Gerard Cunliffe

Introduction - Gerard Cunliffe Up to the year 1967, those symphonies of Brian now known as 1 to 5 were numbered 2 to 6 respectively. The discarded original number 1 was entitled Fantastic Symphony and in form was not strictly symphonic, but rather an extended musical joke on the nursery rhyme Three blind mice. There seem to have been four movements: a set of variations on the theme, which was eventually published separately as Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme, a pizzicato scherzo, which is now lost and depicted the flight of the mice’s souls to a mousy paradise, a slow movement also lost, and an extravert finale subtitled Dance of the Farmer’s Wife.

This last movement was published as Festal Dance and first performed in December 1914 in Birmingham, conducted by Granville Bantock. It is possible that the piece underwent some recomposition before publication, but is has not yet proved possible to ascertain from the material available whether this is so. Brian was apparently persuaded to dismember the symphony for publication by the argument that the form had no future but, from what we know of his character and the later history of his manner of composition, it is more likely that he was dissatisfied with the work as a whole because it was not a true symphony, and that he never lost confidence in the form in which he was to excel.
The opening bars, for the percussion section alone, are astonishingly bold for an English work of the first decade of this century, but the stroke seems even bolder when the entire piece has been heard, for then one realises that the complete structure is built upon that opening rhythm. The work’s development is of the rhythm, which pervades almost every bar.

The origin of the music can perhaps be detected in hints of the Three Blind Mice Theme, but the listener should he warned that an acute ear will find this simple air infesting music whose composers had no idea that they were using such material. Musical mice are as ubiquitous as the real ones.

The orchestra is large with an extensive percussion section and a part for piano. This demands a performer of some virtuosity and is surely essential, although curiously the score shows it as ad lib. There are also four horns, which bray superbly in the final section, where the dance of this rather terrible woman whirls to a grand climax.

Tonally, the work is straightforward, being in E major with the central fugal section an C. Contrapuntal forms are found throughout Brian’s work, and he was capable of writing such passages with great facility and, when necessary, with a complexity to equal anything by Bach or Busoni. The central section of Festal Dance, however, is fairly simple and as lighthearted as the rest of the piece. The theme accentuates the C major triad to humorous effect, and the fugal development runs up and down the scale in an over-obvious way which is beautiful satire.