David Hackbridge Johnson

An introduction - David Hackbridge Johnson Of all the British composers who came to prominence at the beginning of the twentieth century none presents such a chequered history as Havergal Brian. The talent displayed in his early works was recognised by such important conductors as Thomas Beecham and Henry Wood. The latter brought Brian to wide public attention before the First World War by presenting several of his works (among them the rousing concert overture, For Valour) at the Promenade Concerts in London. His part songs and choral works were taken up by the many amateur choirs that flourished at that time. He cultivated the friendship of other leading composers such as Elgar and Bantock and even had the ultimate luxury of a wealthy patron to support him.

However, by the early 1920s he was already a forgotten figure and was unable to earn a living from his compositions. The reasons for his career slump are complex but perhaps include the effects of the First World War on the British economy and the subsequent decline in the activities of many of the choirs that Brian relied on for performances, snobbish attitudes to Brian who was of Northern working class origins, the scandal caused by his elopement with a maid who was to become his second wife, and a marked cussedness of character not helped by alcohol dependency during this frustrating period.

Paradoxically it was in this time of isolation and anguish that some of his greatest works were conceived, firstly the anti-war opera The Tigers and in the following decade the monumental Gothic Symphony, a work now increasingly felt to be among the greatest achievements of any composer in history. With great effort of will Brian continued to compose without hope of performance and it was only towards the end of his long life that the BBC began to broadcast works thanks to the promotional efforts of composer and BBC producer, Robert Simpson. Brian’s reputation rests largely on the 32 symphonies and on his stage works, yet his pieces for small ensembles retain many of his salient characteristics as a composer, namely a terseness and compression of material and abrupt juxtaposition of widely differing moods. The Legend for violin and piano, composed some time between 1919 and 1924 shows these traits very clearly.

Unprepared modulations and changes of tempo abound and as is the case with much Brian there is a feeling of a radical paring down to the essence of the argument, paradoxically achieved through the syntax of late romanticism tinged with modern harmonic elements. In this sense Brian can be seen as looking both back and forward historically. The piece is in one short movement and presents dramatic material in B minor and lyrical opposition in D major. A stormy middle section echoes the contemporaneously written Gothic Symphony and provides a hint of that works cataclysms. At the end D major and B major sit on a tonal see-saw before D emerges calmly at the end. Although the violin carries most of the melodies the piano is no mere bystander, often providing dense orchestral support that in the middle section threatens to swallow the violin altogether. That the work ends calmly may not be viewed as a triumph but a plea for existence in a world caught up in turbulence.