Havergal Brian – The Gothic voice

Brian and the use of small- and large-scale symphonic form (2)

Pauline Slevin

Part 1 (Introduction)

The Gothic symphony

All commentaries on the Gothic Symphony begin with an account of its enormous size. Our expectations are very strong, largely because it is the largest symphony ever written, and because of its title. The size of the work suggests Romanticism, where impulse and inspiration override balance of form, the idea of the Work and its importance is paramount, and there is intended a strong message for humanity. The word ‘Gothic’ has more Romantic than early Twentieth Century connotations, and this is one of the reasons a neo-Gothic movement could only have taken place in the Romantic period. Yet the word also suggests more symmetry and balance of form and monumental size than impulse, and emotion is referred to only in the sacred sense. The preconception is that of something overgrown, and even before it is heard it is seen as a grotesque, outdated and irrelevant monster. Such an attitude is probably best expressed in the Two Studies booklet (Truscott & Rapoport): a ‘symphonic dinosaur, a last overblown spasm in the death- throes of musical late romanticism’. By writing a work of this size, Brian has created many problems for himself in terms of the reception the work will receive.

In the light of compositions like Pierrot Lunaire and its English equivalent, Walton’s Façade, the Gothic by its very size gives the impression of either a very ignorant, very sheltered, or highly conservative composer. The years after World War 1 brought a terse and concentrated musical language to the Continent, that was above all negative to Romanticism. In England music like Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony and Bax’s symphonic poems reflected the naïveté of the 1920s, where the first World War was expected to be the last war. Works like Boughton’s Celtic Symphony, Holst’s Choral, and Walton’s Façade also reflect this naïveté. From the outset Brian appears to fit neither tradition, with his Beethovenian giant of a score. Ernest Bloch’s commentary on the diminished seventh is worth quoting in full:

"The brilliant and harsh diminished seventh was once new; it gave an impression of novelty and could represent anything - pain, anger, excitement, and all violent emotion - in the music of the classical masters. Now that the radicalism has worn off, it has sunk irretrievably into mere ‘light music’ as a sentimental expression of sentimental ideas." (Max Paddison, Adorno’s Aesthetics of Music.)

We know that Brian was well aware of what was going on in contemporary music: his promotion of Elgar when Elgar was unknown, and love of both Schönberg and Varèse (whose Amériques he was editing for English publication at the time of writing the Gothic) shows great foresight and open-mindedness. Brian wrote the way he did because he chose to do so. Robert Simpson thought so much of his friend that when Brian proof-read Simpson’s symphonies, any alterations were carried out unquestioned. It is possible that their mutual admiration was in part directed by a similarity in taste and their attitude to composition. Considering Brian gave little away in this respect, this indirect quote from Simpson probably also reflects Brian’s point of view about his compositions. "…ultimately we can only do what we are constituted to do: whether we do it well or not is really what matters - and contact with durable human instincts is more truthful than tagging on to fashion." (New Grove 1980.) I think that, despite the complex manner in which Brian’s symphonies are constructed, like Simpson his foremost aim was expression.

So where in the cycle does the Gothic stand, what was it intending to say about the time it was written, and to what extent was it successful? Is it a mere museum piece? Masters such as Wagner and Mahler had difficulties with such scales of invention, and an unknown Englishman from Stoke-on-Trent is the last person most would expect to follow in their footsteps. We should ask, not if the Gothic fits into the musical style of the Twentieth century, but thirty years earlier would it have fitted the style and intentions of the late Romantics? The answer is clearly no, though we may nod an acknowledgement to Strauss and Wagner. The negativity so pervasive at the turn of the century is also present in Brian. MacDonald accurately describes the Gothic as the great Anti-Symphony, the inversion of Beethoven’s Ninth in that, rather than a joyous ending of Man’s brotherhood, we have a death, an unresolved and unsettlingly resigned finish (Ex 2).


The peace of giving up the struggle, rather than victory as in Beethoven. Similarly, both pieces centre on modulatory third relationships, possibly coincidentally D minor and Bb. This is a very important link when considering that Brian is regarded as such an individual composer. We can read this as part of the inherent negativity in early twentieth century music, as no other choral symphony (not including those with solo voice like Mahler’s Fourth or Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral) ends in such a way: the last thing that we would expect in a choral symphony, let alone one of such dimensions, despite the fact that both works are English and both end with quiet resigned endings. Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony differs in this respect because it never intends epic proportions, being on a more introverted scale, closer to a cantata than to a symphony.

The differences between our expectations of the largest symphony ever written and the actual composition are symptomatic of the irony in the work. The actual title is also misleading, creating more questions than answers. Its size is a two-edged sword that has prevented (until recently) competent performances and hindered its recognition. Size is really the only reference the work has to ‘Gothicism’. Truscott has called the work ‘a grotesquely disproportionate attempt to manage the basic four-movement idea of the symphony’, and regards this as an essential element in Brian’s style. There is no denying that the work is formally unbalanced. The instrumental movements are offset by the immense vocal Part II, a gross imbalance and asymmetry of form (although slightly less so if you view the three sections in the finale as movements, making a total of six).

