The Logistics of the Gothic symphony – 1

Philip Legge

Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony seems assured of at least some place within (or perhaps outside) the permanent orchestral repertory, if not for its Guinness Book of Records entry (Largest Symphony), then at least in the notorious category of “Most difficult work to adequately perform”. This hasn’t prevented the piece from having had seven outings including a very popular commercial recording, recently re-released on the bargain Naxos label. Nevertheless no planned performances of the symphony have eventuated since the 1980s, and as orchestral extravagances are viewed with especial concern by the bean counters, it is therefore incumbent on those proposing to perform difficult works (speaking economically as well as musically) to put forward a convincing case for presenting them to the public.

As I alluded to in the letter submitted to Newsletter 186, the only reason logistics are considered at all is economically driven; if money were no object, the Gothic would no doubt have been performed dozens or perhaps hundreds of times since the 1930s. It seems useful then to have options at hand for prospective festival orchestras that might consider attempting the work only to recoil in alarm at the scale of the project. Easily the largest factor in the cost of mounting a work such as the Gothic is the enlarged orchestra it requires, particularly the extra brass players who are required for a comparatively small part of the work, and finding a large enough venue to get a reasonable return on the house. Pragmatically, there are corners which may be cut, as is the case with other works on a similarly large scale; orchestras frequently find ways to perform music more or less adequately without every last instrument specified in the full score. Several options dealing with the scale of Brian’s orchestra are canvassed below, which consider successively larger forces as well as examining more of the symphony as a whole:

Option A: Part I, orchestra only

Easily the cheapest option with no vocal soloists or choir; without the choral Te Deum the orchestra plays for between 35 and 40 minutes. However the orchestral-only section of the work is much less of a draw card in terms of publicity, as concert promoters seem to prefer the options of “all or nothing”. Brian himself sanctioned this mode of performance, in a letter he wrote to Malcolm MacDonald on 16 August 1972. After the symphony was submitted to the Schubert Centenary composition competition, the Te Deum was viewed as ineligible and returned to Brian; thus in three movement orchestral guise the symphony narrowly missed winning the British region prize as well as the eventual overall prize (coming second to the mediocre Pax vobiscum by the otherwise forgotten J St Anthony Johnson, and then judged below Kurt Atterberg’s Sixth Symphony). Dubbed the “demi-Gothic”, it was first performed by the New Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Sir Charles Groves, for a live BBC Radio 3 broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall on 10 October 1976.

About 100 players are required; this is:
18 woodwind (—16 brass (—2 (7) timps*, 6–8 percussion, 2 harps, celesta, organ, and strings divisi à 4, so say 50 or so players ( minimum.
* Here and elsewhere the notation 2 (7) will be taken as meaning the number of timpanists, with the total number of timpani required shown in brackets. The first timpanist requires three drums, and the second timpanist requires four: three large and one small drum (Brian’s specified minimum of three drums is incorrect, as the smallest drum would require a range of a minor sixth from B flat up to f sharp, and timpani do not usually span more than a perfect fifth).

It should be said that a hundred-strong orchestra is not outrageously large by the standards of much other 20th century repertoire, but the instrumentation is somewhat challenging as it includes rarities such as oboe d’amore, bass oboe, basset horn etc. However, the instruments I have described are to be found in works as disparate as Bach’s Mass in B minor (oboi d’amore), Holst’s Planets suite (partially dispensible parts for alto flute and bass oboe), and the Mozart Requiem (basset horns).

