Novelties at the Proms [1936]

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

There is certainly cause for complaint that during the present eight weeks season at Queen’s Hall, only eleven new works will be heard, — that is, works that have never been heard before. Of these, only five are by British composers. The paucity of ideas and the slender importance of the British five, indeed of the whole eleven works, are visible (as Samivel would say) in their titles, for they are all matters of moment and bear no sign of enduring strength1. It is fairly obvious that the works were selected because they would absorb little of the time allotted to rehearsals.

In the old days, from two to four rehearsals could be given to novelties, and more if really necessary. Today one might as well ask for the moon as to expect the old generosity to be shown towards an unknown work of a possibly unknown composer. It is no use blaming Sir Henry Wood, for we know he is keen and fresh about all new music that shows evidence of worth: but even he is not an economic dictator, and cannot expand one hour into two or spend a hundred pounds when only fifty is available, for rehearsals have to be reduced into terms of money.

Thus we have to accept the situation as we find it, though another situation may very well arise. Would it not be better to scrap even a series of minor novelties and concentrate on one or more major works? The third, fourth, seventh and ninth symphonies of Bruckner might prove as popular at the Proms as they have at many German festivals. Indeed, is it not time that the BBC chorus was given an opportunity to shine at these concerts? Their appearances grow fewer and less frequent, and I an sure that with a work in the festival spirit of the Proms they would do well.

Elgar’s King Olaf and Caractacus are splendid secular choral works, and heard by the present generation of Londoners would set the town aflame! Of course, Wood would need to have his way in the number of rehearsals and choice of singers. Even admitting the present great popularity of the Proms, no one needs reminding that the populace can be fickle and by stopping away bring desolation where demonstrations nightly reigned.

  1. Brian’s ‘never heard before’ means here ‘never heard before at the Proms’. The five English items were Bantock’s overture to The Frogs (a premiere), John Greenwood’s Salute to Gustav Holst (possibly a premiere?), Ireland’s London Overture, Elizabeth Maconchy’s piano concerto (a premiere?), and Ian Whyte’s Three Scottish dances. The remainder were Casella’s orchestration of Bach’s Chaconne, Dohnanyi’s Minutes symphoniques, Ibert’s Concertino da camera for saxophone, Armand Marsick’s Tableaux grecs, Sibelius’s The ferryman’s bride, and Wladimir Vogel’s Ritmica ostinata. Unsurprisingly, I cannot claim familiarity with all the works involved, but in general they would seem to bear out Brian’s verdict of being on the whole of ‘slender importance’. ↩︎

Musical opinion, September 1936, p. 1028