Brian’s productive discontinuity

John Pickard

John Pickard

Apologies for the lack of musical examples – these will be added as soon as possible - JRM

see also
Brianus ellipsus - Martyn Becker
A sense of discrimination - PJ Taylor
Preconceptions and the anti-symphony - Owen Toller

With the recent [1988] release on disc of Brian’s seventh and 31st symphonies, it seems that the critical debate as to the value or otherwise of this composer’s music has reared its head once again. As usual, there are passionate defenders, hostile detractors and, somewhere in the middle, those who, like the reviewer in Gramophone, ultimately hoist the white flag in some bewilderment. And, as ever, it is one stylistic trait in particular which remains highest on the critical agenda: Brian’s seemingly curious predilection for jumping abruptly from one musical idea to another without apparent regard for continuity of thought. Readers will be aware of the kind of criticisms I am talking about:

‘…a self-defeating succession of gear-changes and non sequiturs’ (Hugh Ottaway)

‘…ellipsis to the point of incomprehensibility’ (Andrew Porter)

‘…breaking off in a sort of nervous exasperation’ (Desmond Shawe-Taylor)

‘…peculiarly dislocated phraseology’ (Anthony Payne)

‘…no shape, no coherence’ (Stanley Sadie)

This apparent eccentricity often constitutes a major stumbling block for even the most ardent Brian enthusiast and it consequently requires detailed consideration by those who believe him to be one of the most powerfully original composers of the twentieth century.

This article is not intended to be a comprehensive survey of what I defensively term Brian’s ‘Productive Discontinuity’: a thesis could be written on the subject. Nor is it an apology to the hostile criticism which would have one believe that this characteristic is a symptom of incompetence. Such a defence is no longer necessary since the final volume of Malcolm MacDonald’s mighty survey of the symphonies appeared and systematically clobbered many a critical misapprehension concerning Brian’s competence. Indeed, so masterly is MacDonald’s vindication of the music that one hesitates to add anything that might detract from the force of the argument.

Naturally, MacDonald does provide several convincing explanations of the discontinuities in Brian’s music — particularly between pages 198 to 202 of volume 3. One explanation given is that Brian wants to jolt the listener into active thought about what is being heard, rather than just let it wash over him. This is true enough but, on its own, it does not constitute a valid artistic aim. As a child, I used to chop up classical sonatinas for piano into individual bars, them paste them back together in random order (the title always came out as ‘Snotiana’). The exercise, intended for fun, did teach me something about the nature of continuity and it certainly got me listening more carefully to what I played. But I must concede now (if not then!) that the works were rather better in their original order. The serious and relevant point here is that, as music is more than a mere intellectual exercise, this explanation of Brian’s discontinuities is worthless if we ultimately fail instinctively to feel their rightness.

Discontinuity for dramatic purposes

I shall now examine various types of discontinuity in Brian’s music: firstly, the most straightforward — discontinuity for dramatic purposes. This type of treatment is already apparent in relatively early works. For example, the opening of In memoriam juxtaposes six bars of loud ceremonial introduction with quiet, intimate music which open the First scene and which consists of three ‘verses’ of increasing intensity, each of which abruptly ceases to be answered by a ‘refrain’. Ex 1 shows the first appearance of the ‘refrain’.

[Ex 1 to be added]

The pattern of verse and refrain is used to regulate the emotional temperature of this First scene: the first two statements of the refrain are points of repose, so that the third refrain, which this time extends the powerful climax generated by the third verse, comes as a somewhat paradoxical surprise, for it actually breaks a pattern of discontinuity established by the first two verses and refrains. This type of contrast is again used impressively, though less systematically, in the Second scene to steer the music through what is basically an accelerando until the tensions of the whole work are discharged in a massive climax which disintegrates with remarkable rapidity (ex 2).

[Ex 2 to be added]

It is instructive to compare this passage with the very different way in which Elgar dismantles the main climax of the slow movement of his second symphony — music not a million miles removed from the spirit and technique of In memoriam. The Elgar will be seen to be far less abrupt in expression — the edges are softer. So we can already see Brian using extreme contrast as a structural basis of his music in 1911, and this gives In memoriam, despite the strong influence of Elgar, a distinctive and individual musical voice.

