Brian as Faust

Malcolm MacDonald

The following article is a revised version of the lecture I gave at the HBS/BMS ‘Gothic Day’ at the London Penta Hotel on 25 May, under the title ‘What is ‘Gothic’ about the Gothic and what is Faustian about the Gothic?’. While it hardly deals directly with the music of the Gothic at all, it is of a piece with my other rather ‘speculative’ writings round and about the work, particularly my article The Gothic: music and meaning* in Newsletter 16 and Brian and the psychologists, exploring the attitudes of mind, both conscious and unconscious, out of which the Gothic may have sprung. The present article develops certain themes from both the previous ones, and therefore at a couple of points uses almost the same wording: I apologise to all who find this irritating.

Havergal Brian’s music invites speculation - as to his intentions, as to his sources of inspiration, as to (contentious word) his work’s meaning. The key to the mysteries of Brian’s music is the mystery of Brian’s mind - and the Gothic is undoubtedly one of the crucial demonstrations of the scope and power of that mind. The composer’s unassuming, impassive, seemingly naive exterior must not deceive us into thinking that it mirrored an ordinary or conventional or undeveloped intellect. This was a mind of unusual power; and also of unusual lines of thought. That is one of the main sources of confusion for critics of his music. They look for logical connections, when the connections are often spiritual, imaginative, creatively catalytic. As far as going off on inspired tangents is concerned, Brian has us all beaten hollow before we start.

Consider for a moment his 1936 article, reprinted by the HBS in Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony: two studies, called ‘How the _Gothic Symphony came to be written_. Most of it isn’t explicitly about the Gothic at all. Instead it’s a very selective piece of autobiography: musical impressions of his youth, men who helped him, things and historical personalities which fascinated him, a strange dream he had in about 1909, and so on. The only passage in which he explicitly connects something with the Gothic is when he is discussing what he calls the ‘mental stimulation’ afforded by the scenery of the South Downs:

I can think of nothing more mentally invigorating than gazing at miles of freshly made ploughed furrows, uniform and symmetrical, glistening purple red in the autumn morning light, unbroken by a single hedge, over the vast rolling downs. This I have always felt to be the pivot of the Gothic Symphony.

‘Pivot of the Gothic Symphony’? Freshly ploughed fields? you can’t get much more tangential than that. But because it’s tangential it’s not meaningless, even if I’m not too sure what he means; nor are the other things he mentions in this essay. His selection of them is very deliberate - and they all, in some way, have a bearing on the Gothic. It’s just that he leaves us to make the connections for ourselves. Brian, in short, was one of the earliest practitioners of what is nowadays often called ‘lateral thinking’ quite the opposite of the scholastic logic and Enlightenment rationalism which has exercised such domination - even though its influence may now be waning - over the last four centuries of Western habits of thought. It was the Age of the Enlightenment which invented the term ‘Gothic’, to denote an Age which was barbarous, uncouth, irrational, and everything the modern age was not. That is still one of the residual meanings of the word ‘Gothic’, and no doubt Brian was aware of it, when he came to write his symphony.

To the 18th century, also, the ‘Gothic’ age was one of horror, hag-ridden by superstition, an age of dark supernatural deeds - the period described in novels of ‘Gothick’ romance. This too may have been a distant shade of meaning which the word possessed for Brian. (Not too distant, maybe - for the author of the seminal work of English ‘Gothick’ fiction, ‘Monk’ Lewis, had been British attaché in Weimar, had known Goethe, and had modelled the protagonist of his grisly The monk (1796) on Goethe’s Faust. But Brian had his own means of approach to Faust, of which more later.)

However, among the many areas of meaning covered by this ambiguous word ‘Gothic’ - some of them quite contradictory, and encroaching on many areas of human thought and achievement - I think we can agree that two were of especial importance for Havergal Brian. One is architecture, specifically the architecture of mediaeval cathedrals; the other is the idea of the ‘Gothic’ age as an opening-up of the resources of the human mind and spirit. It is worth remarking that these two aspects are not synchronous in time. Gothic architecture, though still being practised in parts of Europe as late as the mid-l6th century, really had its heyday in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the great age of the cathedrals was also a great age of faith, with a comparative degree of Christian unity.

