Introduction to the Marco Polo CD

Malcolm MacDonald

Malcolm MacDonald 223588Fx.jpg (50785 bytes)

This is the presentation Malcolm MacDonald gave on the new Marco Polo CD at the launch on 2 February 2000 at the British Music Information Centre. Review of this talk here
see Discography for details

For valour . Doctor Merryheart . Symphony 11 . Symphony 15


A year or so ago, as I was finishing the article on Havergal Brian which will eventually appear in the new edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, I felt I needed to find some brief formulation—a single sentence—that would encapsulate at least something of Brian’s uniqueness as a composer and the critical problems he raises. And eventually, though of course there are many other aspects it leaves out, I wrote down something like this: Much of Brian’s music contrives to be, at one and the same moment, both monumental and subversive.

Now that’s a very paradoxical condition. In general twentieth century experience, subversion comes from below, from the little people, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised. Subversion doesn’t dress itself in the panoply of heroism and ceremonial. Yet that’s what Brian often seems to do. I’m not talking exactly of political subversion here, not coded messages and critiques of a ruling order à la Shostakovich. Rather in Brian there’s a general tendency to the continual undermining of apparent certainties; his symphonies seem to be in the business of making grand statements which immediately engender their opposite, their negation, something in the music that brings their validity (and solidity) into question, with results that can be tragic, ironic, poignant or frankly comic.

I’m sure this dominant trait in his musical expression had a lot to do with the way he saw the world. As early as 1907, the year that the overture For valour had its première, the author Gerald Cumberland described the young Havergal Brian as someone who was almost preternaturally observant of the follies and foibles of his fellow-men (and incidentally seems to suggest that his acquaintance might be hazardous):

‘… as often as not, when he seems most absorbed in his own thoughts, he is thinking of you, noticing in his understanding way the humour of you, the absurdities of your manner and speech, the depth of your nature (if you have any), and the mixed sincerity and insincerity of your thoughts’.

I think Brian’s observation engendered in him a conviction that the world was a puzzling and paradoxical place, life was both dangerous and comical, full of sorrow, pleasure, pomp and indignity, comedy and remorse. Ambitions commonly turned to dust; tragedy and farce might be found in the same set of events; high rhetoric frequently concealed low ambition, and very often people tended to say one thing and do another.

We know he thought this, because he often exclaimed about it in his letters, and the libretto he wrote for his opera The Tigers is entirely predicated on it, with predominantly comic emphasis.

In his early music there are two separate streams—he wrote one series of works which were basically serious in import, and another which was broadly comic. But these streams began to fuse quite early on. And by the time we get to his mature symphonies we have, as I say, this paradoxical tendency to self-subversion—the building of great structures which are continually knocked out of true by unexpected, contradictory, unassimilable elements. We are not, I think, meant to choose between these elements, to favour one aspect over another, or expect to see them harmonised or transcended. We’re to experience the contrasts and oppositions as the texture of life. The late Hans Keller used to define symphonism as ‘The large-scale integration of contrasts’.

The longer I live with Brian’s music the less sure I am that he had any compelling interest in ‘integration’ in this sense. There are, perhaps, deep structural levels in his works where the contrasts come from and their motivation is explained. But primarily we’re meant to experience the music as an account of the way things are. (Those of you who are devotees of the writings of James Branch Cabell will recall that in his bitterly comic cosmos the world is the handiwork, and in the charge, of a polite, rather fussy demiurge called Koschei—to give him his full style, Koschei Who Made Things As They Are. When a character wins through a novel’s-worth of trials to meet him and demand justice, all he can reply is ‘But, friend, I have nothing to do with justice? To the contrary, I am Koschei, who made things as they are.’ I think this is a point which Brian would have understood very well.)

For valour

It so happens that all four works on this excellent new CD in Marco Polo’s Havergal Brian series illustrate this paradoxical aspect of Brian to perfection, and its operation across virtually the whole span of his composing career. The overture For valour occupies a position in his output closely comparable to the position that the Overture Froissart occupies in Elgar’s: it’s an early evidence of symphonic gifts, embodied in a sonata-form overture of military aspect. But whereas Elgar’s Froissart buys in, so to speak, to the chivalric ideal in all good faith as a total package—‘when chivalry lifted its lance on high’, and all that—For valour is more ambiguous in its stance: indeed I’ve occasionally wondered if Brian didn’t intend his title ironically.

