Music and meaning

Malcolm MacDonald

Havergal Brian’s symphony The Gothic (1919-1927) is that strangest and most infrequently encountered kind of masterpiece: a work which sets out to be one thing but which turns, against its creator’s will, into something very different in the process of creation.

I do not mean here its implicit subject-matter and structure: no "one thing" could sum up those properties. This gigantic labyrinthine symphony is an inexhaustible store of musical riches which must surely possess a different significance for every listener; and the closer one comes to know it, the more layers of meaning one recognizes at work in it. It is an evocation of a whole epoch in the human mind; a purely musical parallel to parts of Goethe’s Faust: a compendium of musical history from mediaeval times to the early 20th century; a huge experiment in new kinds of style and form, reaching out to the future; a celebration of architectural splendours so vivid that (as Paul Rapoport has shown in the study included in his forthcoming book Opus est) the symphony’s form can be viewed as a musical equivalent to the cruciform plan of a Gothic cathedral; a response at several different psychological levels to the experience of World War One; one man’s personal venture into the unknown; and much else besides.

No, I want tentatively to isolate here the gap between intention and achievement - what was Brian trying to do when he set out to write The Gothic, and what has he actually done in the finished work that confronts us today? Since his own statements on the matter were seldom particularly revealing, the comments which follow are partly personal speculation - but speculation that arises directly from the nature of the music itself.

I believe Brian was trying - single-handed, by an almost superhuman feat of compositional power - to proclaim the dawn of a new Gothic age of expansion of the human psyche; but that, faced with the reality of the 1920s and his own bitter personal experience, he could not maintain the integrity of that vision, and found himself wrestling instead with uncontrollable forces which almost, but not quite, reduced him to final despair. In this general sense The Gothic is indeed a "Faustian" work - a lived drama of ambition

Why "Gothic"? Perhaps a few dictionary definitions of the word provide clues: "Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of, the Middle Ages; esp Gothic architecture, which spread throughout Europe approx 1160-1530; mediaeval; Germanic; romantic as opposed to classical - thus lack of classical simplicity or unity; combination of sublime and grotesque" 2. All of these phrases touch on aspects of Brian’s symphony; taken together they hint at a certain grand inclusiveness, impatient of stylistic niceties, that is certainly one of the work’s cardinal features. But why, then, "The Gothic"? That isn’t so much an indication that the piece has "Gothic" characteristics as a way of saying that it is itself an embodiment of the Gothic Age in all its richness - an enormous continuum of artistic, intellectual and spiritual growth, a homage to the past in the language of the present.

To write such a symphony in the immediate aftermath of the Great War - which in the minds of so many had slashed right across the orderly progress of history, opening a great rift in the traditional values, which had to be abandoned for something more makeshift and cynical - now seems an almost symbolic act of faith. The work’s basic stylistic premises, as set out in the purely orchestral movements of Part One, are a demonstration of artistic continuity, a logical development from the achievements of Wagner, Bruckner, Strauss, Elgar, Mahler and early Schoenberg: and by implication the symphony is the latest link in an unbroken chain of succession reaching back to the wellsprings of "serious" music in Western culture - the church music of the Gothic Age.

The cultural rift can be healed, Brian seems to be saying, if we have sufficient largeness of vision, if we can accept and integrate all that is valuable in the previous tradition, and not shut ourselves up in little cells of Neo-Classicism, satirical triviality, Ballets Russes chic, or English Nationalism 3. To quote the motto from Goethe’s Faust that stands at the head of the score, "Whoever strives with all his might, That man we can redeem". And so Part Two of the symphony, the incredible Te Deum, seems to ransack the whole history of Western music in search of a way forward.

