The cultured minority

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Mr RJ Forbes, principal of the Royal Manchester College of Music, has been expressing his belief that not more than two hundred people in Manchester love chamber music sufficiently well to support it. (The number who practise it in their homes may be many more.) Unfortunately, supporters of chamber music are lost in the density of vast populations, and they may lose themselves or their patience in their endeavours to find a congenial body. There is no need for alarm, however, because Mr Forbes’ statistics show that chamber music still belongs to the few who can appreciate it: some might say that only the small minority were sufficiently cultured, though that is not the right word, for various cultured musicians wrote no chamber music - Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner.

There is no need for alarm over the nation’s cultural position: the ratio of culture will be much the same a hundred years hence as it was a century ago. Mr Forbes is meanwhile saddened by the fact that only about one in every five hundred of the population of Manchester has sufficient courage (or culture) to sit through the weekly symphony concert of the Hallé Society, the only exception being the annual Messiah performance. Perhaps it is some comfort for Mr Forbes to know that the ratio of concert attendance to population is greater in Manchester than in either London or Birmingham. But the most distressing fact of all is that the announcement of a new symphony by a British composer at a Hallé concert finds the hall empty. That a similar thing can happen in London has been made manifest during past weeks, notwithstanding the efforts of many good and faithful servants of music.

We are forced back to the conclusion that music lovers cleave to their old gods, and fight shy of the joys promised them from beyond their horizon. The new composer is only a welcome guest after he has been ‘gate crashed’ by an accepted conductor who has courage and conviction: but opening the back door to him by a final item in the programme damns by an exhibition of faint conviction. The paradox is that the conductor and his orchestra live by composers alone: yet, so entrenched are they that they can pick and choose at their own free will. A strange thing is that, while established masterpieces of dramatic art do not deter new productions, masterpieces of musical art stand like a fallen boulder on a narrow mountain pass.

Concert-going also has some association with social or political habits. In Manchester in former days the Hallé audience had little in common with the Brand Lane gathering; while in the Harrison days we had a well-defined middle class1. This was curious, because the Harrison organisation, hailing from Birmingham, was alien to Manchester. Another distinct class is that which cheers its head off nightly at Queens Hall during the dog days, but will attend no symphony concert during the winter. This reminds me of the remark made to an Englishman in Paris who had witnessed Napoleon’s entry into the capital after victory, and then the return of the Bourbon king. ‘The same exultant cheers’, admitted the Frenchman, ‘but not the same crowd’. The trouble is that the symphony crowd does not make up in boisterousness what it lacks in numbers, and neither of the dominant parties do much to make a chamber music crowd. Future broadcasting may do something to advance what is after all a refinement of art.

  1. GW Brand Lane (1854-?) founded the Manchester Philharmonic Choir in 1880, and in 1914 began an important series of choral and orchestral celebrity concerts with Henry Wood as conductor. I am unsure which of the many musical Harrisons HB means: possibly Walter Harrison (1854-?), a choral conductor and leading figure in the Tonic Sol-fa movement. I do not, however, know if he operated in Manchester. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, September 1938, pp. 1018–19