Its intellectual achievements were primarily in the realm of codification and neo-Aristotelian systematisation, above all in the work of Thomas Aquinas. The great leap forwards and outwards, the spiritual and intellectual ferment, belongs more correctly to the 15th and 16th centuries, to the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. ‘Gothic’ somehow bestrides the two periods. The spiritual force is amassed in the first, and put to work in the second. One could do worse than the previous sentence for a thumb-nail characterisation of the two parts of Brian’s Gothic Symphony.

Take architecture first. In that essay, How the Gothic Symphony came to be written, Brian recounts one of the crucial musical experiences of his childhood - how, as a chorister, he took part in the performance of a setting of the Te Deum, in a Gothic cathedral, during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. Admittedly it was Prince Albert’s Te Deum, and Lichfield Cathedral is by no means the most impressive Gothic pile in Europe, but it would be foolish not to accept that this childhood experience finds a gigantic echo in Brian’s symphony, with its huge Te Deum setting. ‘I retained’, wrote Brian, ‘an impression of something on a vast scale’; and indeed the sheer scale and magnificence of Gothic cathedral architecture was one of its chief attractions for Brian, throughout his life.

One of the most significant effects of that 1887 experience may have been that in it, the emotional effects of music and architecture seem to have become indissolubly linked in his mind. Few people would deny the massive architectural quality of much of Brian’s music; it seems to be a quality he consciously strove for, perhaps in the Gothic Symphony above all. In his book Opus est, Paul Rapoport has written a speculative analysis showing that the Gothic can be heard, in its tonal and durational aspects as well as in many details, as a musical equivalent of the cruciform ground-plan of a Gothic cathedral.

Without going that far, one can simply say that Brian seems to have had an acute awareness of the spiritual affinity of the two arts. For instance, he wrote in the July 1935 Musical Opinion that one of the ‘indisputable facts in the history of music’ was that ‘music is an expression in sound of the same principles of all the great schools of architecture: that certain fundamental principles govern the whole, though in parts they differ, as we see in Gothic and Norman architecture.’

Brian was very likely aware of the Renaissance Neo-Platonist conception of architecture as an art whose structures were patterned after the principles and proportions of cosmic harmony - a view which goes back to Pythagoras’s ‘music of the spheres’ and has naturally attracted many composers, down to its contemporary (and rather crude) reflection in many of the recent works of Stockhausen. As an avid reader of Goethe, Brian doubtless also knew and approved the German poet’s dictum in the Conversations with Eckermann that architecture is ‘eine erstarrte Musik’ - a frozen (or solidified) music; he might aptly have reversed the comparison and called his music liquefied architecture. What both terms recognize is the fact that neither a cathedral nor a symphony is a static object: they are both processes, whether it be of harmonic tension and release, or the stress and counter-stress of great blocks of masonry.

Gothic cathedrals are a paradox in stone. The pillars soar, lifting the ceilings high on bays and arches that curve gracefully and launch out into space as if with no effort at all; the rose windows let in dazzling light; they are visionary places of space and air. But everything is achieved by mass and gravity and tremendous weight; the points of those arches meet under incredible pressure, with an awesome authority and finality. Cathedrals are also the embodiments of spiritual power and terror; Robert Simpson has told me that Brian once told him this was one of the aspects he had wanted to express in the Gothic. This paradoxical aspect of Gothic architecture is brilliantly expressed in a poem by the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, written in 1912, and called Notre Dame:

In the place where a Roman judge judged an alien people there stands a basilica, and the light groined arch - joyful and first, as Adam once was - plays with its muscles as it spreads out its nerves.

But the secret plan is revealed from without: here the strength of the saddle-girth arches has taken care that the ponderous mass not crush the wall, and the battering-ram of the bold vault is idle.

An elemental labyrinth, an inscrutable forest, the Gothic soul’s rational abyss, Egyptian might and Christian modesty: next to a reed - an oak, and everywhere plumb is king.

But the sore attentively, O stronghold Notre Dame, I studied thy monstrous ribs, the more frequently I thought: some day I too will create beauty from cruel weight.

