At Victoria Hall, Hanley, 1978

David J Brown

At Victoria Hall, Hanley, 21 May 1978 - David J Brown

It is difficult, if not impossible, to write dispassionately about this extraordinary event, and perhaps one should not try. Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony was given its third complete performance on Sunday 21 May [1978] by over 700 singers and players, all but a dozen or so of them amateurs, in the hall where, more than 80 years before, the composer had first heard the work which might be called the ‘model’ for the Gothic, Beethoven’s ninth symphony, and where several of his own works were performed before the end of this century’s first decade.

It cannot be said too often and too insistently that the Gothic is not only one of the largest, but also one of the most fantastically difficult compositions to perform which has ever emerged from this country or any other. It is, in truth, hard enough for a professional orchestra to play Beethoven’s fifth properly; to organize a performance like this, as Paul Shaw, Trevor Stokes and their assistants did, with performers who mostly had not worked together before and who had no previous experience of this or any other work of Brian’s, nor any idea of tradition to fall back on, and then not merely get through, but give a real performance of, this musical Everest, was a feat which perhaps almost began in its way to rival the actual composition of the symphony itself. If the worst had happened - the performance ground to a halt or broken apart - it would still have been a magnificent failure; if they had merely struggled to the end and kept together, it would have deserved to be called a great success. What in fact happened - and it should have resounded from end to end of the Potteries that this was so - must be called a triumph.

This is not to say that the performance was without flaw - far from it. It could be said that the bigger and more complex, difficult and unfamiliar a work is, the longer ‘baseline’ it possesses upon which may be assembled all the criteria for judging the performance, each with its degrees from total success to total failure. These criteria need not be entirely confined to purely musical factors; human ones, social and psychological, are concerned as well. Does an impeccable performance, played to a tiny or indifferent audience, count in sum as a success or failure?

In this light, the Gothic Symphony must be regarded as having a very lengthy and diversified ‘baseline’ indeed; had there occurred in a routine performance of Messiah the quantity of uncertain choral entries, or in a standard orchestral war-horse the amount of brass fluffs which could be discerned in this concert, then everyone concerned, performers and audience, would have gone home sad or smugly indifferent according to the relative importance they attached to live performance against gramophone records. (And speaking of gramophone records, it is perhaps as well that the projected live recording of the concert did not, in the end, materialize. It would have done both performers and composer a disservice if the flaws in this performance had been exposed to cruel perpetuation on disc.)

But this was not Messiah or Sheherezade; this was the first complete performance of the Gothic Symphony to be given amongst the chimneys and factories, churches and houses where its creator had been born and grew up; and in the hall itself on the night all the minor errors and mishaps mattered not a jot when set against so much in the performance which was thrilling and right, and compounded by the potent emotional circumstances. I would not have thought that the sight of the tiny figure of the composer himself hurrying down the steps beside the Albert Hall platform at the conclusion of the 1966 performance would ever be rivalled as the most moving thing I have experienced in a concert hall. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of 21 May’s gigantic act of homage - an almost tangible atmosphere of enthusiasm and the will to succeed - came close to doing just this.

Memory of musical performances is a treacherous thing; it would be pointless and foolhardy to try and make a detailed comparison between what can be recalled of the ‘Stoke Gothic’ and tapes of the 1966 BBC performance and I will not try. Nevertheless, some things stand out sharply and can be mentioned. The most fundamental is that Trevor Stokes’ conception of the symphony was quite different from Sir Adrian Boult’s; and it is no disrespect to the latter and very much to the former’s credit that this was so.

Perhaps one can most economically express the difference by describing Sir Adrian’s and Mr Stokes’ approaches as ‘dynamic’ and ‘epic’ respectively (which is not to say that the former was not an achievement monumental in scale or that, for the most part, Mr Stokes’ conducting was lacking in thrust when it needed it). Nevertheless, whereas Boult in his performance is always tending to push on, a steady forward movement under the control of a comprehensive overview of the work, Stokes’ tempi were much broader and more varied, particularly in the Te Deum.

Sir Adrian seems to be aware all the time of the work’s physical boundary, however distant, whereas Stokes had an equally strong sense of its tendency to the infinite, the feeling of a vast range and diversity of musical material that constantly threatens to spread uncontrollably and which challenges the ability of anyone to contain and balance it. Sir Adrian Boult’s performance lasted, discounting the interval, about as long as a slow Mahler third, but Trevor Stokes took an unprecedented one hour 55 minutes.

One first became strongly aware that he was going to go his own way at the conclusion of the first movement. A huge rallentando cumulated here so that the build-up to the climactic first entry of the organ was almost unbearably held back. However, it worked, and a similarly different approach worked again at the climax of the third movement. Mr Stokes’ tempo was a good deal slower than Sir Adrian’s here, though not as slow as Sir Charles Groves in his 1976 performance of part one only.

