Havergal Brian’s last testament?

Lionel Pike

This paper was also published in Tempo No 138 (September 1981), under the title ‘The tonal structure of Brian’s Gothic symphony’.

The performance of Havergal Brian’s rarely heard Gothic symphony on 25 May 1980 gave us a further opportunity to assess the value of this work. In the past, adulation of the symphony has been blended with strong criticism. Among the detractors have been those who were unable to follow the logic of a symphony that starts in D minor and ends in E major without (if one believes all that one reads) any good reason: and there have been those who found the opening movement too slight and episodic, too un-symphonic, for the weight cast upon it. It is time to re-examine these criticisms.

Brian’s title indicates his intention of composing a work enshrining the spirit of the Gothic age, as expressed in mediaeval architecture and in Romantic literature: he is known to have based part one of the symphony on part one of Goethe’s Faust. Naturally enough, composers who seek to recreate a mediaeval atmosphere tend to invoke the ecclesiastical modes: nevertheless, considerable modification of those modes must take place in order to move beyond mere pastiche. Early twentieth century composers attempting to write ‘Gothic’ frequently achieved a modal effect by using the ordinary minor scale with the flattened seventh: as often as not this produced a cross between a minor key and its relative major. The opening of the Gothic demonstrates the process in miniature (see Ex l).

Ex 1 to be added

Here D minor and F major form what we might call a tonal axis, perfectly expressed by the use of their tonic chords as well as by the rocking backwards and forwards melodically between D and F. At this early stage D minor is clearly much to the fore, though it is characteristic of this kind of ‘modal tonality’ that the leading note (C#) is mutated to C natural and that the dominant chord is avoided. Thematic material and tonality are closely linked in this work: the opening leap of a third is one of many such building bricks from which great arches of sound are constructed (a glance at the examples accompanying this article will show how ubiquitous the interval is). The processes at the opening of the work are exactly summed up in a phrase from a mediaeval hymn: ‘Many a blow and biting sculpture fashioned well those stones elect’.

The D minor/F axis is clearly the ‘tonic’, though F is much the weaker pole: at the second subject, however, the new axis of Bb minor/Db treats its two poles much more equally (See Ex 2) 1.

Ex 2 to be added

The melodic use of the third draws attention again to the connection between tonality and thematic material. Moreover, this second subject demonstrates another facet of the combination of theme and key: if we think of the tonic as Bb we have the ‘secondary seventh’ shape shown in Ex 3a; but if, on the other hand, we consider Db as the tonic, the ‘added sixth chord’ shape of Ex 3b emerges.

Ex 3 to be added

This latter shape is of immense importance to the rest of the work: if applied to the overall tonic of D, the result is D-F-A-Bb, Bb standing outside the tonic triad. This partly accounts for the choice of that note as an axial tonic for the second subject: another reason is that Bb is a third away from D (though major rather than minor). Brian cannot employ either of the keys most often used by classical composers for their second subjects: classical symphonies in D minor would normally move to F major for the second subject in the exposition, but since Brian’s ‘tonic’ in a sense already includes F major, this key obviously cannot be used here for tonal contrast. Neither would the use of the dominant at this point provided sufficient contrast (the dominant key is, in fact, studiously avoided in this movement). On the other hand, Bb provides not only a tonality implied by the added 6th shape, but also one with a less classical pedigree and a greater potential for tonal contrast. Db (C#) is a useful degree to include in the second subject, since in the first subject C# was so often mutated to C natural.

In the first movement’s recapitulation the second subject precedes the first: the overall shape of the movement (excluding a coda that repeats snatches of the second subject) is therefore A-B-_development-B-A_ (the arch shape is an apt parallel with Gothic architecture). Moreover, the recapitulation cannot begin in D minor if the return to the first subject is to coincide with the return of the tonic: we are, as it were, still descending the arch on the other side.

Brian therefore introduces the second subject on the axis C# minor-E major: the note Db, from the axis of the second subject in the exposition, remains in the second subject tonality, but becomes the root of C# minor. The connection between the second subject in exposition and recapitulation is thus one expressed by the interval of a minor third, and one which revolves around the pitch Db/C#. The axis C# minor/E is the one towards which the work as a whole is moving, and it is therefore most fitting that it should occur at the start of the recapitulation, traditionally a most dramatic point in first movement form.

A glance at the key scheme of the first movement shows clearly that it is far from haphazard (even though we may wonder whether it is the result of conscious mental processes or merely of an innate knowledge of what ‘sounds right’). It is simplest if we first deal with the keys used in the recapitulation. Naturally, the movement’s main tonic of D minor is well represented; but the other keys are perhaps of more interest. The recapitulation begins clearly enough in C# minor, for the four bars of violin solo that precede the statement of the theme (page 29) 2 help us to focus more clearly on that pitch than on the other axial tonality.