(Prose translation by Clarence Brown, from his Mandelstam, Cambridge University Press, 1973)

‘Beauty from cruel weight’. Brian would have loved that line. The sense of weight, of mass, in Brian’s music is something quite unique, as far as I know. It’s often confused by hostile critics with thickness or heaviness of scoring - which of course are not among the neo-classical Enlightenment virtues - but in fact it seems to me that Brian’s instrumentation has the precise expressive purpose of giving the music an overwhelming physical presence. ‘Everywhere plumb is king’ - Brian makes you feel the granitic reality of those mighty Gothic pillars.

Mandelstam’s poem aptly introduces the second meaning which Brian seems to have understood by the term ‘Gothic’ - the spiritual and speculative guest for understanding: what Mandelstam calls ‘the Gothic soul’s rational abyss’. To the late mediaeval intellect a cathedral was not simply a place of worship: it was also, by virtue of its cruciform plan, a symbolic representation of the human body - the body of Christ, the Second Adam. And to the ‘hermetic’ philosophers and physicians and alchemists at the turn of the l5th and 16th centuries, the human frame was the bridge between the microcosm and macrocosm, the physical and the higher reality. Theoretically there was no great divide between microcosm and macrocosm - everything was part of a continuous chain of being, and the higher world was mirrored in the lower.

The great pillars of a cathedral could be seen as if they were as much a part of nature as human ribs, or the tree-trunks in a forest - ‘an inscrutable forest’, as Mandelstam’s poem says. Havergal Brian had something of that cast of thought. There’s a passage in an article written in 1924 where he compares the experience of being in a forest with a blazing sun above the trees, to that of being in the interior of a weird cathedral. Perhaps, when he talked of those ploughed fields as the ‘pivot’ of The Gothic, he was seeing a connection between the geometrical regularity of the furrows and the symmetrical placement of pillars either side of a cathedral nave. Pure speculation: but it would be a very gothic mental process.

Cathedrals are first and foremost places of Christian worship, and the Te Deum is a deeply Christian text. But by the time Brian came to write his great symphony he was no recognizable form of Christian, and what attracted him about the Gothic Age, apart from its architecture, was not its mediaeval piety. One has to conclude that it was the reverse of that piety, the proud probing for unknown or forbidden knowledge which, towards the end of the Gothic Age, put Man in the centre of the spiritual stage in a new and revolutionary way. ‘Man the great miracle’ is the resounding theme of the Aesculapius, an occult text attributed to ‘Hermes Trismegistus’, who was supposedly an Egyptian priest who lived before the time of Moses. It was this work, long known to the Middle Ages, which, when combined with the other so-called ‘hermetic’ texts first translated into Latin in 1463, provided the motive force behind the tremendous upsurge of interest in magic, and especially alchemy, that characterizes the late Gothic spiritual guest 1.

Even today, ‘alchemy’ and ‘magic’ are highly-charged, suspect terms from which the ‘Enlightened’ modern mind flinches. However, properly pursued, they were anything but superstitious occult mumbo-jumbo. The great analytical psychologist Carl Jung devoted many books to expounding the fact that alchemy had a serious psychological aspect: that the transformation of lead into gold, and other sensational claims, whether or not they had any basis in fact, were only the outward symbols of the important transformations, which took place in the practitioner’s own psyche - the development of personality through opening up the mind to new spiritual influences 2.

And in the last 30 years the historian Frances Yates has fully chronicled the process by which hermetic philosophy, alchemy, astrology and other ‘magical’ practices formed a vital transition stage to the de-occultized scientific materialism of the 17th century 3.

She has shown that ‘maguses’ like Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, and John Dee hold a very significant position in the history of Western thought, and especially in the way that Man has seen himself in relation to ‘life, the universe and everything’. They were the first to suggest that Man could control the elemental forces underlying his existence, and led on to a practical, scientific attitude to the physical world (Paracelsus, indeed, was a great physician in his own right, and Dee a great mathematician and pioneer in the science of navigation).

It can be shown that such diverse figures as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Francis Bacon, Shakespeare, Inigo Jones - even Sir Isaac Newton -were deeply imbued with the influence of these men’s ideas: it can be argued that we cannot properly understand the rationalism of Erasmus, Montaigne or Descartes until it is realized that they were engaged in bitter argument with these same ideas. To a certain extent the ‘maguses’ formed a kind of free-thinking intellectual opposition to the established forms of Christian belief: because their magic - for want of a better word - was not only their art, but their religion.

