A German view

A German view - Helmut Mauro

A transcription of a review of the Lenard/Marco Polo recording broadcast by Bayerischer Rundfunk in April 1991; translated by Alan Marshall

The English composer William Havergal Brian, who died in 1972, is virtually unknown in our country… [Biographical details and information about the Gothic recording included here] The sheer mass of the participants is of an order of magnitude above the monumental works of Mahler, Schönberg and Strauss, which makes this recording under Lenard all the more impressive. One can but marvel at the way he unites such a horde of musicians into a homogeneous precise instrument, while still doing sensitive justice to the quieter, lyrical passages. However, how far does the work itself match up to the huge resources Brian demands?

One significant characteristic of the Gothic Symphony is the narrative technique. New motifs and melodies emerge all the time: seldom is any repeated or slotted into an overt pattern. The underlying structure is associative. Innumerable individual motifs can be subsumed into a larger group based on a characteristic musical idea - for example a sequence of rising minor triads.

These ideas, though, cannot always be identified with a melodic original. They create the higher-level coherence without any sense of having been deliberately constructed. It is remarkable, both for the composition and this recording, that they successfully negotiate the knife-edge path between free organic development and formal cohesion. The symphony is built on an exact tonal plan, a technique familiar from Richard Strauss - who incidentally held Brian in high regard, and vice-versa. The novel melodic fragments, orchestrated with great colour, continually gather themselves together into giant images of sound. Tapering pinnacles of sound, clarion-sharp ‘Gothic’ towers if you like, raised up on a dark, multi-layered foundation.

Brian’s organic form and the directness of his affirmation are what mark him off from Mahler and Strauss, albeit there are certain parallels, above all with Mahler’s 8th symphony. At the head of the score Brian wrote two lines from the ending of Faust, Part 2: the second part of the symphony is an enormous Te Deum. But where Mahler, in his 8th symphony, cites Goethe’s text at length and has mystic choirs whispering, Brian creates penetrating musical illustrations for the history of the medieval Dr Faustus. The Te Deum makes up the latter two-thirds of the Gothic, whereas Mahler’s Pentecostal hymn is an extended introduction.

The main difference, though, is that Mahler’s composition conveys a sense of proportion, whereas with Brian there are wholly eccentric crescendos to which one cannot listen with any sort of reflective detachment. In terms of music history it seems a final great assertion of individualism, late- or even post-Romantic, without Mahler’s defeatist melancholy or Strauss’ intellectual irony. Brian’s music breathes a naively honest, instinctive belief in Truth. A gesture of triumph is as natural here as a cry of emotion.

This is powerfully egocentric music in which feeling is not so much deployed, rather adopted as a legitimate principal. To that extent, Brian’s music is classical. Its language is nevertheless late Romantic or modern (but without the extra sound effects): it does not alienate our ears with the unfamiliar.

Havergal Brian’s symphony always maximises the power of the sound for a purpose. The climaxes are a consequence of integrating the religious texts into a musical process they have themselves set in motion. The religious content becomes a musical rite. That no contradiction is felt here vouches for the quality of the composition…


Newsletter, NL 102