Salons of steel

David Hackbridge Johnson

David Hackbridge Johnson

Many lovers of British music will no doubt possess a copy of Stephen Banfield’s epic work, _Sensibility and English Song_. This invaluable work contains a vast amount of information about composers both well known and obscure. The authors rather tantalising approach to the songs of Havergal Brian is notable. In a book of over 600 pages, Stephen Banfield only finds 7 lines for Brian’s songs. It might be thought that this was just enough space to dismiss a composer as dull or worthless, yet what Banfield actually says is interesting and warrants some expansion. I undertake such an expansion in this essay. The short paragraph in _Sensibility and English Song_ is worth quoting in full: “These last remarks about expressionism and banality [with reference to the songs of William Baines] might also apply to the songs of Brian, about whom diametrically opposed opinions will no doubt continue to rage for a long time to come. The insecurity of style is much more severe than in Baines, especially in some of the Blake and Shakespeare songs and the Temple Keble settings. His expressionism is clearly seen in ‘_The Defiled Sanctuary’_ and _‘The Soul of Steel’_—there is nothing else quite like this in English song—while some of the earlier songs are vacantly conventional in manner.” [^1] When first reading these sentences, the phrase ‘there is nothing else quite like this in English song’, tends to leap off the page somewhat. An in-depth study of these songs might be anticipated in order to pinpoint some of the reasons why they are so unique. At this juncture the author frustrates the reader by shifting to a somewhat larger paragraph dealing with the songs of Francis George Scott. It is worthwhile to pause and take the two songs specifically mentioned by Banfield in turn to examine his claims for them. _he Defiled Sanctuary_ is the first [^2] in a set of 3 songs published by Enoch in 1920. According to Lewis Foreman’s catalogue of Brian’s works included in Nettel’s biography [^3] these 3 songs were composed in 1918. In this year Brian begun the orchestration of his great opera _The Tigers_. It might be expected therefore that vocal writing was very much in his mind. The extremes of vocal characterisation that occur in the opera filter into the songs of 1918, no more clearly than in _The Defiled Sanctuary_. The poem is by William Blake and presents an horrific scene of blasphemy, perhaps recounted by the poet as a vision or a dream. The appearance of a regurgitating serpent in a bejewelled chapel forces the poet to turn away in disgust and commune with the pigs in a sty instead. A subtext of religious corruption might have attracted the socio-critical faculties of Brian, especially as _The Tigers_ shows them to be acutely honed at this time. The immediacy of the imagery compels Brian to couch the poem not in the manner of a half remembered recollection but as a declamation. Brian takes care to indicate this at the first entry of the voice: Ex 1. _The Defiled Sanctuary_ bars 5-7

Prior to this vocal entry the piano presents a forceful introduction which displays many Brian traits. An explosive arpeggio leads to a typical texture of block right hand chords set against left hand octaves. Harmonic suspensions abound creating much instability of key, so that by the end of the introduction the opening C# minor has led to F7 in the third inversion. It is only when the voice enters that the function of this chord reveals itself, as an altered neapolitan to E major. So much for the description. This tonal instability prevails throughout the song and a blow by blow account of this process would make dull reading. The proof is in the listening. Brian uses his harmony to create the feelings of horror and instability inherent in Blake’s poem. Despite a return to the orbit of C# minor/E major near the end of the song, Brian brings the song to an end very ambiguously with a whole tone chord that has a final root of C natural. The expressionism of the word setting can be seen throughout the song. The activities of the serpent are underpinned by a sinewy chromatic bass line that both describes the creatures movements and further disrupts tonal security: Ex 2. _The Defiled Sanctuary_ bars 14-16

Other examples of word painting occur when the serpent tears at the hinges of the church door and when pearls and rubies are described. The responsiveness of the music to the text is as sensitive as Purcell or Britten. The very last sentence of the poem where the poet lies down ‘among the swine’ is portrayed by a long descending phrase in the vocal part and provides a fitting end to the horrible vision. The sense of moral descent is achieved by Brian at this point. _The Soul of Steel_, though published as a single song by Enoch in 1921, was composed in the same year, 1918, as _The Defiled Sanctuary_. The poem is by CM Masterman and is a sonnet of a metaphysical persuasion. It is couched in lofty rhetoric and convoluted syntax. The poet has so far resisted posterity—it is tempting to suspect his permanent sequestration in that ‘secret shed’ of his own making. Nevertheless the poem brings out the best in Brian, who often relishes the challenge of the metaphysical in many of his songs. His settings of Samuel Daniel are a good example of this. The metaphysical tendency in Brian sets him apart from those composers more attracted to the musical rendition of poetry of a descriptive kind. Most of Brian’s songs are either character studies (for example, the Temple Keble setting, _Lady Ellayne_), or contain psychological probing of some sort. _The Soul of Steel_ is a prime example of the latter. As befits the title, Brian’s approach here is strident and metallic in tone. The verbal gestures are matched by thrusting chords and striding bass lines. As in _The Defiled Sanctuary_, Brian often alternates diatonic triads with whole tone harmonies, thus continuing the tonal instability of his work of this period. The barely coherent poem seems to demand this level of disruption as both poet and composer struggle to communicate. Brian adopts an orchestral style in the piano part to convey the power of the utterance. Stabbing horns underpinned by three side drums and grinding lower brass and strings might be readily imagined in the following passage: Ex 3. _The Soul of Steel_, bars 47-50