Brian wrote the Gothic before Jung’s alchemical studies began to appear, and long before the first of Frances Yates’s books. But this new view of Gothic Age magic is one which, on the face of it, might have appealed to him. Moreover Brian was, in his own fashion, prodigiously widely-read: he might even have got there by himself 4. So it was with a certain feeling of satisfaction that, while going through Brian’s letters to Bantock last December, I came upon a reference, in a letter of February 1942, to the fact that, many years before, Brian had possessed ‘mystical books…by Jacob Bohm, Swedenborg, Paracelsus’, (and possibly several others), as part of the extensive library he abandoned in Stoke in 1913. Swedenborg is of course a later mystic, and Brian’s interest in him might be adequately explained by his passion for William Blake, who was greatly influenced by Swedenborg. But Paracelsus and Bohm are Renaissance alchemists, central figures in this era of magic I’ve been describing 5.

Which brings us, very logically indeed, to Doktor Johannes Faustus of Wurttemburg. As far as we know, this ‘magus’ never lived, but his story is located firmly in the historical context I’ve been sketching: and it was current in chap-book form and puppet-plays when there still lived men who claimed to be able to conjure angels and devils 6. The Faust legend is one of those archetypal ‘matters’ which has generated, and continues to generate, an entire literature. Goethe’s Faust is one of its classic expositions, and it was a book which fascinated Havergal Brian all his life. For him, Faust must have seemed the ideal Gothic Age figure, summing up the bold, exploratory tendencies of the period.

In his article How the Gothic Symphony came to be written, Brian writes that the first part of the work - the three orchestral movements - was ‘largely coloured by Goethe’s Faust (Part I)’, and that his original idea was to write a choral finale setting a large part of the last act of Faust (Part II). He didn’t do that, as it turned out: instead the Te Deum ‘pushed itself forward as the only possible finale for a Gothic Symphony’. But on the title-page of the Te Deum - and though it appears also on the title-page of the printed score of the whole symphony, it seems it was meant to be attached only to the Te Deum in the original two-volume edition of the work - he placed two lines from the final scene of Goethe’s Faust, Part II: ‘Wer immer strebend sich bemuht, den konnen wir erlosen’. These words are sung by a chorus of angels bearing Faust’s immortal soul towards heaven; approximately translated, they run: ‘He who strives with all his might, that man we can redeem’.

Brian makes no reference to this line in his article about writing the Gothic Symphony, but in talking at one point about his view of inspiration, he does give vent to a homelier version of it. ‘It has been argued’, he says, ‘that inspiration and prayer are the same. Though I am convinced that great work of any kind is impossible without inspiration, I no less hold the belief that the only practical prayer is that of the inner voice and urge such as in the old fable of Hercules and the Wagoner, who, when his wagon got stuck in the mud, prayed to Hercules to come to his aid. The voice replied, ‘Man help thyself.’

‘Man help thyself’ - ‘Wer immer strebend sich bemuht’ - both quotations would seem to agree, at any rate, that Brian believed it was up to him to work out his own salvation, whether religious, artistic or philosophical. Now of course this is hardly an uncommon view among composers - we need to look no further than Beethoven for a classic parallel - but philosophically speaking this view descends from the hermetic philosophers of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, who theorised that a man inspired by the right influences could attain knowledge, and therefore power, without any of the aids of conventional religion. It was precisely this view which gave rise to the legend of Faust, and it is still active in Goethe’s play 7, where Faust does not repent, and what is accounted to him for righteousness is the fact that he has never ceased seeking and striving after new experiences.

So: what is Faustian about the Gothic? It seams to me that what is Faustian about it is Havergal Brian. On some level he appears to have identified with Goethe’s hero. In March 1939, in Musical Opinion, he published a short article on The legend of Faust, which makes it clear that what he found most compelling was the idea of Faust the searcher and striver after illumination: in Brian’s words, Faust is ‘seeking a solution to the mysteries of the unknown’. In his essay on How the _Gothic Symphony came to be written_ he employs virtually the same phrase about himself while composing the Gothic: ‘I have always felt that I, being the only person interested in my work, would discover a solution to all the mysteries about it’.

I suggest that through his many years’ absorption in Goethe’s Faust Brian saw his own life-experience, his experience as a composer, as Faustian. Remember that though he had a good basic musical education, he had no academic training in composition; he was no composer’s pupil and he had to make his own way from the beginning, grappling with the mysteries of making music out of his own inborn gifts.