Nevertheless, a powerful momentum was built up, while still allowing a good deal of detail to come through the texture, the incredible xylophone solo in particular being splendidly achieved, and the final avalanche into D minor from C major appropriately left the audience stunned and silent. The pinnacle of Mr Stokes’ achievement probably came in the first, Te Deum laudamus, movement of part two. His relaxed tempi showed an inevitable and coherent structure to assemble itself from the many elements of the movement, and a magnificent and unhurried pageant of cosmic rejoicing resulted. One noticed, as if for the first time, just how sheerly beautiful this movement is.

By comparison, a similarly expansive handling of the Judex almost proved its downfall. This movement is as dark and intense as its predecessor is generous and light-filled, and the general slowness, whose presence may have had something to do with consideration for the appalling demands in maintenance of pitch made upon the choirs, here spread like a malaise to the orchestra in its two big passages of stormy music, with somewhat disastrous consequences for the music’s sense of grim and strenuous onward surge. This movement was the nearest the performance came to realising one’s prior doubts about the success of the whole enterprise, but even here it was still a long way from collapsing or becoming incoherent.

With the huge Te ergo final movement, the worst proved to be passed, and the performers seemed to cope rather better here with what have been described as even more extreme technical demands than are made by Brian elsewhere in the symphony. The celebrated brass and percussion cataclysm was all it should be, and the intensely moving slow coda made its full effect on an audience that was already wholly won over, to judge by the largely standing ovation that greeted the work’s conclusion. One might add a very minor cavil that at the very close the unaccompanied choirs could not quite manage the full Boult-style niente, but the slight abruptness with which they ceased singing was accentuated by their closeness to the audience in the relatively small Victoria Hall.

A word should be said about the hall’s contribution to the performance. One’s first view of it, and of the hundreds of performers so close - orchestra filling most of what is normally the stalls area, choirs on the stage up by each side of the organ and in the side galleries. brass bands right at the back almost up in the roof - was rather off-putting to say the least. Could ears survive unimpaired? In fact the sound was always clear, and although frequently stunning in its volume and impact, never oppressive or painful. It is in fact a splendid hall and I’m certain that its success in containing this giant work was due in no small measure to its great internal height, compared with its relatively small depth and width.

In the afternoon at the Grand Hotel, Hanley, Paul Rapoport gave his talk on the Gothic to an audience numbering a healthy 45 - nearly twice the number of notifications of attendance received. As the substance of the lecture was drawn from the chapter on Brian in Paul Rapoport’s forthcoming book Opus Est, it would be inappropriate to paraphrase its argument here. Suffice to say that it concerns itself wholly with a new and highly ingenious theory about the symphony’s structure, and the winning scepticism with which the author delivered his own views probably greatly assisted in the acceptance of them by the highly attentive audience.

A souvenir booklet was issued to coincide with the performance. Its qualities proved to be much the same as those of the event it was commemorating; big, striking and impressive, but with a few inequalities. After a foreword by Paul Shaw as Producer, a full list of patrons and acknowledgements was given, followed by biographical profiles of the conductor, his assistant, the leader, the four soloists and the directors of the choral groups. Mind-bogglingly, the next six pages contained a full individual list of the player and singers. When did a London professional musical body last go to this kind of trouble in a concert programme? A short note on Granville Bantock’s arrangement of the National Anthem, with which the concert opened, followed. (One of the little pleasures of this memorable evening was the sight of the audience on their feet after the Initial drum-roll. looking increasingly worried that the symphony itself might have started as Bantock’s interminable orchestral prelude roared on and on.)

Malcolm MacDonald‘s programme note on the Gothic was a model, as one might expect; concise, lucid and positive, always inviting one to listen, never getting in the way of the music itself and giving great assistance for the unfamiliar to come to grips with the huge work - and perhaps rather understating the doubts he has expressed elsewhere about the symphony’s coherence. From Reginald Nettel’s authoritative pen came a substantial biographical sketch of Brian, and the final item was a review by Jack Oliver of the performance history of the composer’s work in his native city. Between these last two items came a select chronology of ‘important events occurring during the years of the composition of the Gothic Symphony’.

A few years ago the Philips record company started substituting for analytical notes in their bargain Universo series articles on the [LP] record sleeves entitled The World around the Music. These disappeared fairly quickly after cries of ‘irrelevant’ from the critics - and the same comment has to be made about much in this chronology (although some of its items have a dotty fascination; did you know Clarence Birdseye extended his deep freezing method to pre-cooked foods in 1925? Indeed, did you know he was called Clarence?) One would otherwise leave it at that, but unfortunately those more serious parts of the chronology which deal with Brian’s life and work between 1919-1927 contained numerous suppositions stated as fact and several plain errors.