The shorthand notation for woodwind given above really ought to include all of the doubling instruments, but to have done so would have made a mockery of the term “shorthand”. Of the flutes, the third doubles piccolo, and the fourth doubles both piccolo and alto flute in G. There is apparently a fifth flute specified for one short passage in the second movement, but I believe it to be a mistake in the Cranz full score; it merely adds a doubling to one of the four independent flute parts. The third, fourth, and fifth oboes are respectively an oboe d’amore, a cor anglais, and a bass oboe; later in part II of the work the oboe d’amore and bass oboe are expected to double as normal oboes. The clarinets consist of 1 E flat clarinet, 2 B flat clarinets, a basset horn in F, and a bass clarinet in B flat; again later in the piece the E flat clarinet is expected to occasionally double as a B flat clarinet. The fourth bassoon is actually a dedicated contrabassoon. The brass are comparatively normal, with six French horns, three tenor trombones, two bass tubas, and in addition to the four trumpets there is a high E flat cornet from the second movement onwards. The celesta is used only in the first movement and in practice can be played by one of the percussionists or even by the organist, provided the player is able to quickly leave the stage and reach the organ console before the end of the first movement.

The second part of the work uses a much larger orchestra and sets the ancient Latin text of the Te Deum in three movements: Te Deum laudamus, Judex, and Te ergo quaesumus. The fifth movement sets one single line of the text, Judex crederis esse venturus, which occurs just over halfway through the hymn, so dispensing with either the last movement or both of the last two movements leaves the musical setting of the text half-incomplete. Some performing groups would regard an abridged Te Deum as an inherently inadequate musical and artistic statement, and on those criteria alone it is hard to argue to the contrary. However it also seems to be true that in practice the music remains unperformed more often than not, because the Te Deum as a whole is too difficult. The author has therefore considered the pragmatic options of performing an abridged Te Deum, rather than just “all or nothing”. Therefore the remaining options set out below necessarily consider voices as well as orchestra in the discussion of logistics.

Option B1: Part I plus Part II, movement 4 only

(ie, Te Deum laudamus but not Judex and Te ergo)

With the opening section of the Te Deum only, a somewhat enlarged orchestra is required but there is no need for the 4 groups of off-stage brass and extra percussion. Brian’s specification for the orchestra is about 151, however this is inflated by an extremely large string section: 30 ww (—23 brass (—2 (7) timps, 8 perc, 2 (preferably 4) harps, celesta, organ, and 82 string players ( The full set of woodwind doublings for the entirety of Part II is included here for reference: 2 piccolos and 6 flutes, 1 of the former doubling flute, and 1 of the latter doubling alto flute; 6 oboes, 1 doubling oboe d’amore and 1 doubling bass oboe; 2 cors anglais; 2 E flat clarinets, 1 doubling B flat; 4 B flat clarinets; 2 basset horns; 2 bass clarinets; 1 pedal (contrabass) clarinet; 3 bassoons; 2 contrabassoons. However, the eighth flute and oboe do not actually appear until the later movements, nor do some of the doubling players actually need to swap instruments in this movement. The brass in this movement consist of 8 French horns, 2 E flat cornets, 4 trumpets, 3 tenor trombones, bass trombone, contrabass trombone, 2 euphoniums, and 2 bass tubas. In addition to these forces there is a rather high-pitched ad lib part for extra paired trumpets at figure 48 (p 124), which should be played by the cornets; in later movements Brian adds a bass trumpet and occasionally specifies 8 trumpets, so if these are available they should play here also.

One advantage for the choirs in omitting the later movements is that only 20 minutes of music has to be prepared rather than 70 minutes, and this also avoids the most difficult passages to be found in the last two movements; the choir is usually divided in 8, 12, or 16 actual parts at most. Artistically there are several obvious drawbacks to this abridgement. Although the children’s choir is utilised to some advantage, the vocal soloists have very little to do as individuals, separately of their role as a quartet. The end of movement 4 is not so much of an emphatic or climactic ending, unlike the later movements. The duration of about 60 minutes is also on the short side for a concert, without having another work programmed as a counterweight. Lastly the symphony is represented well enough by the Marco Polo/Naxos recording that the omission of the latter movements would be an obvious point for criticism.