A theme which first appeared in the development section is recapitulated in F minor. The coda begins by repeating the second subject, first clearly in G# minor, then in the axial key which naturally follows, B major (B natural foreshadows a later tonal shift, described below). This very sharp passage towards the end of the movement has to be answered by a correspondingly flat area in order to maintain tonal balance: the brevity of the shift to Bb in the last four bars is countered by the gigantic power with which this balancing process is announced. Ignoring the tonic, then, the keys appearing in the recapitulation are C# (=Db) minor, F minor, G# (=Ab) minor, B major and Bb. If we consider Bb rather than B natural (which really only results from the axis with G#) the result is the series of pitches shown in Ex 3b.

Such a result prompts one to examine the exposition in a similar fashion. The first subject is in D major, the second subject (if we choose the lower pole of the axial third, as we did for the recapitulation) is in Bb minor; there are stretches of D major: a passage in minor (p 11); and, finally, some brass chords based on F minor. The result is an inverted added sixth shape D, Bb, G, F. It is with the argument between the various pitches of this shape end those of the recto added sixth shape of the recapitulation that the development is concerned. Thus the tonal design of the movement parallels the melodic use of the added sixth shape.

The second movement is a battleground of keys in a way that the first movement never is: there is a compatibility of ‘axial keys’ in the first movement, but conflict between them in the second. The mood is one of the blackest tragedy and the 5/4 tread suggests a funeral march. The important pitch C# is taken as a dominant, and the base parts continually recall this function - a function which, it will be remembered, was avoided in the first movement. The resulting tonic is F# (or, as it turns out at times, Gb), but the melodic line cannot make up its mind whether this is to be major or minor (see Ex 4).

Ex 4 to be added

The debate between major and minor previously shown in Ex 2 is now, therefore, applied to the same tonic, rather than to tonalities a minor third apart. The idea of a minor third axis is nevertheless also applied to this movement, though in a new way: for the apparent tonic of the harmony added to the tune in the later stages of the movement is a minor third lower than that of the tune itself. Thus the melody in Ex 4 is eventually harmonised in so Eb (=D#) minor, providing an extra level of conflict. Brian further increases tension in the centre of the movement by turning the leaps shown in bar 2 of Ex 4 into tritones.

The third movement - the last in part one - is a fantastic (sometimes weird) scherzo. A six-note ostinato D-A-D-E-D-A, which frames the movement, anchors the tonality to D minor by strongly representing the tonic and dominant: it is perhaps possible to interpret E as a pointer, albeit on the smallest scale, to the direction the tonality will later take. The horn-calls which punctuate the music are based on D minor’s other axial pole, F. E major never appears in this movement (a modal F minor puts in a brief appearance just after fig 54); though C# minor does for a long time at fig 72, the sound here is quite unlike the ethereal second subject of the opening movement, the theme which had first introduced this key-area.

Here, in the third movement, the clankings and twitterings, the multiple ostinati and headlong rush suggest (with the passage immediately preceding) a Walpurgis Night, or perhaps Faust and Mephistopheles riding at night on black horses. In musical terms it is clear that C# is gaining greatly in is importance - the fantastic music written on this tonic rivets our attention upon it, and only by countering C# minor with a great marching C minor can tonal equilibrium, for the moment, be regained, and the movement end on the tonic D.

The glowing chord of D major that ends this third movement, and with it the first part of the symphony, is also the chord that introduces part two, a Latin setting of the Te Deum. This chord acts as a pivot in another way. The basic tonality of part one was a modal D minor. The setting of the Te Deum calls, naturally enough, for major tonalities -and D major has traditionally been associated with brilliant rejoicing and with trumpets. Treating D as a pivot, therefore (a process previously applied in the first movement to C#/Db), the tonal basis of the work now shifts from an axis of D minor (with F as a satellite) into D major (with B minor as a satellite).

The writing in the D major portions of the Te Deum contrasts with that of the first movement because of the manner in which the ‘tonal axis’ operates. The leading-note was largely avoided in the D minor sections, because of the axis it shared with F. In the Te Deum, because D major is the more important pole of a ‘tonal axis’ shared with B minor, the leading-note is readily available. This is a stage in the growth of importance of C as a tonal area in the symphony - an importance which will be discussed later. The new pitches of the thematic material are shown in Ex 5b: the tonal shift is yet again that of a minor third.

Ex 5 to be added

The opening of the Te Deum makes the tonal axis quite clear, as well as making references to earlier movements. There is a D major-B minor dichotomy (see Ex 6) which recalls the second subject of the first movement as well as the accompanying of the second movement’s main tune with harmonies whose apparent root is a third away from that of the melody itself. The tune quoted in Ex 6 is the basis of most of the thematic material of this vast Te Deum.

