An inter-wars’ reference

Peter Coussee

Peter Coussee One of the relatively few works to mention Havergal Brian in the inter-War years was a book entitled Contemporary British Composers. It is sufficiently scarce to warrant description here, being in fact something of a collectors’ item. It was published in 1925 by Cecil Palmer with portraits and musical facsimiles, and the author was the composer Josef Holbrooke. He wrote the work in a most acerbic style, starting with a quotation (the origin of which I would welcome learning):

Come, my songs, let us speak of perfection
We shall get ourselves rather disliked

  • thus setting the tone for the rest of the book, which was said to be asked of the author by the publishers.

Havergal Brian has a chapter on his own fairly early on and in addition his name is sprinkled throughout the whole work, starting in the opening chapter "Looking Around", which is largely a diatribe against musical journalism in general and the British species in particular. The entire volume might justly be described as an indictment of British musical life (and regrettably, Holbrooke’s points still hold true. His own centenary - last year - was, I think, celebrated by the BBC only with one or two broadcasts.) Amid the tirades, however, may often be found gems of truth; some of these will be found in the chapter on Havergal Brian.

Among the earliest is: "The brutal downright utterances of Havergal Brian in music stand as so original to me that it is a true delight to witness an artist such as this putting forth his powers and baffling that well-known entity who has to find out the nearest relation to anything before he can place it. You will not place Havergal Brian in a hurry." This last sentence is still true over half a century later, as is also the description of the For Valour Overture: "Not eclectic this music, just individual and iconoclasm let loose. A true scarer of the four-part harmonist and the quiet sedate contrapuntist." The final sentence is again still true.

By and large, the chapter is very pro-Brian and, like the others on major British composers of that time, contains a list of works (covering the best part of 3 and half pages) plus a concise biography; in this case, given by Brian himself. There are three musical examples given , more than for any other composer in the book with the solitary exception of John Ireland, who also has three. (Not bad going in a work that mentions some two dozen composers.) Holbrooke does not fail to mention the commissioning of works of no character and little promise: "Such music is never played except at the place of its inception". (Did someone mention Cheltenham symphonies???) He goes on to say that performers of Brian’s music will not forget it, though their task will be well set out. "It may indeed succeed in making them and the listener savage. After all, this does not occur often enough in our art."

(I must add that it is impossible to refrain from quotations from this chapter but, apart from one other, I will endeavour to use no more.)

Holbrooke quotes Brian as saying that his favourite among his output is the Symphony in D minor (i.e. The Gothic). In a letter to Holbrooke, Brian says "I am anxious to avoid disaster for my family. The ‘Hidden Hand‘ is too much for me…" Quotations from other writers are also used, including a long one by W.H. Gaunt from The Musical Standard of 1907 on Brian’s setting of By the Waters of Babylon.

Despite his constantly acid style, Holbrooke has managed more than most to come to terms with much of Brian’s early output, and also to appreciate it. "Brian has rare moments of simplicity - but he has them." - yet another statement which is still valid half a century later.

With reference to the book as a whole, one must he grateful that Holbrooke did as much as he did to fight for British music; the listing of many composers, scraping the barrel towards the end with some that nowadays are barely even text-book names, is most praiseworthy. But an acid style must be blended with wit (as in Berlioz) to succeed fully. Wit is non-existent in this volume: Holbrooke, alas, took himself far too seriously, and wanted the musical world to follow his example.

© 1979 Peter Coussee