The cause of native music

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Some time ago I spoke of the good work done in Germany by the Allgemeinen Deutschen Musikverein, a society founded nearly a century ego by Franz Liszt for the purpose of producing new and neglected German music. The triennial festival of music as we know it is not common in Germany, though there was something like it in the Lower Rhine Festival, which functioned every three or four years — alternately at Elberfeld, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Aix-la-Chappelle — for well over a century. They tell me that the last festival took place in 1922, when Abendroth conducted: if this is so, it must be to our regret, for at this famous Lower Rhine Festival Elgar’s Gerontius was performed and was acclaimed worthy.

But the Allgemeinen Deutschen Musikverein goes marching on, this year as far north as Hamburg, where three orchestral and three chamber concerts were given: also one ballet and two opera evenings, with one sacred concert in the famous church of St. Michael. The music of forty six different European composers was presented, and included was the Cockaigne Overture of Elgar and the ballet music from Holst’s Perfect Fool. To me this does not seem the happiest representation of our music, though I feel sure that the lusty character of Cockaigne made an impression and that the Hamburg trombonists thoroughly enjoyed themselves1.

English prototypes of this German festival will not thrive: and many a man of music I have met of late years deplores the fact and thinks only in helpless phrases. Ironical cynicism is the refuge of others. The trouble cannot be racial, for Englishmen are the most buoyant of any in the world. Of course, it is well that English composers of serious music should be kept in their place, and not allowed to take on airs; indeed, they should thank those who from their Olympian heights tell them by an eloquent silence where that place is. Previous attempts to found English festivals and societies for the furtherance of English music have been frowned on and fail; yet, strange as it may seem, societies for creating employment among non-practising musicians flourish like the green bay-tree.

From this may we not reasonably suppose that the English people are ready to support English music if we could drill it into their heads how best to do it? We need the services of a Cochran2 quite as much as the services of a Critic. Could we personify English Music as a flaunting young lady — call her Carmen, if you like3 — we should have a queue of camp-stools stretching from Bow Street to Langham Place, and the critics adjusting the focus of their glasses to meet the changed circumstances.

Perhaps the response to ridicule is too highly developed among English creative musicians: they could not be associated in the promotion of a festival! The thing has been done twice, at Liverpool in 1909 and at Birmingham in 1913: but since then nothing. I have endeavoured, by writing to prominent English composers4, to rekindle the fire that animated the old Musical League, but it seems that in their make-up nothing is now left to burn. So, as I see it, it is up to the younger generation of native composers, daring all men, to band themselves together for the sole purpose of procuring performances of native music. They would not at first be received with open arms: but they might find that the wolves in the path were only stage animals.

  1. Glorious though the trombone writing is in Cockaigne, Brian here is clearly referring to the big trombone solos in the Perfect Fool ballet music, reflecting Holst’s own experience as a trombonist. ↩︎

  2. CB Cochran, the impresario. Brian had recently approached him — without success — on the question of staging The Tigers at Drury Lane. ↩︎

  3. Does HB here suggest that English Music will never popular unless it bears a ‘foreign’ name? ↩︎

  4. One would like to know precisely when this was, to whom he wrote, and whether he was merely airing his thoughts or was trying to mount a concerted campaign for a new Musical League. The original Musical League Festivals, both of which featured a piece by HB (By the waters of Babylon and Doctor Merryheart) remained his perennial model for what a British Music Festival ought to be like. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, August 1933, p. 913