There are two different, though not necessarily mutually exclusive accounts of the inspiration behind this work. When Henry Wood premiered in at during the 1907 Prom season, the programme-note stated that For valour was inspired by some lines from Walt Whitman’s Civil War poem, Adieu to a Soldier: we might pause to wonder if there’s irony in applying the legend on the Victoria Cross, ‘For Valour’, to an evocation of civil war. But in an account of the work printed in Brian’s local paper, The Staffordshire sentinel, in 1905, the anonymous writer, probably quoting from a conversation with Brian, states that the overture’s ‘poetic basis’ is ‘the pompousness and magnificence of war as contrasted with the more reflective pastoral life of the country’, an antithesis which we might crudely summarise as War and Peace: neither one nor the other, but both together. Now the martial and pastoral aspects of this overture are neatly and naturally balanced between its first and second subjects, but even the thundering first subject is undercut by a lyric contrast within its own span that appears unusually soon.

This gentler idea proves, so to speak, a forerunner of the pastoral second subject, which at this moment is still a few minutes away. Before very long this second subject takes over the lyrical contrast idea from the first subject, and develops it further; but lest we think the voices of peace have gained the upper hand, Brian introduces a new idea, a third subject in quick march tempo, which reasserts the military view of things.

Out of such contrasts, then, does Brian create a substantial dramatic structure: but those of you who know his output well may already have remembered a place where he uses the self-same contrast to comic effect. In Act 2 of his First World War opera The Tigers, he presents a regiment of soldiers undergoing battlefield training, who espy young girls labouring in the neighbouring fields, so they throw down their weapons and skive off to join them and help to make hay in all the expected senses—as is choreographed in a symphonic dance that bears the title Green pastures. So this is another sense in which the ‘magnificence of war’ may be counterpointed to the ‘reflective pastoral life of the country’.

Doctor Merryheart

Comedy and contrast are much to the fore in Doctor Merryheart, a highly sophisticated work of 1912, in which nothing is quite what it seems. Brian called this piece a ‘Comedy Overture’, but in form it is a set of symphonic variations, and those variations are programmatic—they seem to tell a story, the story of a genial, flute-playing astronomer with original ideas on the music of the spheres and an unusually rich dream-life. So it’s a symphonic poem: in fact, a burlesque of the symphonic poems produced by one of Brian’s heroes, Richard Strauss—both in general and, insofar as it has a specific model, in the comic variation form of Strauss’s Don Quixote, that set of ‘Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character’.

This is a score packed full of references to other composers—more by way of allusion than by direct quotation. There’s the Strauss symphonic poems, there’s Wagner (very obviously Siegfried and Tannhäuser), there’s Elgar; John Grimshaw of the HBS has directed my attention to allusions to Schubert’s Unfinished, the ‘Dresden Amen’ and at least one hymn tune. No doubt a lot of this isn’t meant to trouble the listener, and quite possibly the score is riddled with in-jokes between Havergal Brian and his great friend Granville Bantock, to whom the work was to be dedicated. But what’s clear is its basic idea of comedy arising from the imitation, on a humble level, of exalted models, in this case the Straussian tone poem.

Strauss in his tone poems had hitched his musical caravan to famous names—Don Quixote, Don Juan, Macbeth, Zoroaster—even himself, and his home life (after all by then he was quite famous too), in Ein Heldenleben and Symphonia domestica. Brian stands the idea on its head by writing a symphonic poem about someone nobody has heard of; the character of Doctor Merryheart is, as far as we know, entirely his own invention, though some of his features are enough like Havergal Brian for us to suspect that Brian, in true Straussian tradition, is also writing about himself. So irony is piled on parody is piled on allusion is piled on paradox, while the piece itself offers no obstacles to immediate enjoyment as a continuous stream of witty and accomplished and eminently approachable music—as, by a typical Brianic paradox, the joke issues in genuine beauty: as in the coolly exquisite variation, in its way one of the most sensuous things in the composer’s output, where Merryheart, Tannhäuser-like, is discovered ‘Asleep in the arms of Venus’.

Symphony 11

More than forty years on, in the two symphonies represented on this disc, this character of continual paradox and reversal had become a vital ingredient of Brian’s musical language. Though they both contain music of considerable beauty and depth, they are—broadly speaking—comedies: not in any sense farcical but in the sense of embodying a range of incident whose outcome (and this is rare among Brian’s symphonies) is unequivocally positive and indeed earthy.

