Introduction - Gerard Cunliffe For Valour is one of the very earliest of Brian’s works. It may have been written as early as 1902; it is certainly referred to in a newspaper article about the composer in 1904. It was revised, however, before any of his orchestral music had been played in public, and the new version dates from 1906. It was given its first performance at one of Sir Henry Wood’s Promenade Concerts at the Queen’s Hall in October 1907 and was the third important piece by Brian to be performed. Structurally it is fairly conventional, being in extended sonata form in C and E, but the recapitulation leads not to the customary coda but a new exposition of fresh material.
Despite Brian’s known feelings about extra-musical influences, the intelligent listener can only gain from knowing that the work was inspired by part of a poem by Walt Whitman, a poet much read at the turn of the century but less familiar today. The lines are the second half of Adieu to a Soldier, one of the verses which make up Drum Taps.
Adieu dear comrade,
Your mission is fullfill’d - but I, more warlike,
Myself and this contentious soul of mine,
Still on our campaigning bound,
Through untried roads with ambushes opponents lined,
Through many a sharp defeat and many a crisis, often baffled
Here marching ever marching on, a war fight out - aye here
To fiercer, weightier battles give expression.
Did Brian choose this with an autobiographical intent? If so, he
chose, alas, only too well and better than be can have realised
The orchestra is once again large but not exceptional although six horns are used with great effect, and there is an organ part. Early reviewers seemed to feel that Brian was emphasising too much the last line of the poem, but to the present-day listener, more accustomed to downright noisy music, it is the overall atmosphere of the piece which is most striking.
The extent to which the world has changed during the last generation or so has sometimes been exaggerated, but in our attitude to martial glory there has indeed been a revolution, if not more than one. It is characteristic of the times we now live in that I should feel it necessary to mention that the title of this work is the motto of the Victoria Cross. Brian was a man with an original turn of mind, but he could not help being affected by the climate of opinion prevailing during his life. This music expresses an appreciation of honest martial endeavour in a way that was soon to be impossible. The First World War would arrive, and though this would at first be a popular war, such feelings would soon die in the trenches along with the participants. Too many Victoria Crosses were to be won in conditions where valour was not enough.
After the war, Brian anticipated the brittle cynicism of the ‘20s in his satirical opera The Tigers about a farcically incompetent regiment, and later, as the power of Nazism rose in Germany, the brutality of an emerging military totalitarianism was to be clearly expressed in his terrifying 4th Symphony, a choral setting of Psalm 68, Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered. The later symphonies often reflect the troubled, pessimistic pacifism of the post-Second World War period. Brian was never to write music quite like For Valour again.