Brev fra London / Letter from London: the Schmidt performance, 1980

Peter Wivel

Brev fra London / Letter from London: the Schmidt performance, 1980

  • Peter Wivel

From the Danish paper ‘Information’, 9 June 1980, idiomatically translated by Paul Rapoport

London — It’s always a happy occasion when we get to hear from a Dane abroad. And so we did with the director of the Aarhus City Orchestra, Ole Schmidt, late in May when, in the Royal Albert Hall, he conducted a symphony which has richly deserved its place in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest ever written. The work in question is Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, which, besides lasting nearly three hours, has 830 participants.

The Royal Albert Hall is built somewhat like Rome’s Colosseum and has almost the same dimensions, so a work of such gargantuan proportions suited the hall well. You could see Ole Schmidt as a little gesticulating central point in a shimmering, magnificently hued sea of humanity that billowed around him, while the orchestra’s united efforts tried to blow the roof off.

If the British continue to perform works of this scope, there won’t for the present be any need for the dismantling of the five BBC orchestras, which now threatens to put a stop to the years most popular musical event here: the Promenade Concerts in time Royal Albert Hall in August.

Just in case Havergal Brian isn’t so well known in Denmark — and there’s something to suggest he isn’t, considering that after the concert by the stage entrance we met the only Danish member of The Havergal Brian Society - it’s all about a British composer who died in 1972, at an age of no less than 96.

21 after 80

He didn’t earn his living as a composer, but that was far from a hindrance to him in his efforts in this art. He composed heaps of music, including five operas and 32 symphonies, 21 of them after he turned 80. The Gothic Symphony which Ole Schmidt conducted came into existence over the course of a number of years after the 1st world War and is dedicated to Richard Strauss, who for his part described it as a masterwork.

It calls for, as mentioned, so many performers, 830 (of which c 580 in the choirs), that it was first performed only in 1966, while the composer was still alive, and again now, for the second and probably last time in May 1980 under Ole Schmidt. A record company is now raising money to issue Ole Schmidt’s performance. It will cost somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 pounds, or nearly 800,000 Danish crowns.

Ole Schmidt performed the work at the request of the BBC who broadcast the performance simultaneously on Radio 3. Rehearsal time was minimal: two choral rehearsals and two orchestral rehearsals, and two rehearsals for the whole lot, the last hour and a half for the performance itself.

‘They work unbelievably hard in England,’ Ole Schmidt tells Information. ‘You never have time or energy to be nervous. You simply just can’t get nervous, the whole thing is so tough. You rush out from the dress rehearsal, grab a snack and change clothes, and then you’re on. This business about being nervous, there isn’t anybody who knows what it is. Just PLAY!!’

The English musicians’ working day is also so hard and so long that its never necessary to tune the instruments before a concert or recording, ‘they simply never get cold,’ says Ole Schmidt.

To help give an idea of the resounding effect when the bomb went off in the Royal Albert Hall we might mention that no fewer than 20 tympani are involved, but it wasn’t only the music that provided the drama. On the artistic front, there were so many people on two feet that nurses were standing on both sides of the platform, because the statistics say that someone will fall over.

And it happened in the middle of an adagio molto solenne e religioso movement. It was a boy from one of the two specially formed school choirs placed right above the bass drums. He fainted in the heat of the floodlights and fell some metres down onto the level of the drums underneath. And there he lay, right out of it.

Ole Schmidt: ‘It was a rather mournful spot, then bang, there was one of the boys, he just fainted. I didn’t quite see who it was. I thought it was one of the drummers who had had heart failure, you see. So I thought: ‘shall I stop or go on? But as the music was well suited to a funeral, I thought we’d better go on. It was a very sacred atmosphere.

‘You know, it must be a death out of one’s dreams, to collapse while they’re playing a funeral song. I hope I die like that.’

Fortunately the boy came to again, and with a bleeding nose was helped off by two nurses while the conductor of the boys’ choir followed right on his heels with the next boy, who had been able to loosen his school tie.

A capella

Besides the school choirs, there were two colossal choirs of men and women, divided into subchoirs and subchoirs and subchoirs. They had to sing a capella, ie without musical accompaniment (as in church). ‘That was really the toughest thing of all,’ says Ole Schmidt. ‘When Sir Adrian Boult conducted the work in 1966 there were some spots in the choral section which went completely to pieces, and then they miraculously got together about 40 measures later. So when I started with the choir, I said we had to play that part through straight, and that they were agreed on. So I chose a tempo to get that place to hang together. It had never done it before, and I don’t think it will ever do it again.’

‘Bob Simpson from the BBC, who gave me the job, says that Havergal Brian wasn’t really interested in whether his works were played or not. It pleased him only to sit and compose. His fantasy was such that, if he had use for something or other, he merely wrote it in the score, with no thought for the practical matters.

‘If he wanted to use 16 extra horns, he merely wrote ‘16 horns’, and we went and got them.’


‘There were 20 tympani, and up in the balcony on each side sat two massive brass bands with their own tympani. Then there were all the existing instruments in the woodwinds, there were all the flutes you could imagine, piccolo, regular flute, G flute, bass flute, there were two oboes, English horn, oboe d’amore, bass oboe, which incidentally has a marvellous sound, in the clarinets there was a regular Bb flat clarinet, there were bass clarinets, there were contrabass horns I nearly said, there was a pedal-clarinet!

‘That one I had never seen before. It’s really something when you have to operate the lowest keys with your foot. It had a fantastical, wonderful sound, not so big, but very beautiful.

‘Then of course there were bassoons, two contrabassoons, and everything in the brass line, E flat trumpets, B flat trumpets, F trumpets, bass trumpets, there were tenor trombones, bass trombones, contrabass trombones, two euphoniums, which by the way played outstandingly, and two tubas.

‘And of course two harps, and the big organ in the Royal Albert Hall, which also played a rather large role. When the whole thing got going, eight enormous cymbals crashed in at the same time. The massive bass drum thundered and they hammered away on the very large tubular bells.’

Ole Schmidt forgets to mention that naturally there was a full complement of strings.

‘The choirs were also fantastic. This chromaticism, the two choirs who weave in and out of each other, the changes in metre. I think it’s very exciting music.

‘The end is also superb. He doesn’t go in for any fire and brimstone ending. There are some fantastic eruptions before the end, and then it calms down and closes just with the cellos having a wonderful solo, which they played very beautifully, and then the choir concludes it, a capella, no orchestra at all, pianissimo, it was magnificent.’

There were seven or eight curtain calls and the English audience was wild with enthusiasm. ‘It’s really funny when they ask you about such a job. My first reaction was, never in my life, because it’s a nearly unmanageable job to get the whole thing down.’

The catacombs

But in the end it succeeded, even though for Ole Schmidt the evening ended far more deserted than It had begun. After the concert the BBC gave a reception in the Royal Albert Hall for a selected audience, and one by one the guests slipped away, until Ole Schmidt could finally get back to his dressing room and change from his gown to normal clothes.

The room lies buried some place in the gigantic building’s catacombs, and there simply weren’t many people around. When he had changed his clothes and fumbled around in the halls now devoid of humanity, he discovered that all the doors were bolted shut.

‘So I ran around in the darkness till I finally case across another human being, who asked: "Who are you?" to which I answered: "Yes, and who are you." It turned out to be a kind of custodian, who had a key…’


Newsletter, NL 29, June 1980