Some ado about nothing

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

It is interesting to turn from the temperately sceptical tone of that formal book review to the outright scepticism of ‘La Main Gauche’s informal thoughts on the same subject: it’s clear that HB enjoyed the chance of speaking in different personalities afforded by his editorial anonymity!

What a trouble it is that people who are not composers of music will talk as though they knew all about it! The latest recruit to that tiresome body is a German professor named Arnold Schering who, if ever his book falls into the hands of Ernest Newman, will provide us with ‘the feast of reason and the flow of soul’ that is so sorely lacking in the author’s labours. Some music, Newman once told us, needed a picture to explain it; and now comes this gentleman from Berlin telling us that Beethoven’s string quartets and several piano sonatas are but reflections in sound of Shakespeare’s love and murder tragedies. This thesis is, on the whole, acceptable to our national dignity, for had the chronology of the case permitted, I believe it might have been proved that Shakespeare’s sonnets were but a pale reflection of Beethoven’s sonatas. Still, we won’t quarrel about that. We have similar people at home: one man indeed, who so successfully combined music analysis with political perspicacity that he discovered the Colonial Office, Tariff Reform and General Gordon in the first movement of Elgar’s Symphony No 1.

Still, there is a serious side to these seemingly preposterous lucubrations. The reason for literary or poetical associations with musical masterpieces lies in the extraordinary manner in which music reacts on our nervous systems, and creates mental images. But these, even when explicable, have little in common. Beethoven’s music is of this quality: but it is preposterous to say that it is a replica of what has been expressed in literature or in poetry. Had Professor Schering ever essayed a serious musical composition, he would never have advanced the argument. If this idea succeeds, we shall soon learn that certain symphonies alleged to have been written by Haydn and Mozart were in fact the work of dancing masters of an earlier period. Music is not built that way, though, subjected to a third-degree examination in Chicago, I might agree with the suggestion that the symphonies of Brahms and Tchaikovsky have both literary and poetical associations.

We are on firmer ground when we speak of the effect of the body on the mind. Compatriots of Napoleon explain his last defeat by an access of bile: and we have the evidence of De Quincey that the Confessions would never have taken the form they did had he known the efficacy of the blue pill. I present this idea to those who wish to say something galling about the Music of the Future.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, November 1934, p. 111