Havergal Brian and the percussion section

Rodney Stephen Newton

A broad survey - Rodney Stephen Newton Rodney Stephen Newton was born in Birmingham in 1945 and has pursued the dual careers of composer and orchestral player. At the time of writing he was sub-principal percussionist with the English National Opera Orchestra.

‘You like Havergal Brian’s music because of all that percussion!’ So said an orchestral player to me recently - and one who had taken part in the 1976 Brian Centenary concerts. My enthusiasm for Brian is certainly not founded on his percussion writing alone, although I must confess that at times he appears somewhat generous with respect to that department. Although by present-day standards his percussion writing is generally conventional, Brian certainly manages in places to put his own individual stamp on his percussion parts.

Brian’s percussion department is basically that of the romantic orchestra of the first half of this century, the orchestra used by Elgar, Strauss, Mahler and to a large extent Shostakovitch. The instruments principally employed are glockenspiel, xylophone, tubular bells, side drum(s), cymbals, castanets, triangle, tambourine, occasional use of vibraphone, wind and thunder machines and the Indian tabla. In the main, only one set of timpani is used, although that requirement is occasionally raised to two or even three sets. In the operas there are a few passages needing more than one timpanist, but in general these spots could be covered by the percusssonists who are resting at these points.

It is with a consideration of Brian’s timpani writing that I would like to begin this short study. The instruments in use during the first period of Brian’s creative life (ie that up to and including the Gothic Symphony) were somewhat less sophisticated than those in use today. Pedal-tuned timpani certainly were in use, as were timpani tuned by means of a master screw (and still used by the Vienna Philharmonic), but in this country the preference was generally for timpani tuned by means of five, six or eight hand screws. This ruled out any sudden changes of tuning on each drum, and a lack of standardization in both drum sizes and quality of heads meant that each set had virtually its own individual characteristics. Thus, throughout Brian’s work, we find an eminently practical approach to timpani tuning. There is nearly always time to change notes comfortably, and the notes chosen fit, in the main, well within the best working range of each drum. Only in an isolated passage in the Gothic Symphony do we find notes crowded in a manner that would work best on pedal timpani.

There are a few instances of notes in the upper register of the timpani being used (top A in Symphony no 2, top G in the Prelude to The Cenci and Part Two of the Gothic) but nothing like the stratospheric writing of Janacek, for example, is found. At the other end, however, we find Brian frequently employing the low register of the timpani to great effect. In the first half of this century timpani heads were exclusively made from animal hide, calf and goat being the most common - and a distinctive feature of animal heads as against the plastic heads in general use today is a great richness of sound in the lower range of any given drum.

Thus composers from Wagner onwards showed great interest in the sombre, funereal qualities of low timpani notes (listen to the low D and Eb entries in Mahler’s ninth symphony and observe the way they colour the music with dark thunder-clouds). Brian was obviously acutely aware of this potential and frequently makes use of low notes to give an effect of foreboding, However, with characteristic independence Brian does something quite different from anyone else at the very outset of the Gothic Symphony. After a couple of bars of introduction, two timpanists crash out a rhythmic motto - in octaves.

This type of writing is quite unique in my experience, and I should be most interested to hear from anyone who can quote a parallel example from any other composer. The effect is of elemental power and force, grasping the listener by the scruff of the neck, as it were.

Brian’s disposition of notes between timpanists is sensible and practical - although there are places in Symphony no 2 where, from my examination of the score, there seems to be some confusion as to which timpanist plays which notes. Perhaps someone involved in the performance of this work might let me know how these problems were resolved. Havergal Brian’s admiration of Berlioz caused him not only to emulate the French master in the use of large choral and orchestral forces, but also in the use of timpani as harmonic instruments. The opening of Symphony no 2 recalls the Berlioz of the Symphonic Fantastique.

In The Cenci there are two entries involving four timpanists (one drum per player). These spots may be played on one set of timpani by the principal timpanist and three other percussionist who are tacet. In the first case, however, the players must take up their positions as Beatrice sings ‘Am I, or am I not, a parricide ?’, involving a bit of a scramble over a couple of bars of very quiet music. This, however, is not beyond the bounds of practicality and has a parallel in Ginastera’s opera Bomarzo -also in a passage involving four timpanists.

The most striking example of Brian’s multiple timpani writing is to be found in Part Two of the Gothic Symphony. Here the writing (for two orchestral timpanists and four in the additional brass groups) is so individual as to almost call for a separate study. At one point the low range of the timpani is again exploited together with some showy stick work in the playing of the grace notes. Such writing is quite unique to Brian. During the period encompassing Brian’s later works, pedal timpani (complete with plastic heads sized drums), fine tuning devices and note gauges affording a wider upper range from standard (ensuring accurate intonation in rapid changes of pitch) established their preeminence over the hand-screw models. However, we find Brian ignoring the glissandi and scales that were now becoming commonplace in contemporary music. On the contrary, his timpani writing still remained basically simple, showing no desire to return to the flamboyant style of the Gothic Symphony. In the main, only one set of timpani is required in the later symphonies - with the exceptions of nos 22 and 25 which both require two players, the parts still being conservatively written.

