A case of hyper-intelligence?

Godfrey Berry

Godfrey Berry

At first sight both Havergal Brian’s art and his personal character present us with a paradox. It is clear that he lacked neither intelligence nor imagination. Yet it is equally clear that his conduct towards others could be insensitive to the point of folly, and that he was almost wilfully blind to certain practical difficulties in his music—difficulties which he could have avoided, and which have worked against the wider performance and appreciation of his works. This apparent contradiction has been the cause of much puzzlement, but it seems to me that it may, in reality, be quite easy to explain. To my mind the key lies in a wealth of evidence indicating that Brian was not merely intelligent, but abnormally so.

Many readers will already be familiar with Malcolm Macdonald‘s view—deriving largely from a long and detailed study of Brian’s works—that Brian was possessed of a remarkably powerful intellect capable of solving triumphantly almost any problem he chose to find interesting. Harold Truscott has testified even more directly, in his reminiscences of the composer, to insights on Brian; part which can only have resulted from deep and penetrating thought. If we add to such testimony what we ourselves can deduce from Brian’s writings, and from his remarkable track record as a self-educator (composition, several musical instruments, two languages, etc), one conclusion seems inescapable. Whatever other endowments he may or may not have brought into the world, Brian was clearly born with a quite exceptional IQ. Going one step further, it seems possible to hazard that he was, or very nearly, what we should nowadays call a case of hyper-intelligence.

To a young child—especially one born into the rather narrow world which faced the infant Brian—such a super-abundance of intellect would hardly have been an unmixed blessing. At the very best he would have found himself singled out as a bit odd, first by his family and then by other children. At school he would almost certainly have displayed a tendency to develop at a different pace or in a different direction from his classmates, something which Victorian teachers, in line with contemporary ideas on child discipline, would have regarded as an unwelcome sign of independence: at best a nuisance to be discouraged; at worst a deliberate contrariness to be punished. The childish custom of ganging up on anyone who stands apart and preoccupies himself with matters beyond the awareness of the common herd has persisted even into this supposedly enlightened age (and sadly not only amongst children, who at least have the excuse of immaturity).

One can imagine only too readily that a markedly individual child, such as the young Brian must have been, would have attracted more than his fair share of this kind of playground bullying accompanied by its traditional taunts of stupidity and madness. Is it too fanciful to suggest that Brian met have become used, almost from the cradle, to fighting an uphill battle against parents (or at least a mother) who found him alarmingly precocious, teachers who regarded him as ‘difficult’, and playmates who were only too ready to believe him a little mad?

The feeling of being misunderstood can be deeply wounding, especially if there is some suspicion that the obtuseness of others may be partly malicious. There are at least two ways in which a sensitive person can respond. The first is to exploit the image which other people seem determined to wish upon one. If one’s every effort to shine is going to be seen as nothing more than further evidence of one’s ‘awkwardness’, why not enjoy the benefits of actually being awkward? The trouble is that an assumed characteristic acted out with sufficient conviction eventually becomes a part of ones ‘real’ personality. The second, not mutually exclusive, stratagem is to retire more and more into one’s own private world. If those around one do not understand and cannot satisfy one’s intellectual and imaginative needs, what other course is there but to rely increasingly on one’s inner resources? Dreams at least cannot be held back by the inadequacies of other minds.

An abnormally intelligent child from a working class background, isolated in the small world of a 19th century industrial village, would have few, if any, chances of meeting living minds the equal of his own. Anyone much above the prevailing average in intelligence in any community knows the mortification of watching a cherished idea or aspiration founder, not because it lacks merit, but because no-one else seems able to understand it, or even appreciate its worth intuitively. It can be scarcely less galling to see others laboriously arguing themselves round to some obvious conclusion, blissfully unaware that this was the point of view one put forward at the outset. It would be surprising if a child of Brian’s intellectual ability, growing up in an environment devoid both of rivals and similarly endowed friends, had not had many such experiences during his formative years—enough, at least, to convince him of the general worthlessness of other people’s insights and advice. In a middle-class child, such a view of the world, and the over-reliance on one’s own unaided intellect and intuition, to which it would lead, would normally be corrected by exposure to competition from peers in the sixth form or at university. For obvious reasons these were influences which the young Brian missed.

If we add all this up we arrive at a picture of Brian in early maturity which, I would suggest, goes a long way towards explaining his conduct in later life. We see an imaginative and highly intelligent young man of the kind who would, in any event, tend to be much absorbed in his own inner world, and in this case one whose early experience would have done much to encourage and little to counteract this tendency. That he would, even then, have been unusually self-centred seems beyond doubt. One can be fairly sure that, up to this point in his life, Brian would have encountered very few people sympathetic to his aspirations, and even fewer who understood them clearly enough to be capable of making any constructive contribution (even if they wanted to). He would already feel isolated from all but a few, very special, kindred spirits.

It would be asking a lot of a young man, especially one so totally lacking in suitable mentors, not to conclude from such a sense of isolation that he must somehow be one of the elect: an individual picked out for some pre-ordained task. Even though he was a professed agnostic, and by definition quite intelligent enough to be able to recognize its inherent absurdities, Brian would have been hard put to it to prevent the insidious growth of such a notion in his subconscious. To be aware of the danger and counteract it effectively would have asked of him a degree of worldly wisdom seldom, if ever, possessed by young men, especially ones deeply absorbed in themselves. In the circumstances, the early, and apparently opportune, arrival of a generous patron can only have seemed to confirm Brian’s special status, or at any rate that of his mission. By his early twenties, at the latest, Brian would have had a rooted conviction that it was his right, if not actually his duty, to sacrifice himself, and if necessary anyone else, to the accomplishment of his life’s work. This attitude is not necessarily arrogant—it can easily be adopted in a spirit of genuine humility—but this makes it no less difficult for others to deal with.

In Brian’s case we should not lose sight of the fact that abnormally intelligent and gifted people are also abnormally sensitive to slights, real or imagined, and especially to criticism. As a child, Brian may well have had a tendency to attract wounding comments, many of them sufficiently misconceived to leave a lingering sense of injustice. This would undoubtedly have exacerbated any initial sensitivity to criticism and left him in later life with a tendency to see any criticism of himself or his works as destructively intended. Add this to a sense of mission, and memories of a childhood spent out-thinking one’s elders and supposed betters, and one surely begins to understand Brian’s apparent reluctance to profit from the good advice even of respected colleagues. Brian would long have conditioned himself to believe that his only impartial and consistently reliable guide was his own intuition. To take advice, even well-intentioned, was to risk compromising one’s vision, and watering down ones message.

Defensive attitudes engendered, at least initially, by a painful sensitivity to criticism may well explain some of the inconsistencies and contradictions apparent in Brian’s professed opinions and attitudes both on music and on some other aspects of life. He who wishes to escape wounding comments can do worse than hide behind a verbal smokescreen. Those intent on inflicting pain start at something of a disadvantage if they do not know what really matters to their proposed victims. In old age Brian may really have come to believe in his own stoicism, but some unguarded comments, and most of his music, say that at least at the outset matters were quite otherwise.

Doubtless not all the problems surrounding Havergal Brian and his life’s work can be explained by reference to his abnormal intelligence, and the impact which this must have had on his early development. But these surely exercised a powerful influence on his later attitudes and actions, and one which it would be foolish of us to ignore. Things might well have turned out differently if Brian had been born a middle class child, or if he had somehow managed to go to a university or music college. But in taming the man, might not such institutions also have tamed the music? It is a tantalising question, the answer to which we shall never know.

NL48 / © 1983 by Godfrey Berry

Newsletter, NL 48, 1983