Exactly what Brian was composing in which year during this period is simply not known for certain, although Eastaugh in particular has made some elaborate suppositions based on circumstantial evidence, letters, etc. This chronology quotes some of Eastaugh’s conclusions as bald fact, without explanation or qualification, and also makes some errors of transcription. This souvenir book is substantial enough, and in the main detailed and accurate enough, to be kept and referred to as a source book, and therefore the chronology should be handled with a great deal of caution.

Two final points need to be added about this performance, one minor, the other, I think, major. Much has been made of the fact that it was the first to give Brian’s score with its full instrumental forces. Certainly, one of the most remarkable aspects of the organization of the concert was the gathering of the many rare wind and percussion instruments called for in the published score, as well as people to play them. (Viewers of BBC TV’s Nationwide programme on the previous Wednesday saw a good deal of time devoted to the construction and operation of the thunder machine, whose role in the actual performance unfortunately seemed from where I was sitting to follow the old Victorian dictum about the behaviour of children.)

Also, the full complement of brass in the four extra groups was there, albeit with them grouped into two pairs on each side of the organ at the back. However, it should be quietly added that so long as the full manuscript score of the Te Deum remains lost, the ambiguities in the published score mean that it is impossible to say exactly what instrumentation the Gothic Symphony is scored for. This may sound like pedantic hair-splitting, and perhaps it is; I would submit that my other point is not.

L ike its predecessors, this performance of the symphony was given with an interval between the orchestral third movement and the Te Deum laudamus of the Te Deum. I am coming more and more to the view that to make such a break is as damaging to the total effect of the symphony as an unthinkable wholesale reduction of the instrumentation would be; more damaging than in the cases of some works which used normally to be given with an interval but now more usually are not, eg Mahler’s second, third and eighth symphonies and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. Certainly the score was originally published in two volumes, but the closing chord of Part One is reproduced at the opening of Part Two, probably as an attempt - futile, in my view - to bridge the gap at a performance with interval.

The crux of the problem, of the necessity for continuity (and I have no shred of documentary evidence for all this, just a very strong intuition), seems to me to be the nature of the climax of the third movement. This is surely the most overwhelming passage of orchestral writing in Brian’s output - I would say in the entire orchestral literature of this country, as far as I know it, and possibly further afield as well. It is uniquely terrifying in its effect in a manner quite different from the crisis at the end of the whole work. It invites metaphors of the most elemental kind (of which by far the most telling I have come across yet is the truly cosmic one chosen by Harold Truscott in his section of the Society’s forthcoming book on the symphony - and I’m not going to spoil its effect by disclosing it).

It seems to me at least possible that this conclusion was originally composed as the climax to a three-movement symphony - the most powerful climax that the composer could achieve. This must be over-simplifying, of course - how wonderful it would be if sketches were to be discovered which showed just how this music grew and changed in Brian’s mind! Nevertheless, on the evidence we have - the finished score - it could be argued that he succeeded so well that the climax turned into what might almost be called a miscalculation of the most gigantic and far-reaching kind.

Far from crowning his symphony, the force of this passage was such that it blew the entire work into a wholly different area, annihilating, in a sense, all that had gone before and leaving a vast new empty landscape to be filled. We do not know, chronologically, when the process of filling the landscape of writing the Te Deum began. (And this thesis does not seem to me to be at all in conflict with Malcolm MacDonald‘s ideas on the psychological motivation for writing the work, and for the form it eventually took, which he puts forward here .)

But, in the complete symphony as we have it, it surely should commence immediately if the true effect and significance of this crucial pivot-point of the whole work is not to be lost. (And incidentally, it might be argued that on this argument the only criterion for the success or failure of the Te Deum as a whole is whether or not it fills the ‘new world‘ opened up by the crisis with music of sufficient breadth and variety, a criterion which would not apply to any other of Brian’s symphonies. Its almost ‘boundless’ quality might then be seen as a mark of its success rather than as a failure to keep within coherent boundaries.)

This article has strayed rather far from its original intention as a concert review, and I hope it does not seem to be finishing on a churlish note. Let us hope that in the next performance of the Gothic, this one element of continuity will be added to all the many other positive qualities with which the whole event of 21 May 1978 was filled. It might be argued that continued emphasis on the Gothic, as is bound to continue, given its purely Guinness Book of Records aspect, may have a positively harmful effect on the making public of Brian’s other music. It is up to the Society and everyone who really cares about Brian’s achievement as a whole to try to ensure that this does not happen. Nevertheless, this account of the Gothic was, and always will remain, a remarkable achievement, even if we should ever one day get the mythical ‘fully professional’ performance. Now, gentleman (and ladies), put us in your debt for ever and a day by giving us The Tigers, complete!

NL17 © 1978 David J Brown

Newsletter, NL 17, 1978