Option B2: Same as B1, but with pared back orchestra

The employment of every member of the woodwind families gives Brian’s orchestra an unparalleled range of timbres, so it is not desirable to alter the variety of instrumentation. Moreover the contrapuntal nature of so much of the writing renders the majority of winds and brass as necessary, so that the only conceivable reductions are in instrumental lines that are multiply doubled. Judging from the Cranz full score it is possible to slightly reduce the size of the orchestra at a small cost to the sonority, by having fewer instruments simply doubling one another; however this requires revised wind and brass parts for movement 4 (433 bars). Thus the following orchestra of 125 appears to be about the minimum feasible size without too much deliberate re-scoring: 28 ww (—21 brass (—2 (7) timps, 6 perc (inc. celesta), 2 harps, organ—65 strings ( The numbers of strings are slightly enlarged from Option A and remain in much the same proportion, but are still much fewer than the full score (ie, Option B1) specifies. Depending on the venue a smaller string section yet could be engaged, and amplification or foldback used to boost their sound. One flute is easily dispensed with, at little cost as only two short sections in the movement employ seven flutes (see pp 117 and 123 of the full score), with unison and octave doublings at that, between piccolos, flutes, and alto flute. The need for four oboes can be met if the oboe d’amore and bass oboe alternately double as oboe as they would be required to do if playing the later movements anyway.

It is helpful to distinguish between the 8 higher clarinets (2 in E flat, 4 in B flat, 2 basset horns in F) and the 3 bass clarinets (the B flat contrabass sounding an octave lower than the others). It is to be regretted Brian’s scoring at times is bigger than it actually needs to be; only six pages of the entire full score (namely pp 112-114, 125, 126, and 135) require all 8 of the higher clarinets at once, and they all occur here in the first section of the Te Deum. In passages where both E flat clarinets and both basset horns are employed, elsewhere Brian restricts himself to just 3 B flat clarinets, for a total of 7. It would be helpful to rescore the clarinets in these brief passages and achieve a permanent reduction of one clarinet. Elsewhere in the first section of the movement one of the E flat clarinets can cover most of the omitted fourth B flat clarinet part. The extremely rare pedal (contrabass) clarinet also presents an issue for some orchestras, so that it might be expedient to rewrite one each of the bass clarinet and contrabassoon parts to cue in the notes that would be played by it. (Equally well, if a pedal clarinet is obtainable, its part could be reciprocally altered to accommodate an eliminated second bass clarinet.)

As observed above, the two E flat cornets should play the ad lib trumpet part at figure 48. The bass and contrabass trombone often double the euphoniums and bass tubas, so that one from each section—preferably the bass trombone and one of the euphoniums—may also be eliminated. Remarkably, there is very little for timpani or percussion to do in this movement, and therefore no especial need to enlarge their numbers from Part One—yet. The percussion specification now includes the celesta within its realm: the instrument features only briefly in movements 1, 4, and 6, and in all but one instance could be played by the organist if the organ console were readily proximate to the stage. If this were not the case, it would still be possible for the organist to play most of the part, with the exception of one short passage after figure 28 in the Te Deum where celesta and organ are heard together (pp 118-19). The keyboard skills of one of the percussionists should be adequate to render this short passage as similar talent is required for playing the xylophone and glockenspiel, so a dedicated celesta player is not required.

Option C1: Part I plus Part II, movements 4 and 5 only
(ie, Te Deum laudamus and Judex but not Te ergo)

The Judex introduces the extra off-stage brass, so on face value it appears as though this movement requires up to 40 more players than the last (also counting the heavier allotment of percussion). For the record, Brian’s specification amounts to 190 players: 31 ww (—57 brass (, 25 on-s. +, 32 off-s.)—6 (20) timps, 8 perc, 2 (pref. 4) harps, celesta, organ—82 strings (as at B1, ie, However, it will be shown below that Brian’s requirements can be reduced considerably. On the positive side for performing the work in this abbreviated form, 75 minutes is an acceptable length for a single work concert, and the symphony comes to an emphatic enough halt at the end of the Judex. Three of the vocal soloists (all bar the soprano) are relatively under-utilised, while the choir’s workload is doubled. The obvious question would be asked however; having assembled the extra brass, then why would you leave out the sixth movement?

