Preconceptions and the anti-symphony

Owen Toller

Owen Toller see also
Brian’s productive discontinuity - John Pickard
Brianus ellipsus - Martyn Becker
A sense of discrimination - PJ Taylor

… I do find the ‘anti-symphonic’ elements in Brian disconcerting and a real barrier to total acceptance even after many hearings. As I am not alone in this, I wonder whether the more enthusiastic Brian supporters realise the harm that can be done to the HB cause by pretending that these barriers are not there. Fascinating as I find his music, I know of no tonal composer who seems to put more difficulties in my way.

The response to PJ Taylor’s _article_ has been so stimulating that I am tempted to write in amplification of my own offering [above]. …The fact that this comment was an aside has not prevented one or two people from wilfully misunderstanding what I had to say. One reader took exception to my use of the term ‘anti-symphonic’ as if it were a synonym for ‘unsymphonic’. In fact, the reader’s comment ‘I cannot understand how anyone can describe Brian’s music as anti-symphonic’ illustrates unconsciously exactly the point I was trying to make. We who are enthusiasts for Brian’s music are distressed when critics react negatively to favourite works (such as the review of the third symphony in Gramophone). I suggest that what we should do is not jump back to aggressively dogmatic positions but to consider coolly why Brian’s music sometimes provokes negative responses in the uncommitted, and what we can do to help overcome them.

B y ‘anti-symphonic’ I mean such elements in Brian’s style as the ‘productive discontinuity’ and the unorthodox use of key, both of which contradict standard and classical procedure. Where a classical symphony makes a point of establishing two different keys and bringing them into opposition, ending with the triumph of one of them, Brian makes rapid switches into new keys without either dispelling the old key or providing clear motivation for the establishing of the new one.

I am thinking of the final transfer to F from D in The Gothic, the refusal of the first movement of the second symphony to get very far away from E (not the same phenomenon, but an equally anti-classical procedure), or the strange relationships between C and A in the seventh. I wish someone could persuade Robert Simpson to give us a commentary on some of these works: his exposition of the difficult tonal processes in Bruckner and, particularly, Nielsen is so illuminating that I feel he could explain the logic behind these things which even Malcolm MacDonald does not explain but describe. [Owen is writing in 1990 before Robert Simpson’s death.]

The use of foreign keys is of course a defining characteristic of late-romantic and post-romantic music. You have only to think of Strauss’s harmonic side-steps or Reger’s use of distant keys as local harmonic colour to hear how central to their style is the use of tonality. But these composers do not overthrow the basic axioms. It seems to me that Brian uses keys in the examples I have quoted, not for local colour, but in order to make a statement about classical procedures, to negate them and to suggest their irrelevance in terms of his own day.

The result has all the productive dynamism and tension of more orthodox symphonism and I would never call it unsymphonic. But making a sort of destructive critique of received assumptions is certainly both disturbing and tending to place a hurdle in front of easy acceptance. In any case it is very difficult to convey negatives in music. Parody is often attempted but it is exceedingly unusual for it to be successful as music in its own right (it is stimulating to make up one’s mind as to whether movements such as the finales of Mahler’s seventh or Liszt’s Faust Symphony are really ‘good music’), and I think the same is true for other self-conscious attempts to deny the established order.

The third main element of Brian’s style that I find disconcerting, after the ‘productive discontinuity’ (so stimulatingly discussed by _John Pickard_ and _Martyn Becker_) and use of tonality, is orchestration. This element seems to have received relatively little comment, although a reader of Gramophone wrote a couple of years ago complaining of HB’s ‘gritty orchestral style’. The problems seem to stem from complexity of texture, awkward balances leading to shrill tuttis, and the use of percussion. Texture is another of a composer’s fingerprints and complex textures are hardly bad orchestration per se, but the similarly complex music of Franz Schmidt generally sounds much more smooth and lucid while retaining clarity. It is perhaps over-simplistic to criticise Brian’s orchestral balances as the result of lack of opportunity to hear the music, and I should like to read the views of a conductor experienced in Brian on whether a good tonal blend can be achieved. But turning to the use of side drums and cymbals, we must accept this as a central part of Brian’s expressive texture, whether we like it or not.

Now the real difficulty for the ‘neutral’ listener is that all these three elements of Brian’s style break the ‘rules’ of composition, either as taught explicitly or as observed from experience in the classical masters. The first thing a tyro composer has to learn is how to achieve a sense of continuity, in accordance with Wagner’s famous dictum that the art of composition is the art of transition. Brian does not eschew transition entirely but it is often bypassed, to say nothing of the frequent breaks and ‘pauses for effect’. They are more common than in Bruckner and I understand the feelings of those who suggest, especially in the late symphonies, that they are overdone.

