How many masterpieces make a master?

John Aldridge

John Aldridge

Firstly I must explain that I am not a musician, either amateur or professional, but hope I can claim to be a serious (but non-score-reading) listener who is interested in the 20th century output, particularly that of British composers. Assuming that tonal music will continue to be performed into the next century, I have been wondering how many masterpieces are required to establish a new master. Particularly, of course, how many accessible masterpieces need to be demonstrated and acknowledged before Havergal Brian’s importance is widely accepted?

Considering a sample of British and other 20th century composers, I am sure that in most cases their reputation with the musical public is based on not more than 20 or 30 of their best-known works (or fewer) and that these form perhaps half or quarter of their total output.

For example, in the case of:

  • Bartók: about 25 works (seven or eight concertos and orchestral pieces, six quartets, three or four other chamber works, three operas and ballets and perhaps three major piano works)
  • Bax: about 15 works (two concertos, seven symphonies and three or four other orchestral works with possibly five or six chamber pieces)
  • Delius: about 25 works (three operas, two concertos, eight or 10 tone poems and other orchestral pieces, six or seven vocal and choral works, and perhaps five or six chamber works)
  • Elgar: about 22 works (two symphonies, two concertos and 10 other orchestral works (including one with contralto), five odes, oratorios, etc., and three or four chamber and piano works).

Similarly, with Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams the corresponding list could be 20 or 30 works, for Sibelius 30 works, and in the case of Shostakovich perhaps 35 to 40 works. In some cases, fewer than half the works listed are, or were, initially accessible, but accessibility is also a function of the passage of time (sometimes 50 years or more).

The foregoing analysis is actually based on a survey of available [JA is writing in 1978] LP records of music by these eight 20th century composers. In four or five of the examples quoted, many of the works listed also appear at least occasionally in London concert programmes. For example, 15 of the 22 works listed were performed at the recent Elgar Festival. The examples of Bax and Vaughan Williams are rather different: their 15-20 ‘best known works’ apply almost entirely to what is available on records, concert performances of their music being quite rare at present. Musical appreciation is subject to fashions and reputations can decline as well as increase.

There are also a few ‘one-work’ composers, such as Dukas and Holst, but even so the optimum requirement for recognition of major 20th century composers does seem to be either the recording or regular performance of some 15-20 important works. One would hope that in worthy cases, pioneering records and broadcasts might eventually lead to increased enthusiasm by concert promoters and audiences.

Such crude statistics have not been recorded in order to suggest that any one of these composers is better than any other, but it seemed relevant to enquire whether it is possible that 20 or more of Brian’s works will become well known either on records or in the concert hall and also, if at least 10 of these are likely to become readily accessible to the non-technical listener.

A fter considerable reading about Brian’s works and having so far heard recordings of some 50 of them, I would hope that both these criteria could be fulfilled and demonstrated within the next 10 years, but I believe it to be essential that a sufficiently wide spectrum of his work is performed within this time period. Somewhat tentatively, I would like to suggest one possible selection which might satisfy these requirements:

  • three from the period 1895-1920: A group of songs or part songs, excerpts from _The Tigers_ one of the early _English Suite_s or other orchestral work
  • seven from the period 1922-1945: The _Gothic Symphony_, symphonies 2, 3 and 5, the violin concerto, excerpts from _Prometheus Unbound_ and one group of piano works
  • ten from the period 1948-1968: Seven of the final 27 symphonies, _Elegy_, the cello concerto, the fifth _English Suite_ or perhaps (part of) a later opera.

The consensus might not emerge for many years yet, and the real point is that concentration on the promotion of the symphonies, particularly the last 15 or so, may not provide the public with a sufficient number of accessible masterpieces to establish Brian’s reputation, at least not until some time in the next century.

Brian’s later symphonies may be the summit of his career, as the later quartets and sonatas were of Beethoven’s, but it is said that his last quartets (apart from op 127) were not understood or appreciated in his lifetime and possibly not until almost 100 years after they were written. This could have meant that if Beethoven had written only the ninth symphony, the last six quartets and the last five piano sonatas, or if the rest of his known opus had been lost, then he would not occupy the dominant place in western music which he does. He might not even have been ‘discovered’ at all until after the first world war. In the hypothetical situation envisaged, the lack of bridges or stepping stones would have made him a very difficult composer.

I remember concentrating very hard, about 30 years ago, through repeated hearings, trying to understand or appreciate Bartók’s second violin concerto. It seemed very strange and incomprehensible at the time and caused much adverse public criticism, both of Bartók and of Menuhin, when it was first played by him in this country. It is now an accepted part of the repertoire. In the last few years, most pieces I have listened to became meaningful to me after two, three or four hearings (apart from atonal or avant garde works). However, I find I need at least five hearings before I can even begin to appreciate many of Brian’s later works, and because there are so many symphonies I have not found the time, in the space of a year or so, to apply this kind of concentrated listening to more than one third of them.

It seems very possible that the vertical saturation, the concentration on counterpoint and apparent lack of variety in tempo in some of these works will prove to be a great barrier to their general appreciation. Certain commentators in 1976 suggested that orchestras and conductors have yet to become acclimatized to Brian’s later music and it was also implied that the later scores might be intended only to be read and that perhaps they should never be played.