Option C2: Part I plus Part II, movements 4 and 5, reduced orchestration

The not-quite-so-obvious answer to the question posed immediately above is that you don’t need nearly so much extra brass to perform the Judex! In fact, the following forces are sufficient: 30 ww (—24 brass (—4 (14) timps, 9 perc (inc. celesta), 2 harps, organ—65 strings ( At 135 players, that is about 50 fewer than stated as necessary in the full score—and is about the size for orchestras to perform works such as Mahler’s eighth symphony or Schönberg’s Gurrelieder. The following paragraphs explain how such a drastic reduction in numbers may be achieved.

Firstly, as above at B2 we reduce the string ensemble by a fifth, or 17 players. Secondly, the Judex has slightly different requirements for the on-stage wind and brass, so some instruments can still be eliminated. Brian only requires seven flutes and a minimal rewriting could eliminate the seventh flute if it were desirable to match the previous movement. The Judex actually requires one fewer clarinet (10 rather than 11), so again the total could be whittled down to 9 with a re-writing of parts; here there would be no need to re-write the upper parts (basset horn, B flat and E flat clarinets), just a judicious reallocation of the bass and pedal clarinets. In the music for the on-stage brass, two passages call for 8 trumpets (pp 155 and 177), and the movement also introduces the bass trumpet, so it is assumed the cornet and bass trumpet players will double the normal trumpet to play these sections. Professor Rapoport points out that these 8 part passages are reducible to 4 trumpets, but given that at least 7 trumpets are required elsewhere, an eighth trumpet seems a very small price to pay. It is less practicable to omit one of the trombones compared to one of the euphoniums, which are more often written à 2, and there is also more music to re-score—764 bars now rather than 433 bars.The real savings in cutting down the numbers is in reducing or dispensing with the extra brass. It must be said that doing so sacrifices the spatial and antiphonal possibilities inherent in using off-stage bands. The off-stage brass and timps are supposed to sound from four different areas accompanying the respective section of the two double choirs. However as the choir is principally divided in two rather than four, previous performances have sometimes dispensed with two of the off-stage groups, for example if finding alternate staging was an issue. In fact it is possible to cue in all the off-stage brass into the parts for the onstage brass, if the on-stage forces are slightly enlarged to include the 8 trumpets described before. The exact numerical requirement for the four off-stage bands in Judex is in fact only + 4(12)tp, as three of the four groups have tubas playing à 2; and the second tuba in the other band could be covered by trombone to reduce the number of off-stage tubas to four. If the number of bands were to be reduced to two, 16 fewer players would be needed ( + 2(6)tp), and with only one band, 7 fewer again ( + 2(6)tp). At least 2 extra timpanists are needed, to play one passage requiring a minimum of four timpanists playing 14 differently tuned drums. The musical example below consists of a practical rearrangement of all of the six timpani parts at figure 237, which marks the beginning of the climax of the movement.

At this climax the full brass ensemble is used, the on-stage brass alternating with or largely doubling the off-stage brass. So in theory, the off-stage brass could be dispensed with entirely, albeit with the disadvantage of the on-stage brass having to play almost continuously through the final stage of the movement, with less weight and power. The choir might be grateful however for having a smaller orchestra in order to be heard! The only augmentation of the on-stage forces that would be required to cover all of the missing parts are the extra trumpets for the 8 part passages, and the two additional timpanists as discussed above.

