Malcolm MacDonald

Malcolm MacDonald On the premiere by George Heriot’s First Orchestra, conducted by Martin Rutherford, in 1977

Among the many aspects of Havergal Brian’s achievement that remain to be properly explored and evaluated, the music concerned with childhood forms a distinct and sizeable area. One can recognise two subdivisions: music written for children to sing, play or listen to, and music concerned from a more adult perspective with the world of childhood, the child‘s-eye view of things and the child‘s freshness of response. In the first category come such works as the little piano piece John Dowland‘s Fancy , the mysterious missing operetta for children (whose very title we do not know), and the many fine unison songs, duets and trios written about 1914, whose vocal lines and piano parts are of wonderful simplicity and yet probe deeply into the poems set (I am thinking especially of the brilliant settings from Blake’s Songs of innocence, such as Piping down the valleys wild, The fly, The chimney-sweeper and The little black boy, which are as artistically distinguished a solution to the problems of writing for children as anything before Benjamin Britten).

The second, rather broader category includes probably several movements in various orchestral suites - the Carnival in English suite no1, Trotting to market in English suite no5, for instance, very likely the lost Tales of olden times, perhaps The jolly miller overture. Moreover, many striking moments in the symphonies evince a sense of simple delight that may well be a response to childhood memories - the chorus’s ‘la-la’-ing at Et laudamus nomen tuum in the Te Deum of The Gothic, for instance, or the ‘brass-band‘ march in the second movement of Symphony No7. Moments like these remind one of the boy-observer through whose mind Charles Ives filtered the complexities of The fourth of July and Putnam’s camp in the Three places in New England.

The Engish Suite no 4 is wholly devoted to this second category; it is an adult work devoted to the childhood way of looking at the world, in a musical language that all, including children, can enjoy (it is also, as George Heriot’s First Orchestra has shown us, an eminently suitable piece for them to play). The score carries the subtitle Kindergarten, and so we are perhaps justified in seeing it as a Brianic counter-part to Debussy’s Children’s corner and Boit à joujoux.

There is as yet no very strong evidence for dating the work. The full score is undated. The list of works Brian supplied for Reginald Nettel’s Ordeal by music, placed it in 1921, which is plausible enough, and suggests it may have followed immediately on the completion of English Suite no 3; but it is noteworthy that No 4 is missing from the list of works (also presumably deriving from Brian) that was published in Josef Holbrooke’s Contemporary British Composers (1925).

Still, we can content ourselves for now with ‘early to mid-1920s’. The circumstances surrounding the work are equally obscure - whether the suite may have been Brian’s own idea or (like No 5 many years later, or the orchestral extracts from The tigers) the suggestion of someone else; whether the subjects of its movements are intended to evoke a generalized ‘childhood‘ world or are inspired by specific sources, perhaps in his own childhood, perhaps in the life of his own children. And (as I suggested some years ago in Havergal Brian: Perspective on the Music) the suite may have served him as a testing-ground for various experiments with instrumental colour and combinations, in the same way as the Choral Canons are supposed to have been preliminary studies for aspects of part two of The Gothic.

The orchestra is a fairly standard one (though the percussion includes a ‘long, narrow, Indian drum’ to be played with the fingers - none other than the ‘tabla’, used nowhere else by Brian) but for much of the time it is employed in delicate, chamber-musical combinations of a few instruments per movement.

There are no fewer than nine movements, most of them very short - the suite as a whole is an eloquent demonstration of Brian’s gifts as a musical miniaturist. Their smallness enabled him, uniquely, to provide the movements with individual timings exact to the nearest second. The nine movement-titles seem to evoke something of child-like bewilderment at adults and figures which might appear in a picture-book or the wallpaper of a nursery; but they have a teasingly enigmatic quality, too, and for all we know the music could be enacting some childhood drama to which we lack the key. There are plenty of musical subtleties but the overall expression is very vivid and direct, making English Suite no 4 among the most easily assimilable of all Brian’s orchestral works.

Briefly, the movements are as follows:

1 Thank you (in moderate time, C sharp minor)
Rather stiff, formal phrases for woodwind and strings give way to a plaintive ‘trio’ for oboe, clarinet and cor anglais; then the opening material returns and is developed for full orchestra in a passage marked ‘Slow and ponderous to the end‘. he final brass chords with bass drum thwacks. are not tonally resolved.

