Fundamental principles

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Despite the fate of Lot’s wife, the habit of looking back is growing woefully frequent with me: and I am thinking again of the clash between the ultras and those who favour established principles. We are up against certain indisputable facts in the history of music, and one is that music is an expression in sound of the same principles of all the great schools of architecture: that certain fundamental principles govern the whole, though in parts they differ, as we see in Gothic and Norman architecture. But music was the last art in which those principles were perceived. Admitting the principles, questions arise to which there seems no answer. Are singers of the electric age better than those who sang to an audience in sedan chairs?

Then we are bemused with the notion that what is new is better, and that a revolution of the machinery of State must reveal something more tolerable. Does the latest inspiration from the brightest student at the Royal Schools add anything to or detract from what Bach has done? A broadminded music publisher once said to me of a contemporary composer, ‘Well, he has something to say, and it a pleasant to listen to: so that’s all right.’ This was not admitting that the ‘something to say’ was better said or said in a way more modern than in the work of his predecessors.

With all respect to the ultras, I say that they — like others, for that matter — lack familiarity with the greatest works of several of the greatest masters, and this in spite of the abundance of our concerts. We know far too little of the major works of Bach or of Berlioz, indeed, we know nothing whatever about the later works of the great French musician. What we do know is that no composer since Bach has equalled him in skill and in depth of expression. No modern composer has yet overtaken Berlioz in the mastery and technique of the orchestra.

All this leaves the modern man wondering about his own position. Where is he, indeed? A similar gesture has to be made towards the principles of composition. We cannot get away from the fact that the best of the most modern compositions are based on the fundamental principles of the old. It is not a question of binary or ternary: for after all the most momentous revolutions have been based on some reference to law and order. We may regret eternally that there is but one Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz, Wagner, Liszt, Chopin or Schumann: but all the time we have to admit that inside the battles fought by these great men for freedom of expression, among them there was no great divergence of attitude as fighters.

Tactics in war may vary, but the principles of strategy endure. Our young wiseacres in music are always mistaking tactics for strategy, on which all that is great in music is based. Great composers have worked subject to the same natural laws as those which govern painting, poetry and architecture, and we are lucky if in a century we can find a few men able to interpret those natural laws. Minds cannot be fashioned to order.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, July 1935, pp. 815–816