Music at war

David J Brown

Symphony 4 on BBC Radio 3 - David J Brown Some time in late February (why did I throw away that week’s Radio Times?), and tuned to Radio Three in an early evening commuter traffic jam, I idly registered a trailer for a programme later that evening. Then a very familiar, utterly unexpected (and, heard out of context, overwhelmingly magnificent) cadence for vast choral and orchestral forces nearly sent me into the back of the car in front…

At 9pm, cassette in the radio at home, I switched on, and what followed was so remarkable - from our point of view - that it seemed a good idea to transcribe the relevant bits. It was the first in a five-night series of 20-minute programmes entitled Music at War, in which Stephen Johnson took ‘a look at how the Second World War shaped music and musical life in Britain’. Episode 1, The Eve of Catastrophe, opened with the sounds of exploding bombs and fire-bells, into which burst the opening bars of Vaughan Williams’ fourth symphony; over the statement of declaration of war was faded the steel girder-like dissonances of the end of the first movement of Walton’s first; and finally, after an air-raid siren, a clipped BBC voice reporting the King’s declaration of resolve from Buckingham Palace was overlain by… nothing less than the mighty close of Das Siegeslied: truly a conjunction to send shivers down the spine.

SJ named the three works, and went on (after noting the German title of the Brian): ‘Writers and broadcasters have spent a lot of time arguing backwards and forwards about whether works like these reflect the mood of their time. Each one of those symphonies is startlingly violent; neither Vaughan Williams, nor Walton, nor Brian, had ever written anything quite like them before’. He went on to open up the argument about how far music can be said to represent anything other than itself, and in the case of the Vaughan Williams and the Walton, reported likely personal reasons for their violence that had nothing to do with a sense of imminent war.

He then continued: ‘Let’s go back to Havergal Brian’s fourth symphony. This was finished in 1933, the year of Hitler’s rise to power. What on earth was a British composer doing setting a bloodthirsty, militaristic psalm in German, at a time like that? Could this be the unthinkable, a British fascist symphony? Malcolm MacDonald, author of a three-volume study of Brian, thinks that the composer had something rather different in mind’.

MM: ‘The text that he chose, of course… I mean you can’t call it a German nationalist text, because it’s Luther, Psalm 67 in the Lutheran - and this in fact was a favourite psalm of Brian’s, not just in the German but in the English; and he saw it as a great sort of Puritan psalm. It’s a text about righteousness and evil, really, and the battle between the two. Now Brian’s own treatment of this psalm, of the text, in this symphony is very curious in a way. It is an enormously militaristic-sounding piece.

‘In the middle of the Finale you suddenly get Ein’ feste Burg, the great Luther chorale, treated in an extraordinary, polytonal way. Now of course Brian never really said anything about what he meant in this symphony. I asked him in a letter about the quotation from Ein’ feste Burg and he said ‘Well, it’s just one of those things that happens while you are composing’ - which is wonderful disclaimer of any intent.

‘It seems to me that this piece is directed at Germany. It’s about things in the German psyche, almost, and it’s about what has to be done to the militarists if Germany is to be reborn and cleansed. And from at point of view it’s a much more explicit work than many of the symphonies of the 1930s by other composers which are sometimes taken rightly or wrongly as reflecting the international situation and the rise of fascism’.

SJ: ‘Whatever Havergal Brian’s political beliefs - and those of his writings I’ve seen give no hint of any partisan convictions - there were others whose views were well known, the young Benjamin Britten, for instance…’

…and so the programme, and indeed, the series, went on, leaving Brian behind. What was so heartening was not merely that a work of Brian was included, but that in such a programme - a major, mainstream, non-partisan contribution to the Fairest Isle year of British music on Radio Three - he took his place without special pleading, or ‘quotation marks’ round his name, or any need felt by Stephen Johnson for a potted biography or the ‘neglected’ epithet. Havergal Brian was simply included on his own merits, as one among other British composers of the time whose work, and any response it may or may not have been expressing to the conditions of the day, was felt important enough to be referred to in this context.

This is surely a big step forward in perceptions of Brian, and we must hope that it is matched in other contexts where appropriate.

© David J Brown 1995 / NL118

Newsletter, NL 118, 1995