At the period when he was writing the Gothic, and for several years previously, it was his practice to do most of his composing ‘in the deep silences of the night, long after the family had retired to bed, usually between 11pm and 2 and 3am, with a shaded table-lamp which kept all the rest of the room away from his desk shrouded in thick darkness. Would he not have seen the parallel between himself and Faust, conjuring in solitude in his dark chambers? Brian even recounts seeing before him the figures of Bach, Goethe, Berlioz, as if present to him in the spirit. He’s fairly sceptical in the way he talks about these ‘visions’, which may have been tricks of his unconscious brought on by exhaustion, but surely he thought of Faust conjuring up Mephistopheles?

Of course, Brian was no magician: he was a composer. But like an alchemist he was wrestling with the mysteries of the universe by means of his personal art; and we should remember that many of the Renaissance alchemists and hermeticists considered music itself to be one of the magical arts and a powerful aid in invoking beneficent influences of various kinds. (Such an idea was the basis for Jean-Antoine de Baif’s Academy of Poetry and Music in Paris in the late 16th century. The chief composer of ‘incantatory’ music there was the gifted Huguenot Claude La Jeune, several of whose works have survived.)

If Brian saw himself as a Faustian figure, perhaps in the Gothic he was trying to do something Faustian: something that could be described as a piece of conjuring.

In his talk on 25 May 1980, Paul Rapoport demonstrated in some detail that Brian’s Gothic may take Beethoven’s ninth symphony as a partial model. In more general terms, I would certainly say that Beethoven’s ninth is the most powerful archetype of the genre to which the Gothic belongs: that of the great choral-orchestral ‘world-renewing’ symphony. After all, Beethoven’s ninth isn’t simply providing a pretty frame for some less than first-rate poetry - Beethoven surely meant it to have some kind of moral force, and Schiller’s words are a symbol of a state of human existence which seemed to him desirable, even if unattainable in this life.

Brian’s even vaster symphony can be no less of a statement of belief: belief in the desirability of a new Gothic Age, a new epoch of the opening-up of the human spirit and receptiveness to fresh experience; a new ‘ninth’ for the times -and since those times were the immediate aftermath of the Great War, his conscious or unconscious impulse may have been to produce this vast ‘Gothic’ symbol to point the way forward for a rather tired and weary Western civilization, in which the Age of Enlightenment had clearly come to the end of its tether.

Brian wrote comparatively little - and that little, as we have seen, tantalizingly oblique - about his own music and his creative intentions. But he wrote copiously about the music of others: and his articles on the works of composers he admired, as well as suggesting by implication the qualities which he himself strove for, contain many fascinating and suggestive digressions which help to illuminate Brian’s own view of himself. An extremely important example occurs in the first part of his large-scale study of Delius, which appeared in several successive numbers of Musical opinion throughout 1924. After some remarks on the evolution of musical forms, and the composer’s individual role in this process, he suddenly instances the Faust legend as a parallel example of ‘something persisting and refusing to die, yet slowly evolving into something definite’ - in this case, through Goethe’s treatment of it. Brian continues:

Was Goethe conscious in his lifetime that he had revitalised the literature of a whole continent and recreated the literature of Germany, as Shakespeare did for England several centuries previously? Probably not. When Goethe was slowly evolving the Faust legend into the stature of a cathedral - a process which occupied him a lifetime - he was not conscious that he was bringing to a close a centuries-old myth. His mind was occupied and troubled with the destiny of humanity, end it was his brooding upon it which gave us the wonderful philosophy and poetry which remains enshrined in that gorgeous tragedy. We have instances of the same kind happening in music… (‘The Art of Frederick Delius’, Musical Opinion, March 1924, p 598.)

Note there the extraordinary identification of Faust and the cathedral! But more important, this passage is the prelude to a discussion of the present evolutionary stage of music, and especially the Symphony as a form. Brian claims Delius as ‘the last Romantic’ of the Chopin-Grieg line; but he also sees Richard Strauss as a parallel contrasting figure-who has brought to an end the tradition of ‘the romantic symphony as it was left by Liszt and Berlioz’.

