Review of Nettel: The man and his music

David J Brown

Review - David J Brown Reginald Nettel’s Havergal Brian- the man and his music is now [August 1978] available and widely on sale, at least in London. The book is divided into two parts. The first is largely a detailed reworking of Ordeal by music, his earlier book about Brian, published in 1945. That work gave an account of Brian’s life up to the composition of Prometheus unbound, with much emphasis being placed on that great key work the Gothic Symphony, and many digressions on notable contemporaries and aspects of English musical life. The reworking has involved both Excisions in the latter and additions, which makes the acquisition of Ordeal by music still worthwhile. That is if you can find it, for it has been out of print for many years.

Not surprisingly a good deal of the final chapter Of Ordeal by music entitled The last phase has disappeared from the new book. What is left has been divided between the conclusion of Part 1 and the beginning of Part 2. In the latter, the chronological life-story gives way to a more complex treatment of the subject, herein an outline of the external events of Brian’s last 35 years of life is interspersed with and expanded by analyses of the violin and cello concertos, some of the performed symphonies and, most importantly, Prometheus unbound and Faust, composed in 1937-1944 and 1955-1956 respectively. The last two works are discussed philosophically rather than musically, for Mr Nettel sees the influences of Goethe and Shelley as profoundly important factors in Brian’s development as an artist.

The origin of Prometheus lay in Brian’s early life in the Potteries, where for some the saturation of the self in music formed a life in the mind and spirit parallel to that of pots and ovens. A generation later, Brian sustained himself through the second world war by an unprecedented private exploration of his own art, set in motion and led on, page by page, by Shelley’s text. Mr Nettel’s book is economically written and repays the closest attention. It is the most serious and sustained attempt yet to trace and analyse the growth of the composer’s artistic, as opposed to purely musical, personality. Of course, the two cannot be divorced, and the book is liberally adorned with music examples to accompany Mr Nettel’s analyses, appropriately drawn by Brian’s old friend, Walter Allum.

Like all the best books of its type, it leaves one wanting more and asking further questions. It is to Mr Nettel’s credit that these questions are of the deepest, the kind whose very posing forms a creative response and which by their very nature, can never be answered fully. His account of Brian’s final months and death is moving in its very brevity, reticence and objectivity, but it is clear that, despite having ceased composition four years previously, Brian went on thinking and changing, annotating and correcting his life’s work to the very end. Fittingly, Mr Nettel’ s book closes with as complete a list of Brian’s works as has yet been published, compiled by Lewis Foreman. The very first is a song of 1895, I shot an arrow. The arrow did not fall to earth for three quarters of a century.

August 1978 / NL7

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