Ex 6 to be added

The opening pages of the Te Deum adhere basically to D major - its other axial pole, B natural, being present but not prominent. B major, however, appears at Omnis terra veneratur (‘all the earth doth worship Thee’, p 115). and Tu rex gloriae Christe, Tu Patris sempiternus es Filius (‘Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ. Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father’, p 137). This shift of tonal centre by a minor third reflects the thematic material, of course. In the present context the device is used to give added brilliance to the prevailing D major: in a sense it raises D major to a higher plane while remaining within the tonal axis.

Naturally, in the Te Deum section of The Gothic, the inclusion of text gives us a much more concrete guidance to Brian’s intentions in his music. Here we are not thrown back on the interpretation of instrumental programme music, which can so often produce conflicting accounts of ‘meaning’. What seems clear at this early stage of the Te Deum is that veneration of God by the whole world (p 115) and the acknowledgement of the Father and the Son (p 137) are singled out for special treatment.

The shapes shown in Ex 5b lead logically - for a modally-minded composer - to the tonic E, for a B minor triad with an added minor seventh leads smoothly to that key. The progress of the tonality in the work is implicit in the use of the axis D-B minor at the beginning of the Te Deum. Although this process takes place during the opening movement of the Te Deum, it is C# minor (and, briefly, major) that narrowly precedes F major: the C# keys arrive for the words Sanctus Sanctus, Sanctus.

C# minor reappears for Te per orem terrarum sancta confitetur ecclesia (‘The Holy Church throughout all the world’, pp 128f), and from this point onwards the axis E-C# provides the basic tonality for the rest of the symphony. On these two tonal planes sound the cries of ‘Holy’ which echo round the throne in glory, and the vision of Christ Seated at God‘s right hand (the closing passage of the first movement of the Te Deum, in E major).

The second movement of the Te Deum sets only the words Judex crederis esse venturus (‘We believe that Thou shalt come to be our judge’): Brian has made this section into a Dies irae, a picture of the Last Judgement such as we find in settings of the Requiem mass. The Phrygian-sounding F tonality of the opening seems to cast doubts on the viability of E as a tonal centre, by veering back and forth to D minor triads. Brian is, in effect, recalling the tonalities which were uppermost in the more ‘mundane’ part of the symphony, before the heavenly hymn began.

The Tuba mirum breaks in on the mass of (choral) humanity as a canonic fanfare for eight trumpets in E major, a passage standing in the line of last trumpets conjured up by Berlioz and Verdi. This summons from Heaven, in the key associated with Christ in glory, is followed by a terrifying march, presumably depicting the approach of the awesome Judge: Brian portrays the mediaeval, Gothic, image of the Day of Wrath, not one of a loving Saviour. One after the other, the four choirs now declaim the text, each accompanied by one of the four corresponding brass orchestras: the picture is clearly that envisaged by Donne in the lines:

At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinites
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go… [Divine meditations]

The tumultuous ending of this section of the Te Deum emphasises E major at the expense, but not exclusion, of C#.

In the third movement of the Te Deum (the sixth and final movement of the symphony as a whole), the text emphasises in yet more detail the significance of the key of C minor. Just as B major had acted as an enhanced D major earlier in the Te Deum, so here C# major acts as an enhanced F major. The movement begins in C# minor, with a tenor solo setting of the text Te ergo quaesumus tuis famulis subveni: Quos pretioso sanguine redemisti (‘We therefore pray Thee, help Thy servants; whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy precious blood’): the idea of ‘saving’ is perhaps implicit - by hindsight - in the occasional glimpses of C# major, and in the ultimate outbreak of the whole orchestra in that key on the final work redemisti (‘Thou has redeemed’).

A t this point we recall that the idea of redemption is implicit in the motto (from Goethe) that stands at the head of the score: ‘Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen’ (‘Whosoever strives industriously, him we should redeem’). There follows a section which sets the text Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis in gloria numerari (‘Make them to be numbered with Thy saints in glory everlasting’). The Gothic idea of Heaven as a place of great light was reflected in the glowing walls of stained glass which characterise mediaeval cathedrals. It is entirely fitting that Brian should gradually increase the light the brilliance - of his score during this section from the soft A major opening page (p 192), through F major (p 198), and eventually into a radiant C# major (p 208) which, for brilliance, parallels the climax in the same key on p 191.

The use of a ‘triad’ of key-areas (A, E, C#) reflects, of course, the thematic material of the work: and the gradual addition of #s increases the brilliance. But, more than this, C# is beginning to take on a symbolic nature - that of the attainment of heavenly glory by mortals, especially since this is the key used for the climax of Brian’s picture of the saints in glory. Indeed, the great importance which C# attains by the end of the Te Deum contrasts very markedly with its avoidance in the first subject of the first movement: one may well reflect that ‘the stone which the builders rejected is become the head stone of the corner’. The section balances the mediaeval gloom of the last Judgement: if the middle movement of the Te Deum was a Dies irae, this section of the final movement is a Lux aeterna.

