Brian – the Gothic voice

Pauline Slevin

Brian and the use of small- and large-scale symphonic form (1)

Part 2 (The Gothic symphony)


‘If a composer’s music can be accepted as outstanding soon after it is written and it is discarded, how does this happen? We more or less agreed that in this instance it was due to a change of taste brought about by the First World War, but this explanation was never satisfactory. It implied that Brian’s style had become old-fashioned, which it had not, it was simply being ignored… the key to the over-riding problem is surely to be found in Brian’s music.’ Reginald Nettel.

‘No performable symphonist I have ever heard has outlasted 100 minutes. The largest concert (or perhaps it just seemed that way) was Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, coming in at 112 minuge [sic]’ Norman Lebrecht, Daily Telegraph 27/9/96.

It is often said that good art will stand the test of time - that priorities are straightened out and disputes settled under its influence and we get a clearer view of what is worthwhile only in hindsight. Yet there are exceptions, as contemporary values, and most importantly knowledge, are volatile things, and we must keep this in mind when looking at all music. Our perceptions of certain works, although still appreciated, will be changing constantly within certain contexts; for example, we can never hear a piece of music the way they listened to it a hundred years ago.

What I have found fascinating about Havergal Brian is the essential contradiction; there is an overriding sense of respect from esteemed musicologists and composers such as Robert Simpson, Richard Strauss, Elgar and Bantock, and a general consensus from these people that he is neglected, yet he has no inclusion in general history books such as Grout’s A history of western music, or The Oxford history of music. In Layton’s Companion to the symphony there are fleeting mentions of him as a misunderstood composer ‘carving a solitary furrow in the face of English music’.

Grove devotes only two pages to him, mainly to list unpublished works. If you are willing to dig deeper, however, there is a lot of specialised literature, mainly thanks to the backing of the HBS. Such specialised work for a minority interest indicates one of two things; it may be due to the fact that it attracts eccentrics and appeals to the English tendency to side with the underdog, or it may be that their enthusiasm is justified because he is a good composer and worth looking at.

Lebrecht in the Daily Telegraph column maintains that it is impossible for a composer to maintain any level of concentration of musical material, or that of the listener, for over 100 minutes. Most people assume that the mastery of a composer such as Wagner is due in part to the fact that he can create a coherent work over a great length of time. The assumption is that time is an elastic concept in music, and that there can never be too long a work: music simply waits for the composer good enough to be able to manage such large-scale forms as Wagner. This is obviously not true.

Through the ages it is evident that good composers succeed in both small and large scale works. Schubert, who is probably better known for his songs, wrote outstanding symphonies. Bach and Beethoven’s contribution to both chamber and large-scale works show their mastery was more or less common to all the genres they attempted. Size has no lasting bearing on the reception of the work. It was this that was the touchstone for the basis of this project. Havergal Brian is the exception to this rule, as there is a tendency to look no further than the Gothic. Because he is more or less an unknown composer, it is also assumed that the work will be no more than a second-rater’s tedious publicity exercise.

In actual fact most of his work is nowhere near the size of the Gothic. It has become a notorious image, and its size has had a bearing on all of Brian’s output. It seems that the most prolific English composer of symphonies has overshadowed himself with his own work. In defence of Brian, even if the Gothic was a dull and over-long work it is unfair to judge any composer on the basis of just one work. Despite the fact that Brian has written both large and small scale symphonies, several operas and many smaller works, he is still left with the image of the novel and rather eccentric composer of the largest symphony ever written.

What makes the management of both small and large-scale forms interesting in relation to Brian is the fact the small-scale format of his symphonies is inextricably connected with his age. This is what has made his output particularly unusual. We would expect the Gothic to be his last crowning glory in a catalogue of works building up to this, his masterpiece. To discover that it is the first of thirty-two seems to be a perversion of all the preconceptions we have about large-scale symphonies being to superior to small-scale symphonies, and it also goes against the idea that something in a larger form is more difficult to compose.

The entire symphonic repertoire from Mozart to Mahler has been building up to the point where the handling of huge forces and materials is paramount, and it seems that in Brian this attitude is no longer the case. In any case, it is not really valuable to consider whether or not there is prowess in a composer’s output. Part of the survival of the symphony as a genre in the twentieth century has been due to the fact that the ethos of progress has been thrown off, in which case this attitude can also be applied to a composer’s output. A composer should not have to write his best music when he is older and more experienced.

While there are many period divisions in Brian’s symphonies, one of the most important stylistic distinctions to make is that of symphonies written before and after Prometheus unbound. It is at this point that the symphonies undergo a great stylistic change, and it is also at this point that they become smaller. Of the twenty four symphonies written between Nos 7 and 31, ten were in one movement. Up to No 7 only two are in one-movement form, proportionately a very great difference in size before and after Prometheus. This seems rather ironic because, although we have lost the manuscript of Prometheus, it was allegedly four hours long.

It is easy then to assume that Brian became more concentrated and intraverted in his musical language as he got older. With youth he allowed his mind to wander and, in a sense, ‘romanticise’. With age, he knew exactly what he wanted, and without decorating his musical language, it was possible for him to get straight to the musical point. ‘…many of the later works are concise, restrained, end economical.’ (New Grove, 1980.)

