Brian as Faust

Larry Alexander

Brian as Faust - Larry Alexander

By odd coincidence, I happened to have read Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus for the first time not a week or so before departing for England this past May. You can imagine how my ears perked up when Malcolm MacDonald used the reference in his presentation at the Penta. But I’m not sure that I can agree with his juxtapositions (Brian as Faust) at least not as Mann subsequently expressed them in his book. Unless I’m mistaken, Mann’s model(s) were more along the Mahler-Schoenberg line, but even the fact that he couldn’t have known much if anything about Brian isn’t the real point. Adrian Leverkühn’s deal with the devil brought him Mahleresque success (speaking of the composer as the world-famous conductor) and Schoenberg-like notoriety, hardly Brian’s lot in either case.

The price extracted by the devil for the deal was the death of the child …as Mahler’s daughter died, so does the child in Doctor Faustus. Certainly Brian could have thought of himself as roust end yet somehow I just don’t buy the notion that the deal— making part of the legend would have entered into the composer s concept. After all, if Brian did make such a deal, he sure got the short end of the stick, both in the fame and the notoriety departments, for an awfully long time. And if appreciation comes late in life, better late than never. No, to paraphrase Flip Wilson, the devil did not make him do it. A fascination with a legend, absolutely.

Another point. MacDonald feels ("as many others do") that something happens to the Gothic, that it gets "blown off course and ends in a quite different way than Brian intended’, of course, one can never really know when it comes to intentions, a fact which is true even were Brian to have said precisely the opposite. I for one never trust creative people’s recollections of their intentions. They are always out to protect the final work. And whatever — whatever!! — they have to say they will say, even if it is an outright falsehood. After all who is really to know, especially when the kind of composing Brian did was intensely personal and solitary. No one was looking over his shoulder. There was no "mind machine" illustrating his thought processes from A to Z.

So whether the end of the Gothic was "meant to be gigantically affirmative" can only be a subject for speculation. I further suggest, as a creative person myself, that critics in general (and in this instance in specific) have a tendency — good or not — to expound philosophical theories for the creators they write about. To, in other words, put ideas in their now-dead heads. These ideas might very well be 100% accurate… but they might not. And they almost universally ignore the other part of "creativity" - the nuts and bolts part. The craft of it. Inspiration and influence are one thing, but the working out of the piece is where the time is spent. There are authors and composers who, I am sure, through-compose in the sense that they begin at the beginning with only a vague impression of where they are going to end up when they get there.

Most creative people, however (at least most of those in my experience), write only after they have the piece down in their heads as a whole: they outline their intentions up front, or at least work toward a goal previously determined, even if only in theory. And my money says that those who through-compose only through-compose for first draft — after which they rewrite and revise, knowing now where they want to get. In all the years it took Brian to complete the Gothic I cannot believe that he could not have brought the symphony to the triumphant, affirmative conclusion Malcolm seems to want. All it would take was technique — and no one can tell me that Brian in the 1920s lacked that. No, the fact (and I truly believe it is a fact) is that the Gothic was always intended to reach that great outcry of terror and its inevitable aftermath, the hushed prayer.

This cannot be because Brian found he took on "just too much of the spiritual burden of Western Man for his single soul to carry". It can only be because this is the way Brian "heard" the music, even before he wrote a note of it — the appropriate "sound" for the words ha was setting, the appropriate progression of sounds, I’d back this up with a discussion of the key shift to that final E major, but I don’t think it’s necessary. What we are involved in here is overall concept, and I think it is a trap to suggest that the piece isn’t a unity. Beethoven wanted to end his Fifth and Ninth as they now end — had he wanted to end "down" he would have done so. Sibelius’s Fourth to me arbitrarily ends "down", the composer ‘going wrong’ halfway through what is well on its way to being a celebration of heaven-storming proportions. But to say that Sibelius couldn’t have written a celebration of that kind is to put Sibelius down as a composer.


Newsletter, NL 29