A sense of discrimination

PJ Taylor

Is enthusiasm for Brian’s music blind to his weaknesses? - PJ Taylor see also Brianus ellipsus - Martyn Becker
and Preconceptions and the anti-symphony - Owen Toller

David J Brown replies
Larry Alexander’s view

As one who has been a member of the Havergal Brian Society for some years now, and values his membership greatly, I hope I shall not risk expulsion for expressing some disquiet at the uniformly eulogistic tone that pervades all critical commentary on Brian’s music in your columns.

I am not a practising musician but I am, I hope, a reasonably knowledgeable listener, and I possess on record or tape, and have frequently played, more than twenty of Brian’s symphonies and much else. And I find his output not only very uneven, but uneven in a special way. I am put in mind of the famous satire on Wordsworth which I will quote as well as I can remember it:

Two voices speak:
One from the vasty deep.
The other from an old half-witted sheep;
And both, Wordsworth, are thine…

To me, the peak of his output, as I have heard it, belongs without any question to the few years after World War II when he first resumed composition. It is as if a vast amount of bottled-up experience were waiting to come out, and I find symphonies 6-9 at least almost flawless, among the best things written by any British composer in this century. But after that, the vision begins to fade.

Some of the later symphonies are still impressive; I am specially fond of Nos 19 and 25 and I am told that No 27, which I do not possess, is also very fine; but in most of these later symphonies for most of the time I seem to hear only a garrulous old man repeating himself. (And not himself only: the ‘folk-dance-like tune’, to quote the record sleeve, of Village Revels from the Fifth English Suite is almost note-for-note identical with Warlock’s song Captain Stratton’s Fancy of many years before.) I am impressed by Malcolm MacDonald’s advocacy, but my ears tell me another story: the same sort of contrast I have often experienced with serial music, between what informed analysis appears to reveal and what I can hear for myself.

All too often, I feel that Brian’s music adds up to less than the sum of its parts. This is most notably true of The Tigers which after repeated hearings I still cannot come to grips with. It is extremely difficult to write a genuine comic opera, let alone one with some satirical intent. It requires a consummate sense of timing and, above all, knowing when the joke is over. In a word: self-discipline. Britten got away with it — just — in Albert Herring. It is not a matter of length — the later symphonies are not long — but of relevance.

As Voltaire said: It is very easy to be a bore; just leave nothing out. If you are a Bruckner or a Mahler you sometimes get away with it, but for lesser mortals that is not possible So there are often compelling passages and flashes of great beauty, but which simply fail to cohere; and, in different ways and for different reasons, this mostly happens early and late.

I think Brian’s central problem was a lack of self-criticism, compounded by a refusal to risk criticism from others. It seems to me that some crucial aspects of his life, such as his failure to push his own compositions on occasions when he might have done, are best explained as the deliberate avoidance of situations that could have involved having to explain himself to people of equal knowledge and percipience. It is always a bad sign when someone will not subject himself to peer review, and very dangerous indeed when he believes himself to be a genius. Here the relevant contrast is with Elgar, who was equally self-taught and initially just as much a loner, but who forced himself to rub shoulders with people from whom he could, and did, learn a great deal. (Does this contrast have any bearing on Brian’s notorious love/hate attitude to Elgar?)

At the start, Brian was probably quite aware where his weaknesses lay. Eventually however they became ingrained and the composer himself was unconscious of them. The result, as I see it, is that passages and sometimes whole movements got through that another composer, after due consideration, would have scrapped or totally rewritten. Sometimes the structure itself is faulty; more often, the musical invention is not of a quality to carry the structural weight it is called upon to bear.

In saying all this I am fully aware that one of the hallmarks of Brian’s mature style is not only the juxtaposition but the intercalation of musical ideas that apparently have nothing in common. The effect is often startling and, at its best, can open up a whole new dimension of musical experience. To me, it is the distinctive feature of the Symphonies from No 7 onwards. But it is an extremely difficult card to play and real success is rare. It needs more care and concentration than Brian, especially in his later years, was always prepared to give it. Despite the compelling power of Malcolm MacDonald’s prose, I am not persuaded that all Brian’s effects are intentional, or that he always succeeded in conveying what he actually meant to say.