Xylophone and glockenspiel
The xylophone and glockenspiel appear in all Brian’s major works, often in unison giving a diamond-hard glint to the music. Often the instruments pick out little phrases in the upper lines of the orchestra and sometimes they augment the wind in scale passages (a mannerism found in many of Brian’s symphonies).

In addition to these typical ways, for Brian, of using these instruments, the glockenspiel and xylophone are also given many solo passages containing elements of both virtuosity and atmosphere. For instance, the glockenspiel is featured in Symphony no 8 and at the opening of Symphony no 12, as well as in the highly imaginative music preceding the ‘storm’ in Symphony no 10. One could go on for pages giving examples from his oeuvre, but I think the above cases give an adequate impression of Brian’s feeling for colour in his writing for the glockenspiel.

Brian’s xylophonist is frequently allowed to demonstrate his technique in passages demanding the utmost ingenuity in sticking. Such moments have already ensconced themselves in the percussionists’ rogues gallery of tricky solos.

Brian’s use of the vibraphone, on the other hand, is extremely sparing. A couple of ‘guest appearances’ in Symphonies nos 21 and 28 are the only appearances of this beautiful instrument in Brian’s output as far as I can discover. I find it somewhat remarkable that a composer with such an acute sense of orchestral colour and timbre should have almost ignored an instrument of which he must have been aware for some years. It is a matter for personal regret that no place was found for the vibraphone in passages such as that in Symphony No 14 where Brian evokes an icy, shimmering atmosphere over a darkly gliding bass line.

The exciting discovery of the manuscript full score of The tigers causes me [to amend this view to an extent]. The most astonishing feature regarding the percussion score of The tigers is the use in Act 2 of the vibraphone - two vibraphones to be exact. [Despite] the fact that Brian uses the vibraphone only in a couple of brief instances in his later symphonies… here we have him employing the instrument only a few years after its introduction.

The vibraphone was invented by a certain Hermann Winterhof of the Leedy Drum Company of America in 1916, and by 1921 the original instrument had been developed into more or less the instrument we know today. However, the vibraphone was not exported to this country much before the 1930s and then was only to be found in the dance band. However, we now have the evidence of Brian’s own hand that the opera was completed in July 1929. Moreover, Alban Berg is generally credited with the introduction of the vibraphone into serious music in his opera Lulu - but this was not until 1934. How, then, did Brian come across what was at that time a very obscure instrument?

I think the answer lies in the fact that much of the early work on The tigers was done in Birmingham where the firm of EA Parsons - then one of the world‘s foremost percussion instrument manufacturers - had its premises. At that time they were in serious competition with Messrs Leedy and would have wasted no time in obtaining details of the latest developments and possibly even constructing their own prototypes. Furthermore, as Ernest Parsons Snr, and his sons, Ernest Jnr (under whom I studied) and Albert were all distinguished timpanists and percussionists and close friends of Sir Granville Bantock, they would doubtless have known Brian well in those days.

The part in the opera is given to two players on one line each (one consistently bass and the other treble) and combined with the tubaphone - an instrument consisting of a series of slim metal tubes laid horizontally after the manner of the glockenspiel. It is clear that Brian fully understood the vibrato effect and the possibilities of phrasing by using the damper pedal.

Tubular bells
Brian uses tubular bells in a number of his works. The Gothic has a part in the Te Deum for a standard set of chimes, but more often Brian uses just one or two bells. These can be in the normal range (middle C to the F above) or, as in the seventh symphony, low bells. In this instance Brian conjures up an image of Strasbourg Cathedral in one of the many works inspired by Goethe. Sometimes, however, Brian’s bells can sound like spectres at the banquet, as in Symphonies Nos 25 and 30, where they enter without any warning as if sounding some strange death-knell.

We shall now turn our attention to the untuned percussion instruments - the chief of these being the side-drum. Brian’s side-drum parts are, again, of a basically simple nature, relying on elementary rudiments for any ornamentation, but once more he puts his own stamp on his writing for the instrument. It is frequently used in a solo role and also to underline the main instrumental lines, giving fierce rhythmic impetus at times. The peculiarity lies in the fact that Brian insisted that three sidedrums be used for his works, as against the usual one. Although the effect is often exciting, it does lead to certain problems of balance in performance.

Malcolm MacDonald has described the sound of three side-drums in unison as ‘heavy’ and ‘penetrating’ - and this is so. However, the final result is sometimes so heavy and penetrating that the music is all but obscured. It is perfectly possible to obtain a heavy, threatening sound from a large, deep shell side-drum tuned carefully (an instrument with calf or goat heads and gut snares would be especially suitable) and a single instrument of this nature might prove perfectly acceptable In symphonies like nos 20, 21 and 22, where no undue prominence is given to the side-drum. However, I don’t think this is the ultimate answer by any means.

