Contemporary thirties criticism of Brian performances

Norman V Dagg


orman V Dagg Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Musical Opinion contained two short reviews by ‘NVD’ (Norman Dagg, shortly to become editor of Modern Mystic_) of Brian_ performances_, which are included here for their documentary interest_.

British Women’s Symphony Orchestra

This orchestra, at the Queens Hall on April 13th, presented a finely varied programme of British music: the Overture to Bronwen by Holbrooke, whose versatility is nowhere better displayed: Delius’s piano concerto, played by Maud Randle; Bantock’s Hebridean symphony; and Havergal Brian’s Festal dance. All were played with enthusiasm. The Hebridean symphony received the best playing of the afternoon. The Orchestra’s woodwind has often played better, the strings never. Grace Burrows is always a highly competent technician, but the orchestra is capable of better things than she extracts from it. I hear there is a possibility of Sir Thomas Beecham taking charge of this orchestra at one of next season’s concerts, in which event it will yield up its positive, if latent, virtues.

Musical opinion, May 1935

John Tobin

John Tobin 1, at the Aeolian Hall on April 12th, gave a most interesting and enterprising recital. He opened with some Mozart and the seldom heard Fantasia on BACH by Liszt. These were sufficient to disclose a high musicianship and technique. He then played Three Illuminations by Havergal Brian, followed by Lord Berners’s better-known Funeral Marches on (1) A Politician, (2) A Canary and (3) A rich aunt. Mr Tobin gave elaborate verbal explanations, not without humour, of the Brian group, and left the Berners to explain themselves, a procedure which to many in the audience proved misleading.

Irony is a high form of art, of which the reader or listener remains conscious or unconscious. In this programme, Berners’s music is neither subtle sarcasm nor elegant wit; it is mere buffoonery. Brian’s Illuminations are what the scientists would probably call a ‘point in time’. Their irony is directed as an exclamation mark at the absurdities of wartime harmonic tendencies. Now, when those who had courage enough in war and immediate post-war days to swim against the stream are completely justified, these pieces are redundant.

Musical opinion, May 1935

  1. This is the same John Tobin whose rendering of Part One of Sorabji’s Opus clavicembalisticum in 1935 was cited by the composer as the main cause of his ‘ban’ on live performance of his music. In deference to his memory I should point out that, in the opinion of Harold Truscott, Tobin’s rendering (from memory!) was perfectly adequate. ↩︎