On popularity (and Elgar, Reger, Harty, …)

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

This extract comes from a single source, the Musical Opinion On the other hand column by La main gauche (ie Havergal Brian) for October 1932 (pp.15-17 of that month's issue). Sometimes these columns were mere compilations of unrelated musings; sometimes they pursued a single theme; and sometimes, as here, Brian wove a discursive but subtly interlinked tapestry of thought, opinion, and personal reminiscence upon the pegs of current musical events. We reproduce here about two-thirds of the whole column, enough to convey something of Brian's flavour when in full flood. Readers of Harold Truscott's Havergal Brian as I knew him - Part Two [Newsletter 33 and in HB: Aspects of Havergal Brian, ed Schaarwächter] will recall that Brian on occasion protested ignorance of the music of Reger: an ignorance not shared by La main gauche. The column begins with a report of the death of Eugene d'Albert, born in Glasgow in 1864 but long resident in Germany and Switzerland. Now read on:

… It had been arranged that d'Albert should conduct a festival of his operas at Riga, and - if there is anything in omens! - in the same opera house as Wagner began his career as an opera conductor. Such was not to be, for death intervened; and now I read that his remains were on July 3rd buried in a grave hewn out of the solid rock at Morcote, which overlook the lake of Lugano. I should say that d'Albert is something of a draw in Germany, for Max Schilling1 often has him in his programmes; but when I read of his being the composer of fifteen successful operas, I wonder where I have been living and dreaming all my life. Four are said to be immensely popular: a statement which, I should think, would make d'Albert rise in his grave and exclaim, ‘0 save me from my German friends!’2

Fortunately, in music, popularity does not affect quality. In politics, on the other hand, a plurality of votes makes something right or wrong, absolutely; and obviously a news-paper with a circulation of three millions is righter than its competitor with only two millions. Apart from the four ‘immensely popular’ operas, d'Albert composed several orchestral works, a piano concerto, and a concerto for 'cello and orchestra, which will remain great, and even magnificent, whatever the popular verdict may be. I regard the last mentioned work as one of the finest ever written for that combination3. Probably d'Albert alone is responsible for the fact that it remains unknown in England, for the attitude he maintained towards the land of his birth would not encourage any English conductor to approach him…

Popularity is always an intriguing subject for a discourse: And I have been wondering whether d'Albert, Reger or Mahler ever regretted that during their lifetime their works never won popular favour. What makes me doubt the ‘immense popularity’ of any of d'Albert's operas is the quality of his writings, which were cast in austere mould or mood. I cannot conceive of him writing anything that would excite the popular taste such as Wagner did with Hail, bright abode (Tannhäuser), or the Bridal March from Lohengrin. Meyerbeer and Gounod doubtless often write with one eye full on the mobile vulgus. Bizet was different, for he rued the day when he gave way and permitted the insertion of the Toreador's Song in Carmen. Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C# minor wiped The Maiden's Prayer off the keyboard, but the composer himself told me that his one fear of meeting people for the first time was lest they should say how much they admired his Prelude: He added that he hoped to be remembered by other music, and not for that youthful work. And there was no monetary salve for the wound, for the purchase price was only five pounds, all rights included4.

I should like to hear Elgar thinking aloud about his brilliant Military marches and the wonderful success of the Trio of the first, in D. The first two were first played by the Liverpool Orchestral Society in October, 1901. Later the trio was adjusted to some verses by AC Benson, a Cambridge don and son of the Archbishop of that name. Under the title of Land of Hope and Glory, away went the trio round the world, being sung with fervour wherever the English language is spoken. It may be that the sentiment is merely symbolical, but as sung and applied to England, the words are sinister in the extreme: they would amply justify any charge of hypocrisy made against us. How can the Mother of the Free, made mighty by God, extend her bounds except at the pain of those who have not the benign blessing of might? Britannia, rule the waves is a mild boast beside these dreadful words, and has the excuse of being an exhortation to Britons to repel those who would enslave them.

The letter of Arnold Bax to The Times was a distinguished salute at the passing of Frederick Corder: and at the same time it revealed his position as the teacher of composition. Corder's methods were unorthodox: and yet, as the teacher of a famous and brilliant phalanx of British composers, his methods were justified by results. I remember, years ago, discussing Corder's method of teaching composition with a well-known man who had studied under him5. I was told that it was Corder's habit to place his advanced pupils direct on such works as Tristan or The Ring and encourage them to emulate the ways of Wagner. At one time it seemed that Corder was to have a full life as an opera composer. Carl Rosa had produced his _Nordisa_6, and it was having an excellent reception. But Rosa died suddenly in the noontide of a brilliant career, and with him were buried the hopes of Corder and others of whom he seemed destined to be the leader. He found his way to the Royal Academy, where his work did much to enhance its prestige. Corder continued to write music, but it does not appear to have been known to many save his friends.

