David J Brown

Introduction - David J Brown

I Characteristic march Tempi do marcia (XX´)
II Valse Andante – Tempo do valse (allegro) – Andantinoattacca (XX´)
III Under the beech tree – Andantino – Tempo di valse (allegro) – Tranquillo (andante) (XX´)
IV Interlude Allegro con anima – _Pan Andanteattacca (XX´)
V Hymn Slow – Allegretto (XX´)
VI Carnival Allegro molto (presto) – The Dancers Slower and graceful – Punch and Judy – The sleeping beauty Molto andante – Fat woman With mock solemnity (XX´)

Havergal Brian’s first English Suite is probably the most immediately approachable large-scale work he ever wrote. Its successors (No 2 is lost) are as much product of his early (Nos 3 and 4) and late (No 5) maturity as the more "serious" contemporaneous pieces, and often share their startling individuality of language. No 1 is, however, a straightforward tuneful delight from start to finish, and any learned exegesis of it would be a pedantic irrelevance. Nevertheless, before the devotee of the late symphonic Brian concludes that here is bland, youthful jeu d‘esprit which he ca safely ignore, he should observe a few of those qualities which still make it characteristically Havergal Brian.

There is a pervading intelligence, resourcefulness and, on occasion, virtuosity of its orchestration: listen to the magical and precisely imagined sound-world conjured up in the Interlude. Again, there is the avoidance of mechanical repetition. Even in the Characteristic march (characteristic not of military briskness but of rustic steadiness), little touches of orchestration are added or altered to avoid, mostly, any danger of monotony.

Note also the absence of sentimentality. The Valse is at first cool and abstracted in mood, then possessed of a curiously dour strenuousness. Even the overtly Tchaikovskian lushness of Under the beech tree is short-lived. (These two movements, originally a single, self-contained piece entitled Pantalon and Columbine, predate the remainder of the suite by several years. There is no evidence of revision, but the earlier title does seem to suit their mood more closely than their titles in the suite.)

Finally, there is the wide range of moods, and the rapidity and ease with which he moves form one to the next. The homely and moving simplicity of the Hymn, whose resemblance to the Salvation Army tune Morningside, itself based on an old English air, may be too close to coincidence, succeeds the almost "oriental" strains of the Interlude. This is followed in turn by the crashing whirl of the Carnival, in which Brian sets out to provide an impression of an English country fair, complete with side-shows. An early reviewer, noting the po-faced presence of God save the King in Punch and Judy , wondered whether Brian was "a satirist at heart, or only sets out to chronicle".

Straight after Punch and Judy comes The sleeping beauty, one of the most sweepingly romantic episodes in the whole work. Perhaps Brian was satirist and chronicler, and much more at the same time. Is it too heavy a speculation that, even this early, he recognised and showed that opposing characteristics like beauty and vulgarity coexist - not necessarily mutually destructive or irreconcilable, but frequently just there - side by side? So much of his mature work is concerned with the juxtaposition, sometimes with the utmost abruptness, of opposites: his triumph is that the juxtapositions are not merely coped with but often become vital ingredients of coherent totalities. In a small way, he begins to approach this in passages of his first English Suite.

The suite was the first of Brian’s orchestral works to be performed, the composer himself conducting it in Lees on 12 January 1907. Wood‘s Prom performance [1907] seemed to augur great things, and it was played again several times before World War 1. In common, however, with the rest of Brian’s output, it fell into oblivion in subsequent years. The recording made in 1979 by the Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Geoffrey Heald-Smith, was probably the first performance of any kind for over forty years.