A personal odyssey

Martyn Becker

Martyn Becker

John Williams, the guitarist, once said that most of today’s pop music is rubbish but that some of it is good; and that there is a great deal of good classical music but there’s also an awful lot of rubbish. Whilst not pretending to have the great depth of knowledge that Mr Williams undoubtedly has, and not therefore being able really to agree or disagree with him, it is easy to appreciate his point of view. It is not so easy to specify which kinds of so-called ‘classical’ music, or even specific composers, can be allotted to mental ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ pigeonholes.

Like it or not, everyone has his own musical prejudices which are probably subconscious to a certain degree. Sympathy or antipathy with a certain type of musical expression may be a fact of life that one can’t explain, or a conscious effort on the part of the listener. Subjectively speaking, my own musical appreciation has grown tremendously in the last ten years, and certain composers are growing with me: hence the personal odyssey.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines odyssey as a long, adventurous journey, and that term is certainly applicable to my awareness of Brian’s music. Long - well, the eight years that I’ve been aware of Brian is just over a quarter of my current age so, on a percentage basis, it is quite long and, of course, ever-increasing. Adventurous - certainly, even if at times it has been comparable with the legend of Atlantis: heard of but impossible to find.

The musical straight-and-narrow is littered with composers whose names alone can provoke an almost contemptuous reaction due to the familiarity of some of their music. Brian’s name certainly doesn’t occupy this straight-and-narrow because to date, familiarity with his work is not something that one can readily expect from the musical public. Admittedly, his music can sound daunting to the unsuspecting because of its striking individuality and, although time and patience do bring great rewards, it would be a mistake to think that Brian wrote nothing but masterpieces time after time.

In his magnum opus of 32 symphonies, many are exceptionally fine in their construction and content, but there are others which (to me) do not succeed to anything like the same degree. Indeed, it is easy to be caught napping in many Brian works, the good as well as the not-so-good, because of the musical extremes which are employed time after time. To one brought up on the great Romantic works of the 19th Century, the comparative lack of ‘singable’ tunes was a little unnerving at first, but in time has become a recognizable Brian hallmark - to such an extent that when one gets a long stretch of unbroken melody, a little voice nags ‘Don’t relax, something’s bound to happen in a minute!’ A perfect example is the first movement second subject of The Gothic. The precipitate way in which symphonic episodes begin and end can sound initially a little contrived, but ultimately no more so than Mahler’s schmaltzy string glissandi which work to such good effect.

Even the music of the greatest composers cannot be inspired 100 per cent of the time. Bruckner’s huge Eighth Symphony must surely be regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of the orchestral repertoire, but even committed Brucknerians will acknowledge that there are periods in the work in which inspiration takes a little longer than normal to make its point, and a certain degree of patience and anticipation is required.

It was the novelty of Brian’s music which first interested me, I think. The story started at University, where I was fortunate enough to be associated with a crowd of music students - Brian’s name came up in conversation one day and I thought ‘Who?! What an unusual name’ Time crept inexorably on and, soon I’d graduated, married and moved to Sussex. As I mentioned, my musical taste had gravitated around the great Classical/Romantic periods and was beginning to creep into other areas, notably English music. The André Previn set of Vaughan Williams symphonies was a quantum leap forward in the expansion of my musical awareness, as was the first encounter with Wagner’s Ring cycle.

My musical god at the time was Tchaikovsky (one of the names inhabiting the straight-and-narrow) and I was busily collecting as much of his recorded music as I could lay my hands on, when one day in June 1975 I happened to hear a broadcast of Brian’s 18th Symphony, conducted by Bryan Fairfax. The novelty of it struck me immediately, and I went to our local library to dig out as much recorded Brian as I could, and listen to it. Lo and behold, I found three Brian discs available: the Lyrita 6th and 16th, the Unicorn 10th and 21st, and the CBS including the English Suite No 5 and the Symphonia Brevis. The condition of library discs being what they tend to be, I risked my valuable stylus long enough to convince myself of the quality of that music, and obtained the recordings for myself.

It struck me then, as it still does now, that if any music was so designed as to arouse curiosity about its composer than the opening of the 6th Symphony, the Sinfonia Tragica, must be a front runner. To somebody just branching out past Dvoràk, Elgar and Prokofiev, the stuttering cello line instantly indicated something altogether different. Its continuation into the rocking string figure accompanying cello pizzicati and xylophone and the answering ‘distant thunder of bass drum and gong’ (MacDonald) must surely be one of the great timeless passages in all music, paradoxically static and flowing. Its companion work on the disc, the 16th, is a magnificent piece whose coda is almost prehistoric in its power and strangeness. Myer Fredman secures committed and thrilling performances, Brian’s theme-fragments being brought off to very good effect. The discs demonstrated that one has to listen to Brian with different ears from the ones used for Tchaikovsky. Even Bruckner ears need a little modifying for use with Brian, but enthusiasm was amply rewarded.

