The making of a composer

Malcolm MacDonald

The real Havergal Brian? - Malcolm MacDonald Many Brian enthusiasts will, I imagine, view Mr Eastaugh’s book with mingled fascination and discomfort; because it is in some respects indispensable reading, but in others maddeningly problematic; discomfort, because despite the author’s protestations of admiration for Brian’s music, his book is written - with apparent relish - very much at Brian’s expense. It is not a true biography: the last half of Brian’s life, by far his most significant period as a creative artist, is passed over in just 44 pages in depressing and sometimes wearisomely minute detail, of the period in Brian’s life (roughly 1904 to 1923) which shows him up in the worst light: when he behaved much of the time like a silly ass, both in personal relations and in his career.

Ever afterwards he gave a carefully-edited account of those years: he was a highly sensitive man and the knowledge that so many troubles were of his own making must have been a perpetual scourge. He had the same right as any man to be reticent; and it is not certain that the general public has an inalienable right now to the things that he chose to cover up - especially since some of the protagonists are still alive. The public would probably have got on perfectly well with Brian’s music without - just as it has, for many years, with Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst and even the philandering Delius: four composers of whose private lives we know far less, in real terms, than we now (thanks to Mr Eastaugh) know of Brian’s.

Thanks are certainly due to him for other reasons. The book is founded on a prodigious amount of original research. Mr Eastaugh has come up with masses of sheer facts which make it an invaluable source of information. He is able, for instance, to shed new light on missing and unfinished works (though it is curious that he seems to have found no mention of the proposed Book of Thel cantata), and he adds materially to the vexed question of the dating of The Tigers and The Gothic. He has unearthed much about Brian’s family background - his parents and grandparents, his brother and sister, his early homes.

Benjamin Brian the father, is a very sympathetic figure, a self-made man of independent views and character who died tragically early at the age of 48. Mr. Eastaugh’s account of Havergal’s childhood and early years as a local musician and church organist (when he assumed the name ‘Havergal’- he was not christened with it) is generally attractive, and makes an interesting contrast to Reginald Nettel’s treatment of the same period. Mr. Eastaugh gives more facts, and his imaginative pictures are generally convincing, but one has the sense that he has ‘found’ his facts and a landscape in which to arrange them; whereas Mr. Nettel, who grew up in the area, conveys a much greater sense of place and time.

Before this, however, the book has started with account of Brian’s death which is not distinguished by the ‘brevity and reticence’ that David Brown noted in Reginald Nettel’s new book, followed by a chapter about the day of the funeral when, to the family’s consternation, a son by a previous marriage - about which the children of the present Mrs. Brian knew nothing - appeared at the door. This was the ‘secret’ Brian had kept for almost 60 years, and which Mr Eastaugh, in the rest of his book, energetically lays bare. The publisher’s blurb says he ‘explodes many of the myths surrounding Havergal Brian’. There wasn’t much to explode: his defensiveness had kept him more of a tabula rasa .

Nobody who has read some of his articles and letters will doubt that Brian was very interested in fame and success (though to no unusual degree for a composer - beside the pushing Holbrooke, for instance, he could well appear ‘indifferent’). He was never totally neglected (Lewis Foreman’s book shows that) - though his major works, from The Tigers onward, certainly were. And it was never very difficult to see that his crotchetiness, love of privacy, vagueness and ‘naivety’ in old age were an elaborate, long-perfected defence mechanism to protect his creative processes - the capacity for deep feeling and quick allusive, ironic thinking with which the music continually contradicts his day-to-day persona. It is possible that he would have developed such defences anyway, whether he had anything to hide or not. There is much truth in Mr Eastaugh’s statement that Brian often shows up in a ‘vulnerable, fallible light… what makes his long, lonely musical trek admirable is not that he was superhuman but that, in many ways, he was totally unsuited to a life of hardship, neglect and ill-luck such as he experienced between 1913 and the beginning of the 1950s (p 37).

Yet by concentrating almost exclusively on the ‘vulnerable, fallible’ side of Brian he seems to discount what was ‘in a way superhuman’ - the musical achievement which transcends, but was the life-work of, this same human being.

