review of Opus est: six composers from Northern Europe
David J Brown
Review - David J Brown Paul Rapoport Opus Est: six composers from Northern Europe. Matthijs Vermeulen, Vagn Holmboe, Havergal Brian, Allan Pettersson, Fartein Valen, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. London, Kahn & Averill, December 1978. £6 (Also published in the USA by Crescendo/Taplinger)
This is an exceedingly important book, one which deserves the closest attention from anybody involved to any extent with 20th century music, either as performer, writer or listener. A review in the Havergal Brian Society Newsletter must needs give a certain amount of special attention to the author’s treatment of Brian, but it has to be said at the outset that a special interest in Brian or any of the five other composers discussed ought to be the least important reason for anyone acquiring and reading the book. It presupposes a spirit of enquiry in the render, and hence has the most to offer to the potential explorer of new areas, rather than the consolidator of familiar ones.
In addition, the six essays which form its bulk are framed by introductory and concluding chapters which set out a powerful argument way which 20th century music is or is not brought before the public. Rapoport challenges the assumption that the ‘best’ music gains pre-eminence because of its ‘quality’, that ‘best’ means ‘most influential’ and that music which remains in obscurity must be inferior to that which becomes widely known. In the author’s own words: ‘Music is studied, performed, published, broadcast, and recorded for reasons that may only incidentally relate to the music.’ Economic, social and human factors all play their part in muddling the equation between celebrity and quality - whatever that may be.
R apoport makes no attempt to weave his six neglected figures into any sort of alternative 20th century musical hierarchy; each is treated entirely independently and, indeed, within each essay the other five receive barely a mention. All are shown to have widely differing musical personalities (not surprising when one considers the varying degrees of isolation in which they developed). Sufficient connection, and justification for their receiving attention, lies in the fact that ‘their best music seems to me skilful, original, profound and rich in implications for musicians and non-musicians alike’.
This is not the place to paraphrase Rapoport’s six central chapters, but a word is necessary about his approach. The treatment in each case is loosely biographical, particular attention being paid to getting at the facts about the composers’ lives; very necessary when, with the exception of Brian, no biographies have been published in English. Rapoport concentrates upon certain matters of particular interest and importance in the life of each - Vermuelen’s embattled relationship with the Dutch musical establishment, Pettersson’s fight against debilitating illness and poverty, the reasons for, and consequences of, Sorabji’s long ban on performances of his own music, and so on.
Also included in each chapter is a concise and intensive examination of a particular work or works Vermuelen: Symphony No 2; Holmboe: Symphony No 7; Brian: the Gothic Symphony; Pettersson: Symphony No 2; Valen: four orchestral pieces opp 17 & 18; Sorabji: Opus Clavicembalisticum). One is tempted to use the word ‘representative’ in relation to this choice of works, but in fact Rapoport does not give explicit reasons for his choices. In some cases the special link with the biographical section is clear (as in the case of Valen where the peculiar difficulties of documentation, exacerbated by the present ban upon the use of much primary source material, are demonstrated), but perhaps he could have given a little more justification for some of his other choices.
He largely eschews narrative accounts of the works, concentrating instead on a discussion of a few important and perhaps defining characteristics in the composer’s music which can be demonstrated in the work under discussion. These may be purely musical or mood aspects, or rather more abstract concepts such as the particular nature of metamorphosis in relation to Holmboe. It has to be said that these analyses are tough going for the musical layman, but Rapoport’s firm rejection of woolly generalisations and easy analogies will doubtless bring its own regards when his writings are used in conjunction with recordings of the music (all the works except the Sorabji are available on disc and hopefully can be acquired as imports from specialist shops - a discography is given at the end of each chapter).
When he comes to deal with Brian in Chapter IV Rapoport’s approach differs considerably. As he points out, between Brian’s death and the centenary year of his birth a great deal of activity took place - much more performance, recording and publishing of the scores, and the issuing of four major books: Malcolm MacDonald‘s Vol 1 in his study of the symphonies, Reginald Nettel’s revision and updating of Ordeal by Music, Lewis Foreman’s source book on performances of the composer’s orchestral music, and Kenneth Eastaugh’s new biography with its mass of new information about Brian’s early life. As a result, Rapoport foregoes another potted biography and instead discusses the virtues and short-comings of these four books.
As when dealing with his other composers, he brings a sharp eye for consistency and meticulous avoidance of vagueness, but he confines himself to pointing out internal defects (and merits) - nowhere does he seem to offer the results of new research into Brian’s life to confirm or deny contentious points in the books. Thus he quite rightly criticizes Kenneth Eastaugh’s lengthy and confused attempt at establishing a new chronology for the composition of ‘The Gothic’ on the grounds of its seemingly inconsistent use of source material and its lack of precise documentation, but he presents no new evidence of Ms own on the subject. The first half of Rapoport’s Brian chapter is interesting and useful, but compared with the others it does seem to be at one remove from the ‘front line’ of research and exposition of fresh and vital information which one experiences so vividly in the case of, say, the Pettersson chapter.
A t first sight of his choice from Brian’s music for discussion, one might be forgiven a sense of disappointment - more about The Gothic when an extremely detailed essay on it by the author has already been published? Would not an exposition of Prometheus Unbound (as far as possible) or one of the operas have been much more valuable? Perhaps, but nowhere in this account of the symphony does he recross old ground. In fact, what he has to say here seems to me the most exciting and easily accessible of any of the musical discussions in Opus Est, and not just for the Brian specialist. Rapoport does not say so, but it is as though he had one extraordinary flash of insight into the construction of the symphony which leads him to conclusions quite new.
Briefly, he discerns that it is built in the plan of a cathedral - a cruciform (‘Whether consciously or not it is impossible to say at the present). Convert the durations of movements I - III in into dimensions and call them the left transept, crossing and right transept; similarly regard the length of movement IV as the choir, movement V the long dimension of the crossing and movement VI the nave, and you have a vividly obvious cathedral ground-plan. Rapoport makes many points about tonalities, relationships between movements, types of music within movements, etc, consequent upon this basic idea. Given his familiar concise and rigorous method, and his refusal to be led off into flights of unsubstantiated fantasy, it is all absolutely fascinating and well worth the price of the book for this section alone.
The presence of discographies has already been mentioned; it should be added that Opus Est also contains photographs of the six composers, many music examples, select lists of works, notes on the whereabouts of manuscripts, select lists of writings by and about the composers and, in two appendices, details of orchestrations of the main works discussed and addenda updating the lists previously mentioned to late 1978.
NL22 / © David J Brown 1976
Newsletter, NL 22, 1976