Experiments in reception

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Brian’s writings in January and February 1936 were dominated by the names of Bach, Berg and Sibelius, in pieces to be anthologised in forthcoming volumes of Havergal Brian on music_. But that still leaves some interesting material, including this piece on the still-new and still-unreliable phenomenon of ‘Music on the Air’_

A little while ago I was startled by a poster which said, rather loudly. ‘Are Wireless Sets Doomed?’ My immediate reaction was to visualise Broadcasting House as a set of modern flats, and a reunion with many former musical friends, for broadcasting has brought a marked cleavage in our ranks. However, on reflection, I think the poster most have referred to a possible new form of reception that would neither crackle nor blur and a visual appurtenance that would immediately close all the cinemas in the country. Perhaps our friends the inventors are seeking a way out from our present wireless troubles, and are doing their best to reduce Hollywood salaries to the level of that of a Prime Minister.

I admit that something is now being done to make unknown music known to unseen men: but how much we cannot even estimate from what we hear in the morning train about last night’s reception. Possession of a radio set is no longer a distinction! I would loudly proclaim my own possession of a set, and even of the act of listening in, if I were sure that my pleasure at a next hearing of Nicolai’s Merry wives of Windsor (Weingartner: Vienna Opera) would not be marred by interference from a refrigerator at Brighton or a tram depot at Brixton. The trouble is that I am occasionally reassured by a fine reception of opera or symphony, conducted by Toscanini or Fürtwangler. Frankly, I heard recently a fine performance of Die Walküre from Leipzig under Hans Weisbach1, but with an orchestra and soloists of whom I had never before heard: it was altogether magnificent. Perhaps there will be no need to condemn our present sets when makers have found a way of casting out the devil that is in all sometimes and in others only occasionally.

Of course, it is just possible that sets permanently perfect would empty every concert-hall, cinema and theatre in the country and on the Continent: though I agree that a plethora of studio performances might by discarded sets choke the flow of the Rhine, the Danube and the Thames to the sea. So it would seem that a via media must always he arranged. Meanwhile, advantage of good conditions will provide the music-lover with most of his needs, and familiarise him with music the performance of which in England is rare. At home and abroad, people have little or no faith in what they have not previously heard, and in Paris they have on occasion demonstrated against what was new. À bas Wagner!2

I n the main, however, the public is right, for I myself have listened to few new works that bore the impress of unusual talent, let alone genius: and the discovery of anything really great comes only once or twice in a lifetime. In my view, the real danger is that the microphone, owing to its limitations in the reception of large-scale works, will become the arch-enemy of musical genius. The human ear in direct connection with the tone-producing instruments and under concert-room conditions will remain the true arbiter in all things musical.

However, in this imperfect world, I have on two or three occasions dialled in on a work the composer of which was quite unknown to me, and I have been, well!, immediately interested. This was the case a short time ago: it was a piano concerto, and at the end I gleaned that it was the first performance of a work by Max Trapp, a former pupil of Dohnányi3. It had the imprint of genius. Soon after I picked up a symphony which was all so new to me that I was soon on the tiptoe of expectation, for there was revelation of expert writing, unusual power, and new thoughts. The name stated at the end was Lothar Windsperger.

It is said that the BBC seek diligently what I have occasionally found by chance, which sets me wondering whether what is first heard through a receiving set from a foreign station is subsequently confirmed by attendance at a concert-room performance. The symphony I have just mentioned so stirred me that I could not forget it, and to appease the call I looked out some details on the career of its composer: he died as recently as May last, when only fifty years old. I learn also that at the early age of twenty eight he was appointed adviser to the famous publishing house of Schott & Co, probably on the strength of his having previously written many large-scale works for orchestra, organ music and chamber music. What is intriguing to me is how far Windsperger was responsible for the acceptance and publication by Schott’s of music by the young German group, — Hindemith, Toch, and others.

Just one other mention of a recent ‘find’ while combing the Continental stations. It is Lustspiel-Overtüre by Max Fiedler, and it disclosed a mastery of orchestration. This may be traced to his former association as conductor with symphony orchestras at Berlin, Hamburg, and Boston. I had thought, from talks with his friends, that Fiedler was markedly Brahmsian: but here in this overture was more brilliance than is found in anything written by Brahms4.

Well, so much for my new type of musical experience: one sets out on a flight of discovery, crossing the Sahara perhaps only to make a forced landing in the swamps!

  1. German conductor (1885-1961) ↩︎

  2. A reference to the notorious Parisian demonstrations against Tannhäuser↩︎

  3. Trapp (1887-1971) had the distinction of succeeding Schoenberg as head of the Masterclass in Composition at the Berlin Hochschüle, courtesy of course of the Nazis, who had forced Schoenberg’s emigration. Not having heard any of Trapp’s music, your annotator cannot tell whether he nonetheless merited a position previously held by Schoenberg and Busoni. He was then at the height of his popularity. The Piano Concerto, op26, dates from 1931; he also wrote seven symphonies. ↩︎

  4. Fiedler (1859-1939) was famous in his time as an interpreter of Beethoven. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, January 1936, pp. 299–300