Men’s voices, in much darker colours and in keys remote from those we by now associate with the heavenly realms, pray Salvum fac populum tuum Domine (‘O Lord, save Thy people’), and women’s voices, in much brighter colours, move backwards towards E with the words Et benedic hereditatae tuae (‘And bless Thine heritage’). An A minor march in light-music style, for an entire clarinet family, which follows this passage, has worried many commentators. Besides a great deal of vocalising to ‘Ah’ and ‘Lah’, the text of the passage (largely in E major) which is framed by this A minor march is Et laudamus nomen tuum in saeculum et in saeculi (‘And we worship Thy name ever, world without end’).

A minor, though the subdominant minor of F, sounds much darker and distant tonally: in fact, the centre of interest has shifted back again to the mundane - the ‘humanity’ of part one. Brian here depicts the human worship of God in terms that a medievalist might have styled ‘musica mundana’. Saeculum and saeculi suggest ‘secular’ - the English word is a derivative of the Latin, as Brian must have been well aware. Moreover, saeculum refers to human time, as opposed to the aeternum which refers to God‘s time, and with which the Hymn ends: hence the secularity of the march focuses on the human and limited, rather than divine and eternal, condition at this point in the setting.

From here onwards the keys and style of the music are much darker, less ‘heavenly’, partly in response to the petitions of the text. The visions of heavenly hosts are replaced by earnest prayer, and by doubt. The massed trumpets and drums, recalling the Dies irae, twice interrupt the flow of the music, and the chorus each time shrieks in anguish Non confundar in aeternum (which the Book of Common Prayer somewhat weakly renders as ‘Let me never be confounded’). Fear of judgement separates humanity from the vision of Heaven.

F major is regained only with the greatest difficulty, a grinding F natural = E# which moves to F below the tonic chord suggesting a C# major that is impossible of attainment. Immediately before fig 432 come two bars - the saddest, most heart-breaking two bars of music that I know - in C# minor. It is as if the human condition, which has witnessed the joy of Heaven and sung its praises, cannot in the end, by its own efforts, reach those realms expressed by C# major. The most that can be managed is a soft F major, whose final cadence demonstrates that this tonality is the clear result, in musical terms, of the chord B-D-F#-A (see Ex.7).

Ex 7 to be added

We can now see that the worship of God by humans is, in The Gothic, mostly couched in F, and that C# (the all-important minor third away) acts as the tonic of a major key in passages which illustrate the joy of the redeemed in Heaven. The darker human condition - as of those who walk in darkness - is illustrated in D minor (with a weakish tendency towards F) in part one of the symphony: it moves by gradual but quite logical stages to D major (with a strong tendency towards B) and then - for those who see the great light - on to the axis of F major and C# minor (or major). When major triads begin to predominate, the focus is, of course, on the upper note of the minor third tonal axis.

It becomes clear that, just as F minor was twice tried out where F major was the pole corresponding to D minor (in the dark first movement), so in the brighter sections of the Te Deum, first the B and later the C# poles (both of which one expects to be minor) are at times treated as major keys. The lower pole of the axial third, when treated as major, enhances very greatly the brilliance of the music, while yet remaining within the tonal orbit as defined by Brian in this work. By contrast, therefore, the upper pole is duller by comparison.

The final pathetic pages would seem to indicate that Brian, who was not a believer in the conventional sense, though undoubtedly a mystic, felt that he (or does he include all humanity?) could not gain heavenly glory but only the ‘shadow’ of it - a wistful, less bright (albeit related) E major. Is it sin - that is, fear of judgement - that accounts for the apparent attainment of only a reflection of redemption, or a partial redemption? Does not the immense labour of composition suggested by the motto from Goethe outweigh this fear? Brian’s answer, in this symphony, seems to belie the assumption of the motto.

This is, of course, no more than a personal response by one listener to the musical processes of the work. Whether this interpretation of the musical events be accepted or not, the structural logic of the move from D minor to E major, and the thematic processes at work from the first bar of the symphony to the last, can surely no longer be doubted.

NL37 © 1981 Lionel Pike

  1. This refers to the initial appearance of the second subject: later in the exposition the axis B minor-D is used quite widely. ↩︎

  2. All references to rehearsal numbers and page numbers are to the full score, published by Cranz & Co. Ltd. in 1932. The single-volume study score reprint is still available at the price of £30 [£40 in 1999 - JRM]. ↩︎

Newsletter, NL 37, 1981