In memoriam is one of many funeral marches to be found in Brian’s output. The finale of Symphony No 2 is another powerful (and I think underrated) example. Again, the music proceeds by a process of dramatic contrast. The opening recitative-like figure provides a constant interruption to the development of the movement’s early stages (ex 3).

[Ex 3 to be added]

This recitative recurs (in slightly varied forms) twelve times in all and, on each appearance, no attempt is made to integrate it with the massive funeral march whose progress it dogs. The result is that when the music does eventually shake off the inhibiting influence of the recitative, it is at last able to stride purposefully to the climax of the entire symphony. But, in the bleak coda, the recitative returns and the work ends darkly.

In this case, the breaking up of continuity by the insertion of recitatives serves to curb the excesses of the music’s emotional progress and thereby strengthen, rather than undermine, the overall structure. It must be remembered that the apparent Romanticism which some commentators ascribe to Brian’s music is illusory, or at most a stylistic impurity which, with the instinct of the born Classicist, he successfully excised in his later music. In this case, discontinuity is used to distance and objectify the musical drama. This procedure continually recurs in Brian’s other works, for example in Symphony No 8 where a huge climax, achieved after a long preparation, is suddenly cut off just as its romantic ardour threatens to bring the music to a grinding halt (ex 4).

[Ex 4 to be added]

However, continuity is not entirely broken up in this passage. First of all, the type of harmony used in these two bars is quite similar: all are ‘added note’ chords — the first, an E major triad with added sixth and seventh; the second, basically a dominant seventh in E but with the fifth of the triad (ie the second degree of the E major scale) flattened. The Neapolitan implication is further strengthened by the fact that the chord is presented in second inversion so that the flattened second is the root. This will inevitably tilt the music towards F (E# being the enharmonic equivalent of F), so that the appearance of the flute figure in the next bar over a dominant ninth in F is nothing like such a drastic tonal shift as it might an first appear.

This not the only means by which continuity is subtly achieved here. What cannot be seen in the given example is that the flute and glockenspiel figure shown here has, in fact, been clearly anticipated some seven bars earlier. So the connections are motivic as well as harmonic. What really makes for discontinuity in this passage is the sudden and radical change in orchestral texture.

Brian’s characteristic use of enormously contrasting dynamics and types of orchestration is, of course, guaranteed to impair our perception of any underlying continuity in the music but, as has already been shown, that is not to say that the continuity is not there at a deeper level if one listens attentively. Here, Robert Simpson’s advice that it is often instructive to listen to Brian’s music from the bass upwards is apposite (it is advice validated by the example just given — look at the simple stepwise movement in the bass).

If one listens to the descending scales (piano, then tuba, then piano and harp) near the beginning of Symphony No 8, and notices their inversion (i.e. ascending) a couple of bars later, it is then easy to absorb the astonishing extent to which the whole piece is built on descending/ascending scale patterns (among other things!) and to follow one level of continuity in the musical thought of the whole symphony. In this way, superficial listening is easily overcome and many of the music’s supposed ‘difficulties’ simply evaporate.

So, why the sudden changes in orchestration? One reason lies in Brian’s concern with balance. In later life be described ‘balance of form’ as his greatest concern when writing music. It goes much deeper than just the desire to contrast loud and soft, tutti and solo, but this is undoubtedly one of the manifestations of his Classicist concern for contrast of extremes (for a well-known Classical equivalent consider the opening bars of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony).

In Brian’s case, the desire for contrast can be traced even further back — to baroque models. Strong contrast is, of course, the basis of concerto grosso form, but it also manifests itself in many other baroque forms. For example, the opening of Bach’s great Fantasia and Fugue in C minor for organ contrasts loud tutti (block chords) with soft solo writing (polyphonic), as shown in ex 5. Harmonically, the continuity is unbroken, but the sense of contrast suggested by the change in texture and implied change in registration is often emphasized in performance by the necessity for a brief pause whilst a change in registration is made.