Mediaeval organum, modality and free verbal accentuation; spatial disposition of forces resembling that of the Venetian masters (and also the Te Deum of Berlioz); long, florid, melismatic lines that recall pre-Reformation Tudor composers such as Taverner; multiple polyphony on the scale of Tallis’s Spem in Alium; chromatic freedom of harmony that rivals Gesualdo; echoes of the great Choral Festivals of the 1900s; of Wagner’s Tristan and Bach’s Passions; ceremonial fanfares; popular marching-songs - all this, and much more than was ever dreamt by any previous composer, goes into the melting-pot.

With breadth of vision goes a daring modernity, as for instance in the choral cluster chords at the start of the Judex and the shattering Varèse-like 4 outburst that makes the Non confundar such an agonized appeal.

The Gothic is, in fact, the most extreme example of what Sir Michael Tippett has called - apropos of his own relatively unambitious third symphony - "the famous hybrid work": of which the prime example is of course Beethoven’s ninth. And Brian seems, like Beethoven, to be proclaiming a message of universal brotherhood, by reminding his audience of their possession of a common cultural heritage. The intention, therefore, seems to have been to provide a new "Ninth" for the times. There could be few higher ambitions.

The symphony took eight years to complete, and we still know little of the reasons that prompted Brian to shift its final emphasis away from Faust (the archetypal Gothic Age man and seeker after knowledge). In 1935 Brian wrote that he had planned to set a large part of Goethe’s Faust Part II for his finale, but instead the Te Deum text (traditionally held to be the joint composition of Ss Ambrose and Augustine in the late 4th century, and in use in the Christian liturgy ever since) "pushed itself forward as the only possible finale for a Gothic Symphony". This although he was, by that stage of his life, no kind of Christian, and had never had much knowledge of Latin.

The choice of that text, however, leads us back to the Gothic cathedrals; to the music that was sung in them; to mediaeval Christianity and the Latin language as the great international civilizing forces of an entire epoch. Also, as a "great poem" at once archaic, impersonal and universal (in contrast to the highly subjective paradisal vision at the end of Faust), it admits of very personal interpretation by the various composers (Berlioz and Verdi, to give only two examples) who have made settings of it. Thus it was more of a unifying force than Faust would have been, whilst it made the extent of Brian’s individual statement more immediately recognizable. But the unequivocal affirmation which Brian seems to have intended to express in his Te Deum somehow fails to materialize.

It opens, indeed, with a sense of almost cosmic rejoicing; but its progress is increasingly disturbed by harsh, violent elements and mysterious tensions. By the arrival of the line Judex crederis esse venturus (We believe Thou shalt come to be our Judge) which gets an astonishing movement to itself, we (and Brian) are in deep water indeed. There is a revealing remark in Brian’s Modern Mystic article 5. After referring to various strange psychological phenomena he experienced during the composition of the Te Deum, he says: "such happenings must drive others off their mental balance. I have always felt that I, being the only person interested in my work, would discover a solution to all the mysteries about it". In probing the "mysteries" he was discovering areas of his own unconscious mind. In The Gothic he had invoked a conjunction of ideas so powerful it could lead anywhere.

In seeking to defend European culture from the undermining effects of the Great War on the European consciousness he had himself to experience that undermining: to recall perhaps his work as an Army clerk, listing the personal effects of men killed in the trenches, and later as a clerk in a munitions factory; maybe also those horrific newspaper pictures of the invasion of Belgium, with Ypres Cathedral a gaunt shell-blasted ruin.

Certainly, in a work that represented the summation of all that he had known and learned in his first fifty years, he would have to come to terms with his own personal weakness and fallibility, and the impotence of his present obscure position as a hack music-copyist and occasional critic. It would be surprising indeed if he did not, at crucial moments, suffer pangs of self-doubt. "For almost ten years" after 1918, he wrote in the preface to his earlier anti-war work, the opera The Tigers "I continued to hear the tramp of an army"; that is, throughout the period he was writing The Gothic. Inevitably, the "army" in his mind invaded the music. War-visions are a continually evolving element in The Gothic, a dark counterpoint to its grand cultural theme.

