Literature and music

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Page 20 of Musical Opinion, October 1934 carried the following unsigned article, which Brian acknowledged shortly before his death to be his own work — though readers may be familiar enough with his tone to identify it on stylistic grounds alone. The topic was one which fascinated him, as it now does us with reference to his own works, and the essay is short enough to give in tote.

During an address given recently at Malvern, George Bernard Shaw seems to have startled some of his hearers by remarking, with that suggestion of surprise which is always his, that his method of writing plays is ‘founded upon music’. This has surprised some writers, whom we may commend for questioning anything said by Shaw, though in doing so they have exposed their own lack of a working knowledge of music. They miss the point of the remark. The point of similarity may not be quite that of Pater, who said that ‘every art aspires to the condition of music’, remembering which makes one regret that Wagner never met Pater.

Shaw, when speaking, evidently had in mind Invention and Development, which are the two governing factors in all works of art and literature. Amidst many social and political activities, he spent some part of his early manhood listening to and writing about musical performances. Admitting that his criticisms were remarkable for their Shavian literary style, they nevertheless displayed an expert knowledge of the works under discussion, so much so indeed that one can only conjecture that all came to him through intuition and not by study. The only other supposition is that he learned to live twentyfour hours a day, years before Arnold Bennett wrote a book telling us all how to do so.

When Shaw says that he writes literature as a composer writes music he is talking plain sense. He means that the principles by which his plays unfold, after the characters have made their appearance, are not dissimilar from the methods of the composer. The similarities are too subtle to be made obvious to any but craftsmen, for though, in music, every composer of genius follows the same principles of composition, no two composers achieve their final results in the same way.

That is to say, if Elgar and Strauss had been supplied with the same thematic material for a symphony, the result might well be two masterpieces, yet in shape and sound they would be as different as sunset is from dawn. Many musicians profess to see more literature than music in the instrumental works of Berlioz, one going so far as to say that he was a literary genius with a musical mind, conversely, Bernard Shaw might well be described as a musical genius with a literary mind. If we accept this reading, then Berlioz becomes a dramatic pamphleteer and storyteller. Shaw has already been described as a subtle Mephistophelian wit who makes use of language for pamphleteering purposes.

Analysis and comparison might be extended to include the muse of composers avowedly inarticulate. If the symphonies of Berlioz are literature in music, what then are the Funeral March from the Eroica, the first movement of the C minor, and the Scherzo from the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven? Whether Shaw is as great a playwright as Beethoven or Elgar are composers must be left to posterity. Strauss, Elgar and Beethoven are among those types of composers who combine building with architecture. The vast army of composers are just builders, men who have become stranded through following the strange advice that musical architecture can be learned from books on musical drill. This cannot be done and Shaw was quite right when, in a fine frenzy, he took a pile of music textbooks and tore them to shreds. Between the master works of Beethoven, Strauss and Elgar lies a vast, almost immeasurable, distance in methods of construction and subtle psychology.

In Beethoven the works are carried forward on what might be termed the tune with its accompaniment1. In Strauss and Elgar, a century later, the tune is but a part of a vast web in which are many tunes, rushing forward, changing hue and shape, yet never failing their vital part in the endless chain of symphonic polyphony. Here these components become something similar in the processes of the composer and the dramatist, and it becomes clearer that what Shaw had in his mind was the apparent similar processes in the symphonic works of Strauss and Elgar or in his own dramatic works. So there was nothing obscure or metaphysical in Shaw’s statement that his plays were founded upon music, as indeed all well-constructed plays are.

The talk at Malvern brought up the names of the poets whose language is so richly musical as to suggest music itself. It is true that the poetry of Shelley, for instance, has a musical chromaticism of its own which no composer of music could quite match. Keats, Byron and Wilde have the gift in lesser degree.

There is a similar universal law of form and structure apparent in all masterpieces of art. Shelley’s Prometheus, and Byron’s Don Juan have a mastery and unity of invention comparable to the greatest musical epics. Differences of matter in music, the arts and drama are more obvious than their fundamental principles. The latter consist of differences in psychology, for which reason expert and highly sensitised musicians experience similar mental ravishment and complete satisfaction from Shelley’s Prometheus as from the Ninth Symphony2. To the visible eye, poetry would appear articulate and the music inarticulate. To the inner vision there are no differences.

  1. Not a statement that many writers nowadays could get away with — but Brian is obviously speaking in comparative terms as between classical and late—semantic music. ↩︎

  2. Brian is presumably thinking of himself — three years later he began writing Prometheus Unbound↩︎

Musical opinion, October 1934, p. 20