Analysis: Brian and variation form (3)

Malcolm MacDonald

(2) [Brian and variation form (3)] - Malcolm MacDonald Part 1 . Part 2

The "Heldenleben" figure introduces a C major Andante section which can broadly he termed the "first variation". Woodwind, led by solo clarinet, mull gently over the "Three Blind Mice" motive Ex.2a); then multi-divided tremolo strings turn its diatonic descent into slithering emotional chromatics to assure us that the whole topic is really one of the most desperate seriousness. A full-blooded restatement of Ex.2b (the "All ran after the Farmer’s Wife" motive) follows, and it climaxes in two bars of resplendent brass writing which, not for the first time in this work, may remind us of Sibelius.

Immediately, Ex.1 - Tovey’s "human feminine element" - enters warm and serene in C major. The scoring, as often in the Fantastic Variations, is original and ingenious. The strings are divided in 14 parts, and the "feminine" melody is heard only on half the violas and half the ‘cellos. A resonant pedal C, several octaves deep, is maintained by trilling strings and pianissimo timpani triplets, plus pizzicati in half the violins, violas and double-basses; slowly rising trills in solo flute, oboe and bassoon; and a high counterpoint that continually re-shapes motive 2a (see Ex.3).

Ex 3 to be added

One cannot help feeling that the "feminine" melody does have some relation to that of the mice, even if only through opposition - ascending by comparatively large intervals whereas Ex 2a descends in small ones .At any rate, it serves its function of contrast while maintaining a strong feeling of organic unity.

The music returns to E major for a Con moto variation that augments the main motives of the "Thema" - figure a on horns and timpani, b expressively on woodwind and strings, and all with an undercurrent of slithery chromaticism Brian is reaching down into the essence of the "Old Rhyme", and beginning to tap its latent store of the macabre. Suddenly, Allegro molto, the chase is on! Flutes, muted trumpets and side drum hare off frantically in flickering semiquavers, pursued by an angrily buzzing tuba-and-bassoon line as sinister as it is ludicrous (Ex.4).

Ex 4 to be added

Quadruplet cross-rhythms in pizzicato strings complicate the texture, and then a sidedrum roll ushers in a new majestic Lento variation, where horns and trombone enunciate a threatening version of figure a against woodwind and trumpet flourishes (Ex.5).

Ex 5 to be added

M ore weepy chromatics from the strings lead to the central section of the work, a grandly lyrical episode marked Con moto e espressione. The "feminine element" reappears in all the finery that E major can bestow, with a counter-point that probably derives from figure a by inversion. (If a programme can be guessed at here, it may be that Brian is suggesting that the Farmer’s Wife, unsuccessful in her first chase, is now attempting to lull the mice’s fears and attract them to her, all the better to pursue them anew.) The melody soon acquires a florid quintuplet turn, which proves to be a form of figure b. Brian develops it in close quasi-imitation (Ex.6) as the music begins to flow onward with something approaching symphonic breadth.

Again, the scoring calls for comment: the violas and ‘cellos are made to carry the uppermost melodic line, while the violins are kept below them until the episode is quite far advanced. Only then are they allowed to take over the "feminine" melody in full brilliance, carrying it high for its final appearance against rippling harp arpeggios. Development continues with mounting passion, metamorphosing the elements of Exx.1, 2 and the quintuplet turn.

The climax comes as the music momentarily touches Bb minor, in pealing quintuplet figuration on full woodwind against dramatic sostenuto emotion in full strings, with the entry of a brass-sad-timpani figure, derived from motive b, that establishes a new rhythm: . This rhythm is developed as the tonality swings back to, and closes grandly in, E major.

A blasting fff C on cuivre horns, underpinned by tapping sidedrum, abruptly switches the tonality to C major and sets us off on the second "chase" sequence, which begins apace in the strings (Ex. 7).

Ex 7 to be added

Soon cold, pulsing semiquavers in strings and high woodwind are reminding us of some of Sibelius’s wintry, saga-style allegros. Against rapidly-accumulating orchestral detail the four horns give out an augmentation of the Ex.2 melody con forza. Then the galloping rhythm flickers wildly around lunging trombones (Ex. 8 - perhaps the mice are side-stepping the stabs of the knife by changing register?).

Ex 8 to be added

"Sibelian" echoes return in a blizzard of sextuplet semiquavers in divided strings - or rather, this must be a pre-echo, since it anticipates a passage in the as-yet unwritten Tapiola. The sextuplets only reinforce the impression of headlong flight. From here on, Brian maintains a desperate momentum while splitting up the orchestration in mosaic fashion, intercutting contrasting groups of instruments in a way he was to refine in many of his mature symphonies. The scoring is full of telling details, for instance the effective employment of trumpet trills and the bold use of the percussion generally, especially the glockenspiel.

Ex 9 to be added

Sounds of riotous glee enter the final moments of the chase (Ex. 9), and then a hushed staccato development of motive 2a suddenly sweeps us up to the moment of truth. "LaMuerte, Der Tod, Thanatos" glares at us with all the stagey power a pipe-organ can lend (Ex.10).

Ex 10 to be added

From this point Brian drags the music decisively to its ultimate climax in a wrathful thundercloud compounded of trills, chromatic counter-points and augmentations of figure all over a pedal E in organ, double-basses and pounding timpani. Suddenly trombones and tuba erupt on the scene in stark, bare octaves (recalling the "Heldenleben" figure from the work’s opening) and so provoke the catastrophe - a bludgeoning diminished-7th chord on A, with escaping squeals from strings and woodwind.

A short, shocked silence gives way to one of the pitches of the climactic chord - Bb, furthest from the work’s home key of E -sounding softly on tremolo double-basses. Then the timpani quietly denies Bb’s claims by sounding a repeated E, recalling us from the individual tragedy to its place in the general moral scheme of things The "Chorale Finale" which follows in E major is, as Tovey said, "unquestionably a Requiem for the Three, and for no others". Strings, woodwind and horns muse over a broad version of Ex. 2 in rich harmony, the organ quietly closing the phrases with ecclesiastical chords. The final Largamente bars take a last turn towards C major, treating "Did you ever see such a thing in your life?" to multiple canonic augmentation, before the organ’s ultimate doleful entry and a rising orchestral flourish brings this cautionary tale to a close with two resounding triads of E major.

The Fantastic Variations is a witty and diverting piece: but, given its subject (both musical and poetic), it is also a surprisingly substantial one: we detect a symphonist beginning to flex his muscles. As David Brown has commented in his notes for the forthcoming City of Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra recording, "the music treads a precise knife-edge between parody and real intensity". A carving-knife edge, to be exact. It is the undertone of the macabre that adds depth to Brian’s humour, and so makes this work an important stage in the development of the sensibility that was eventually to give birth to The Tigers.

NL25 © 1979 by Malcolm MacDonald

Newsletter, NL 25, 1979