2 Where is he? (Graziosoe teneramente, G major)
A sprightly, teasing, airy textured little piece. A delicate jig for muted strings, with contributions from harp and glockenspiel, leads to a lively canon for two horns and bassoon; a return of the jig on strings alone; an apparent quotation from Die Walküre on solo clarinet against harp-and-celesta chords; a version of Yankee Doodle played by solo harp against dissonant harmonies in horns and cellos; and a distant horn-call against a reminiscence of the jig as coda. The use of Yankee Doodle is reminiscent of The tigers - cf p165 of the vocal score, third system, very similar to the present instance - and there are, of course, Walküre quotations in the opera as well. Perhaps Brian still had some of the impulse that gave birth to The igers to work out of his system.

3 Something - or nothing (Moderately fast, A minor)
The merest bagatelle, as the title suggests, all of 24 seconds long. The initial wisp of a theme is entrusted to two clarinets and bassoon, then developed by two flutes and cor anglais, with a pianissimo return to the original wisp by strings alone.

4 The man with a gun (Quick, bright and staccato, on an uncertain E - C tonal axis)
A sense of mysterious excitement pervades this piece, which begins with fanfare-like figures for muted horns with side drum, builds up very suddenly to a short-lived tutti climax, evanesces in calmer phrases for strings, woodwind and harp, and ends with a return to the opening fanfares for horns, clarinets and cellos, dying away to nothing.

5 Jingle (rather slow but lively, A major/minor)
Brian adds the note that this movement should sound ‘like a musical box with the lid closed‘. And it does - an extraordinary feat of delicate and evocative scoring. The forces used are a pair of flutes (changing half-way through to a pair of piccolos), two clarinets, glockenspiel, celesta and harp. A graceful, sinuous little tune winds coolly through an ear-tickling maze of rippling decoration, ending with a soulful solo clarinet.

6 The lame duck (in time of a slow march, but crisp and marked, E major)
A miniature march with a rather stumbling gait, but blared out defiantly on full orchestra. Timpani and brass dominate the proceedings, with some very agile work being required of the tuba.

7 Gentle Bunny (Slow with tenderness, A major/minor)
A very gentle, wistful sort of siciliano scored for harp, strings and solo string quartet: another crumb of evidence to show that Brian could have written perfectly good quartets had he set his mind to it. The last few bars, all strings rocking in a pizzicato alternation between major and minor, has an affecting quality of pathos that is continued in -

8 Death of Bunny (very slow - with tenderness, C sharp minor)
An elegy, scored almost exclusively for woodwind, horns, harp, cellos end basses, that is in its way the deepest music in the suite (and at nearly two minutes’ duration it is the longest movement so far). It rises to a climax of restrained sadness and dies away on muted horns, cellos and basses, with two tender final bars for full, muted strings.

9 Ashanti battle song (Fast, with rhythm well marked, beginning C major but ending A major)
At 2’ 55" the longest movement of the suite. I have not so far been able to identify the main tune as of African origin. It sounds authentically ‘primitive’ but its tang is, if anything, rather Russian (and as the movement proceeds it develops a certain similarity to the main finale theme of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony). Basically this final movement is a virtuoso showpiece for full orchestra, remarkable for its rhythmic energy, the motive force for which is provided by the percussion ostinato that persists through practically every bar.

There are several interesting features, such as the way in which, in the first statement of the theme, the last note of each phrase (given out by clarinets, bassoons and horns) is picked up and ‘resonated’ by the strings; the fact that at one point Brian calls for the rarely-used, but in the right context practicable, low A of the bassoons and the double bass solo leading to the long solo timpani build-up to the final ‘Fast & Savage’ portion of the movement. The final fanfaring cadence, transforming A minor to major and thus clinching one of the suite’s main tonal ambiguities, is the culmination of a brilliant display of orchestral fireworks. No wonder the George Heriot’s First Orchestra’s fine performance of this movement was immediately encored, to enthusiastic applause, at the world premiere of English Suite No.4, just 50 years or so after it was composed.

© Malcolm MacDonald 1977


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