This imbalance is also pervasive throughout the general structure, at both the large-scale and local level. With such a title, we expect the symmetry of architecture, the great beginning counterbalanced with a powerful end. Yet the disintegration into a quiet and resigned ending in no way keeps the equilibrium of the grandeur of the opening (Ex 3).


This irony also applies to the general expectations of symphonic form. Since Beethoven the first movement of a symphony has always been the most complex, raising issues and tonal arguments to be resolved later. We expect a complex myriad of themes and tonal arguments that will keep our attention to the end. Instead, we are are confronted by a textbook-style sonata-form exposition, with distinct first and second subjects (Exx 4 & 5).


We also have a very strong sense of D minor. However, in the development section, the sonata form seems to collapse; the development seems almost exclusively concerned with the second subject, with comparatively few references to the first (Ex 6).


The recapitulation at fig. 19 is a restatement of the second subject, not the first (Ex 7).


While not unusual in itself, this is unusual in a work seemingly associated with the form and balance of Gothic architecture. Though the formal anomaly may not be perceptible for most listeners, the general sense of irony and illusion implicit in the work’s size and title does come across, albeit on a less conscious level.

Lionel Pike has been one of the first to defend the opening movement. He describes in detail how the second subject carries the tonal seeds of what is to come, by exploring the modulatory relationships of a third. He explains that the second subject is in an unstable key, that of Bb minor and Db, (Ex 5). The relationship between the major and minor tonal axis and the tonal interval of a third is one Brian explores in the complete cycle of symphonies, as a sort of alternative cycle of fifth relationships. The exploration of the relationship of a minor third is achieved through flattening the seventh, which means that the pivot chords are dovetailed, and therefore modulation is possible on every chord (Ex 8).


By concentrating largely on this ambiguity of the second subject, this tonal relationship is explored and developed.

On a long journey the danger is forgetting where you have come from. The time-scale for this symphony is especially long, and unless you can listen with perfect pitch the tonal relationships of a third are not concretely perceptible in performance. To describe the first movement as a tonal cornerstone for the work comes closer to the truth than feebly describing it as ‘tonally difficult’. The main musical point that comes across (as with the disintegration of sonata form) is that the work does not come to a satisfying conclusion. In any case, tonal ‘difficulty’ or complexity is not the yardstick in an era where no tonality at all is considered the way forward. From a look at Brian’s tonal arguments we should expect some idea of what he wanted to say and how he said it, as well as its relevance to the inter-war years.

While the first movement remains the ‘cornerstone’ of the work, the second breaks down this stability. The opening theme sounds very much like Elgar (Ex 9),


but the unusual development and use of the orchestra in his use of low brass and woodwind means it has Brian’s personal stamp on it. Just as in the first movement, this also has a march quality about it, despite its 5/4 metre. It is this movement that gives away the most about his later orchestral style: it is so closely knit motivically, and no material used is independent of the main theme; this tendency especially applies to the second movements of his symphonies. The climax of this work is created by the main theme, and works towards the main theme’s restatement, Ex 10.


Grove - usually the bastion of musical historiography - has described Brian’s music as highly individual, and while acknowledging the fact that he was a well-known music critic, describes him as having assimilated very little from Schönberg and his contemporaries. This is unequivocally untrue, as it is this tightly-knit motivic method of composition that shows the relationship between Brian and Schönberg, but most importantly Bach. It is of course possible to dismiss this motivic quality as a mere ‘production line’ attitude. As with Schönberg and Bach, clever motivic developments count for nothing if they are not stabilised by other musical qualities such as orchestration, melody, and a sense of large scale form.

Brian is not such an isolated figure in his methods of composition. He was greatly influenced by Berlioz’s book on orchestration; and in the Gothic the orchestral forces are so large that they require expert handling. For example in the third movement (fig. 73) the grouping of xylophone and piccolo is particularly effective, and would have different results in most composers’ hands (Ex 11).


While some describe Brian as ‘carving a solitary furrow in English music’ (Robert Layton), on closer inspection this proves not to be the case. His method and attitude is, under the surface, very like Schönberg, his orchestration very much influenced by Berlioz and Strauss.

The actual tonal pattern of the second movement follows on from the major/minor third relationship introduced in the first. The third relationship in both the melody and modulations works in two ways; first, as an alternative cycle of fifths, as the flattened seventh and thirds in the melody have allowed the possibility for pivot chords from minor to major third keys. In the second movement the F# tonic is sustained with a tonic dominant pedal, but the actual theme fluctuates between the major third of F# minor/major (Ex 10). In Pike’s tonal analysis he describes the way the melody is later harmonised in Eb minor/D# minor to provide added conflict at the climax, just after ex 7. This shows a great deal of the major/minor relationship he mentions, for the reasons cited above, and a great deal of enharmonic change which creates an even greater degree of flexibility even to the point of indicating sharps in woodwind and flats in strings.

