Ordeal by music … and after

Reginald Nettel

Reginald Nettel Ordeal by music was written in 1943-4, at a time when I was working in an aircraft factory. Working long hours, I had only about one hour before bedtime in which to write down what I could; but during the day, at work, when I was generally thinking of other matters, I have no doubt that the constructive thought was going on. I could only get to a library when I was working on night shift, and this meant losing sleep. Why did I do this? I can only say that it gave me relief from the anxiety of the war. Some of my workmates had been bombed out of two factories, but fortunately the Germans never found the third - a new factory built well away from any town.

There had been an earlier book, Music in the Five Towns, which had dealt with music in the district to which both Brian and I belonged, but this contained only one chapter on Brian, and that only dealt with his Potteries compositions. Since 1913, when Brian left the Potteries, he had developed beyond all expectation; the book was quite inadequate as a commentary on Brian and his work. In fact, I did not get an introduction to Brian until Music in the Five Towns had reached the proof stage.

Before the publication of that book I had become a member of the Royal Musical Association, and it was there that I got my first up-to-date information about Brian. ‘Oh, yes,’ said a member, ‘Havergal Brian’s still alive, and still composing. He pins the score to his bedroom wall - all the way down - and works on it from a step-ladder.’

It was a joke, and I knew it, but coming from a musician of some eminence, I took the bait. Brian had fallen off. He was getting elephant-minded. So, when I did get to see him, and he showed me the score of his Prometheus Unbound - which, although large, went on a table easily enough - I was rather taken aback by its size, and assumed that there was something in the idea that Brian had got beyond the feasible. He was sixty-nine at that time, but looked older. (Twenty years later he looked younger!) He had given up hope that anyone would want to perform anything like his Prometheus unbound, but he loved it, and was, I think, a bit disappointed that I did not wax enthusiastic about it.

We had a continuous correspondence about what was to go in my book, and he saw all the manuscript chapters as they were written, and the galley-proofs, but not the page-proofs. It was, then, largely Brian’s book. In most cases I kept to what he said, even though I had a different opinion. He used to say he was a countryman at heart, and so, in fact, was I; but we both had lived in an industrial city and had the urban-dwellers’ love of country because of its beauty and peace - peace which was denied us in our town-life. For a time Brian had found that peace when he was organist at Odd Rode Church, Cheshire, and was working for a timber-merchant, visiting farmers who had standing timber to sell. From this period came his First English suite - not phoney folk, but the humorous view of a townsman going among the country people.

From his experience as an organist come his settings of the two Psalms The Lord is my shepherd and By the waters of Babylon. They are both in the Anglican Church tradition - anthems starting with an introduction leading to a solo passage, then a fugue and a final episode, hut both are too massive for use in a parish church service. They are choral festival music. Nothing that Brian wrote is actually suitable for the church ritual. Brian had a constructive mind always; he went beyond what was usual and created something bolder and deeper; but it was not revolutionary, Brian did not destroy; he evolved from what was known to be good. (Only at one period did Brian turn revolutionary, and that was when he wrote his first opera, The tigers, in which he got his hatred for senseless authority out of his system. It was revolutionary at the time, but history has since had something to say about how the first world war was conducted, and if The tigers were produced now, it would be understood.)

Ordeal by music had a good reception. There were no adverse criticisms of the book, but of course there were reservations with regard to the music, for nobody could recollect what it was like. The final decision, all agreed, must rest with Brian’s music itself. Only performances would tell. These have now taken place. Moreover, after Ordeal by music was written Brian took on that remarkable lease of creative activity which gave us all the works of his post second world war period - in my opinion the best works of his life - better even than the Gothic symphony.

What I had written in 1943-4 was out of date; it had not shown the remarkable change which had come upon him. I had seen him in 1942 an old, weak man, a tragic figure, a modern Lear; I was wrong. Right under my nose had been Prometheus unbound and I had not appreciated its significance. Brian never had been a King Lear - he had been Promethean all along. So Havergal Brian: the man and his music [Dobson, 1976] had to come, repeating what was essential of Ordeal by music and going on from there, addressed to people who were now familiar with Brian’s music, through the advocacy of Dr Robert Simpson and the BBC. I think I have vindicated what Sir Granville Bantock told me in 1943: ‘You are undoubtedly right in assuming that the case of Havergal Brian deserves public attention. His music has been shamefully neglected‘. If I never publish another book I shall have served my turn.

NL7 / © Reginald Nettel 1976

Newsletter, NL 7, 1976