Brian’s dark journey

Kevin Mandry

Brian’s articulation of courage - Kevin Mandry

Edward: You see, my life-loving darling, the dark journey to the dark home is sometimes sweeter than the summer’s day.
Dorcas: I think you must be a very serious and unhappy man to speak like that.
Edward: Not unhappy, no. A journeying man, that’s what I am.
(John Whiting, A Penny For A Song.)

In the third volume of his book on the symphonies, Malcolm MacDonald partially explains his enduring fascination with Brian’s music by saying ‘it makes me think’. Over the years I’ve often asked myself what fuels my enduring fascination – despite something which, at times, almost resembles an actual dislike of the music.

I’m referring to the fact that, while I revere Brian’s achievement, and would probably rate it above that of any British composer (or a good many others) Brian might have difficulty squeezing onto a personal ‘desert island’ list of favourites. Often, in the past, I’ve been aware of having to overcome an initial reluctance to actually listen to the music; a reluctance which soon gives way to the conviction that the music - while I am listening to it - is quite simply the most important I know.

Why that initial reluctance? Clearly, as we’re always told, this is not conventionally ‘easy listening’: the orchestral textures are often dense, the rhythmic complexities demanding, the harmonic logic sometimes obscure, etc etc. Not easy listening then, but at the very least rewarding and often gripping, even at a first hearing. And, after all, anything by, say, Maxwell Davies or Magnus Lindberg, let alone the dreaded Brian Ferneyhough, will be vastly more rebarbative. Nevertheless I’ll approach their scores (when I’m feeling strong enough) with an intellectually keener appetite and without that, albeit faint, sense of apprehension.

This may be a clue: Brian’s intellect is not in doubt, and the sheer intelligence of the music is outstanding: but as a listener the greater part of my response to Brian’s music is an involvement with its moral world: a unique, immediately recognisable and extraordinarily compelling construct.

Vaughan Williams famously observed that ‘a good tune implies a moral atmosphere’. Brian’s music relies less on obvious ‘good tunes’ than some but, in its ability to create a moral atmosphere, seems to me second to none. Vaughan Williams himself, in his haunted, dreamlike ninth symphony (and to a lesser extent his seventh) finally stumbled to the very edge of a world not at all unlike Brian’s: where the ghosts of Hardy’s doomed stoics drift, and bitterly rail, against a featureless landscape… In our time only Allan Pettersson inhabits even a vaguely similar sound- and moral world (As far as I know! One should be cautious about final judgements on the music of our century, which is far from being comprehensively known, and even further from being understood!).

How did this come about? Compare the life experience of the three men. Brian’s life was, for the most part, profoundly unsatisfactory: in terms of economic security, private and public relationships, intellectual isolation, and of course his professional career. Pettersson, as his Swedish admirers never tire of reminding the world, has led a blighted life: first through poverty, later through artistic neglect and physical illness. Vaughan Williams, by contrast, led an extraordinarily well-rounded life: a life not lacking in griefs (VW, after all, experienced the trenches that Brian only imagined) but that nonetheless was characterised by public acclaim, private fulfilment and more or less complete artistic achievement.

A nd yet, and yet… in terms of what I can only call moral experience, Vaughan Williams ends (in his very last major work) where his rough contemporary Brian begins - many years earlier, and with less ‘raw material’ of life experience to draw on. Similarly, I have the (entirely subjective) impression that, in terms of fully working out his creative potential, Brian was actually the most fulfilled of the three.

It seems to me that the substance of that ‘moral experience’ and ‘creative potential’ is courage: that Brian’s music explores and articulates the experience of courage - and its concomitant, that of loneliness - more clearly and profoundly than any I know.

How can this be? Surely, say, Shostakovich has more to say on both counts? Shostakovich, who lived through the worst war in history, more than one reign of terror, and for a long while the apparent possibility of arbitrary elimination? Yet, perversely (and without wishing to belittle his experiences), I find very little about courage in his music. Fear, even terror; grief and numbed resignation; bizarre humour, and often, often defiance.., but courage, of the still, solitary, deep-sunk kind… and the isolation (those harp and piano scales - like tears, or drops of blood - that launch the eighth symphony!) that haunt Brian’s world - hardly at all.

The experiences that fuel Shostakovich’s symphonies (and to a lesser extent, quartets) seem by comparison to be applied from ‘outside’: he was reacting to the events of a world crowding in on him. Brian, leading a life in which practically nothing happened (for decades at a time), was forced to mine a seam of self-reflection practically unique in any art form.

Psychologists have observed a fundamental difference between two human types: those who, confronted with an experience (any experience, from the most profound to the most trivial), instinctively move forward to meet it - whatever their subsequent reaction; and those who, equally instantly, and it may be only fleetingly, withdraw - in an instinctive gesture of self-preservation.

Brian seems to me a prime example of the latter type, concerned at all costs with self-preservation. I’ve often been struck by the seemingly trivial fact that when he was finally offered the opportunity to visit the Germany that had for so long fascinated him… he contrived excuses not to go! I’m convinced this was because he’d spent the best part of a lifetime consciously or unconsciously constructing a situation which made possible the maximum realisation of his artistic personality and that, by this stage, he could countenance no interruption.

My thesis, in fact, would be that at the deepest psychological level, Brian’s dark journey - his loneliness and ‘failure’ - was necessary to him - if he was to explore and give voice to the courage which stands at the heart of his achievement and is its pre-eminent characteristic.

The very phrase ‘awkward cuss’ so often used to describe the man suggests, after all, one who deliberately courts difficulties and spurns opportunities. Popular wisdom has it that Brian was a ‘victim’ of scandalous neglect. Of course, on the most obvious level, this is perfectly true. All the same I’ve often wondered how, had Brian found a champion and achieved a measure of success in his middle decades, the music would have differed? Perhaps it would have been more unbuttoned, extravert, accessible, practical? Well, of course, we’ll never know: but I’ve a hunch that it wouldn’t necessarily have been any better.

Was Brian psychologically ‘programmed’ to court external defeats as the price of self-realisation? It seems to me that, for all his apparent gaucherie, his social and personal clumsiness, his cussedness, he knew himself at the deepest level to a degree given to very few of us: in writing ‘difficult’ symphony after ‘difficult’ symphony, he knew what he was doing. Had he evolved for himself the best - the only - way of embodying, first, a tone of voice, then a frame of mind, and finally a complete moral world that was accessible only through the endless confrontation between archetypes of isolation and courage? No wonder he returned again and again to the world of the Greek drama, with its unembarrassed polarisations of naked archetypal forces.

Brian’s music makes me think too: but its chief appeal is to something deeper than intellect. I’ve no religious beliefs, but this is music which seems to operate at a profoundly religious level - far more so than the music of avowedly religious composers, untroubled by the questions and challenges that loom out of Brian’s Sphinx-like silences. I don’t always like it; but I am fascinated, compelled, appalled and frequently awed, as one invariably is - as one probably should be -, by the spectacle, the operation, and the implications of courage.

NL103 / © 1992 by Kevin Mandry

Newsletter, NL 103, 1992