It was here that I hit a brick wall; the Gramophone Classical Catalogue indicated that no more Brian existed on disc, and who knew if any more ever would. Thus I was left with the records, and three books to read; Nettel’s and Eastaugh’s biographies, and MacDonald’s Symphonies, Vol 1. The books were constantly whetting my appetite for greater things. There was this ultra-huge Gothic Symphony, only twice performed, the mythical Prometheus Unbound - four hours of vast cantata for which the full score was tragically missing - Das Siegeslied, The Tigers… so many other works almost unheard of by the majority of the musical public and actually unheard by almost everyone.

Then, the BBC came to the rescue with the broadcasts of virtually a third of Brian’s entire symphonic output, between 1975 and 1980. The stylistic changes between the earliest symphony I’d yet heard (the almost Nielsenesque Sixth) and his last were apparent even to my untrained ear, and it became even more obvious that in Brian we had one of the major figures in 20th century British music.

Living in Sussex has many benefits, one of which being that it’s a relatively short trip to London’s concert halls. By the late 70s it had become painfully apparent that no-one was prepared to programme Brian in any of the major venues, with the exception of Sir Charles Groves’ ecstatically-received rendition of the Ninth Symphony at the Proms, subsequently recorded by EMI.

Then, early in 1980, a notice appeared in the London Symphony Orchestra Club bulletin about the LSO’s forthcoming performance of the Gothic Symphony in the Albert Hall. This was an opportunity not to be missed, and my wife and I temporarily abandoned our Bank Holiday camping expedition on the very Sussex Downs which surrounded Brian during the composition of that epic work, and travelled to London on the afternoon of 25 May. The 1966 performance had apparently been met with enthusiasm and a little uncertainty - what would it be like in 1980? In the event, armed with the programme and the Truscott/Rapoport Two studies, we found the concert overwhelming, as did the rest of the audience: the first two ‘Non confundar’ outbursts were both uplifting and terrifying in their dissonance, the final hushed one as breathtaking in its own way as the transcendental climax of Mahler’s Eighth.

What else could I do, but join the HBS! Thanks to Ted Heaton’s tape library, I’ve been able to listen to many of Brian’s works previously unknown to me, and what a varied and absorbing collection they make. Malcolm MacDonald’s three-volume study of the symphonies is invaluable in that it enables the average non-theoretical musician to follow them and their logic, and ultimately appreciate and enjoy them even more.

First impressions of many of Brian’s works provoked wide-ranging reactions in me, and mostly good ones at that. On listening to the Third Symphony for the first time, I kept on being reminded of the music of Franz Schmidt especially in the second and third movements. The first movement of the 11th contains some of the most beguilingly beautiful music I’ve ever beard, and the serene, compulsive 29th gives no indication of having been composed by a man in his nineties. Music of this quality makes one wonder how he kept on doing it!

Having listened to a lot of Brian, I have found it difficult to share the viewpoint of other commentators when they indicate a Brian sideswipe, satirical or otherwise, at another composer. On a theoretical level there may well be, but from this listener’s point of view, no. In Brian’s 10th there is a violent orchestral storm, supposedly akin to the one in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Granted, they make the same sort of effect although Brian’s is much shorter and (to me) in a different tonal universe. In The Tigers Brian is said to be parodying Strauss again, Wagner et al, but I find it difficult to pick out these places, apart from the odd harmony which may inspire a flash of déja vu. Certainly Brian doesn’t resort to the kind of crass imitation which Glazunov perpetrates in the Third Act of his ballet Raymonda, where he not only lifts Wagnerian harmonies wholesale, but almost the tunes as well. Maybe I’m not looking at it with musicological insight, but then the music still sounds pretty good without it, so why worry

Part of the answer may be that whereas Strauss, later in his life, was still thinking pictorially, as in the multi-subtitled Alpine Symphony where the cows can almost be heard grazing, and the pitons hammered into the mountain face, Brian’s later orchestral works evoke no such pictorialism. It seems as if we are in the realm of absolute music that inhabits a different dimension in much the same unearthly way that Bruckner’s Ninth does.

Doubtless there will be disagreement with my viewpoint, but then they’re my reactions only. If the music elicits a wide variety of different reaction within different people, then it must be good enough ‘to reach the parts that other composers cannot reach’ which is why of course we all belong to the Havergal Brian Society. Brian’s music may be hard to come by, but its individuality and rugged splendour make it gratifying to come to terms with. If only it were performed more!

What of the future? The personal odyssey will sail on, gathering momentum as the music becomes ever more familiar. Who knows, we may one day see Brian as This Week’s Composer on Radio 3, or as a regular at the Last Night of the Proms. We shall have to wait and see.

1984 / NL52

Newsletter, NL 52