Mounting the Gothic: The Schmidt performance, 1980

David J Brown

Mounting the Gothic: The Schmidt performance, 1980 - David J Brown

Each of the three complete performances of The Gothic that I have attended so far has been memorable for different reasons, the first professional performance under Sir Adrian Boult in 1966 because, firstly, one had never heard the work before; secondly, because it seemed then that this might be as close to Brian’s intentions as it was reasonable to hope for; and thirdly, because one knew that it was to be played in the presence of the composer — and who there will ever forget the sight, at the end, of him hurrying slightly down the long flight of shallow steps at the side of the Albert Hall platform, as if it all might somehow disappear before he got there?

The largely amateur performance at Hanley two years ago was memorable for entirely different reasons. That was a huge act of communal music-making and homage, tremendously moving in the hall on the night, shot through with the Goethean vision of human frailty surviving almost insurmountable odds, made flesh in the sight and sound of hundreds and hundreds of amateur musicians trying desperately — and succeeding, just — to cope with some of the most stupendous, and stupendously difficult, music ever written. And now, 25 May 1980.
Until the beginning of the last week before the performance, the auguries were not good. Freed at last from the Sword of Damocles of the threatened Musicians’ Union ban, it now seemed to be in danger from different directions — reports of choristers dropping out in droves, finding the work unsingable and meaningless. Also, the LSO were reportedly extremely tired after a foreign tour. But then on Tuesday 20 May, Ole Schmidt arrived from Denmark. As one learns more about the mechanics of professional music-making, the idea that the conductor is the make-or-break element in a performance, the presiding genius through only whose baton can the music come to life, seems less and less the whole truth — rather in the way that the theory of the film director as auteur loses force in the face of some superb corporate achievements in cinema. But in this case, it genuinely seems that Schmidt’s presence had an almost miraculous catalytic effect.

The first full choral rehearsal took place under his baton at Maida Vale on the Tuesday night, and in the words of one chorister, "everything just fell into place and came alive". The first all-day rehearsal for the orchestra on the Wednesday was equally successful. The LSO took to their conductor (not wholly surprising in view of their fruitful col1abration on the complete recording of Nielsen’s symphonies) and gave him what he wanted. A second full choral rehearsal was held at Maida Vale on the Thursday night, and the full forces came together for the whole of Saturday 24 May at the Sobell Centre, Islington. This huge sports arena replaced the double-booked Central Hall, Westminster as the best venue for the main full rehearsal prior to the final session, held in the Albert Hall itself on the Sunday afternoon, immediately preceding the performance.

In the Hall, on the night, the performance was stunning. Time and again, it seemed, The Gothic at last stood visible at something like its true musical stature, with its vast and intricate contrapuntal mechanism clearly sounding, and heard to work beautifully — unencumbered by silly myths, questions of its practicality, and freed to an astonishing degree from the limitations of performers. This was, surely, incomparably the best played and best sung performance we have had so far; indeed one might go as far as to say that it was one of the best performances yet of any Brian work.
I am not going to try and "review" it here. It will be fascinating in due course to see, with the aid of tape-recordings and the score, just how much Schmidt’s reading differs in detail from Boult’s of 1966, and how close he remains to or departs from Brian’s written intentions. This was an interpretation, with a strong character of its own, and it will doubtless be argued over, disagreed with and equally stoutly defended. But the most important thing, and the abiding achievement of this event, is that all this can take place against the sure and certain knowledge that The Gothic can be played and sung as well, and therefore sound as natural and inevitable, as anything else. From this moment on it is no longer a legend, something which may be brought to a kind of half-life every once in a while, and then put regretfully back with a weary "what a marvellous conception on paper but…" but a fully viable, coherent and performable piece of music.

The Albert Hall was not full, but the audience was a very creditable 4,500 or so. Most must have come out of curiosity — the majority of ticket sales were on the day itself — but they stayed to cheer. The Society had a full-page advertisement on the back of the programme, and mounted a bookstall in the foyer. I must thank here the dozen or so stalwart members who volunteered to hand out copies of our revised, typeset, de luxe introductory leaflet to people as they went in through the RAH’s numerous doors. The gratifying result has been the largest intake of new members we have ever had, and I should like to take this opportunity on behalf of the Officers and committee of welcoming then into the Society.

The level of writing around the performance was, generally, not distinguished. The preceding week’s issue of What’s on in London contained an article (under the title "Life of Brian" — how many times have we heard that one now?) by John Bridcut. Mr. Bridcut was apparently a chorister in the performance, and he made little attempt to hide his resentment at The Gothic’s demands on his abilities in one of the most inaccurate and snide pieces which it has been my misfortune to read in a long while. Perhaps he felt inclined to recant a little after 25 May. (Certainly a number of choristers have since been moved to join the Society as a result of participating in the performance.) His article was counterbalanced in part by a long and workmanlike piece from Christopher Ford in The Times three days before the event. This seemed to be, more or less, the extent of the pre-performance "hype" — much reduced from that which preceded the Boult in 1966.

If one knew nothing of the work, had not attended the concert, and read only the critics in the biggest-circulation papers afterwards, one might imagine that here was a white elephant delivered to a decent burial. The audience reaction was of course the perfect answer to that notion, but several writers contributed reviews to other areas of the Press which were much more enthusiastic than the damning-with-faint-praise which was the best the Times, Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph could muster: [for example] Mozelle Moshansky’s hugely enthusiastic review in provincial editions of The Guardian (why only provincial?), and Jack Oliver’s knowledgeable and devoted account in the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel.
R obert Maycock in Classical Music Fortnightly, 21 June, seemed to have got completely lost, both in the work itself and in his laboured architectural analogies (but not without an unnecessary swipe at the Society’s desire to raise the money to issue a recording). Stephen Pettitt, on the other hand, in Music & Musicians, July issue, got more and more enthusiastic after some hard initial remarks about some other Brian works, ending his review with the following: "This kaleidoscopic vision, a work which, like the vaults of a gothic cathedral, stretches into an endless sequence of experiences, fully deserved its tumultuous reception."

Most enthusiastic of all, however, were the comments entirely from outside the British Press. The symphony was broadcast live in both Denmark and the United States, and from the former, both Jorgen Falck in Politiken [see review here] and John Christiansen in Morgenavisen Jyllands—Posten were fulsome in their praise. We have not yet received any Press comments from North America, but apparently National Public Radio in Washington who handled the broadcast subsequently received some 500 letters from listeners. Mr. Andy Trudeau of NPR prepared a bibliography and discography for sending out to enquirers. The following sentence appears in Mr. Trudeau’s standard letter: "I have heard of, but have seen no specific reference to, a book written solely about Brian’s ‘Gothic Symphony’, all I can do is to pass along the rumor." Thanks to a letter from Paul Rapoport, Mr. Trudeau should know by now the truth of the rumour!

David J Brown was Secretary/Editor of the HBS 1975-1992 and its Chairman 1994-1998

Newsletter, NL 29, 1980