The classical use of tonality is so firmly ingrained in most people to whom it matters at all that it is hard to discard its axioms, except in thinking of Robert Simpson’s dictum: ‘Any muddleheaded dabbler can end in a key other than the one he started in’. As for orchestration, all students are supposed to assume that a well-balanced overall tone is the unquestioned aim, and ‘don’t over-use the percussion’ is a standard injunction.

In other words, HB’s music breaks a lot of beginners’ rules. Nor does it help that, like Ives but not Schönberg. there is little ‘early’ Brian that shows that he could obey the rules if he wanted to. And if mention of ‘rules’ makes me seem rather Beckmesserish, I would like to emphasize that, whatever the text of Die Meistersinger might imply, the music demonstrates that the only fruitful way of developing a new style is in growth from within the established traditions. Hans Pfitzner says the same thing in Palestrina, despite the obscurantist nature of his theoretical writings: in practice Wagner the revolutionary and Pfitzner the conservative are agreed.

We are in effect faced with two choices: either Brian is an incompetent blunderer or his music cannot be judged by ‘normal’ standards. Rejecting ex hypothesis the former alternative, we are left with the problem of what standards if any to apply to him. And at this point I should like to ask two questions:

1 Can you name a bad piece of music?

2 Why is it bad?

I really don’t think that there’s an answer to the second question. Most plausible attempts (‘It’s tasteless’, ‘It’s technically incompetent’) reduce to such statements as ‘I dislike it’ or ‘It doesn’t do what most pieces do’, or can be challenged with the question ‘How do you know that you have understood the composer’s intention?’. Even in the face of a work that manifestly fails to achieve the aims it sets itself, that is not enough per se to make it a bad piece of music. (Does The Ring completely fulfil all its aims?) The trouble is that the uncommitted find it easy to fall Assyrian-like on unconventionalities to ‘explain’ their own lack of positive response, and all music that refuses to ‘obey the rules’ has suffered from related penny-in-the-slot criticisms from Beethoven 9 onwards. It is too easy to say that a piece of music is ‘bad’, or to accept ex cathedra judgements of this sort by critics; I think one should take every opportunity to expose the shallowness of such statements.

It is not hard to maintain that there are no such things as absolute standards, but no one wants to think that all music is equally good, that Beethoven 7 is no better (nor worse) a piece than Beethoven 1. Surely what matters, regardless of what the analysts say, is the individualness of a work of art, the way in which it creates an atmosphere and an existence unlike that of anything else. Undoubtedly, as far as I am concerned, Brian achieves this, and we need to find ways of persuading those listeners who have not yet experienced it that it does exist, that perseverance will be rewarded.

Talking to intelligent music lovers I am well aware that preconceptions regarding HB continue to exist. We need to find ways of dispelling the still widely-held myth that Brian is merely a composer of excessively long and impractical works; at least one can hope that the recording of The Gothic will bring it down from the mythological clouds. We have at all costs to dispel the overtones of crankiness which can still adhere to the HB enthusiast in the way that they used to adhere to the Greens. (Even I was cautious about whether enthusiasm for HB was merely crankish before I made the acquaintance of HB’s music, and I apologise to the shade of HB and to the Society for my unspoken doubts. [Why? – JRM]) And we must bear in mind that at present more unfamiliar music is coming more rapidly to public attention than at any time in history, thanks to the success of CD. We are, if you like, competing in a very full market.

I f the music speaks for itself, the problems don’t matter, as Martyn Becker said. It’s rather like the problem of delay in Hamlet; looked at coldly, there are huge difficulties to overcome, but when the play is done at all adequately doubts are overcome. We will do ourselves no good at all by pretending that other people shouldn’t have problems with music that we feel we know and understand, and I think we have to tread a narrow path to combine enthusiasm with realism.

I’m very well aware that I haven’t offered much in the way of answers to the questions I’ve suggested. … Once the seventh, the third, The Gothic, and one or two others like the fourth are recorded, Brian is, to an extent, out there to stand up for himself. Perhaps our motto might be these words from Proust’s La Prisonnière:

Perhaps it is in the unknown quality of a unique world which no other composer had yet revealed, that the authentic proof of genius lies, even more than in the content of the work itself.

NL87 © 1990 Owen Toller

Newsletter, NL 87, 1990