A personal view

Donald Macauley

Donald Macauley

I hesitated a while - quite a long while actually - before writing this piece. I am not a practising musician: I did begin to learn the piano, along with musical theory, in my late twenties, but realising I would never be more than a plodding pianist abandoned both within a few years. I cannot therefore hope to add anything to the reams of exhaustively analytical material which have appeared in the Newsletter [and now this website! – JRM] since it began. A listener only, then, but an experienced listener with well-trained ears (I like to think) and few prejudices except an aversion to Vivaldi, Chopin, Richard Strauss, the entire second Viennese School, any new piece with an obscurely pretentious title and a long explanatory programme note etc etc… Composers need listeners, after all; bearing in mind their famous intolerance towards each other’s work, it is quite likely that any premiere attended solely by fellow musicians would be greeted not merely by boos and catcalls (as was Birtwistle’s Gawain) but by fist fights and the throwing of crockery.

I first became aware of Havergal Brian’s name in 1966, at the time of the Albert hall Gothic under Boult. Our school library stocked the now sadly defunct Listener magazine, and I read with fascination an account of the composer’s long life and extraordinary perseverance in the face of neglect, indifference and sometimes outright hostility. I couldn’t afford to get to London for the concert (I believe it was a sell-out anyway) but I made sure that I tuned into the broadcast. It would be dishonest to claim that very much of this vast and complex work got through to me at first hearing but at any rate enough must have done to persuade me to keep an eye open for further broadcasts.

The next was, I think, the 7th Symphony (then No 6) under Harry Newstone. Listening conditions were not ideal: I was doing a pre-college job and had to lug my old portable radio into a nearby park at lunchtime. The opening brass fanfares, the march rhythms and the bell-stroke at the end stuck in my mind until the next opportunity to hear the work (Liverpool, 1987!).

The first recordings followed, eagerly snapped up, then the centenary festival at Alexandra Palace in the pre-fire days, and best of all, the 1980 Gothic under Ole Schmidt; without benefit of the composer’s presence, this time, but with a sweep and conviction that seemed to stun the audience, many of whom were clearly foreign tourists who had bought tickets on spec.

Well, a complete symphonic cycle is now [1994] under way on Marco Polo (inconceivable even ten years ago) while the situation with public performances remains as dire as ever. Not that Brian is the only composer so affected: the advent of compact discs has at last begun to give something approaching proper representation to such previously neglected figures as Pfitzner, Reger, Schmidt, Holmboe and Simpson, but concert promoters remain entrenched, offering familiar fare for the most part. Is this, perhaps, one reason for the oft-cited ‘ageing and declining’ audience for symphony concerts?

I am not underestimating the innate conservatism of concert-goers, but there would seem to be little point in paying to hear some hack mangle the Eroica, or other favourite, when you can hear it done properly at home in first-rate sound, and without your concentration destroyed by people who seem to think they’re attending a sporting event, and applaud between movements… special places in hell should be reserved for them. Unfamiliar music will only become established in the repertoire by regular exposure and vigorous promotion: so far, this has not been forthcoming in Brian’s case.

It took me a long time to find my way into Brian’s sound-world. He is a difficult composer initially, I think, and many do in fact give up and retreat after a couple of hearings. The abrupt changes of tempo, dynamics and mood can be baffling at first, as can his occasional habit of slapping on the brakes at the very moment when the music seems to have developed an unstoppable momentum. Nor is there usually any discernible kinship with other composers; whereas a knowledge of Beethoven and Nielsen may help towards an understanding of Robert Simpson’s music (without diminishing Simpson’s individuality) I have found no such parallels with Havergal Brian. An uneven writer, too: at worst, the personal mannerisms can become maddeningly intrusive, obscuring the line of his musical thought.

E verybody has their own favourites, and other works that are somewhat less than that, without there being any general agreement on the matter. I will keep quiet about the latter, save to express my surprise that the Society selected the Third Symphony for early sponsorship (author retreats behind his desk as a hail of missiles from enraged Third Symphony fans peppers the windows…). For all that, persistence does pay off, and those who abandon the effort at an early stage are missing an experience which no other composer can provide. He will probably never be fashionable, nor lose his ‘controversial’ label but then, neither has Berlioz. For every person who, correctly, regards the Frenchman as one of the great masters, you will find one who considers him an utter charlatan. They are, I suppose, entitled to their opinion - the cloth-eared twerps.

There are second-rate musicians who occasionally excel themselves and produce very good work: Saint-Saëns with his Organ Symphony, for example. Brian at his best is far above such efforts. Every time I listen to the scherzo (inadequate word!) of The Gothic, the eerie central movement of Das Siegeslied, the sinister measured tread of the ‘Gargoyles’ from The Tigers, the light airy spaces of the Faust prologue, or the heart-rending stoicism of the Elegy. I sit transfixed, awed by the power and the originality of the music. For these, and much else, one can forgive Brian his lapses. This is why the Society was founded; why we are still here.

1994 / NL114

Newsletter, NL 114