The events which he relates have been known to me, in outline at least, for some years. Reginald Nettel knew them long ago, when he wrote Ordeal by Music and he kept a discreet silence (leaving clues for the curious on pp85 & 99). When he came to write his new book he was more explicit but brief (p84). Perhaps too brief: certainly the contrast between Nettel and Eastaugh is very marked, because the latter has founded his story on just those areas where the former was reticent. Still, the publication of Nettel’s new book was some years delayed, and his reticence was partly in deference to Brian’s own wishes. Mr Eastaugh has no such inhibitions.

It will conceivably come as a rude shock to some innocent enthusiasts of Brian the composer to be made aware with such tireless insistence how Brian the man, on the patronage of the wealthy HM Robinson, lived a life of thoughtless extravagance in Stoke-on-Trent; how he was a tyrannical father to the four children of his (hitherto unpublicised) first marriage; how that marriage went on the rocks - Brian was a drunkard, and unfaithful, and the union foundered on his suspicions of his wife’s infidelity; how he went to London and was joined there by the present Mrs Brian, already pregnant by him although they were not to marry until 1933; how he was an abject failure at establishing himself; how he fared as a soldier and later in a munitions factory in Birmingham; and how his volatile, unreasonable, often ridiculous states of mind are reflected in a stream of letters - begging, bragging, wheedling, accusatory, hysterical by turns - to his long-suffering friend Granville Bantock.

If Mr Eastaugh had been content to tell all this simply and soberly it would have been melancholy and convincing enough. There is little reason to doubt his facts, and they do not make an edifying tale. But he indulges in so much rhetorical overkill in interpreting the facts that ones sympathies swing back to Brian, as indeed they must do if the follies of his formative years are not to obscure the lasting achievement of the composer he became.

It is an exhausting book to read: the style - wordy, repetitive, buttonholing and doggedly sensational - eventually ingenders claustrophobia. One is always aware of the writer, as it were, breathing down his subject’s neck: Brian can hardly write a letter, or sit by himself in the park, or kick a dog, without it being implied, and much more often said, that this shows his self-indulgence, or arrogance, or self-pity, or tendency to melodrama. It is a tendency Mr Eastaugh does not wholly lack himself. He has a habit, too, of illuminating incidents by reference to letters; written years after the event, and generally of hopping backwards and forwards in time in a manner that might confuse a casual reader.

It would be unfair to say that his presentation of Brian’s character is wholly without insight (many details will ring: true to anyone who has talked with those who knew Brian closely) or that his comments are entirely negative. On the contrary, he says (p 106) ‘Almost anything you say about Brian can be contradicted‘ and he too has handsome things to say. I was surprised to find I had so many questions about Brian’s life still unanswered. In fact, despite the great list of acknowledgements in the preface, the book seems to rest very largely on three sources: Brian’s letters to Bantock; to a lesser extent his much later letters to Robert Simpson; and interviews with people who knew Brian, especially the members of his first and second families.

From the first family’s surviving members, presumably, came the more bizarre details of Brian’s extravagance and wilfulness under Robinson’s patronage (eg the story that ‘he would eat seven-pound(!) blocks of chocolate at a sitting’)- presumably, because Mr Eastaugh does not document these stories at all. I don’t doubt that the first family suffered a great deal, both with their father and later without him, and they must naturally view his posthumous fame with mixed feelings, to say the least; but family ancedotes (if such these are) may have become slightly exaggerated in the telling. It was a very long time ago, and the surviving son and daughter would have been 9 and 11 respectively when the marriage broke up.

The voluminous Brian/Bantock correspondence (of which only Brian’s side survives) is one of the cardinal sources any assessment of Brian. Others have used it before Mr Eastaugh: Reginald Nettel in his books and more recently Dr Trevor Bray who in 1975 wrote an important article about the light these letters shed on known and previously unknown Brian works (I have seen his article in typescript only: it was scheduled for the January 1976 Music & letters - what happened?). It is interesting that each writer concentrates on a different aspect of the letters. Nettel, for instance, quotes some long accounts of Brian’s dreams. Dr Bray sticks to musical topics, but in a preface he makes clear that he has seen the whole correspondence: and he finds the begging and justificatory letters (which are the aspect most brought out by Mr Eastaugh) ‘natural’ for a man desperately down on his luck.

