David J Brown

Introduction - David J Brown The Gothic now stands at the head or Brian’s symphonic canon, but it was originally published as "Symphony No 2", a designation which remained until 1967 when the composer renumbered his early symphonies to eliminate the original "No. 1", the Fantastic Symphony of 1907-08. The Fantastic Variations are in fact the surviving first movement of this work. Brian’s letters to Sir Granville Bantock indicate that it underwent some revision before publication in 1914. Certainly the composer’s manuscript bears no signs either of the title Fantastic symphony, or of having been physically removed from a larger score. It was, therefore, almost certainly rewritten for publication, and maybe to some extent recomposed as well.

Of all the early works, the Variations most comprehensively anticipate future trends in his style. The compression, the unexpected power and intensity, the virtuosic use of the whole orchestra, collectively and individually, at extremes of technique and range, strongly anticipate some of the one-movement symphonies of the 1950s. Effectively, it is as much a symphonic movement as a set of pictorial variations.
Throughout, Brian cleverly manipulates the two principal strains of the "Three Blind Mice" tune in a continuous musical development, but of particular note also is the thematically unrelated and highly lyrical "second subject" first heard on the cellos. This leads in due course to the first of two "chase" sequences, in which an extraordinary and hilarious tuba solo bellows its way through scurrying woodwind and strings. An imposing Lento variation follows, which grows in grandeur until a second chase breaks out. At the climax of this, nemesis arrives with huge organ chords and a great flourish on the full orchestra. The "Chorale Finale" which follows is unquestionably a requiem for the mice, but such is Brian’s skill that, despite the clearly audible theme, the music treads a precise knife-edge between parody and real valedictory intensity.

The Fantastic Variations were premiered in 1921 by Lyell Tayler and the Brighton Municipal Orchestra. In 1934 they were given by Sir Donald Tovey at a Reid Concert in Edinburgh, and the notes he wrote, perpetuated in Vol. 6 of Essays in Musical Analysis, remained one of the very few intelligent pieces of writing about Brian’s music until the revival of interest in his work began in the late 1950s.

© David J Brown