The symphonies critique themselves, or at least critique the aspirations that they appear to be representing, quite as thoroughly as Mahler does, generally to more tragic effect, in his symphonies. Now in fact Havergal Brian’s music tends not to sound much like Mahler, either in the general impression it creates nor in the detail of the language. But it’s entirely appropriate to invoke Mahler’s name in the context of this new Marco Polo CD, for Brian’s eleventh symphony contains a very rare direct allusion to Mahler—a composer of whom Brian was very well aware long before the ‘Mahler boom’ in this country, and whom he, in fact, greatly admired.

Symphony 11 is in a rather unusual three-movement form: it opens with a substantial adagio, which is then followed by a central scherzo-like movement and a comparatively short finale. The closest parallel I can bring to mind is the sixth symphony of Shostakovich, but the differences are more striking than the similarities. Brian’s symphony seems to have something of the spirit of a Divertimento – even though the opening adagio, is one of his profoundest utterances (and I would suggest the deepest music to be found anywhere on this disc). But this is essentially a lyric movement, not like Shostakovich’s adagio a tragic one.

Yet the principal weight of the work falls on the long second movement, in which the scherzo-like temperament is continually being seduced into gentler byways, and indeed experiences brief transfigurations into a second slow movement. The Mahler allusion comes at the very beginning of this movement. Brian said the jogging flutes and sleigh-bells at the start (they return at the movement’s end) were a deliberate homage to the opening of Mahler’s fourth symphony—another largely genial work, but one in which lyric innocence is continually under threat. I do wonder, however, whether there isn’t a second Mahler reference in that same passage—whether the long horn tune (in itself an unusual phenomenon in Brian’s scores) doesn’t remember the long horn tune that opens Mahler’s third symphony, a work we know Brian had heard and thought about a lot in the late 1940s.

Well, the ensuing music takes a pretty un-Mahlerian course, but its development of these blithe ideas is certainly many and various. At one point—just as in Mahler we may hear unexpected echoes of Austrian country dance music—we find ourselves transported back in time to the eighteenth century, or at least to some modern Sèvres-porcelain representation of it, with an archaic and impeccably mannered minuet—although its manners would have been better if the bassoon hadn’t drunk quite so much.

So Symphony 11 runs a gamut, from exalted lyric expression at the start, through truly comic episodes in this big central movement, to a Finale of swaggering ceremonial—which nevertheless is itself qualified, once again, by more pastoral images in a central country dance, another episode one could class as Mahlerian if its entire sound and manner of address weren’t entirely English: in fact it ranks among Havergal Brian’s occasional (and usually ironic) nods to the ‘English pastoral’ school of composers who were the Establishment throughout much of his career.

Symphony 15

Finally Symphony no 15—which he wrote at the age of 84 when he wasn’t even half-way through his total symphonic output—takes another look at pompousness and circumstance and magnificence and ceremonial, and ways of undercutting these things. This is monumental subversion raised to a fine art. Hear the tremendous, pompous statement of the opening.

In large part, and to a degree very unusual in Brian’s symphonies, the entire one-movement symphony is based on that grandiloquent neo-Elgarian (neo-Handelian!) idea, which recurs again and again: but it never gets very far without being undercut, or mocked, or blown off course, by entirely different sorts of music, usually featuring solo instruments instead of that slab-like tutti. And also, every time it recurs it is varied, melodically or harmonically or in style of presentation. In a way this symphony harks back to Doctor Merryheart—_it charts the adventures of a slightly foolish idea that’s exposed to all sorts of influences and hazards. Though it’s not structured as a theme and variations, the _idea, the principle of variation is absolutely basic to the work.

And just as the character of Merryheart eventually seems to stumble on a genuine vein of seriousness (in the variation called ‘Merryheart leads a procession of heroes’, which he then celebrates with a concluding dance), so this pompous theme eventually, in the lyric central slow section of Symphony 15, has the bumptiousness knocked out of it and attains real eloquence and nobility. After which it’s further reshaped to provide the main focus for the somewhat elephantine, but certainly infectious, jollity of the Symphony’s final span which Brian himself described as a ‘jocund dance’.

Ladies & gentlemen, I’ll leave it there, and commend to you this excellent CD which, as you see, showcases Havergal Brian more in his comic than in his epic humours. But before you go away thinking ‘Malcolm MacDonald says these are just comedies’, let me remind you that For valour is no comedy, and that Shakespeare showed us long ago that comedy can embrace as wide an emotional range as tragedy. I leave you to discover the adagio of the eleventh symphony for yourselves, and to rediscover the truth of the old adage that Havergal Brian remains one of the most continually surprising—or, if you really want to put it that way, one of the oddest—composers of modern times.

NL147 © Malcolm MacDonald 2000

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