The date is extremely important. However we argue over the precise dating of the Gothic, there can be little doubt that Brian was deeply involved with it in early 1924. And here he is implying that ‘the romantic symphony’ has run its course, while invoking comparisons with the undying persistence of the Faust legend. This may give us grounds for thinking that Brian, through his own post-war ‘brooding upon… the destiny of humanity’ (in which both cathedrals and the Faust archetype would surely have had a part), was being driven to write what he considered a new kind of symphony. We may even tentatively guess where this ‘newness’ lay. In the discussion of musical evolution just referred to, Brian singles out Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Strauss and Delius as composers who have brought a particular branch of the art of music to its highest expression; in each case, he views the process as one of ‘gathering all the threads’ of their predecessors together, and giving a ‘definite’ and final shape to their chosen musical field.

He implies that an intense understanding of tradition and the ability to transform the achievements of the past into ‘a living art’ is an absolute necessity for a great composer. It may be (though an article on Delius was obviously not the place to say it) that Brian saw the symphony which he was writing as a culmination, not just of the ‘symphonic’ tradition, but of the whole art of music, uniting the various traditions of vocal and instrumental music, fugal polyphony, lyric tone-painting, the symphony, and opera. Such, at least, would be a logical conclusion to his argument: naturally withheld to make way instead for a discussion of ‘The Art of Frederick Delius’.

The composition of such an all-embracing work as a sign to post-Great War Man echoes the wider, socially committed, purposes of some of the hermetic maguses. The noblest kind of late-mediaeval and Renaissance magical practices were those which sought to bring about a spiritual cleansing of the state by concentrating beneficent astrological and spiritual influences through the use of the arts - especially drama, painting, dance and music. This could be done in symbolic pageants and concerts; or alternatively a single magus, it was believed, could draw these influences into himself and thus possess the power to do great good works.

Consider the Gothic: it invokes parallels, not only with Beethoven’s ninth, but with mediaeval music, with Renaissance polyphony, Palestrina, Byrd, Schütz, Bach, Handel, Berlioz, Wagner, Strauss, Elgar, Bruckner, it uses ideas from Goethe and a great Christian text; and we know from many things that Brian said about it, that it embodied a whole host of personal associations: as he wrote once to Bantock: ‘This work has been inside my heart for a lifetime & naturally there is inside it all those who have been very dear to me - who helped & moulded me.’ We can guess that all the people he mentions in How the _Gothic Symphony came to be written_ are in some sense ‘inside’ the symphony. It is, of all his works, perhaps the one which is most charged with personal and musical influences, as if he felt he needed the support of all his friends and the great composers of the past, inside his imagination at least, to help him succeed in his mammoth task.

All of which is very natural. But a Renaissance alchemist would recognize what Brian was doing: he would say that Brian was performing a piece of conjuring - that the Gothic is a vast incantatory spell to capture and channel beneficent influences, to put them to work in a contemporary situation 8. In such a view, the hoary old musicological chestnut of the ‘influences’ on a composer becomes a very trivial matter indeed.

In Brian and the psychologists, discussing the idea that Brian had ‘learned to make use of the powers of his unconscious mind’, I suggested that one way in which he may have done this was through self-identification with powerful archetypal figures from literature. Perhaps I have now made an approach to understanding how this process might actually have worked, when he used his identification with Faust, a most potent archetype, to unlock the full powers of his creative imagination.

But it is also characteristic of Faust, the over-reaching magus, that he attempts too much, in his pride, he believes himself capable of performing Godlike acts; but, as Jung once wrote 9, Faust is eventually overwhelmed by the weight of his own knowledge - he cannot hope to control the powers of the universe single-handed. The Gothic perhaps shows us this aspect of the Faustian experience in Brian as well. I love the Gothic; but I feel, as I know many others do, that something happens to it, during the Te Deum, that it is blown off course and ends in a quite different way from that which Brian intended.

I feel he meant it to be gigantically affirmative, in the spirit of the Te Deum’s opening, a great positive statement for the post-War world. But he seems to have been unable to sustain this joyous vision; something like despair eventually sets in, and the choral cries of ‘Non confundar in aeternum’ seem like agonized prayers for succour and sustenance, as if Brian has found he has taken on just too much of the spiritual burden of Western Man for his single soul to carry.

