The modern puritan

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald


The flare up over Furtwängler’s resignation died down very quickly, probably because it was soon recognised that Hindemith is still an enigmatic character to English musicians2. Furtwängler, however, is a great conductor, and as such is honoured by musicians throughout Germany and Austria as Toscanini is throughout America. For reasons I cannot understand, Furtwängler has been represented in a section of the London press as a heel-clicking autocrat, which is so much nonsense. His continuous association with the best in German music is sufficient refutation. He certainly is zealous for precision of attack and for oneness of ensemble, which after all only reflects a sensitive culture. Scrappiness or untidiness in an orchestral interpretation certainly irritate Furtwängler, and he showed this irritation when he first conducted in London: and that's how the drill-sergeant fable arose. Toscanini is no less zealous for clean-cut articulation and purity of interpretation than Furtwängler, but no one thinks of the Italian as a despot3.

No finer readings of the classics than those of Furtwängler have been heard in London: I have watched him at rehearsals4: he knows everything, even the section marks, and recalls them at the right moment. One other characteristic: he sings through the performances, but whether with the woodwind, horns or strings, I have never been near enough to decide, though I am convinced that he is happy in his work and with his men.

Furtwängler has put up a mighty defence for Hindemith, which should make many of us reconsider our regard for his music. One thing is certain, musicians will unite to repel the domination of politicians. They may have an initial advantage, but they cannot permanently exorcise that spirit which (as I read in a publisher’s circular recently received from Germany) calls for forty two performances within a few weeks in and out of Germany of Hindemith’s last symphony, Mathias the painter. (This work, by the way, was first produced about a year ago by Furtwängler in Berlin.) I doubt that Beethoven or Brahms has ever reached that number of performances of a particular work within a similar period.

  1. Brian’s subtitle here needs a little contextual explanation. Percy A. Scholes had recently published his hook The puritans in music, plus an article on the same subject in the December Musical opinion, opposing the conventional view that Puritanism had been inimical to art and that the Commonwealth had been a sadly restricted period in English music. ‘La main gauche’ began his January column therefore with a section entitled ‘The case for the puritan’, accepting much of Scholes’s argument but maintaining that a complete reversal of the conventional view was no more accurate, for some Puritans ‘did smash organs in public places, turned out cathedral choirs, and closed theatres’, and that the caricature of the repressive Puritan was ‘necessary to point a moral’ to later times. By entitling the next section of his column ‘The Modern Puritan’, and devoting it to Furtwängler, Brian was alluding to the contemporary strain of ‘Puritanism' in Nazi Germany, against which Furtwängler had to contend. ↩︎

  2. Furtwangler had been dismissed from the conductorship of the Berlin Philharmonic, the State Opera, and the Reichmusikkammer as a result of his publishing a vigorous defence of Hindemith's symphony Mathis der Maler, which he had premiered and which had subsequently been the target of Nazi vilification, from Dr Goebbels downward. ↩︎

  3. Brian’s assessment here is strikingly at variance with these conductors’ posthumous reputations .- we tend to think of them almost as opposites in character and technique, and Toscanini’s ‘despotism’ is legend ↩︎

  4. Either in 1924-5 or 1927, when his programmes included a memorable Bruckner 4 that made a deep impression on Brian. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, January 1935, p. 301