The exception that proves the rule is The Gothic. I am not convinced that it is the finest thing he ever wrote, but, to me, it is unique in adding up to more than the sum of its parts. There are still occasional longueurs, but the overall effect is cumulative and shattering. I think the key difference lies in the sheer length of time Brian took to compose it. All the evidence is that Brian was absolutely determined to make an impact, however far into the future this might lie, and he must have worked and re-worked The Gothic over and over again. Nothing else, before or later, was honed so fine; and it shows.

To say all this, even to quote a satire that invites comparison with Wordsworth, is of course to judge Brian by the highest standards. I don’t think we have a choice. Some composers are naturally mellifluous, and if their most serious works are flawed they will survive for a mass of simple, approachable music that is excellent of its kind. For Brian, as for Mahler, that fall-back position is absent. It is greatness or nothing.

And I do not deny Brian’s greatness, surprising as that admission may seem at this point. But I think it is greatness of a special sort. We all know Brian was untutored. He remained all his life, I think, an amateur composer, deprived of all the facilities a formal training might have taught him but also able to hang on, as for 80 years he did hang on, to a totally personal vision like nobody else’s. Brian, to me, is the archetype, perhaps the only exemplar, of the composer of limited talent who by sheer application forces himself to become a genius. The price was very great. It is only in a handful of works that that genius finds full expression; everything else is more or less flawed. But we should be very such the poorer for not having it.

David Brown replies:

I suspect that Mr Taylor’s doubts will not be easily met. Indeed, he raises so many different matters that if I try to answer them I shall exhaust his patience and yours! One point I can’t avoid making, however. I find it interesting that the works he admits into the pantheon (symphonies 6-9) are precisely those that have received good studio recordings — ones, in other words, where Brian’s intentions have been approached more closely than some other performances, and good recording lets us hear the result.

The last thing I want to accuse Mr Taylor of is having an undiscriminating ear, but this question of whether what you are hearing does the work justice, and with something utterly unfamiliar how easily you can tell, does recall to my mind one or two experiences with works once unfamiliar and now accepted. Harold Truscott, for one, has wisely not let us forget the bad old tradition of Mahler criticism in this country. Up to the end of the thirties and beginning of the sixties the view was that he was long-winded, noisy, and unforgivably vulgar and banal.

Performances were few and far between, and when given here, played by orchestras and conductors usually quite out of sympathy with the music. I well remember nearly 30 years ago — my then very young head full of this received view — hearing a broadcast of the fifth symphony that seemed to bear it out 100%. It was not until Barbirolli’s recording appeared that I really appreciated the greatness of the work (I know others had appeared, but that was the one that did it for me).

We must all rely on our ears, of course, but until we hear many performances of a work we cannot really begin to discern it itself through all those performances. Until that happens we must perforce rely on those who know the scores themselves, and the number of people who can really appreciate a work’s quality solely by reading the score is small.

For myself, if someone professed to find that, say, Symphony 31 was an inferior piece after getting to know it thoroughly via the excellent new Mackerras recording, I would have to respect that opinion even though I might disagree with it. But there are other single performances of late Brian symphonies which do not remotely approach that one in quality, and which really fall so far short of what is on the paper that a considerable degree of reserve should be employed in basing any conclusions upon them.

Anyway, no-one is going to suggest that Mr Taylor should be thrown out of the Society, and I hope to receive many communications taking up his points: However, I am concerned about his first comment on the ‘uniformly eulogistic’ tone of the Newsletter. I will happily plead guilty to not reprinting every piece of malicious, misguided or just plain bone-headed criticism that Brian has received, but I hope that we will always have plenty of room for considered argument such as Mr Taylor provides.

NL79 / ©1988 by PJ Taylor

Newsletter, NL 79, 1988