Or perhaps I’m wrong, and Brian intended it this way from the beginning. In which case we would need to consider the Gothic in closer relation to its text - as a religious choral work. It is surely insufficient to say that Brian chose to set the Te Deum laudamus because he considered it great poetry. Why this piece of great poetry, so central to Christian traditions, and why did he choose to set it in the way that he did? What, or Who, is being celebrated, when the paeans of praise eventually disclose the Judex, a baleful prophecy of judgement; and at the work’s end an apocalyptic enactment of it? Why should Brian’s other major choral work on a religious text, the fourth Symphony, set Psalm 68 with another, more clearly deliberate, counterpointing of triumphant celebration and barbaric violence? Why should he, at the age of 85, have contemplated a Setting of Dixit insipiens: ‘The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God’?

Brian’s religious beliefs remain, at present, an enigma: he clearly rejected conventional churchgoing Christianity, and on occasion proclaimed himself an out-and-out atheist. No doubt his convictions fluctuated over the years, as they did on many other subjects. But if, as it seems, Brian sometimes entertained a concept of a god, or force, that could punish transgressions (his own included) 10, he would be likely to approach an apparently bright and optimistic religious text with an awareness of a shadow-side. His treatment of Christian texts would then, perhaps, reveal a Faustian cosmology dominated by a spirit both light and dark, a god of opposites, creator and destroyer, ‘love and love’s murder, the saint and his betrayer, the brightest light of day and the darkest night of madness’ 11.

I advance this view very tentatively indeed, unsure whether I have exceeded the permissible limits of speculation: in some ways it is more comfortable to believe that Brian simply miscalculated his effects, or ‘got blown off course’. But he does seize on the text’s one line about judgement, and inflates it musically to gigantic proportions, apparently in contradiction to the joyousness of the Te Deum’s entire opening movement; and he does eventually cast the cosmic merrymaking of ‘et laudamus nomen tuum’ onto the jagged rocks of the ‘Non confundar’ outbursts. If this is not to be understood, as Harold Truscott understands it in his portion of the Brian Society Gothic book, as an instance of what he sees as Brian’s music’s tendency to ‘self-destruction’, then perhaps it is some kind of objective statement, both musical and, in the widest sense, religious.

A belief in irreconcilable dualities and oppositions in the universe would certainly go a long way to providing a larger philosophical context for many features of Brian’s musical language. For instance (merely to touch on a potentially enormous subject), it might have a bearing on the close connection he clearly felt between relative major and minor keys - the relative minor being, as it were, the ‘shadow’ of the major key whose same pitches it employs. Throughout the Te Deum, E major is menaced by its relative minor, C#; and though The Gothic does eventually close in the former key, it does so only by a hairsbreadth. Until that final, mysterious choral murmur, C# minor seems inevitable.

Perhaps, however, Brian had yet another intention in mind. Perhaps, as Paul Rapoport hinted on 25 May, the Te Deum is a deliberate inversion of Beethoven’s Ode to joy.

But that hint reminds me that the classic 20th century formulation of the Faust legend is, precisely, Faust as composer. Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus is that classic formulation, and in that novel the composer-protagonist, Adrian Leverkühn, does write a work, called the Lamentation of Dr Faustus, which is a deliberate spiritual inversion of the finale of Beethoven’s ninth. Mann’s novel was published exactly 20 years after Brian completed his symphony. But life doesn’t imitate art too literally. In Mann’s novel, the Lamentation of Dr Faustus is the composer’s last work. The Gothic is Brian’s first symphony - throughout no fewer than 31 others, he continued to work out many of the implications of the Gothic. Though he often, in later years, said that his philosophy of life was ‘nothing matters’, his great series of symphonies would seem to suggest rather that he remained true to the end to the Faustian ideal of salvation through unremitting personal effort and refusal to abandon hope:

‘He who strives with all his might, that man we can redeem.’

‘Man is a great miracle’, says Hermes Trismegistus, or whoever it was who wrote the Aesculapius. In his own way, Havergal Brian is a most impressive proof of the truth of that statement.

