A homage from Germany

Dr Josef Schreier

Dr Josef Schreier

translated by Dr Alan Marshall

For many years it has required a major effort, by anyone in Germany, to be able even to take an interest in recent British music, let alone to hear it. I can still remember vividly my own first encounter - it was certainly more than thirty years ago now - in a broadcast of Vaughan Williams’ 8th symphony. It must have been the third movement (the Cavatina) above all which made me feel that here was a musical language which at one and the same time was both utterly familiar and yet completely new and surprising. It was as if it aroused long-lost memories, while seeming something one had never heard before. There were to be many more such musical experiences, though over here they had to be built up patiently over the years. It is only lately that any sort of overview of the English composers has become possible. (In my own case, the ones I had been most struck by, after Vaughan Williams, were Holst and Delius.)

I tried to fathom out what it was about such music that made it seem as if I had always known it. Perhaps the English composers had discovered a musical language in which the essential personality of Man had been distilled into sound, so to speak, so that he recognised himself in the objective acoustic phenomenon. This is not the place to expound this notion in detail, but I would refer to Schopenhauer’s philosophy of music which does, perhaps, give the concept support and extra depth; likewise Ernest Ansermet’s great work on the Basis of music in human consciousness.

These works describe the identity of musical relationships with the inner consciousness or even of the structure of the natural world. It is of course true (I would add) that the very fact that music, as an acoustic phenomenon, does come from outside oneself, introduces a distancing, alienating, even destructive element which can also suddenly take what seemed so instinctively familiar and turn it into something strange, something never before heard. It occurs to me that the entire study of philosophy and consciousness in Europe, since Descartes perhaps, has been moulded by a similar polarity (between awareness of self and alienation of self).

It is clearly the case that the phenomenon of music has, in the past 500 years, gone hand in hand with the history of Europe to a much greater extent than ever before; it has been, so to speak, a touchstone to the inner history of this time. How welt all this fits together with finding Harold Truscott, in his essay on Brian’s Gothic Symphony, identifying the tension between affirmation and destruction in Brian’s music.

Let us pursue further this idea of a conflict, of a dialectic between inwardness and alienation, between affirmation and destruction, as a characteristic of music. Perhaps the last eighty years of music in this continent have been strongly, even disproportionately, on the side of destruction. Adorno saw this destructive element as rooted in the exposure of any simple affirmation (musically or in general spiritual terms) as being "false", as rooted in the shipwreck of any self-assured certainties on the complex and contradictory facts of the social world.

Nevertheless, mankind remains dependent on accord - both that towards himself and that with which he responds to the circumstances of his life. It seems to me that recent English music is concerned with recalling the harmony of existence, for all that sometimes - quite often - there is an undercurrent of melancholy. And perhaps Havergal Brian is the principal witness for just this element of melancholy.

For my part, I first became aware of Brian when the Gothic Symphony came out on CD. There was a very favourable review in the well-regarded Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and what most interested me - apart from suddenly encountering a "largest symphony ever" of which I had never heard - was the fact that it contained a setting of the Te Deum. I had always been interested in the relationship between music and text.

It was in English music, too, that I had only just discovered works (Vaughan Williams’ A sea symphony, Delius’ A mass of life) which had brought me up once more against the question, what does the composer hope to say which has not already been said (for so the composer must assume) by the author of the text? There is a famous essay by Schönberg which puts forward the theory that the composer often does not actually understand the poet’s text in any literal sense, but that he also does not need to understand it, because in his musical language he does grasp it, and perhaps at a more profound level.

It is for consideration that this thinking might be taken a step further: perhaps the composer, plumbing for his more profound understanding of the text, is indicating an inner ambiguity in the text itself, indeed of any text. Unambiguous "knowledge", the German painter August Macke once said, is a great Lie. Who knows anything? He had in mind the inner multiplicity of meaning and expression (‘polyphony’ in musical terms) in every fact and even in every word. On this basis, what the composer brings to the text is its inner polyphony, hitherto concealed by the seeming unambiguity of the word.

Now the Whitman and Nietzsche texts, used in the aforementioned works of Vaughan Williams and Delius, do themselves belong somewhere in that area of linguistic understanding which I referred to. But the Te Deum? Is there not here some presumption of dogmatic unambiguity? It became clear to me that Brian’s setting in the Gothic Symphony has nothing to do with simple affirmation. The very passages of text where an affirmative setting might be expected, sink instead into a blur of voices or into a pianissimo near-silence. The most inviting ones may be found in trivial guise, and so seem to mock themselves, or lose themselves in uncommunicative ambiguity.

It is the Te Deum above all which, often enough in musical history, has been made the occasion for dogmatic or social affirmation, perhaps most impressively by Bruckner and Charpentier. I sensed that Brian was investing the praise (laudamus) with a reflective ambiguity, was showing the sublime experience as a threat, was seeing a close link between enchantment and terror. The main emphasis comes more on the judex crederis than on the laudamus. But in religious terms that points to an inner discrepancy in the very experience of God, to the impossibility of any simple trusting religious faith.

This cleft between affirmative anticipation and irritating ambiguity seems clearer still in the 4th Symphony (a setting of Psalm 68). Here, Brian’s music reminded me very strongly of the music which Thomas Mann ascribes to the ‘German composer Adrian Leverkühn’ in his novel Doktor Faustus. There are passages of Brian where I hear elements with which Mann describes this fictitious music; lam thinking for instance of the ‘return to the original state’ in Mann’s accounts which can be heard in the ‘chaotic’ effects of Brian’s polyphony (Mann: ‘the laughter of Hell, overflowing in salvos of mocking triumph, swelling to a hideously bloated tutti, fortissimo amid upheavals of conflicting rhythms…’) and which to me is evidence of the ‘religiosity of despair’ which, for Mann’s Doctor Faustus, is the emblem of the age.

Brian’s personal affinity to Germany amply justifies my placing him in close conjunction with its spiritual life. Even such limited knowledge of his work as I possess brings one up against names like Strauss, Goethe and Gundolf. There must be biographical material to provide detailed confirmation, though I have not so far had access to it.

Even so, this all seems to place Brian in a position apart from my opening antithesis of English and continental music. Perhaps Brian falls between two stools and so can never be at home in either setting. At all events I find it baffling that the discovery of so substantial and profound a work should (as was my case) be a matter of mere chance.

NL120/ © 1995 Dr Josef Schreier

Newsletter, NL 120, 1995