Yet, while his symphonies became shorter, his style simply changed after Prometheus,it did not simply get more concentrated. Size is not necessarily related to a concentrated musical language. Brian’s music had always been concentrated, and in any case there is no real measure of concentration, and to say that one work is more concentrated than another cannot really have any quantification. The Gothic gave in to a certain amount of lyricism, such as in the baritone solo in the Judex movement, and the third symphony, with its two pianos, also had a degree of Romanticism about it. But after Prometheus unbound a concise new language was beginning. Any trace of Romanticism was replaced with a concentrated and terse musical language on a par with what I would call the third generation of English composers, such as Tippett, Britten, and even Simpson, his follower and admirer.

A nother consideration is that it is possible to describe the later symphonies as small in comparison to the Gothic, rather than in relation to all symphonic output. While the musical language is of the twentieth century, the actual time span and length of the work is more closely related to the symphonies of the eighteenth century. Just as the Gothic harks back to the Romantic era and Strauss, the later symphonies in the size and scale of invention revert back even farther. Beethoven’s first symphony is 25 minutes long, and a Mozart or Haydn symphony, at a push, is unlikely to reach less than fifteen minutes. Many of the one-movement symphonies have close resemblances to Haydn and Mozart in this respect. The later symphonies, like No 31, are also related to the later period of Bach in their method of using the musical material and contrapuntal activity.

MacDonald refers to Bach’s influence on Brian as one that is not neo-classical. He describes neo-classical aims as problematic in so far as ‘such reverence has often tended to take a limited or academic form’. Brian did not. Rather, he absorbed what was good and universal in Western music and used it in his own tonal language. He was, as is self-evident in his music, no slave to trends such as neo-classicism. MacDonald mentions Rapoport describing the Gothic as being: ‘in a most superficial sense, rather unoriginal’, and MacDonald expands this to include all of his compositions.

Yet, concurrently, a fascination with the past, at least in terms of music, is a modern idea in as much as it never concerned composers (as opposed to the revival of the Ancients in certain arts through the last millennium) until the time of Brahms. It is in this sense that his music is individual. It takes on board tried and tested compositional methods of creating music and simultaneously uses them all, but not as part of an ‘academic’ exercise. It is part of what might be termed as a cyclic view of history; that everything comes back at some stage but in an altered form. If we look at the great number of ways that the Paganini variations have been treated over the ages then we can see that by putting a melody or theme in a different era then it says more about the age itself than about the tune.

While it is purely a matter for speculation (there are no comments from Brian to back this point up) my guess is that he did not want specifically to copy the eighteenth century symphonists, or the grand scale of Richard Strauss. but that he simply felt a great deal of admiration for these composers. Through admiration rather than stylistic principle, he felt that these composers had the right idea, and built on what they had started, rather than trying to regress to what is, at the heart of things, an irretrievable era. (In any case, it is hardly fair to create labels or to try to pin down a composer under any heading, as it immediately clouds and simplifies judgement.)

This leads to a second philosophical point. Our picture, historiographically, is that certain cycles (eg Beethoven’s cycle) represent the change between the Classical and Romantic periods. Mahler wanted to encompass the world in his symphonies. As the symphony tends to be quite a conservative area of composition, Brian takes it to an extreme in the use of soloists, for example the double piano obbligato parts, the size of the Gothic and also in the ten minute Sinfonia brevis.

The world, so to speak, is encompassed in the cycle of symphonies. The range of expression that is attempted is on a scale where most composers would be tested to the limit of their compositional talent. In this sense, the entire cycle of Brian symphonies is a catalogue of the handling of large and small scale works. In their number they cover almost every way there is to write a symphony. Rather than having a symphony representing the world as Mahler may have done, Brian’s cycle of symphonies attempts to represent everything.

We can never truly explain why his music became shorter in length, but certain ideas may be suggested. It may be due to age and perhaps a lack of ability or desire to stick to something of any great size at that stage of his life. It may also be down to the fact that he had a certain amount of encouragement, perhaps even pressure, from Robert Simpson; not a bad thing, as good music resulted from it, but it may mean that he put quantity before quality. While the point may be put forward that the Gothic was considered unperformable, writing smaller symphonies in reaction to try to get them performed is a plausible theory, but an untrue one.

Before Prometheus Brian tended to leave more time between writing symphonies, after he left less. For example, in 1959 he began No 14, which was finished in 1960 with 15 and 16; also in this year he began No 17, no mean feat for any composer, especially one aged seventy-three. Before that there was no such period of prolific inspiration. The fact that his works have an unresolved quality is significant, but this immediately conflicts with the fact that even the Gothic has an unresolved and surprising quality about its ending. Yet it is only in the works after Prometheus unbound that we find symphonies that are related to each other and could be described as movements of a large symphony rather than separate works, such as Nos (7) 8 to 10, and 30 to 32. It may be possible to consider that symphonies, while separately numbered, are actually conceived together, and are therefore part of a larger scale work. The title ‘symphony’ may not indicate a separate work.

This fascination with size and large-scale form in regard to Brian’s large and small-scale symphonies begs an interesting question: which is Brian more successful at? By looking at three of his symphonies - the Gothic, and Nos 7 and 31, I hope to discover what differences small and large scale make to his writing, and secondly, which is more successful.

NL132 © Pauline Slevin 1997

Newsletter, NL 132, 1997