The English musical renaissance

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Brian was seldom complacent about the achievements of the English Musical Renaissance, as here:

Sir Henry Hadow's review of fifty years of music, published in The Times, must have been written in an aeroplane. Little was seen, and that little seems to have been blurred. Sir Henry has the gifts of the historian: so had Thackeray, though I doubt whether any one of the Georges would have accepted either his facts or his opinions. The gist of the review is that music in England has sailed out of darkness into light; but on that point I am as unconvinced as any George would have been of a writing-man's knowledge of kingcraft. Like the Georges, I am an interested person.

One thing that hasn't happened successfully during the past fifty years is the Municipal Orchestra. Leeds determined to try one, and the writing-men of the time beatified the effort, prophesying greater births. Another was born in Birmingham, but both have had to struggle for material existence: evidently municipal milk is not sufficiently rich in vitamins LSD [ie pounds, shillings and pence – JRM]. The municipal milk at Brighton would seem to have been good and sufficient: but the people turned a deaf ear to what was to elevate them morally, -and materially from an accession of visitors.' The conductor and the players depart: women weep (vide The Daily Mail): and all Brighton sorrows, not for the loss of the music, but that thirty musicians are out of an engagement. Then there is Bournemouth: where one strong man1 is holding the philistine hosts at bay. And that is fifty years progress with municipal orchestras.

Actually I refuse to be hypnotised by The Times record of the fifty years' revival. I am dubious, because one always finds the historian telescoping facts to prove an absurdity. I know of no period in musical history when England had a living leader of international fame: it has always been a case of Homer dead. Elgar came near to that position, Sterndale Bennett nearer still, and Hugo Pierson gained that honour at the loss of his nationality: he became a German. Where is Elgar leading the world now? Sullivan would and he wouldn't, and then allowed himself to be drawn into a very narrow and sheltered grove. Sir Henry mentions the genius of Strauss, but our appreciation of progress and genius is such that his later operatic works remain only names to most of us.

I wonder whether Sir Henry would, after due reflection, really contend that the general appreciation of opera is wider today than it was in the 'eighties. My suggestion is that there has been neither erosion or accretion: the tide simply ebbs and flows. Think of the days of John Christian Bach and of the London that welcomed Haydn. Then the various seasons were run on a series of productions of new operas by Handel, Salomon, Bach, &c. Where is there such enterprise to-day? Producing Cavalcades, Waltzes from Vienna, and their like, is a poor exchange for genuine operatic adventure.

He returned to the theme in different vein later in the same column:

Before he left the BBC, Mr Jack Payne said that he had brought into prominence the music of fifty British dance composers. Probably 'fifty' was only a facon de parler. I have heard similar patriotic claims made on behalf of the Grand Viziers who choose the music for gramophone records, though their aureolas must be rather tarnished by the fact that little new music is recorded that has not already been made popular by other means.

The interest aroused in me by these and similar claims is, Who is primarily responsible for the choice for performance of new British music of more serious intent? It is generally supposed that our conductors, sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, sit late into the night poring over the scores that have been pushed into their letter-boxes, the work of the Great Unknown. If this were actually the case, I am of opinion that there would be more discoveries of genius than is at present the case. Edward Elgar came out of the Unknown, with no assistance from the Schools. Delius worked and was far spent before his genius was unfolded to the world. Whoever is the power that secures first and second performances of new works in England must sometimes, when the spectres of the early performances of Elgar and Delius come and go, fear that there is something wrong in the State of Denmark.

  1. Sir Dan Godfrey ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, May 1932, pp. 667–668