Thoughts on Brian’s eleventh symphony

Robert Matthew-Walker

Thoughts on Brian’s eleventh symphony - Robert Matthew-Walker The eleventh symphony of Havergal Brian, one of the most recent to have received a commercial recording, dates from 1954, the year that also saw the completion of his Symphony no 10. Performances and broadcasts of the eleventh, which I regard as a superb masterpiece, have, one need hardly say, been extremely rare, and even among Brian admirers it remains one of the least known of his works.

The recent issue of the Marco Polo CD will, for two reasons, enable us to put matters right. In the first place, we are now at liberty to examine this work at our own pace, and discover it for ourselves. Secondly, perhaps more importantly, it completes a consecutive ‘run’ of commercial discs of Havergal Brian sym-phonies: every Brian symphony, from no 6 through to no 12, has now been issued on record. The result of this is that, for the first time, we can place the eleventh in context, and it is mainly this aspect of the work’s significance that I wish to comment upon.

I mentioned earlier that the tenth and eleventh both date from 1954. The tenth (1953-54) completes the trilogy of symphonies which began with the eighth (1949) and, naturally, continued with the ninth (1951). Although these are very different works in many respects, they share certain characteristics: the composer called them ‘brothers’, and what they certainly do share is a kind of compulsive, raging inner fire—not one of anger, but one of regenerative natural birth, as if we—overall, in these works, should we hear them one after another—become conscious of witnessing the very creation of matter.

In total, the trilogy (as I shall collectively call 8, 9 & 10 in this note) represented an astonishing realization for Brian. Quite apart from the individual achievements which these three symphonies represent, they also must have demonstrated to Brian himself the accomplishment of the immense journey he had begun after the seminal achievement of the Gothic twenty years earlier. The journey itself was not, of course, over—the nature of these works, and what their completion meant to Brian as a composer, surely indicated regeneration of his compulsive need to create through a more refined (certainly not in the ‘pretty’ sense) and completely masterly compositional technique.

In other words, with the completion of this trilogy Brian finally knew what a great and original composer he was. He also knew, perhaps bitterly inwardly but certainly not in his outside deal-ings, that he might not live to see the general acceptance of his greatness and originality. But, even if that were the case, he also knew that at the age of 78 he still had a fair bit of life left in him.

Although artists are certainly not always the best judges of their art, and one can often find them denigrating works which the majority of us find admirable, an artist—any artist, surely, at any time—knows instinctively when he has created something worthwhile. The ‘buzz’ this gives his creative consciousness is such that, far from sitting back and resting from his labours, he will almost immediately push on with the next project—often very different. Look at Bruckner—he finishes one gigantic symphony one day, and a few days later begins the next. From composer as different as Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Chopin, Brahms and many many others we an see the truth of this observation, and in my opinion, it is certainly true in Brian’s case.

If he began the eleventh not so long after completing the tenth, in what way does this work differ from those in the trilogy? For me, when I first heard it, 40 years ago now, it seemed to suggest a new Havergal Brian. In those days, the late 1950s, It was only the eighth, ninth and tenth symphonies which had been broadcast in reasonably quick succession—unbeknown to most people, I and many others had come into contact with Brian’s work through these very ‘fiery’ and—please don’t get me wrong—‘transitional’ symphonies. The eleventh was a very different kettle of fish, and it may not wholly be coincidental that, hearing the tapes of the concert at which both this and No 12 were first performed, it was the shorter, darker twelfth that made the more immediate impression on me—it inhabited much of the darker moods of the trilogy, which I had heard over the previous months, than had its own immediate predecessor, the eleventh.

The eleventh opens with a wonderful paragraph of slowly unfolding string polyphony. Here is an admirable state of mind: calm, relaxed and powerful (I’ve used the same description in discussing the opening of Elgar’s first symphony—the state of mind, that’s all: what happens later in both works is quite different). The first few pages of Brian’s eleventh reveal a composer utterly relaxed, at ease with himself, and yet, underneath it all, there is a life-affirming confidence which attracts, supports, and never alienates the listener. It reminded me of the same kind of atmosphere that pervades the opening of Sibelius’s sixth symphony: an awakening, perhaps, and one which is entirely without fear; we encounter an artist utterly at ease with himself, perceptive yet self-confident.

What had Sibelius just achieved when he began the sixth? Why, his fifth symphony, the first movement of which is arguably the greatest symphonic achievement of the 20th century—I mean the final version, not the recently discovered and merely interesting original attempt, which Sibelius withdrew, knowing it to have been a compositional failure.

Do you not think my parallel is true? Sibelius knew what he had finally achieved in the fifth; now, in his sixth, he could explore this newly found mastery at his own pace in areas he had never explored before. After the towering achievements of his symphonic trilogy, Havergal Brian could—in very different music—explore in his eleventh symphony, with similar self-confidence, the less hectic but no less profound demands of his mind, and prepare himself for the astounding symphonic outpouring of his final dozen years as a creative artist.

NL 147 © Robert Matthew-Walker 2000

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