HB and why I believe in his music -Damian Rees

Damian Rees

I thought I would provide some background on why and how I came to hear of HB and a little about my own compositional development, though I hope I haven’t dwelt too much on the latter as this should be about HB. I have also provided a few words on what I feel are the challenges
ahead for the HBS in promoting the music, what I feel are the attitudes towards HB and British music of the mid twentieth century and some of the limitations and options that orchestral music has of being performed regularly in Britain today.

I first became interested in HB when I was about 10 years old and read about the Gothic in one of the Guinness Books of music records. Who this composer was and what the piece would sound like, and if indeed it had ever been performed, fascinated me. I had only recently discovered classical music. My parents were more into blues, folk and 60s pop than classical music though my father had several records of famous classical pieces and loved many of the romantic overtures. My parents neither encouraged nor discouraged my interests in music so I joined the local record library in my native city of Swansea. I searched the library for HB CDs but didn’t find any (though the Marco Polo recording had been released around this time). Instead I worked my way through the entire catalogue of classical music that they had to offer (about 1000 CDs or so over the following couple of years). I mentioned the name Havergal Brian to my family and friends and nobody had heard of him until my grandmother
one-day, going through her Radio Times, noticed a TV programme that featured him. This was the Grateful Dead programme and I remember sitting at my grandparents home on a Friday night (I use to spend every Friday night from a young age with both of my paternal grandparents). This programme was my first encounter with the music and at the age of 13 as I think I was at the time completely blew my mind. I think boys like grand loud music that seems to bring with it images of fantasy and the incredible. I knew then that I wanted to get as much of his music as I could
though the only issue was I had no income (other than a weekly allowance) and no idea where I would be able to get hold of any of the music.

By the time I was 13 I had started to write music. I cannot play a musical instrument and have never had any great desire to learn. For me I wanted to hear orchestras and the sounds of more than what man (or boy) could possibly encompass. I was never a fan of the piano, the organ for me was something related to the Church and my mother’s continued hatred of the instrument stuck with me as a child. I would like to say that now I have put both of these errors in my judgement behind me and love much piano and organ music. My first experiments with composition came after my father showed me the basics of how to read music. When I was listening to all these recordings I wanted to know what it looked like on paper, much as I do when I hear a play. I want to be able to read through the script before and after in case I missed anything or to see how things come ‘alive’ when performed. I then got some books from the library and one of my father’s musician friends gave me a book on harmony so I took it upon myself to learn the rudiments of music. At school I hated music; the teachers I thought were terrible and all we were ever taught was how to sing Puff the Magic Dragon or a song from a show. The first subject I gave up when I could was music. None of my friends at school or on the council estate I grew up on had any interest in any of the music I was listening to. So I had nobody other than myself to share my discoveries with or to play the
music I was writing with. I had been given a very basic music program, which I could manually input the notes into and which played them back to me—in a very metallic and expressionless way.

Well, HB was one of the first composers to really grab me and when I read in the newly published BBC Music magazine that Marco Polo had released the Gothic and two other disks I knew that I had to save some money and find a classical record shop. Swansea at the time was barren of anything creative; I think since the death of Dan Jones in 1993 (and in fact well before this) classical music had all but died there. I am glad to say that now things have progressed and concerts are being promoted all over South Wales especially by such people as John Metcalf and Peter Reynolds. Indeed John is a huge advocate for new music in Wales and himself an underrated composer of some lovely works. At this time my mother worked in one of the big department stores in Cardiff and one day my father and I went up to meet her and, while walking through one of the local arcades, we came across a little shop called City Radio (since closed, much to my great sadness). This little shop was a wonderful classical music retailer, they had many wondrous and unusual finds for a curious teenager like myself including all the HB CDs that were out at that time. I still
remember the day I bought my first HB disk. It was February 1993—I remember as it was exactly 12 months after the CD had been recorded. I remember being really disappointed at the time that I had not saved enough of my lunch money (I use to get 50p a day and had been starving myself as soon as I knew we were going to Cardiff) to buy the Gothic symphony. So I bought myself the other choral symphony (at the time I had no idea it was the only other choral symphony), number 4. I still remember the drive home and the anticipation of putting the music on and when I did the piece just astounded me. I was no music critic, wasn’t interested in the recording quality, the balance issues or anything else all I cared about was how breathtaking it sounded. I listened to the work everyday for about 3 months. Both of my parents found the music strange, loud, annoying and didn’t understand what I saw in it. So perhaps as a way to rebel against my parents I would play HB almost everyday.