[Ex 5 to be added]

Bruckner has often been accused of writing organ music transcribed for orchestra. This is, of course, utter nonsense — Bruckner’s symphonies, like Brian’s, are brilliantly conceived in orchestral terms. However, the fact that both composers were organists is not, I feel, without significance. If a composer is an accomplished instrumentalist (the vast majority are), the instrument he plays will have an effect — perhaps not so much on the way he writes, but on the way he listens. Music, however original, is the result of the practical experience of music — there is no shame in this, Brian’s musical life began as a choirboy and continued as a church organist. His formative musical experiences were in the context of the church — although, like Bruckner, he did not pursue a career as an organist.

Nevertheless, the two composers share two important characteristics in their orchestral writing which I am sure reflect this similar aspect to their musical backgrounds. Firstly, they tend to build up orchestral textures in much the same way that an organist is often forced to build up a texture. The uses of the swell pedal being restricted, it is often necessary to achieve a crescendo by gradually increasing the registration (ie adding more stops) and the resulting effect is of the gradual addition of layers of sound. rather than the smooth increase in the intensity of a single timbre. Many examples of the orchestral implications of this technique are to be found in Bruckner’s symphonies (e.g. the coda of the finale of No 8, or the long build-up to the climax of No 7’s slow movement) and a similar process is often to be seen in Brian’s music. A most striking example is provided by the second movement of The Gothic. In both cases, the procedure, though quite valid and effective in purely orchestral terms, has its roots in lessons learnt as an organist.


The second similarity is something not so much learnt as absorbed instinctively, and it concerns resonance. An organist must constantly adapt the way he plays to the particular acoustical conditions of the building in which he happens to be playing, otherwise a harmonic mush may result in a particularly resonant acoustic. This is, of course, especially the case when playing fast music or music which alternates loud and soft dynamics and it often necessitates short, unmeasured pauses in the music to give the sound time to clear. To do this requires skill and instinct because what one hears from the organ loft is unlikely to be the true sound filling the rest of the building.

Malcolm MacDonald points out that the abrupt breaks between loud and soft, common to both Bruckner and Brian are achieved by measured and unmeasured pauses respectively (vol 3, p 141) — Brian writes a ‘breath mark’ like two large inverted commas or two diagonal parallel lines. Were either procedure to be encountered in organ music, no one would give it a second thought — it is a convention one expects and, if a composer did not allow for it, the chances are that the organist would have to put it in at some point anyway. Of course, these pauses are not silent: the resonance is still clearing and the change of texture, dynamic or whatever is nothing like as abrupt as it would be if it were heard in a dry acoustic. Anyone fortunate enough to have heard a Bruckner symphony in the vast spaces of a great cathedral will know that the effect is far removed from that of a performance in, say, the Festival Hall. In fact, the Bruckner symphonies would be in their true home if they were to be played in cathedrals.

I believe that the same is true of Brian’s symphonies and they can be done no greater disservice than to be heard in the hermetically sealed and lifeless acoustic of a modern recording studio. If proof of this theory be needed, consider almost any passage in the Gothic Symphony: for example, the last five bars of the fourth movement and the alternation of a grinding fortissimo with a delicate pianissimo. This sounds fine in a resonant building, the pianissimo emerging magically from the massive resonance of the tutti. Now (briefly, and with a shudder of dread) imagine that same passage in a dead acoustic, fortunately, given the size of building required to accommodate the forces, such an eventuality seems unlikely.

One of the most remarkable qualities of Brian’s later symphonies is the way in which they suggest enormous size and scale whilst often playing for less actual time than many a long-winded overture. The relationship between ‘real’ time and the time which music can create on its own terms is a fascinating one and the reasons why two pieces of equal length can feel vastly different in their duration deserve closer and more detailed study. Solutions concerning the relative boredom threshold of different listeners can, on the whole, be discounted because if one performs tests on unsuspecting friends and colleagues the response to the relationship between structural balance and time seems to be pretty consistent.

