Gerard Cunliffe

Introduction - Gerard Cunliffe In Memoriam and Doctor Merryheart were near contemporaries and present a fascinating contrast, the latter complex but almost facetious, the former grandly simple with great elegiac dignity. Suggestions that the subject is King Edward VII are certainly wrong even though the main theme of the central section appears to include an allusion to the National Anthem. The manuscript carries the sub-title "Homage to an Artist" and, rather mysteriously, the cover is inscribed "Vigueur de Dessus". The manuscript also suggests that there was originally a programme, but this has been erased, and all that remains is "Invocation" attached to the first six bars, and the division of the remainder into Ist, IInd and IIIrd Scenes. The suppression of a programme is a common feature of Brian’s music; he appears to have been strongly influenced by literary and other non-musical inspirations but fearful that too clear an expression of these would distract the listener into seeking a superficial descriptiveness, which Brian always avoided. He was fiercely, perhaps obsessively, insistent that his music should be heard as pure music like that of a classical symphonist.

In Memoriam was probably given its premiere in December 1921 by the Scottish Orchestra under Landon Ronald in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh. It was repeated the next day by them in St. Andrew’s Hall, Glasgow and was then not heard again for more than 50 years. These first performances were probably of a slightly cut version.
Of the works of Brian’s early years, this is perhaps the most impressive. Funeral marches form an important aspect of his musical vocabulary, and this early example of the form is one of the largest and finest. There is no mere pessimism expressed here, and the effect is spiritually uplifting. The music may weep, but it never merely cries; it mourns, but it does not indulge in self-pity.

To the listener unfamiliar with Brian’s style, the very characteristic use of the general pause may be the most noticeable feature of the work. This was to become one of his most personal trademarks and, although traces of it are found in earlier pieces, here it is used to the full. The result is that In Memoriam has a monumental and almost architectural feel. A theme will break off, the sounds will die away, and then a superficially unrelated passage will commence. The work was surely written with a large acoustic in mind, and the result is like great buildings facing one another across wide streets.

A large orchestra is employed, including extensive percussion, two harps and organ. The pace is moderate, but the feeling of forward movement is strong, and the impression is not of a slow piece. The tonality starts in C, moves to F major and returns to C in the beautiful ending which, with delicious restraint, is pianissimo. Brian’s early mastery is shown throughout and supremely in this gentle close, where the listener is led to expect E until the last moment.