There are plenty of Brian works such as Symphonies 6, 7 and 8 in which any reduction in the number of side-drums would considerably weaken the overall effect. Here, for example, much of the bizarre, funereal atmosphere would be lost with only one sidedrum in action. Notice also that Brian is fully aware of the differences in tonal colour obtained by releasing the snare mechanism. This can be done fairly quietly on most modern instruments - although on older models with only a screw to tension the snare, it was necessary to muffle the instrument by placing a handkerchief between the snare and the snare head.

Returning to the ‘à3 or not à3’ problem, I think the only satisfactory solution is for both conductor and principal percussionist to use their discretion and musicianship in deciding just when three drums are essential to the overall effect, and when one drum may do. In addition a close ear must be kept on the balance of the drums. From an examination of the scores, it is clear that Brian wrote his side-drum parts with one composite sound in mind - that is, when a fortissimo passage occurs, the resultant dynamic of the drums must be fortissimo not the individual dynamic of each player! Observing this point in future Brian performances may greatly assist in clarifying the general orchestral texture, and may allow the principal lines to emerge instead of being submerged under a barrage of sound.

Jingles (sleigh bells)
My good friend Graham Hatton observes that I [have] omitted to mention that Brian uses jingles (sleigh bells) sparingly to give the occasional splash of colour to a passage (again, it is present in the Prologue of The tigers ). Readers familiar with the LPO/Fredman recording of Sinfonia tragica will know the arresting sound of the jingles towards the middle of the big ‘battle’ sequence. Brian actually asked for ‘small un-tuned bells’ - but I think the large sleigh bells used on the recording give a pretty fair account of what he meant.

Mr Hatton also draws my attention to the ruthe (a switch made of birch twigs used on the bass drum in German military bands, and also by Haydn, Mozart and Mahler) in Brian’s Faust. l am properly ashamed of this omission, considering my work on Brian’s operas. The ruthe (pronounced ‘root’) is used very briefly but its inclusion is remarkable since it is a peculiarly German device and Faust is the most authentically ‘German’ of Brian’s stage works.

Brian’s use of the tam-tam has led me to the conclusion that the instruments in common use today do not quite give the sound that Brian seems to have had in mind. Most of our orchestras use large tam-tams manufactured in Switzerland which give a piercing sound when struck heavily, have considerable sustaining power, but are generally lacking in low harmonics - a deficiency that becomes plain when these instruments are struck softly. From a study of his scores, it would seem that Brian had the darker-toned tamtams of Eastern manufacture in mind. These instruments (happily still fairly easy to obtain) have less sustaining power than their Swiss counterparts, but give a deep sinister sound when struck softly and produce a far more distinct sound on immediate impact in fortissimo passages. Symphony no 9 serves to illustrate the sort of writing that has led me to this conclusion.

Other instruments
Brian’s handling of the other untuned percussion instruments is fairly conventional, although once again the Gothic provides a prescribed in Part Two, as are a thunder machine (Brian did not want the tinny thunder sheet that so often occurs and is so ineffectual) and a ‘bird scare’ (i.e. a football rattle - called ‘scare crow’ on page 184 of the published score). However, for the vast majority of his works, Brian employs a normal section in the usual manner. Thunder and wind machines turn up in Symphony no 10, and an Indian tabla in English Suite No 4,but these are exceptions.

In ensemble
Brian’s treatment of the percussion section as a whole is essentially dramatic. He builds, in places, great blocks of sound with his multiple side-drums, bass drum and tam-tam all rolling together. His use of the instruments in this manner is reminiscent of Shostakovitch who also favours great waves of sound from his percussion section. This is not to say that Brian is insensitive in his percussion writing - far from it. There are many examples of his use of percussion ensemble passages in the pianissimo range. Two good examples are the third movement of Symphony no 21 and the second movement of no 30. In both cases the percussion whirr and click away like some fantastic machine.

Returning to Brian’s louder passages, we come once again across the problem of balance. Over the last 20 years or so the dynamic ranges of most major orchestras have become wider and, with the increase in the size of timpani, drums, cymbals and gongs, it is very easy for the percussion to swamp in passages like the coda to Symphony no 18. In the recording studio these moments are no problem but in the concert hall great care must be taken to ensure a correct balance while preserving the dramatic impact.

In the course of this article I have only scratched the surface of the subject under consideration and I hope I may deal with further issues at a later date - particularly with regard to the operas, which I am hoping to make the subject of a detailed study in the near future. However, I hope I have at least provided an insight into a significant aspect of Brian’s work and perhaps provoked discussion over a few points. Increased public performance will help to bring the problems into focus and provide answers in future years - until then there are so many areas of this fascinating and important composer to study, and I hope this article may encourage other instrumentalists to make a study of Brian from their own standpoint.

NL13,14 / © Rodney Stephen Newton 1977

Newsletter, NL 13,14, 1977