Programming Brian

Havergal Brian Society

Havergal Brian’s music is, very largely, approachable by both performers and audience alike - often highly so. In addition to a large body of orchestral music, there are considerable numbers of choral partsongs and songs for soloist. There’s some piano music - and for the adventurous five extant operas, one of which is only 39 minutes long! In short, there’s no excuse for any promoter, orchestra, choir or singer with any pretensions to supporting and performing and British music not to programme some Brian.

Other pages list Brian’s music by type (excluding songs), and songs (both solo and choral) by type.
There’s also a chronological listing of all Brian’s music.

Specific enquiries concerning works of Havergal Brian, both published scores and material for hire, should be directed to United Music Publishers Ltd, 42 Rivington Street, London EC2A 3BN, telephone 0171 729 4700.

General enquiries about Brian’s music should be directed to the Secretary of the Havergal Brian Society.

Havergal Brian has a reputation for writing vast, unperformable and unperformed works. And it is true that beside his Gothic Symphony, Mahler’s eighth or Gurrelieder look somewhat slender - to say nothing of his four hour setting of Prometheus unbound for 25 soloists, four choirs and very large orchestra (now lost)!

Yet the majority of Brian’s orchestral compositions run to around twenty minutes and are scored for an unremarkable modern symphony orchestra (typically triple wind, triple brass, a few keyboards, half a dozen percussion and strings). Fascinatingly they span a huge range of style: from the English suite 1 (1904) or the Empire-soaked In memoriam (1910) to the terse, epic and contemporary 30th symphony (1967).

The music written up to the start of the first world war (when the composer was already 38) had been successful and repeatedly performed: ‘Mr Brian has the happy distinction of waking this morning to find himself famous’, as one paper wrote after a hugely successful Proms performance by Sir Henry Wood of English suite 1 in 1907. Just to persist with this work, as an example: its six movements run the gamut from the burlesque (the carnival) to the pastoral to the nobilmente to the rustic to…

Other music written about this time includes a witty send-up of Richard Strauss (Doctor Merryheart); an extended and profound slow movement (In memoriam) with its echoes not just of Elgar, but also of Wagner and Berlioz; a very jolly set of Fantastic variations on an old nursery rhyme (it’s Three blind mice) which manages to be both facetious and genuinely tragic at the same time.

And so on… all the music of this period is immensely attractive and entertaining, and makes no particular demands on players or conductor.

Brian’s later orchestral music was largely cast in the form of a vast mountain range of 32 symphonies, including the notorious Gothic (1919-27) and Das Siegeslied (1932-33) - immense by any normal standards. Incredibly, the final 21 symphonies were all written after the composer had turned 80. Far from being the products of a senile mind, repetitive self-indulgent notespinning, these are concentrated, imaginative, forward looking works by someone who certainly had all his marbles. Indeed, it would easy to argues that Brian’s greatest symphonies are amongst these - try 22 and 30, the latter a masterpiece.

A distressingly large number of Brian’s works for chorus and orchestra have been lost. There’s little more than his 1904 setting of Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd) for tenor solo, SATB and orchestra to put alongside the vast first and fourth symphonies (Gothic and Das Siegeslied).

On the other hand, many of his partsongs, with and without piano, survive and these offer a wide range of music and texts. Almost always in English, there are songs for mixed and for female choirs.

The big work is the fifth symphony (Wine of summer) for baritone and orchestra. Otherwise the situation is as for the choral music: other big works with orchestra have been lost, but many songs for voice and piano survive. Again, the songs span a wide range of moods and content and would repay inclusion in any recital. See also Songs.

See also Discography
Reviews and articles on performances