So clearly there is more to the correspondence than the avalanche of epistolary and bad taste this book reproduces, and more than one interpretation even of that. Quotations are certainly copious (though some passages occur twice and, since Mr Eastaugh does not always date his quotations, several could have come from the same letter). But even so this can hardly represent the totality of a correspondence which spanned 35 years and reportedly includes nearly a thousand letters, postcards and telegrams (a balanced selection would be a very welcome publication).

But Mr Eastaugh has left many avenues unexplored. Brian’s holiday in Northern Italy in 1911 - his only trip outside this country, surely a major event in his life about which one would dearly like to know more - is alluded to in one sentence. Then again we are told that in his later years in Stoke Brian had almost no friends. Well, who were Archibald Fuller Coghill and Dr Graham Little? I don’t know and neither, it seems, does Mr Eastaugh, because he never mentions their existence. But Brian dedicated to them By the Waters of Babylon and For Valour respectively, when those works came to be published: he describes each as ‘my friend’ in the dedication, and he further expresses his ‘deep feeling of gratitude’ to Little.

One could go on - who was the ‘highly placed Japanese official with whom I lived for some time during the war’ of whom Brian speak in the February 1923 Musical Opinion? There is no mention of Walter Allum, with whom Brian lived under the same roof in 1918, and who became a life-long correspondent afterwards. Brian’s letters to him, with their disinterested affection and helpfulness, show him in a different light from the Bantock ones. Reginald Nettel has used some of them; I have seen the rest and the unpublished musical autobiography Mr Allum wrote in 1939, which describes a Brian hardly recognizable as the inhabitant of Mr Eastaugh’s pages. By so skimping Brian’s last years Mr Eastaugh has denied us the testimony of such people as Allum, or of the singer Lia Rosa, another lifetime friend who has preserved a fine collection of letters. He has also avoided the task, which must be undertaken some day, of assessing Brian’s qualities, influence and scope as a critic, for he did his most important work in this field in the 1930-9. But as I said at the beginning, he hasn’t written a biography.

As the unconscionable length of this review suggests, Mr Eastaugh’s book is certainly in its way important. It raises important questions over the image of Brian that will be transmitted to posterity. It brings important evidence to light, but it no more gives the ‘whole truth’ about Brian than Mr Nettel’s book does. And the general public tends not to be interested in the ‘whole’ truth anyway, but in whatever part of it catches its imagination. It’s no ignoble thing to popularize, and Mr Eastaugh may well contend that the subject-matter of his book has enabled him to reach a wider public than any previous attempts on Havergal Brian’s behalf. But popularization is not per se a good thing: it depends what you are popularizing.

Will this book popularize Brian’s music? To put it bluntly, will Brian be remembered by the public at large as a great composer, the peer of Elgar, Mahler and Sibelius, or as The Composer Who Seduced The Maid? The day after Mr Eastaugh first broke that story in the Evening Standard last January I was interviewed by the BBC’s PM programme. It was difficult to get the interviewer to talk about any other aspect of Brian at all. If that aspect does come to dominate all others, it will be Mr Eastaugh’s doing.

As for ‘the Maid‘ herself, Hilda Brian will be a spry 83 next month. Mr Eastaugh says that she had to ‘bear the brunt’ of Brian’s secret being broken on the day of the funeral; but if she goes on having to bear it now it will be simply because he has chosen to publish his book so soon after Brian’s death. With a lack of tact worthy of the Brian he portrays, he has dedicated to ‘Isabel and Hilda who looked after the children': a conjunction which we may be sure would have delighted neither lady. It is a pleasure to report that Hilda emerges with flying colours as a loyal and devoted wife and mother, to whom we all owe a great deal - for Mr Eastaugh is surely right in suggesting that without the domestic stability she provided for nearly 60 years Brian might never have been able to go on writing his music. Her portrait at 21 (among the fine selection of photographs which is one of the book’s best features) gives a vivid idea of the beauty that so captivated Brian when he first met her.

It is a pity the book is so highly priced [£10 in 1976], for Brian enthusiasts should certainly read it. Having read it, they may still reserve the right to make up their own minds about him. Nobody has yet taken his full measure, as man or artist.

November 1976 / NL8

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