Fifty years after

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

I am pleased to see that Plunket Greene's book on Stanford is receiving the attention it deserves, for it is brilliantly written, is full of information, and full of good stories. Most of the pages throw up something of Stanford’s impetuosity and sincerity. The story of Elgar’s relations with Stanford is retold, and those who delight in a quarrel will note how the biographer of the one contradicts the biographer of the other, quite after the manner of literary pundits whose case cannot be overruled by a judge nor subjected to the verdict of a well-directed jury. I am inclined to believe that the fight was mainly between the rival factions, the alleged principals being the more or less interested spectators. Something similar occurred ten years or so ago, when an article praising Elgar and belittling Parry appeared in a quarterly Elgar would have none of it, and declared that eventually his own indebtedness to Parry for help and advice would be disclosed1.

Disclosures in the Stanford book show that at the critical moment in Elgar’s career Parry and Stanford were his true friends, though Elgar did not know. The work which set Elgar on his great career was the Enigma variations. Plunket Greene tells us that one wild wintry night, when most people were indoors, Jaeger called on Parry with a large manuscript score under his arm. It was the Enigma variations, just received from the composer. After looking through the score, with little ado, Parry took a cab and drove straight to the hotel where Richter was staying2. The culminating fact is that Hans Richter produced the work a few months later. Parry and Stanford were present at the performance and affirmed the greatness of the music. Stanford for his part immediately pressed his University (Cambridge) to confer upon Elgar the honorary degree of Doctor of Music, which was done a few months later. But the absence of both Parry and Stanford from the ceremony has never been explained. The pity of it is that when the new bud of English music was opening anything so withering should have happened.

Stanford is too recent a composer for us to know how much of his work is of the imperishable order. The last fifty years in English music has shown intense activity in composition, with every composer overshadowed by the brilliant personality of Elgar, who alone maintains undiminished prestige. The drama of life has shown many others playing a part, but few remain on the stage. Elgar himself, at one faltering moment, thought that his own career had not been worth while: but whether a successful career can or cannot be accounted worth while has nothing to do with the subtle process by which composers are accorded fame. Composers write music because they must: if they did not do so they would take to some other form of mischief, for surely they are helpless against the hand of fate.

Fifty-three years ago, at the Birmingham Musical Festival of 1882, Charles Gounod's oratorio, The redemption, was produced. Where is it now? Much amusement and some instruction can be gained from a perusal of the criticism and notices that heralded its induction. A hush fell upon the city, broken only by acclamations of welcome for the composer. Great expectations were aroused, and the eyes of all choralists were turned to the Capital of the Midlands. Croesus also was abroad, with paragraphs about the colossal sum of money paid by the publishers to the composer. Later a more chastened spirit came over us, and The redemption took a place beside its late companion oratorio, Mors et vita. And then we knew it only by its annual performance by the Royal Choral Society: but even that has gone out.

At that same festival Brahms's Triumphlied 3 was performed, almost unnoticed.

Now, how did it all happen? and why have the Gounod oratorios so completely disappeared? Gounod was a devout Catholic and wrote much music for his church, which now will have none of it, because it is so sugary. Here is a pretty problem for the psychologists to ponder. We are told that Gounod’s oratorios were killed by their own weaknesses and demerits, though these were present at their inception. Why were they not detected at the time? My impression is that the puff preliminary, as Sheridan would call it, silenced all criticism.

Stanford was thirty-two at the time The redemption was produced. As far as I can recollect, no major work by Stanford ever had a good press, though as a composer he was much more expert and accomplished than Gounod.

  1. HB alludes to George Bernard Shaw's article in Music & Letters in early1920 which praised Elgar somewhat at Parry's expense. Elgar wrote a letter for publication in the following issue deploring Shaw's association of Parry with a narrow clique and ending 'The moment to enumerate the many occasions on which Parry advised and encouraged me is not now. I hope to make known all I owe to his ungrudging kindness at some future time'. He sent a copy to Shaw, who half-admitted his gaffe, commenting "P. was a d—d nice chap; and if he had been a little less nice he would also have been a little les d—d." See Jerrold Northrop Moore, Edward Elgar: Letters of a Lifetime, pp 332-333. ↩︎

  2. Parry's role in bringing the Enigma variations to Richter's attention is a matter of dispute: in any case, Elgar had himself sent the score to Richter's agent, who had sent it on to Richter in Vienna. ↩︎

  3. HB's point, I take it, is astonishment that Brahms's masterpiece should have attracted so little attention beside Gounod's – well – not-masterpiece. But by the time he was writing Brahms's work, after achieving great celebrity from the 1870s to the 1900s, had fallen clean out of the repertoire because of the embarrassment of its supposed 'German nationalist' content during World War I. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, May 1935, pp. 675–676