Viewed in purely abstract terms, the idea of attempting to balance, say, a 25 minute slow movement with a very fast one of under five minutes would seem ludicrous. Yet this is precisely what Shostakovich does in the first two movements of his Symphony No 10, with deeply impressive results, the scherzo proving the perfect foil to the epic proportions of the first movement. The reason for this is that each movement creates its own kind of momentum, to which the attentive listener will respond, irrespective of the passing of ‘real’ time, and this in turn is the result of the speed at which musical events occur (particularly changes of harmony). The fact that the first movement is cast as a single span arch, in which the material gradually unfolds, results in a compensatory slowing down in the rate of the listener’s expectations. The fact that the scherzo is much more episodic in character, moving between ideas with greater abruptness, gives the impression of great distance travelled in a far shorter time. The fundamental principle common to both movements is the control of the rate of activity.

By abruptly switching from one musical event to another in a relatively short space of time, Brian is concentrating, rather than diffusing, the musical action (always provided the material is distinguished enough!), and here thereby creates his own epic scale within a tightly restricted time-span. This is effected in a variety of ways, but two particularly important ones stand out: those in which the contrasting material can be audibly related to what has just preceded it and those in which it cannot, and is thereby justified (or not) by some other means.

The example of the former is taken from Symphony No 16 and it involves a contrast between a massive tutti and just the strings (without double basses). The crashing of gears is mighty indeed, but continuity of thought is nevertheless maintained by the very clear motivic connection between the two sections (Ex 6).

[exx 6 and 7 to be added]

The Adagio then unfolds into a magnificently serene passage which, as Malcolm MacDonald says, seems to contain the hidden heart of the work. For this to be the case (not forgetting that it occurs very late on in the symphony), the passage could not have been arrived at in any other way. Strong contrast of texture throws it into relief, though the deeper continuity of thought remains intact and could in no way be considered ‘non sequitur’ as Hugh Ottaway would have presumably argued — it is certainly the opposite of self-defeating.

The second example — that of a productive juxtaposition of unconnected passages — comes from Symphony No 17 (a fascinating and, I think, worthy successor to No 16 which sorely needs a good performance) (ex 7). The connection between the rather noble first five bars of this example and fig 43 at the end of it is apparent — indeed, it would be possible to cut out the intervening five bars without any loss of continuity. It is precisely such continuity which Brian is here deliberately avoiding by placing, in the middle of the passage, material which is in complete textural, tonal, harmonic, melodic and emotional contrast.

The result, as with the example from symphony No 16, is to throw the passage into relief. Heard in terms of the music which appears just before the given example begins, the apparently inconsequential flute solo at fig 42 turns out to be a derivation of earlier material, the whole passage giving the impression not so much of ‘verses and refrains’ as ‘refrains and commentaries’ and, again, forming the still point at the heart of the Symphony. There is about this technique far more of parenthesis than non sequitur.

The procedure outlined above must not be misunderstood in terms of the juxtaposition of ‘blocks’ favoured by so many composers since Brian (for example Birtwistle, Messiaen and later Tippett). The essence of that kind of technique is the recurrence of contrasted and self-contained types of material in different combinations It is basically non-developmental, static and gestural. This is a perfectly valid approach to composing but it does not explain the nature of Brian’s symphonism. In his music, material is rarely recapitulated in a literal way. Everything is in a constant slate of transformation and, as any living process will often yield surprising results at unexpected times, so Brian’s music never does precisely what one might expect it to do — to the delight of the Brian enthusiast and, one supposes, the irritation of the hostile critics.

My defence of what many consider to be the most problematic and insoluble aspect of Brian’s music is, to a certain extent, superfluous, as is the explanation of any means of constructing a work of art. Either the finished result convinces on its own terms or it does not and no amount of justification or special pleading will make it otherwise. That said, I believe that the number of instances where Brian’s ‘productive discontinuity’ cannot, on reflection, be shown to be justified is extremely small and that this highly individual approach to symphonic structure may come to be regarded as the most revolutionary aspect of his art. It certainly has the most far-reaching consequences.

NL79 / © John Pickard 1988

Newsletter, NL 79, 1988