On Bantock

Havergal Brian

When consulting the (very incomplete) concert programmes of the Birmingham Conservatoire , Jürgen Schaarwächter found in the 1949-50 volume the following text by Brian, which has previously only ever been reprinted in part…

I found the name of Granville Bantock in 1895 in an old programme of a Chester Triennial Music Festival which had taken place in Chester Cathedral. He had been fortunate enough to have a symphonic Poem called "Saul" produced at that Festival. Bantock was then a young man: he had begun his musical life but a few years previously. Once begun, Bantock took everything in his stride - he had faith and nothing seemed impossible to him. He was full of enthusiasms.

He visited Bayreuth to hear Wagner's trilogy "Der Ring des Nibelungen," and returned to England a pronounced Wagnerite. When Tchaikovsky came to England for the first time to conduct one of his Symphonies at a Philharmonic concert Bantock was so enraptured with the work that he did not rest until he had unearthed Tchaikovsky at his hotel.

Tchaikovsky asked him, in French, "what can I do for you?" Bantock said that he was determined to become a composer. Tchaikovsky replied: "Then you will have to work hard." Bantock did work hard and he had such confidence and enthusiasm and flair for composition that he worked at a number of large scale works simultaneously. In those days broadcasting was unknown - all news circulated through the numerous newspapers.

Suddenly there was a stir in the papers in the North and I saw the name of Granville Bantock for a second time. He was making music hum in the Merseyside town of New Brighton. A monster tower had been erected and Bantock, who had originally been engaged to conduct a brass band, had replaced the brass band by a Symphony Orchestra of one hundred players. English composers were invited to bring their orchestral scores, and many were fortunate enough to hear their works for the first time under the beat of the great expansive-hearted Bantock.

From his earliest years as a student, Bantock exhibited such selflessness and regard for the welfare of others as is rarely met with and, as far as I know, never outside the Ducal town of Weimar in Saxony, Thuringia where altruism was the Credo of both Goethe and Liszt. There was also a trait in Bantock which amounted almost to a Doppelganger, a sort of anxiety to make things smooth for others. I met Bantock's friends for the first time in Manchester in 1905 and he was not infrequently referred to as Big Hearted Bantock.

The fame of the New Brighton Symphony Concerts attracted musicians from all parts of the North of England. Whatever misgivings Bantock may have had when he left New Brighton to take up his work as the Principal of the Birmingham School of Music were early dispelled by the composition of a remarkable series of large-scale works which placed Bantock in the front rank of European composers.

His "Omar Khayyam" was the last masterpiece produced at the unique series of Birmingham Musical Festivals, originally begun far away in St. Phillip's Church in the days of candlelight and continued in the Town Hall, specially built to the design of Joseph Hansom to house the musical festivals.

It was soon after the production of "Omar" that I first met Bantock. We seemed to meet through the natural laws of gravitation - for I remember we sat up until the early hours of the morning talking as though we were brothers meeting once again after having been long separated. Then his chief concern was the welfare of modern British music.

Elgar had recently accepted the chair of music at Birmingham University and there was an expectancy in the air as to what was to happen next. Elgar talked of making Birmingham an English Leipzig with a magnificent Conservatoire of Music, staffed by professors of modern outlook and to establish a permanent symphony orchestra of 100 players. Bantock was the moving spirit behind Elgar's talks - Bantock was the prompter!

At that time Bantock lived at Moseley. Later he took a country mansion called "Broadmeadow" at Lifford (since pulled down) and, in addition to his family he talked of enlarging the mansion so as to include promising composers in his household, after the manner of Liszt at Weimar and Wagner at Bayreuth.

Though the project failed, Bantock never lost his faith in the ultimate supremacy of the young British composer: amongst those he favoured when they were very young men were Vaughan Williams, Boughton, Hamilton Harty, and Arnold Bax. For eight years Bantock conducted the Liverpool Orchestral Society, travelling to and fro each week from Birmingham. At these concerts - he introduced many works by Strauss, Elgar, Debussy, Sibelius and Delius. The most remarkable movement in English music for several centuries was that of a cappella choral singing at the Northern musical competition festivals. This had its origin in Westmorland and quickly spread through the Lancashire coast towns of Morecambe, Lytham, Blackpool and Barrow-in-Furness. Mixed voice, female and male voice choirs, which competed at the festivals held in these towns, attained a standard of efficiency which in the cases of music by Cornelius, Brahms, Moellendorf Hegar rose to the heights of virtuosity.

Bantock's reaction was to establish the Midlands Competition Festival at Birmingham and this became the largest organization of its kind in the country. He had during his life written many fine a cappella works - now, when unaccompanied choral singing was at its zenith, Bantock conceived the bold idea of Symphonies for voices only. His Choral Symphony "Atalanta in Calydon" was first performed at a Hallé concert in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, where, after the performance there was a large foregathering of musicians from Birmingham who had gone out of respect and enthusiasm to applaud the composer.

Another project in which Bantock was directly concerned was the "Musical League", founded for the purpose of holding music festivals in various towns each year for the public performance of new or unknown works by English composers. Two festivals were held - the first at Liverpool in 1909 - the second in January, 1913, in the Birmingham Town Hall. At the Liverpool Festival the Lord Mayor invited all the composers concerned to lunch with him at the Guildhall. It is needless to point a moral.

The following year (1914) the Great War came and so all the young and many flourishing branches of music in English life were instantly extinguished. They never recovered. Gone were the old enthusiasms. After the close of the war it seemed that music was striking out in entirely different lines, it had no chance, for another war destroyed it.

When Bantock left Birmingham to live in London, he commenced a very different life from that which he had lived. He busied himself with musical examinations at Trinity College of Music as a travelling examiner. He went round the world several times and, just to show that the old spirit of New Brighton and Birmingham was unconquerable, at the age of seventy he flew in a plane from New York to Barbados to conduct examinations.

When the recent war broke out Bantock felt that all music would perish: later, as the war continued into its fifth and sixth year he expressed the opinion that the public might seek relief from its harrowing experiences in music. It would seem that in this prophecy Bantock was correct, for there has never at any time, certainly not in London, been such interest in orchestral music or so many orchestras concertising at the same time.

It is a pity that the present day young conductors are ignorant of Bantock's masterpieces - for as an orchestral master he has no superior. Some day when the far away receded tide returns, Bantock's orchestral and choral epics, songs, etc, will be wanted. Birmingham should be ready to share that honour.

1949–50 volume, Birmingham Conservatoire concert programmes, 1949