The path for my HB passion was set, three months later it was my birthday and I took all the money I had back to Cardiff and bought the Gothic. I found out that the score was published so talked my parents into getting it for me that Christmas and went to my local bookshop and ordered
any book on him I could find. HB was a huge influence on my creative developments and gave me confidence that to be a composer you didn’t need to come from a wealthy middle class background (though of course that would always be an advantage). I am not sure if his musical language was a huge influence or if it was his passion, creativity and sheer determination that has had a more lasting impact on me. When I was 18, I entered the Royal Academy of Music (how I got there is a tale that doesn’t need to fill the HBS Newsletter) to study composition and I took it as my
mission to get people (musicians of my age) to hear and know about this composer. It was here that I realised that most musicians know little of any music outside their own instrument and show little interest in finding out, or at least broadening their musical knowledge. However I didn’t let that put me off. In my first term I had to give a lecture on a work that meant something to me, so I picked the Gothic. There I was in front of a room of peers who at least liked classical music (until this point I had only met a few teenagers who enjoyed or knew anything about classical music) but who knew nothing about HB or for that matter almost anything post 1950 by any composer.

The rite of spring and Debussy I remember were seen as “modern” and new, though one had been dead for almost 100 years and the Rite was approaching its centenary. At the lecture I talked about HB this eccentric (as he was billed by the professor at the time) English composer. The class
loved the piece, the bits I played and wanted hear more but were saddened that there was very little chamber music or piano music that they could put on.

The RAM I found a very conservative place but gave me a chance to meet some great musicians and to study with and learn from some of the greatest names in modern music. I think other composers thought I was odd for liking HB and didn’t understand what I got out of the music. Most thought him conservative and quirky. Interests were more caught up with Jazz and the “very” new. I continued to be interested in HB (of course there are many other composers too) and thought that I would like to take a more active part in the HBS. I believed and still do that the HB scores need to be typeset and properly produced; hand written scores are looked down on by most orchestral managers and conductors these days.

HB, I feel, is a composer of worth and a missing link in late Romantic British music, he is often misunderstood and the myths have stuck. Yet people often leave aside the very Englishness of his music, the love of Music Hall and War especially. In this latter regard the obsessive use of march rhythms and the possible meaning they have in his work has often intrigued me. There is something to me very British about the image of battles and the mark they have left on our history and mythology which seem to be deeply rooted in HB. These dark and often craggy pieces with swirling harmonies and explosive eruptions taking place with little build up sound at times to me like being on a battlefield. The confusion, the power and violence is often present. Sometimes HB for me doesn’t sustain his ideas and some of the latter works (and very early works) lack a sense of
direction but at its best to me it has always been a very special music.

As for myself, since I graduated from the RAM my music has been played all over the world and I have started to get commissions from performers and festivals. In fact next year there are plans for my Symphony No2 to be played in Wales as well as a commercial release of my Guitar Concerto. HB gave me the conviction as a teenager that anyone with the desire and inspiration to write can and should. I have found the lack of HB in the musical world unsettling in as much as I have the general lack of appreciation of much English music from the early to mid twentieth century. It seems that Britain runs on an ‘in crowd’ basis with a small selected few being part of the establishment while everything else is left out. There is, and continues to be, a personal bias in programming and performing that underlines the complete autonomy of the musical establishment with very few people in the position of making the big decisions.

On a practical note, HB’s music possesses many problems for performance, mainly the cost of orchestras, especially when they need so many extra players. Most amateur orchestras in the UK would struggle to find half of the woodwind section let alone the 7 or 8 percussionists needed. The options for performances are limited, especially as most conductors don’t have free rein of what to programme, as they are not associated with one orchestra but a guest. With a serious lack of money from the government or charities into art, Britain continues its tradition of seeing the arts as a
luxury in society. With smaller orchestras not having the funds to perform HB or for that matter much “unusual” music they have to stick to favourites to fill their halls and pay for their upkeep. Currently there is a trend for what I call the Classic FM audience in music. There are stereotypes that go with this image but one thing is clear. It is mainly middle class people who have conservative tastes, but who have some disposable income but only listen to what is being promoted by the marketing machine or the old classics. This is not supposed to be a bitter statement or to make things seem
hopeless, it is just a limitation that the HBS needs to be aware of when pushing the music and crying out for live performances here in Britain. There are other practical problems with orchestras too. However I feel the right promotion, the best possible performing material and the continued enthusiasm should in the future lead to continued appreciation and performances of HB.

At 28, I plan on being around for a long time and to continue to do all that I can to promote HB. Most of my initial performances were the result of me emailing and sending CDs and scores of my works to performers asking them if they would like to play my works. If this approach worked for me and has worked for other friends of mine, then I am sure it will work in the long run for HB though we have a long way to go before the myths and misunderstandings are successfully challenged.

© Damian Rees 2006