Secondly, this sort of tonality shows modal connections, and can be described as an influence from the Elizabethan period — for which his admiration bordered almost on obsession. This adds a touch of ‘Englishness’ on first listening. Yet to put a finger on ‘Englishness’ is almost impossible as (apart from the adopted Händel) since the Elizabethan period there hadn’t actually been any major composers at all, and to describe a work as ‘English’ requires some qualification.

If we look at music described as quintessentially English, such as folk music or Elizabethan madrigals, we can see that influences from other countries are stronger than at first thought. For example, folk music is regionally, even locally variable: southern folk music in Cornwall has a very French character, whereas music on the West coast has an Irish flavour. Elizabethan music has a continental flavour from the Netherlands. There is more than a grain of truth in Elgar’s ‘I write the folk music of this country!’ The truth is that English music assimilates various cultures to develop its own individual voice. The actual English character was never there in the first place. Brian’s Germanic influences are an honest recognition that British music is part of a more European culture.

Conceptually I can see a similarity to his hero Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra in that the essential conflict is one of key. Also sprach . . . has a conflict between the key of Man, B minor, and the key of the Übermensch, C major. The work does away with these symbolic keys of conflict almost superimposed on one another, still unresolved. Brian brings the lighter tone poem structure to the symphony. His conflict between the D minor and E major and the related keys is hardly a satisfying conclusion to such a tonal battle, just as Also sprach . . finishes without resolution, and in that sense its tonal arguments are related to the Gothic. I think that though this shows that although Brian was self-taught, there is quite a bit of premeditation in this tonal scheme. The symphony was intended to end as it does as quite a deliberate gesture.

There is also a link with Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in its size. Most importantly they both use soloists and chorus. (Brian knew all of Mahler’s symphonies, and heard the Eighth performed.) It is also similar to Mahler’s work in a more intriguing and less tangible way too. Mahler wrote the Eighth at a time when he was very much interested in Bach, and Bach’s compositional use of tight motivic relationships rubbed off on Mahler, Schönberg, and Brian at this time and consequently they influenced each other. The strong motivic development in the Gothic is a transference of the motivic development used in the Eighth and in Schönberg’s contrapuntal music.

I think it is worthwhile to look at Brian’s immediate contemporaries, and one of the closest parallels we have is Holst, whose Choral Symphony dates from 1923, based on Keats, and which is let down by the rather clichéd musical language. By comparison the bare fifths and the textual colouring of the Gothic could only be by Brian. At a time when language and its use in music was at a very important stage of development, Brian used some of the most widely set text (in fact the standard text for a work of this size) against the trend of the time.

The vocal section of the Gothic is known for both its difficulty and for the muddiness of the vocal writing. It is difficult to know if the muddiness is due to the difficulty or vice-versa. In the Judex crederis venturus section the words are indecipherable, with approximately 24 layers built up on top of each other (Ex 12).


It is probably the type of writing that every composer tries to avoid writing, and we could dismiss this as simply bad choral writing, but I think this cannot be the case. Brian worked with choirs all his life, and knew more about them than most. There is an intentional obscuring of the words, perhaps for the same reasons that the whole formal structure disintegrates - it reinforces the whole breakdown of the work itself. The obscuring of the words also creates an effect, by showing the superiority of the music over the words - again, an inversion of Beethoven’s Ninth. In the latter there is (in the Wagnerian sense) a drama that only words can express; in the Gothic the sound, rather than the words, create the expression.

In Holst’s Choral Symphony, and in Walton’s Façade, great time and care are taken to show the strong relationship with words: Façade is mainly about making declamation into music, with much what might be termed ‘word painting’ in it. Holst’s Symphony similarly opens with declamation. Brian uses religious texts, in use for centuries, reminiscent of Tallis and Spem in alium. The text could be described as a standard choral text, as if there was no effort involved given that expression of the text was not at the forefront of his mind.

In short, the Gothic is everything it isn’t supposed to be. It does not fall into the style of the ‘Straussian dinosaur’, nor adopt the naive romantic Celtic style of Bax or Bantock; yet it lacks the focus on language of Façade or Holst’s Symphony. Similarly, it is different from Brian’s other symphonies for more engaging reasons than its size. One of the more unusual characteristics that sets it apart is the use of melody. The other symphonies are much less self-indulgent in this sense. If we compare the lush beauty of the tenor solo in Te ergo quaesumus to the opening march of the Seventh Symphony, the stylistic contrast is striking.

It is important to keep in mind that Brian wrote the Gothic at the age of forty-three, and if we look at previous works such as The Tinker’s wedding or the Variations on a popular rhyme we can see that the early style of marches, little vocal style melody and tight motivic development is much more in keeping with subsequent symphonies. The Gothic is, in a sense, an anomaly in both symphonic history and therefore in his own cycle of symphonies. It is important to keep this in mind when studying the symphonies, and in the next chapter I will look at the Seventh Symphony, which is in general much more characteristic of his output.

NL133 © Pauline Slevin 1997

Newsletter, NL 133, 1997