brian’s penchant for extreme dramatic contrasts: a silent bar followed by a dissonant blast on stopped horns (plus ff gong-stroke) introduces a passionate full orchestral outcry based on the figure of Ex 4’s fourth bar. Ex 4 itself returns, unmoved, in the woodwind; and then a quicker section in B minor develops it with mounting passion and ever-fuller scoring. The climax is abruptly cut short, and ejaculatory outbursts from the full string body alternate with quiet gong and cymbal-rolls. Then Ex 4 sails in serene and warmly-scored, back in E flat. There are further attempts at disruption, but the variation concludes with a calm tutti statement of Ex 4, with accompanying figurations in harp, violas, and celli, rising to a triumphant fff.

Variation IV begins with a graceful and smoothly-flowing transformation of the Theme over a persistent pedal G in timpani, harp and basses (Ex 5). The whole first section of the variation is basically a relaxed development of this idea, the pedal-point continuing throughout. This music is repeated verbatim, and then an attempt at a continuation is suddenly broken off. There is a silence; a loud octave F sharp on bassoons, contra-bassoon, trombone, tuba, timpani, celli and basses (how like mature Brian these unexpected juxtapositions are!); and the pedal returns, now on F sharp, in harp and timpani plus bass drum and cymbals, Allegretto serioso. Four horns, alternating with comments on sul ponticello strings, give out a more uneasy version of Ex 5. This section, too, is repeated, and then the first section is recapitulated. Presumably the contrast between grazioso and serioso formed the basis of Brian’s ‘Question and Answer’ idea in this variation’s original title.

Variation V sets off with a molto pesante string idea (Ex 6) that looks as if it ought to form the basis of a fugue. But no fugue transpires, and the gaps between Ex 6’s various figures are filled out by lively woodwind figuration that is equally important. This is a brief but rumbustious display of orchestral panache.

Variation VI may well have been the last music in the work that Brian actually composed. It is also maybe the best, and it is certainly its heart. Brian scores it for four horns, timpani, harp (preferably doubled an octave lower by second harp) and muted strings, divided in nine parts. While horn, timpani, harp(s) and four-part divided second violins provide a throbbing and shimmering background, the expressive weight is carried by first violins, violas and cellos in long, yearning spans. It is these principal lines that I show in Ex 7.

This is music quite unlike anything else in the work - unlike anything else in early Brian, too - inward, ecstatic, mysterious and intensely romantic. It brings mind, of all things, the Adagietto from Mahler’s fifth symphony (completed the previous year, but not yet published or performed - the Adagietto was not heard in Britain until 1909). The music continues in this vein to a passionate climax. and then a return of Ex 7’s opening bars brings a glowing yet ppp cadence into B major.

The vast Variation VII - it occupies more than a third of the whole work - is the ‘Finale en form d‘Overture’. This ‘form’ proves not to be that of the Baroque French or German Overture, however - Brian obviously had in mind the 19th century Concert Overture, for this final variation proves to be a fully developed sonata-form. (If, as seems likely, For Valour should be redated from 1902 to 1904, this section of the Burlesque Variations becomes Brian’s earliest known application of the sonata principle.)

The first subject group starts with Ex 5(a), announced in B minor against pulsing horn rhythms. It has a lot in common with Ex 6, and again seems apt for fugal treatment. But as before, no fugue emerges out of the hurly-burly (Brian’s characteristic dotted quaver + two demisemiquavers rhythm does, however, among various subsidiary ideas). Brian scorns, even at this stage, any orthodox transition to the second subject: instead, he just slices the music off on an upbeat, inserts a silent General Pause bar, and resumes in a distant key with the molto tranquillo second-subject tune, Ex 8(b), a lyrical little idea rather reminiscent of Grieg - an early favourite of Brian’s.

These then are the main materials out of which Brian wrings a really rather impressive large-scale symphonic structure that shows a fine grasp of tonal architecture. The long and eventful development sets off in D major and is largely concerned with Ex 8(a) and its attendant figures. The timpanist almost never stops playing, and a fiendish part Brian has written for him too. Eventually a gawky kind of fugue does start up on solo wind instruments, but it hardly gets going before Brian stops it short, and the second subject sails in triumphantly in the tonic B minor - at which point we realize that the recapitulation is well under way, Brian having started it with the last stage of the first subject’s development. There follows an expansion and glorification of Ex 8(b), rising to a great pitch of excitement.

At last, after a rhetorical preparation on the dominant, the final Chorale crashes in, in a truly grandiose B major. And with this massively pompous augmentation of the Theme, Ex 1 (which presumably feels that after all it’s been through, it has earned the right to stand on its dignity as much as it likes) - played by full orchestra including organ, with 1812-like carilloning figurations in the strings and each phrase punctuated by gleeful trumpet fanfares - this substantial, ambitious and altogether absorbing work of Brian’s youth thunders to its magniloquent conclusion. Miscalculations it may have, but the promise it shows is altogether extraordinary, and gives it a strong intrinsic interest even today.

NL 19-20 Copyright © 1978 by Malcolm MacDonald

Newsletter, NL 19, 1978