  • The Gothic: music and meaning is available in HB: Aspects of Havergal Brian ed Schaarwaechter - see bibliography; JRM

NL30 © 1980 Malcolm MacDonald

See also Malcolm MacDonald‘s article Brian and the psychologists
and The psychology of Brian - Robert Timlin

  1. The Corpus Hermeticum derived much of its authority from its supposed fabulous antiquity: it was believed to contain ‘pure’ Egyptian learning which the Judaeo-Christian world had lost. In the mid-17th century Isaac Casaubon proved the texts to be ‘forgeries’ of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. His very effective debunking was the death-knell of Renaissance hermeticism, but he also prevented a rational evaluation of the genuine intellectual content of these interesting and influential writings which are, in fact, deeply imbued with Gnostic philosophical ideas, along with Platonism, Stoicism, and Jewish and possibly Persian influences. As Frances Yates has remarked (Giordano Bruno, p431), they might even, for all anybody knows, contain some genuine Egyptian learning. I hold no brief for Immanuel Velikovsky’s recent and highly controversial ‘alternative chronology’ for the ancient world, but its re-dating of Egyptian history 600 years closer to the Christian era would make this more possible (see, especially, his Peoples of the Sea (1977)). ↩︎

  2. Most of Jung’s writings on the subject will be found in Vol 12 (Psychology and Alchemy) , Vol 13 (Alchemical Studies) and Vol 14 (Mysterium Coniunctionis) of his Collected works↩︎

  3. Giordano Bruno and the hermetic tradition is the central book: but practically all her others map various areas of the same general field. ↩︎

  4. As is strongly suggested by a passage on Strauss’s opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (Musical opinion, October 1931, p 18) , where Brian comments that in the later operas of Wagner ‘we move in a world of magic or in the subconscious mind of the creative artist’. His ‘or’ is ambiguous, but he seems to imply an identification between these two ‘worlds’. ↩︎

  5. I have traced only one other instance of Brian mentioning their names - a previously nonplussing reference, in the September 1924 Musical opinion (p.1194), where Paracelsus and Bohm bring up the rear of a list of ‘philosophers and divinities’ that also includes Marcus Aurelius, Set Francis of Assisi, and Jesus Christ! ↩︎

  6. Marlowe, in his The Tragicall History of Dr Faustus, may have been hitting at his contemporary, Dr John Dee (who made precisely this claim). Shakespeare, who created the ‘magus’ Prospero in The Tempest (a play Havergal Brian almost turned into an opera a few years before beginning The Gothic!), may, as a young man, have known Dee and have had the use of Dee’s great library at Mortlake (cf Frances Yates’s Theatre of the world and Shakespeare’s last plays: a new approach). ↩︎

  7. On p 104 of her Shakespeare’s last plays: a new approach (1975), Frances Yates has tentatively suggested possible routes whereby hermetic philosophical ideals could have been transmitted to Goethe himself and the German Romantic movement generally, via the German Rosicrucian movement of the early 17th century. ↩︎

  8. In his 25 May talk, Paul Rapoport pointed out how Beethoven isolates and therefore intensifies Schiller’s idea that humanity must go out and seek God among the stars, and that Brian seems, in the Judex of the Te Deum, to reverse this process and draw God in. Perhaps it isn’t entirely irrelevant that one of the central texts of late mediaeval alchemy, one which deeply influenced Paracelsus, whom we know Brian had read, is a book by Marsilio Ficino called De vita coelius comparanda: on the drawing-down of life from the stars. ↩︎

  9. Faust and Alchemy: recently reprinted in Vol 18 (The symbolic life) of Jung’s Collected works↩︎

  10. For example: cf his letter to Granville Bantock of 16 December 1915: ‘I have no sympathy at all with religion in the churches, but I’ve always believed in the God of Shelley. A god everywhere and one who punishes through the god in ourselves’. On 30 September 1916, he affirmed a belief in ‘natural laws, which consist of every sin… bringing its own punishment’. ↩︎

  11. As Jung says poetically of the spirit he names the Supreme god, Abraxes, in his VII Sermones ad Mortuos. Written in 1917, the Sermones were the first thing Jung wrote after his own schizoid upheaval to which I alluded in Newsletter 23; they are quite unlike the rest of his output, approaching as near as anything in this century to a Blakeian ‘prophetic book’. Brian’s ideas of God are likely to have been influenced by Blake as well as Shelley, and he might well have been fascinated by the Sermones, which were published in an English translation in 1925, when he was deeply involved with the Te Deum. It is, however, unlikely that he had an opportunity to read them, as it was a severely limited edition. ↩︎

Newsletter, NL 30, 1980