Thus in some respects I regard Corder's deflection from opera as a tragedy for English music of that type; indeed, in my more moody periods I see tragedy stalking our own national art through all the ages. English music sustained a loss through the death of Peter Warlock, whose name will for long be associated with the revival of interest in songs of the sixteenth century. If we could catch again the spirit of those days, English music would stand at the dawn of a new era. Warlock had the germ of that spirit within him, and often have I seen him at the British Museum7 engrossed in the study of songs of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. That was the time of triumph for English music, and the sweetest singer of them all was John Dowland. The fruits of his life are now enshrined in the sumptuous book just published by the Oxford University Press under the title of English Ayres, transcribed by Peter Warlock and Philip Wilson.

A two-day Reger festival is arranged for October 1st and 2nd. I can imagine the company assembling at Baden-Baden, each lady and gentleman decorated with a ticket suspended from a buttonhole, carrying a leather portfolio, and greeting each other with profound bows. The proceedings open with a dissertation on Max the Man, with some Reger organ works interspersed. Then in the evening comes an orchestral concert, at which the Piano Concerto will be performed. Thus endeth the first day. The second day begins with a chamber concert and again closes with an orchestral concert, after which will follow congratulations poured on Ernst Mehlich: then more profound bows, and everybody goes away happy, conscious of good work done.

Despite his eminence as an organist, composer and teacher, Reger never had the recognition accorded to Brahms, even in Germany. He made no concessions to popular taste. His art is intensely German: it is also exceedingly complex and difficult: and yet to many German conductors and instrumentalists he makes equal appeal with Mahler and Bruckner, though his music is more austere than that of either. Reger is doubtless the greatest master of the fugue since Bach.

I well remember the visit of Reger to London in 1909, and also the London Musical Festival two years later, when I heard his setting of Psalm 100, for chorus and orchestra, under Wood. It is moulded in an intense grip, which becomes more powerful as the work proceeds and reaches a climax in a tremendous fugue, made more prodigious by a brass orchestra hurling out the great German song of confidence, ‘Ein' feste Burg’8. I once amused a famous German conductor highly by telling him that Reger was in England regarded as a most fearsome personage; and in the library of a popular English organ recitalist, after asking why he did not play Reger, I had the frank but astounding reply, ‘Well, if I wished to give my audience the bellyache, I should play that.’ That was a set of organ variations by Reger, immensely difficult, and needing much preparation even for the greatest of living organists. Not all Reger's work is so fearsome as that.

My allusions above to Elgar at Liverpool and to Reger at Baden call to mind an old grievance: it is nothing more than the unhealthy dominance of London and other capital cities in matters musical. The position reaches its height in London, where musical mandarinism is supreme. Berlin has several serious rivals, but Manchester is the only serious rival to London, and when Richter was there it seemed that the cotton city would gain the premier position, owing perhaps to more concentrated effort. Moreover, it had the virtue of exciting virtue in others. Rivalry with Manchester became almost feverish in Liverpool.

I have spoken of the production in Liverpool of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches, which were first played by the Liverpool Orchestral Society. That body came into existence to foster the new movement, and it was conducted by Mr AE Rodewald, an enthusiastic and wealthy amateur9. Bantock, who was at the time director of music at New Brighton Tower, had persuaded his management to establish an orchestra on lines very similar to that of the Crystal Palace, under Manns, and with it he gave daily orchestral concerts, and special symphony concerts on Sundays with a band of a hundred.

Also, Canon Gorton had then recently founded the Morecambe Competition Festival, from which sprang among northern choirs a love for a cappella singing of an intensive culture. It seemed that here at least was an open heath upon which the flowers of music might grow, free from the frowns and favours of the mandarins. But it was not to be. Bantock moved south to Birmingham, the concerts at the New Brighton Tower faded away, and the unexpected death of Mr Rodewald gave Liverpool musical enthusiasm its coup de grâce. Morecambe Festival alone remains, buoyed over the place where many hopes perished.

