David J Brown
Introduction - David J Brown Doctor Merryheart was composed at Trentham, Staffordshire, when Brian was living under the patronage of Herbert Robinson. It is rare amongst the works in having not only programmatic sub-titles to its main sections, but also a written preface. The latter is worth quoting in full:
Doctor Merryheart was well-known as an astronomer of original views. His geniality and perpetual smiles earned for him the name of Merryheart. He advanced the strange theory, in a happy persuasive manner, that the sun, moon, earth and ‘all that therein is’ are part of a vast diatonic scale, having its tonic in the centre of the Milky Way. He would not admit the value of the spectroscope and he held the view that there are no chromatics. Merryheart was of the opinion that we were on the eve of the discovery of the music of the universe, and it would be found in the diatonic scale. It was difficult to believe that he wished to be taken seriously, for his deep reflections on the mystery of the universe were expressed to the accompaniment of a continuous series of smiles. He always carried with him an illustrated edition of Daudet’s delicious satire Tartarin of Tarascon, and knew it so well that he came to look on Tartarin as a real hero. If his days and evenings were spent in such whimsies, his nights were serious ones. He was a great dreamer. In his dreams he was prone to loud mutterings, and was known to exclaim, ‘I must shoot that lion’. He suffered from nightmare, and various ghosts would pass before him. He always woke in a state of great excitement.
On the surface, most of this is bizarrely irrelevant to the music, but in Brian it is unwise to take anything at face value! Where did he find "Merryheart"? As far as we can tell, the character is his own, perhaps in more than one sense of the phrase, as he saw himself. There arc numerous indications in his writings that he took his own dreams very seriously.
In later years Brian described Merryheart as a "continuous set of symphonic variations on two converging lines". Its sections are as follows:
- an opening Allegro vivace e giocoso theme (presumably Merryheart himself)
- Whimsies and Sunshadows (fast woodwind triplets)
- Smiles and Storms (piano pizzicato strings)
- Dreams - Asleep in the arms of Venus
- Merryheart as chivalrous knight chases Bluebeard
- Merryheart fights a dragon
- Merryheart leads a procession of Heroes
- Merryheart awake (to some extent a "symphonic" recapitulation)
- The Dance of Merryheart (a substantial coda which is also a
further self-contained variation).
Doctor Merryheart is a curious work. Enormously resourceful in its use of the orchestra but very difficult to play, it is perhaps, musically, the most perfectly achieved of Brian’s early orchestral works in the sheer subtlety, inventiveness and panache with which it employs variation form in the service of a programme. Yet this very compositional resourcefulness sits oddly with the almost determinedly bland and whimsical subject. It has been described as a "Straussian send-up", and parallels which may or may not be relevant are easy to draw with some of that master’s symphonic poems. Nevertheless, its true raison d‘etre remains an enigma.
Of all Brian’s works, Merryheart is the only one to have maintained the merest toe-hold on the repertoire. Its premiere, under Julius Harrison, took place within a year of its completion, and it has been played at least once in every other decade since then!