Warfare is implicit in the wilder sections of the first movement and in the funereal tread of the great Lento (which, to my ears, seems profoundly influenced, both in general orchestral style and actual motivic content, by another English masterpiece about the War - Elgar’s For the Fallen). Battle breaks out nakedly in the middle of the Vivace with thudding timpani like an artillery barrage, bugle-calls in the brass, and fantastic orchestration - and culminates, at the movement’s climax, in a "battle-scene" of tremendous power. However, all these disruptive elements are, in Part One, firmly integrated into the musical argument. In the Te Deum, which deliberately abandons conventional structural controls in favour of a freely evolving, much more ‘spontaneous’ exploration into the unknown, they begin to acquire a malevolent life of their own. Brian’s grappling with such a huge range of material brings him literally to the edge of chaos. The Te Deum’s first movement, while generally jubilant, accumulates several ‘warlike features’, and its very proliferation of detail begins to breed a sense of doubt in the listener ("Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold… ").

The Judex movement sways tensely between light and darkness, especially the latter. The last and longest movement, Te ergo quaesemus, tries to restore the balance with a sustained sweep of beautiful and joyous music, despite the a capella tensions of Salvum fac populum tuum. The victory of light over darkness seems complete with the downright roof raising jollity of Et laudamus nomen tuum - a brilliant passage for the full forces, enclosed by two statements of a jaunty march on nine clarinets and percussion. But this march is a strangely ambiguous invention, not least because of the astonishingly close resemblance it bears to a well-known marching-song of the Second World War - the US Air Force march Off we go into the wide blue yonder.

I have not yet discovered whether the tune of Off we go… already existed, and had military associations, during World War One. Even if it didn’t, Brian’s march-theme would be a remarkable instance of creative foreknowledge, conjuring into being a popular tune well in advance of the popular consciousness. At any rate, after the march has receded, the final stages of The Gothic are no longer optimistic, but see the emergence of a vulnerable individual consciousness - until the veil of Heaven is rent by the penultimate brass and percussion cataclysm, bringing all-enveloping darkness; except for the final subdued glow of the a cappella Non confundar in E major - which, like the last high cello note of an imaginary composer’s imaginary last work (in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus) "abides as a light in the night".

That light shines throughout all Brian’s subsequent work.

Brian’s own attitude to the promotion of Englishness in music, at the time of writing The Gothic, may be gathered from his highly important article The British Spirit (in The Sackbut ,Vol IV, No 8, March 1924), which includes a spirited defence of the pre-War generation’s reliance on Germanic models, as well as bold proposals for a national approach to the development of excellence, rather than "Englishness", in new British music - which would still hear looking at today.

© 1978 by Malcolm MacDonald


  1. This "quote" is not a single genuine entry but a miscellany culled from various dictionaries, principally the Concise Oxford and Webster’s New International (1934). ↩︎

  2. Let us also remember that during the Great War some of the greatest composers of the Austro-German tradition - even Beethoven - had been anathema to many English musicians for "patriotic" reasons, and performance of German music generally had fallen off sharply. One might almost say that there had been a conscious attempt to sever British music from the mainstream of the European tradition. To begin a Gothic (that is, by one definition, Germanic) symphony in 1919 was no small act of defiance. ↩︎

  3. I persist in suspecting that the experience of extracting the percussion parts for the first performance of Ameriques had a profound impact on Brian, and that the Non confundar cataclysm is a direct reflection of it. If true, it detracts not at all from Brian’s originality - there was probably no other composer alive capable of making the same imaginative leap. His comments on Varese many years later (Musical Opinion, October 1939) are of great interest: "that score of Ameriques still convinces me that something unusual happened when the music it represents was given to the world… Varese has attempted to express the age in which we live… I think of Ameriques as the expression of a distorted age or as a fierce denunciation of it". ↩︎

  4. How the Gothic Symhony came to be written, Modern Mystic, December 1938. ↩︎

Newsletter, NL 16, 1978