The lost opportunity

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The shouting and the tumult having died away, I think I may, without irritating anyone, express my opinion that musically the Jubilee was a lost opportunity: no work of distinction by a contemporary English composer was produced! During the time of the Coronation in May, 1911, we had a London Musical Festival, with some first performances in England. Notably, that of Elgar’s Second Symphony, conducted by the composer; and Scriabin played one of his own concertos1, and Wood conducted Scriabin's orchestral poem, Prometheus. An extraordinary impression was made by the performance of Reger's Psalm 100, for choir and orchestra, the Sheffield Choir thrilling us beyond present-day understanding in the great and powerful fugue at the close. Bantock also conducted the first performance of his tone poem, Dante and Beatrice. The weather was hot, and inside Queen’s Hall hotter still; I recall it well, for by chance Ernest Newman and myself had cooling drinks together in a restaurant, before entering the inferno.

I recall also that, next morning, Bantock and I saw Elgar conducting a rehearsal of that Second Symphony: he was in shirt sleeves, rather testy, but full of energy, and doubtless cheered by the presence in the stalls of Lady Elgar and a host of friends. Arnold Bennett was there: and Arthur Nikisch, with his silk hat, frock coat and gardenia, was only surpassed by the magnificent Elena Gerhardt in lovely summer attire. Music had a social and national jubilee that year. At the Crystal Palace there were the Empire Orchestral Concerts by men from the QHO and the LSO; and I went down to the Palace early one morning, to see Coleridge-Taylor — he and his men coatless — rehearsing a work of mine own2. But what a difference was there: he was kindness all through, and with that quality he got from his orchestra the best that was in them.

What is of great and vital importance is that a number of composers who were men of promise in 1911 have come through with honours. Amongst conductors, Beecham, a phenomenon even thirty years ago, has gone from strength to strength until he now has international fame. I attempt no comparison between the composers of 1911 who are now in their maturity: Bax, Holst and Vaughan Williams, all are different, but they are not surpassed by contemporary composers born of any country, either in technique or in range of imagination. Holst is dead: Vaughan Williams will soon reach the Psalmist’s span: and Bax is only his junior by a few years. Others there are, but the hazard of performance has begrudged them the favour that might well be theirs.

I say in all seriousness that during this period of Jubilee, music has been the victim of councils of old women: and where all is not barren, nothing brought into the world has risen above the artistic value of The siege of Delhi. Even the British Broadcasting Corporation, foster mother of music, failed to bring forth a child of British music showing the development of the past quarter of a century. Whether this came through fear of interference with the main ceremony, or dread that a miraculous birth might pass unnoticed, it were a grievous fault. I think that among our men of this age one composer could have been found to write ceremonial music equal to that of Elgar: the attempt would have condoned failure. Who is the head of this mighty corporation? An electrician or an artist?

  1. There is, of course, only one Scriabin concerto. ↩︎

  2. The Overture For Valour↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, June 1935, p. 753