The importance of Elegy

Malcolm MacDonald

The importance of Elegy - Malcolm MacDonald The orchestral piece Elegy has a far greater significance in Havergal Brian’s output than its non-committal title might suggest. Intimately connected with his cycle of symphonies, it is one of his most personal works, in which he seems to be making a direct statement of how he felt about himself and the world at the time he composed it, shorn equally of irony or the rhetoric of epic.

Two continuous sketch short-scores for the work (neither, perhaps significantly, bearing a title) have survived: from dates on them it is clear that Brian began writing the new piece on 11 May 1954 (the day before his first chance meeting with Robert Simpson, incidentally). The sketch-draft stage was completed on 7 June, and we may presume the full score to have been finished in July, or at least early August. I have seen several letters written by Brian during May-August 1954, but none of them makes any reference to what he was composing, and the only clue to his state of mind around this time seems to be a gloomy comment in a letter to Eric Warr dated 15 August: ‘It is fatal for anyone to grow enthusiastic about my works…my family have no interest in my things whatever. I’ ve been seriously thinking of putting all my mss. works beyond the reach of performance’.

It seems likely that it was only after the completion of the full score that the new work was named: Brian designated it a symphonic poem with the title A Song of Sorrow. And almost at once - indeed probably before he wrote the letter quoted above - he leapt into the composition of his opera Faust. The score of the symphonic poem was handed over to Schott’s for safe keeping in 1957 and we hear no more of it until mid-1962. About the time that his manuscript works were to be transferred from Schott’s to the BBC Music Library, the piece recurred to Brian’s mind and a series of interesting comments about it found their way into his correspondence with Robert Simpson:

‘Having got [the Sinfonia tragica, then un-numbered] - now you should ask Schott’s for A song of sorrow another symphony without a number. It will pull your heart strings. You may place it a long way before the 1st movement (slow) of No. 11. [Brian cannot mean ‘before’ in date, for the work followed Symphony No 11 - it looks very much as if he means ‘before’ in quality: already knowing that Simpson greatly admired No 11’s opening Adagio. ] When A Song of Sorrow was finished I thought it too tragic to say anything about - so I just sent it to Schott’s & said nothing’. (20 July 1963)

A song of sorrow - I think it is just Song of sorrow - date May-June 1954 - Time of performance - 17 minutes. [Actually 14 minutes at the premiere] It is entirely adagio - big stuff erected on a lovely melody. (I hate the name theme and melody alike - what can we call it?)’ (21 July 1962)

Despite this clear testimony that Brian felt very deeply about the work, no plans for a performance were made during his lifetime. At the age of 94, the composer evidently decided that A song of sorrow was an inappropriate - or too revealing - title, and on 1 Nov 1970 he wrote to Graham Hatton: ‘I very much want to change the title of this movement to Elegy.’ And Elegy the work has remained. Justly so, I think: though the music may have seemed ‘too tragic’ to Brian at the time of composition, had long suspected from the look of the score, and Brian Wright’s splendid world premiere on 17 February [1977] has now eloquently demonstrated, that the tone is basically elegiac - for all its unquiet searching and brooding, the work is very poised, meditating in a predominantly dark sound-world which is nevertheless illumined every now and then by shafts of pure light.

The poise comes from the firm patterning of the structure into a definite archform: though I tend to feel that makes it less not more, like a symphony. Symphonic architecture is not thus static bit dynamic and more complex - in this sense Elegy lacks the formal richness by which Brian’s 8th and 10th, or even the Sinfonia tragica, earn their designation as one-movement symphonies. It lacks, too, range of movement - though the music is by no means ‘entirely adagio’, it never rises above moderato. So, pace Brian, this is not ‘another symphony without a number’.

But its connection with his symphonic canon is very close, and had I known that comment when I was writing volume one of my study of the symphonies, I might well have given Elegy more space. When I did discuss it briefly (on p 193) I guessed at its being a ‘Faustian character-study’ in preparation for the impending opera. I am now more inclined to think that the character under examination is Brian himself; a man with his own Faustian streak, at the height of his creative powers, in the middle of a grand sequence of symphonic and dramatic works about to embark on his crowning opera - in almost total intellectual isolation.

He meditates on the twists and turns of his fortune and squarely confronts the contradictions in his own personality, without self-pity - even, at the end, with an implied hope for the long-term future, but with complete realism. One wonders if behind the title A song of sorrow there originally lurked the thought of a longer one - A Song more in Sorrow than in Anger?

Musically the work does share some characteristics, especially in the woodwind writing, with Faust; and in tonality with the 10th Symphony - in fact even more than the symphony does it stay rooted to a fateful C minor. There are echoes, too, of The Gothic whose influence haunts all Brian’s greatest music, and at one point a clear pre-echo of the magnificent Symphony 16. But the work with which Elegy now seems to have the clearest connection, both motivic and metaphysical, is Symphony 8. I have come to abandon the theory that Symphonies 8,9 and 10 form a self-contained ‘trilogy’; although there is no doubt that No 8, that symphony of dynamic contradictions, raised a whole host of problems and challenges that Brian had to work out in all the music that he wrote in the next few years. Symphonies 9 and 10 are both replies to 8, but neither is a complete answer for all No 10’s apparent finality.

Symphony No. 11 explores side-issues, and Elegy suddenly fits into place as an epilogue to this part of Brian’s symphonic cycle. Not a symphony itself, though it lasts longer than several he was to write later, but a shift of focus from the starry immensities of the close of No 10 and the ‘brown study’ (Robert Simpson’s phrase) of No 11 to the character of the man who could write such works, and what he still had in him to write. (One of Elegy’s most inspiring qualities is the ‘very modernity of its sound-world, pointing forward to symphonies like 16, 19 and 30.)

Brian’s ‘lovely melody’ appears only twice, in the first and last of the work’s six sections, but all the music’s principal motives are founded on it - or rather on the very basic motive of which the ‘lovely melody’ is itself an expansion. This basic form comes to the fore in the comodo second section: a rising third flicking restlessly from minor to major to minor. Not only is this a very characterisic Brian figure, one of those semitonal shifts that are the lifeblood of his tonal thinking: the minor-major question is perhaps the concisest musical metaphor for the problem of human existence - darkness - light. darkness; despair- hope- despair. Brian was familiar enough with both extremes. The 8th Symphony had brought them into dramatic confrontation, and it is to the 8th Symphony, I think, that this basic figure alludes - specifically to the subjects of its two passacaglias, themselves simplifications to essentials of a similar tonal argument.

Shot through with such minor/major equivocations, Elegy strives always to rise out of the darkness of its original C minor to the light of C major. The first full bar of C major does not appear until bar 99 in the uneasily meditative lento fourth section (as personal a statement in its way as the Reverie of English Suite No 5), and then it hardly sounds like C major, approached as it is directly from F# major. This section ends on a sort of C major, and then the jagged, virtuosic ‘development’ that is the fifth section eventually forces its way into C as the culmination of a splendidly wrathful climax (a great grandchild of the climax of The Gothic’s scherzo in its multiple canonic invention).

But the lamentando final section snatches the major mode away again - it is built almost entirely on the minor/major/minor motive and the ‘lovely melody’. The coda marked molto teneramento touches C major, loses it again, and gropes back towards it. The beautiful final cadence is like the dissolving of layer after layer of morning mist, and the last swelling bare-fifth chord on trumpets and trombones appears out of it like the first hint of the rising sun.

© Malcolm MacDonald 1975


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