So in summary:
(a) with 4 bands, 166 players [ww 30, Br. 24 on-s., 29 off-s., 6 (20) timps, 9 perc (inc. cel.), 2 harps, organ, 65 strings]
(b) with 2 bands, 149 players [ww 30, Br. 24 on-s., 14 off-s., 4 (14) timps, 9 perc (inc. cel.), 2 harps, organ, 65 strings]
(c) with 1 band, 142 players [ww 30, Br. 24 on-s., 7 off-s., 4 (14) timps, 9 perc (inc. cel.), 2 harps, organ, 65 strings]
(d) with no separate brass group, 135 players [ww 30, Br. 24, 4 (14) timps, 9 perc (inc. cel.), 2 harps, organ, 65 strings]

Option D1: The Gothic, complete
Brian’s maximal orchestra is about 200 players: 32 ww (—59 brass (, 27 on-s. +, 32 off-s.)—6 (22) timps, 17 perc, 4 harps, celesta, organ, and 82 strings ( This is a nice big band if you can get it, but it really ought to be possible to use fewer players!

Option D2: The Gothic complete, with reduced orchestra

Fortunately the previous arguments regarding the artistic integrity of incomplete performances do not hold here. First rank singers are required for the soprano, tenor, and bass solos. Thrifty performances could obtain a suitably soloistic alto from the choir rather than contract an expensive professional singer, since the alto solo sings only 48 bars in the entire work, and unlike the other soloists always sings as a part of the solo quartet. Other problems now arise with reducing a 100 minute score for a 200-strong orchestra to a more manageable scale; it is much more difficult to reduce the on-stage wind and brass without creating a huge amount of work revising parts, as the entirety of Part Two is twice as big again than as before, at 1529 bars. The only practical cut is to reduce the total number of clarinets from 11 to 10 in the first section of the Te Deum as was canvassed above. In the first place, one of the four B flat clarinet parts should be transferred to one of the E flat clarinets where it can, selecting the line most likely to be unaffected by the timbral change of register. When all 11 clarinet parts are playing, one of the lines should be transferred to the seventh flute, which is never utilised during the corresponding passages; sonically it is a closer match than any member of the oboe or bassoon families.

Therefore, the other ways of reducing the size of the orchestra remain:
(a) cutting the numbers of off-stage brass, as they are sparingly employed through the last two movements, but give maximum impact when they are used;
(b) using fewer strings, as only the violins divide into more than 4 parts (and rarely at that);
(c) finding solutions for the use of multiple percussion (“Do we really need 6 pairs of cymbals and 3 side drums?”…);
(d) not doubling the harps, and not allocating a dedicated player to the celesta. The former option isn’t so much a reduction of numbers, as deciding not to expand the harp section in line with the overall size of the ensemble: indeed, reducing the other sections would aid the audibility problems that require doubling them!

So, considering these options in order: the brass. As mentioned above, Judex (movement 5) uses an “effective” brass ensemble of, but the use of antiphony and then unison doublings allows greater sustaining power and weight at the climax. The end of the Te ergo (movement 6) uses a fuller division of the brass with unique parts for at least 8 (or 12, or 16) horns, 11 trumpets, 9 trombones, and 9 tubas. (I am tacitly grouping instruments such as cornets and euphoniums in their appropriate families.) For this reason, complete performances have opted for a minimum of 2 extra bands, with at the very least—40 brass players versus Brian’s specification of 56. With only 2 bands, some of the on-stage brass are still obliged to make up for the reduced numbers of off-stage brass at the climax of the Judex; the passage specifies 32 players though it can be played on many fewer instruments. (For example, the 1966 performance used only two off-stage bands, but these were expanded to the full complement of horns, trumpets, and timpani.) The complement of strings is rarely divided further than 4 parts in any section, unlike Gurrelieder for instance, with its literal requirement for 80 strings divided! While it would be ridiculous to play the Gothic as chamber music with 20 string players, nevertheless the maximal orchestra given above at D1 should be treated as a suggestion rather than a “make all or break all” prescription. It might be feasible to use as few as 50 players if subtle amplification or foldback of the sound were to be employed.