The motoric rhythms, whole tone chords and bass voicings of octaves with one internal note are characteristic of Brian and occur in much of his symphonic music. Indeed, this song is the most symphonic of Brian’s songs in so far as it relates to so many traits found in the composers symphonies. Neither in song form or symphonic form were Brian’s procedures in any way conventional. It is interesting to see Brian working in microcosm with similar materials as used in the great orchestral works that were to follow. A year after completing this song Brian began the _Gothic Symphony_. I would suggest that the two songs described here can be seen not only as unique expressionistic works in English Song, as Banfield rightly suggests, but also as preparatory studies for the huge symphony looming on Brian’s musical horizon. In terms of the oppressive and unstable nature of these songs, it is hard to find equivalents in the songs of his British contemporaries. Given Brian’s cosmopolitan tastes, it is likely that continental comparisons can yield more fruitful resonance. In the years following the First World War, the German Lied was still a very important medium of expression, and yet it’s drawing room associations were being undermined by the musical language of Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and Schreker, to mention the most prominent. The War affected composers deeply, none more so than Brian. The crisis in Europe had stylistic ramifications for those composers attuned to the shattering changes brought about by the conflict. Just as the crumbling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire demanded a new kind of expression from Viennese composers, so the slaughter in Flanders demanded such powerful and shocking responses as the _Pastoral Symphony_ of Vaughan Williams or the _Piano Sonata_ of Bridge. Brian, in works like _The Tigers_, the songs and the _Gothic Symphony_ shows himself to be similarly compelled into new ways of expression. His achievement might strike some listeners as having been borne of stylistic insecurity, as Banfield remarks. It is arguable that the great middle period works of Schoenberg, those written between the hyper-romantic early works and the serial works of the mid 1920s and beyond, were similarly conceived in a state of great insecurity. Although difficult music resulted from those difficult times, that some of the most compelling music of the 20 th century resulted, is now no longer in doubt. So it should be with Brian, whose music often feels insecure simply because it is so different from any other composer. This is a strength, not a weakness. Having discovered aspects of expressionism in the two songs discussed above, the qualities of banality that Banfield associates with Brian’s earlier songs can be explored. That Brian was capable of producing conventional songs of the salon type is amply demonstrated by his setting of the John Donne poem, _A Message_. The vocal line is underpinned by bustling accompaniment in the manner of Schubert’s _Abschied_. While not especially original, it is far from vacant. A song like _Farewell_, a setting of a poem by Bishop Heber, has the feel of a rather sentimental Victorian ballad. The sighing phrases and cloying chromaticisms are all too apparent. It is however an effective song in performance and contains some abrupt progressions worthy of the later Brian: Ex 4. _Farewell_, bars 43-47

Comparison between Farewell and The Soul of Steel would seem to bear out Banfield‘s concern for stylistic integrity. Yet it is the best works of a composer that should be put forward in order to best examine his work. As well as being an original composer and somewhat of an outsider in terms of the musical establishment, Brian, who had many responsibilities as a parent, was well aware of the market potential of songs.

Many of the Blake settings, (The Chimney Sweep, The Blossom, The Fly), were written as unison songs for school use. They are simple and charming and cannot be usefully compared with his more serious efforts. In the popular form of drawing room ballad, writing a bestseller like Sea Fever by John Ireland might have eased his family’s difficulties. That Brian was not afforded such success from any of his works, songs or otherwise, is well known. The style of his best work almost destined him to obscurity. That he remained true to himself rather than aping others is to his lasting credit.

On hearing Brian, the listener needs to be on guard for the composer’s elliptical train of thought. His largest symphonies are liable to shift key, mood and texture alarmingly, yet it is this tendency to change gear with audible sounds of cogs grinding that make his work so unexpected and compelling. It is arguable that this deliberate technique might be expected to work better in a large piece such as a symphony, where diametrically opposed ideas might have more chance to establish themselves before being usurped. In the intimate form of the song this jolting effect might seem perverse unless linked to poetic motivation.

If in the later songs Brian’s compositional language has become too shocking for the salons he nevertheless shows himself to be hypersensitive to the changing emotional climate of the poems. This is demonstrated to particular effect in the Blake and Masterman settings discussed above. Brian also chose poems that best reflected his approach as a composer. He might make some listeners insecure, but his works are certainly unique.

© David Hackbridge Johnson 2003 NL166

Newsletter, NL 166, 2003