A ‘come-back’ causerie

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Those who instinctively repel the suggestion of a real ‘come back’ of anything artistic have much wherewith to fortify themselves, though there are exceptions when the ‘come back’ concerns a work rather than a person. The music of Johann Strauss has certainly returned, and old men tell me that it is now more frequently heard than in the days of their youth, though this may be explained by the fact that we are all at the present time better informed, by means of wireless, about the music performed in places we should never think of visiting. However, most of us know what has been and will be produced at Covent Garden, and some are informed about what has been ‘done’ in Paris.

I will speak first of a case about which there has been no talk of a ‘come back’: probably there never will be. An old friend of mine1 never tired of relating what he regarded as the greatest event of his life; he was present at the first performance at Covent Garden of Anton Rubinstein's opera, The demon. He played at the first fiddle desks of the orchestra, and dilated on the long rehearsals, extending well into the night; and he reconstructed vividly the scenes of excitement on the stage and in the orchestra when the curtain rose for the first time. All this made me long to hear Rubinstein’s music: but I never did. I even missed Bantock's broadcast of the Ocean Symphony through my set going phut at the opening bars.

However, everything comes to him who waits: I waited until last month, when at the RAM students orchestral concert I heard the first movement from one of Rubinstein's piano concertos, which gave me much to think about. Rubinstein as a composer is no more. His apparent gifts were too facile, and his mentality was so much in tune with certain well known types and formulas that one can always anticipate what will be done. In the past Rubinstein had a world vogue as a composer, though was doubtless maintained by his pre-eminence as a virtuoso pianist. I suspect that Rubinstein had a religious bent, for his operas are based on biblical texts. Manns performed his Ocean and Dramatic symphonies and his oratorio-opera, The tower of Babel, at the Crystal Palace.

Rubinstein is another instance, like Liszt, of a virtuoso pianist having an abnormal gift for musical invention; Liszt, however, was a composer of great originality and a born leader. Rubinstein, as a composer; wrote in the language of Mendelssohn, but with less brilliance: his compositions, while registering an historical phase, have little vitality for posterity. He was the inspiring force in the life of Busoni, while in Russia the name of Anton Rubinstein will ever be interlinked with the Conservatorium of Music at St Petersburg, which he founded and directed.

Conscious of Rubinstein's departure, I am no less conscious of the second coming of Berlioz. At one of the mangled performances of Les troyens in Paris, a friend, hoping to encourage the composer, pointed to the crowd surging into the theatre. ‘They are coming!’ he exclaimed. ‘Yes’, returned Berlioz, and in the phrase that must remind one of Napoleon on the Bellerophon, ‘and I an going!’ At another time Berlioz suggested that if he lived to be a hundred and fifty, he might hear Les troyens as he intended it to be heard.

Events seem to be proving that have not had to wait so long, for something has happened within eighty years of his death; and those who wish to recant of their heresies about most things Berliozian may now do so in the excellent company of Ernest Newman who tells the world that he did not realise the greatness of Les Troyens until he heard a version of it given in Paris some ten years ago. Another critic, well known in various European capitals, told me personally that Part I of Les Troyens, which he had heard at Glasgow, had made a profound impression on him, far deeper than he had anticipated2. I am ready to build a golden bridge for those who are loth to recant, and admit that there has been no going and consequently no return, only a varying pace that leads at last to where Immortals stand.

  1. Unknown. ↩︎

  2. Possibly Dmitri Calvocoressi (1877-1944), the noted critic and biographer of Mussorgsky, who was a frequent contributor to Musical opinion at this time. The Glasgow performance was of course the historic première of Les troyens in its complete form under Erik Chisholm in December 1934. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, May 1935, pp. 677–678