Apparently the same kind of thing was also said about Bach’s Art of Fugue. SW, writing on p356 of the August 1976 issue of Gramophone, says ‘The Art of Fugue made so little impact on the public however, that the copper plates on which it was engraved were sold for scrap. Scholars long regarded the work as an abstract intellectual exercise not intended for performance’. Certainly the Herman Diener set of 78s of Der Kunst der Fugue arranged for small string orchestra (German EMI 1007-1016) which I acquired around 1950 gave me precisely that impression (very academic). Eventually I gave the records away and I have never tried to listen to any other version of that work since. Things might have turned out differently if I had heard one of the organ versions first. I consider this example very relevant to the presentation problem with Brian symphonies.

R eading Kenneth Eastaugh’s book in 1976 and hearing all the centenary concerts and broadcasts were somewhat depressing or bewildering experiences for me, and I almost lost interest in Brian. I did of course appreciate that part of the objective of these concerts was to present five previously unperformed symphonies and I admit that subsequently I became very intrigued by a recording of Symphony No 30, as well as coming to admire Wine of Summer [Symphony No 5] very much. The book was perhaps the most depressing thing, but two years later it does not seem too relevant to the real issues (plenty of other great composers had foibles and failings as well).

I suppose the reason that I did not completely give up listening to Brian’s music was that I had already found some of his symphonies Nos.6, 10,16 and 22) either highly invigorating or mysterious. Also at the October 1976 Royal Albert Hall performance I was stimulated and amazed by the modernity of part one of The Gothic, especially since it was written about 40 years before Symphony No 22. About a year later (November 1977) the first hearing of a tape recording of the complete Gothic symphony proved to be a truly overwhelming experience. It seems to me that this work has an immediate impact and a heroic outward going quality that is either hidden or merely latent in many of the later symphonies.

I suspect that to some of us (certainly to me) Brian’s later works sound impenetrable on first hearing - like a thick musical ‘Brown Windsor Soup’. In spite of this, some conductors have succeeded in brewing a ‘remarkably clear, luminous soup’, if you will pardon the mixed metaphor. Since first commenting on the transparent or luminous qualities of certain performances, it has been pointed out to me that I must not confuse the actual realization of scores with Brian’s written intentions and that the ‘Brown Windsor Soup’ effect is not necessarily an intrinsic property of the scores themselves.

I have already stated that my aural impressions have come mainly from a collection of tape recordings (mostly not hi-fi), some of them from amateur performances or perhaps rather tentative professional ones. Also in some cases the situation may be further confused by either ‘biscuit box’ or ‘railway station’ acoustics in which the performances were held. My reference to ‘railway station’ acoustics does apply mainly to Alexandra Palace, but in this hall during the actual concerts, the pieces by Berlioz, Bruckner, Sibelius, Strauss, Vaughan Williams and Wagner which were performed did not, to my ears, suffer from the long reverberation period in quite the same way as the Brian works which were played along side them.

It does appear to me that the concentrated nature and the rapid changes of ‘thought-path’ in the later symphonies (and other characteristics already mentioned) not only create difficulties for the listener but also require a particularly fortunate set of circumstances in order to realise their full potential; that is, good acoustics, good recordings and especially clear, sympathetic and inspired performances.

By contrast, the simpler and obvious dramatic qualities of some movements in the earlier symphonies (for example the Finale of No 2) seem to transcend all the imperfections of broadcast interference, indifferent playing or an unpolished performance, and to sweep the players and the listener along with them in spite of all the difficulties.

For the above reasons I am suggesting that half the ‘selected Brian works’ may well originate from the pre-1948 period. This idea was probably triggered, consciously or unconsciously, by Malcolm MacDonald‘s reported statement that only six or eight of the symphonies are likely to enter the general repertoire and also by the comment in Reginald Nettel’s book (Havergal Brian - the Man and his Music, p201). Mr Nettel assesses the 32 symphonies as ‘Brian’s major contribution to music’ but describes them as ‘the personal Brian - the essentially lonely Brian - but that is not the whole of Brian; there are the lighter works.. These are not the lonely, introspective Brian but the continuation in him of the outward looking Brian whose works attracted some attention before the first world war’.

As an example of this idea of a representative sample of Brian’s works, the CBS LP record (61612) attempted to build a bridge between the early and late styles. If the works of Brian’s last 20 years alone are promoted, he may never gain the general recognition he deserves. After all, Schönberg, being another ‘difficult’ composer and the 20th century’s most radical musical innovator, is very well known and is admired by many (musicians?) but could hardly be described as being popular with the concert going public.

I hope that these personal reactions do not seem too naive to our professional members and Brian specialists, but I am sure they will appreciate that I can only comment on the effect of that which I have actually heard and not on that which I should have heard. Finally, if Brian’s reputation is to become properly established, his music will have to be appreciated by considerable numbers of concert-goers (or record buyers) and some of them may even be engineers or technologists like myself.

1979 / NL21

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