The influence of Brian’s social enviroment on his musical style

Godfrey Berry

Godfrey Berry Discussions and analyses of Brian’s creative personality in the Newsletter [and website] have tended to concentrate mainly on the peculiarities of his individual emotional and intellectual make-up. Yet any creative artist, however original and independent of influences he may seem, must to some extent be conditioned by his experiences of the world in which he operates and the social environment from which he came.

Impressions received in childhood and adolescence are particularly important since it is rarely possible to throw them off entirely, even when subsequent experience shows them to be wrong or even dangerous. Rationally I ought not to find it any more difficult to trust a German than a human being of any other nationality. In practice I have to fight a prejudice left over from a childhood in which war against Germany was the ‘normal’ state of affairs. (Peace seemed very strange and unnatural when it came!)

Some time ago a colleague on the HBS Committee took strenuous exception to someone describing Brian as a ‘working-class composer’. He has a point. The term ‘working-class composer’ is almost a contradiction in terms, composing music, especially ‘serious’ music, is not a characteristically working-class activity. Even the liveried composers at 19th century courts generally enjoyed sufficient status to lift them above the working-class category attached to most domestic servants.

Certainly, according to most conventional systems of socio-economic classification, Brian, whether as a freelance composer or as a journalist, would have been regarded as ‘middle-class’, not ‘working-class’. However, the real point is surely not that Brian was working-class but that he came from a working-class background. The influences working on him during his formative years thus differed significantly from those working on a middle-class child.

Even in a society where class is as strong as it was in 19th and early 20th century England, differences in attitudes and behaviour between the classes are seldom black and white absolutes. They are more matters of emphasis and degree, and within any class there will always be many individuals who espouse attitudes or patterns of behaviour commonly thought of as belonging to some quite different class. Any reference to the influence of an individual’s class background must be understood as a reference to the insidious influence of a vaguely defined and changing ethos, rather than of a closely-defined set of received values. We create our own values from the materials available to us, and our social background provides only some very raw, raw materials. That said, certain, broad differences between the classes and their likely influence on an artistically sensitive youngster’s development can be discerned.

One such difference is in aesthetic attitudes. The dominant tendency in the middle-class has been to value a work of art for its elegance, clarity, economy of means and ‘sophistication’. Many middle-class youngsters are methodically educated to believe that adherence to these criteria is synonymous with ‘good taste’, and that anything which is not in good taste is, ipso facto, an appeal to man’s baser instincts (and therefore not serious art, yes, we have heard of someone who enjoys Brian’s music but ‘doubts its value’!)

The working-class tendency, in contrast, has been to value solid substance, richness of texture and ‘good workmanship’. Almost anyone with working-class relatives will testify that, at least among the older generation, one of the highest terms of approbation is ‘look at the work that went into that!’.

If Brian was indeed surrounded by such attitudes as a child, need we be surprised that solidity is such a marked feature of his characteristic musical expression? Superficial critics may tend to dismiss the resultant rich textures as mere turgidity, but in fact Brian is doing what any honest and truly sensitive creative artist does, embodying in his work the values of the society which helped to create him. This aspect of his style is as much part of his creative birthright as a ‘middle-class’ reticence and spareness is of Benjamin Britten’s.

It would obviously be wrong to suggest that the only aspect of Brian’s youthful environment which influenced his creative development was his social class. There were, for example, peculiarities about the social role accorded to music in the time and place of Brian’s childhood and adolescence. In an area such as North Staffordshire during the latter half of the 19th century a very large proportion of all musical activity would have been associated with religion or some form of competition. Both in moral and practical terms music would appear as a deadly serious business connected with the pursuit of excellence.

R eal excellence would be rewarded with spiritual salvation or, better still, a gold cup! Brian often appears to take it for granted in his scores that any real musician will welcome technical difficulties as a challenge; rather than regard them as an insuperable obstacle to performance. Could his apparent disregard for the practicalities of performance have something to do with being brought up in an atmosphere where the major preoccupation of many fine musicians was to go that little bit further than the next men? Certainly aspects of the Gothic Symphony seem partly explicable in these terms.

One could go on – for example, to explore the difference between ‘provincial’ and ‘metropolitan’ attitudes to the arts — and doubtless one would find many other factors which might have influenced one or other of the strands in Brian’s musical personality. However, that would amount to a major research project and, if I have succeeded in drawing attention to one or two avenues which need to be explored, that will do for now.

NL38/ © Godfrey Berry 1981

Newsletter, NL 38, 1981