There are only two places in the work where any of the string sections divide into more than 4 parts, and these passages concern one or both of the violin sections. As early as the 31st bar of the piece both violin sections have a brief 8-part divisi (in addition to the solo violin 1 line), and at figure 263 of Part II the second violins divide in 5. However in the former case, the first violinists are playing exactly the same notes as the violin 2 section, but are doing so ponticelli rather than with mutes on; the tremolos at this point can be played double-stopped by dove-tailing of parts. At its reprise at bar 195 of the first movement, the recapitulation of this passage is considerably simplified. In the other case (p 192), the lowest of the 5 divisi violin 2 parts could be covered by a couple of desks of violas, as all of the lower strings are silent.

The requirements for percussion require some elaboration. The Cranz full score is lamentably deficient in including all of the detail of the percussion parts, and as the composer’s own manuscript of Part Two is missing, some of the listed instruments are used in very half-hearted fashion; the “long drum” and thunder machine, for example, do not actually feature at any point in the full score! Both instruments are used conjointly with the bird scare in the climax of the Te ergo, and it seems evident to the author that the long drum should be used to accompany the march for 9 clarinets, side drums, and bass drums, that features at figures 344 and 389. The fourth English Suite, also composed in the 1920s, has a wonderful movement described as an Ashanti battle song, with a very similar march. There is a notorious figure of 17 percussionists that is required at figure 387 in the Te ergo: glockenspiel, xylophone, tubular bells, 6 pairs of large crash cymbals, 2 tambourines, 2 triangles, 2 side drums, and 2 bass drums. However, it has been frequently overlooked that Brian specifies only 3 timpanists to play 9 timpani from figure 380 onwards, and the other timpanists would not be likely to idly sit around. (It is actually possible for the 3 timpanists to play all 9 drums at once, on two hands in the rhythm specified; each player will be playing with one hand doublesticked.) Moreover the timpani part is bracketed with the off-stage bands, so it seems evident the two on-stage timpanists would be able to join the percussion battery immediately. As for the sixth timpanist off-stage: since no other place in the score specifies for 2 triangles to be hit simultaneously, that player can simply maintain possession of the second triangle for the entire work. The extra pairs of cymbals are only required in this passage from figure 380 until 388, which lasts for all of two minutes’ duration. So where would you find part-time percussionists to be employed for two minutes’ work in the whole 100 minutes? Answer: the choir. Subtracting half a dozen singers will not decrease the choral impact whatsoever; having six pairs of cymbals crashed rather than one or two will increase the percussion section’s impact much more measurably! (The cymbal clashes are also easy for singers to co-ordinate with the choir part, as it frequently acts as a musical punctuation of the main vocal line.) This makes for a percussion ensemble more like ten or a dozen players rather than seventeen or eighteen, some of whom would be used extremely sporadically.

If further cuts were desired in the percussion ranks, there is also a well-known passage for 6 timpanists playing 21 or 22 drums at the end of the Te ergo. Close analysis of the passage shows that several of the timpani parts (I, V, and VI especially) double one another, so that the vast majority of the music could be sounded by as few as 4 timpanists on 14 drums (two would be on-stage and two would remain offstage ). At other points a spare percussion player would be needed to play in some ppp notes and extra timpani rolls. This reduces the need for both timpanists and drums to a more manageable (though still large) number.

Thus a scaled-down orchestra for a full performance adds up to either 156 or 168 players in total, depending on whether 2 or 4 off-stage bands are used. The differences from option C2 above are largely due to the minimum of 16 off-stage brass required for the climax of the Te ergo.
(a) with 2 bands, 156 players 31 ww (—41 brass (, 25 on-stage +, 16 off-stage)—4 (14) timps, 12 perc (inc. celesta), 2 harps, organ, and 65 strings (
(b) with 4 bands, 168 players 31 ww (—53 brass (, 24 on-stage +, 29 off-stage)—6 (20) timps, 10 perc (inc. celesta), 2 harps, organ, and 65 strings (

© Philip Legge 2006

Newsletter, 2006