My discursive manner of writing will, I know, be my undoing. I should have finished with Corder in the paragraphs I have written above: but he was a great man, full of kindness within. The mention of Morecambe brought him and his works again to my mind. At one time his setting of Blake's I love the jocund dance was extremely popular at northern competition festivals: but that by the way. I recall one occasion at Morecambe when Corder, McNaught10, and Ivor Atkins were present as adjudicators. There were some memorable performances of a setting for eight voices of 0 Death, thou art the tranquil night, by Cornelius11. My story is that Corder wept.

Doubtless the best bit of news to come through for a long time was that relating to Sir Hamilton Harty as ‘artistic adviser’ to the London Symphony Orchestra. I was delighted. Harty's new association will be something like a homecoming, for he gained experience as a conductor with the LS0 before he gained that blue riband for orchestral conductors, - the Hallé post.

Some may have doubted the worthiness of Harty to follow Richter: but events have justified their choice. Richter was great, and we may never see his like again. There was another, Arthur Nikisch: and the difference between the two was simply that of temperament. Richter obtained his marvellous orchestral weights and delicate shades with a minimum of gesture, and in certain works with scarcely a perceptible movement: and yet his audiences were always deeply moved, transported by the immensity of the conception. Nikisch, on the other hand, was an amalgam of Mars and Mercury, fiery and glowing. Some works he conducted came over us like the boiling lava on Herculaneum 12. Still, he could conduct in the broad style of Richter, as I heard him take Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden.

Harty comes nearest to Nikisch, and with similar training might have been his other self. One striking difference, however, stands out: Nikisch rarely used a score, and I have never seen Harty conduct without one. It is all a matter of methods. Harty doubtless has a large deposit of that Celtic temperament that remained after the clash and mingling of races: if he had not he would not be a great conductor and might not even be a remarkable musician.

Berlioz has been an absorbing study with Hamilton Harty, and I would urge those French musicians who do not take our view of the greatness of their own compatriot to study him under Harty's direction. Berlioz was a born conductor: and my readings about him, and deep study of his profound work on orchestration, force on me the conviction that he remains the greatest conductor that ever lived. His eagle eye and acute mind have come again to life in Harty, whose interpretations of either Berlioz and those other classical masters are always animated and aglow.

  1. sic: should be Max von Schillings (1868-1933) , composer (of, for instance, the fine Glockenlieder for tenor and orchestra), conductor, and then (1932) President of the Prussian Academy of the Arts in Berlin. ↩︎

  2. Probably only Tiefland (first produced 1903 in Prague) could really have been called a popular success: it is still occasionally heard. ↩︎

  3. When I originally annotated this article, I footnoted here an appeal for a tape of D'Albert's cello concerto. Harold Truscott kindly obliged with a recording perhaps still available on Koch Schwann: it is indeed a fine work. D'Albert composed two piano concertos, not one - both have been recorded by Piers Lane in Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concerto series. ↩︎

  4. HB interviewed Rachmaninoff for Musical opinion in the late 1920s. ↩︎

  5. Probably Bantock who, with Bax and Holbrooke, was numbered amongst Corder's most distinguished pupils. ↩︎

  6. At Liverpool in 1887. ↩︎

  7. Brian spent much time at the British Museum in the late 1920s and early 1930s, pursuing research for his own interests into the music of, especially, the 18th and early 19th centuries (cf. page 3 of the Cranz brochure reproduced on p51 of Lewis Foreman's Havergal Brian and the performance of his orchestral music.) ↩︎

  8. Maybe yet another inspiration for Brian's use of the tune in Das Siegeslied - which he was in the midst of composing while he wrote this column. ↩︎

  9. Elgar's Pomp & Circumstance March No.1 is in fact dedicated to Rodewald ↩︎

  10. William G. McNaught (‘old McNaught’ or ‘McSnuffle’ in many of Brian's letters to Bantock) worked for Novello's and was a friend of Elgar and advocate of new British music. ↩︎

  11. Brian retained a strong affection for this setting, which he saw as an important forerunner of Bantock's ‘orchestral’ treatment of voices in his unaccompanied choral symphonies. ↩︎

  12. Actually Herculaneum was buried in ash. In HB's time, as for the previous two centuries since the first excavations, it was believed that lava had covered Pompeii; but the latest research indicates the town was destroyed by a pyroclastic cloud, a phenomenon unobserved by science before the Mount St. Helens eruption. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, October 1932, pp. 15–17