The conception of Part 2

Colin G Davis

Gothic symphony: The conception of Part 2 - Colin G Davis

It was interesting to read the remarks on the Gothic [the Stoke performance, 1978]. However, I am not sure you are right in saying that the eruption in the third movement ‘blew the entire work into a wholly different area…’. It seems to me more and more that the Gothic is haunted by the ghosts of the First World War (especially Part 2) with its scenes of destruction, sounds of battle and confident, shining, young soldiers marching off to disillusionment and death. Maybe Brian tried objectively to set down some kind of statement about the great flowering of European civilization followed by its near destruction (as it may have appeared to him) in the holocaust of the Great War.

Far-fetched? Possibly - but I don’t think the Gothic is a subjective work in the same sense that, say, Mahler’s symphonies are. Can we draw any useful comparison between the Gothic and Nielsen’s fifth symphony? In the first movement of the latter a big battle is fought and won, Something similar happens in Part 1 of the Gothic. In the second movement of the Nielsen we have a big outpouring of creative energy; the main enemy is inertia. In Part 2 of the Gothic we have a similar outpouring of energy.

The main enemy here, however, is not inertia but war. Nielsen shows how to overcome inertia, but the First World War was not something that could be ‘overcome’. In Part 1 of the Gothic the music is able to ride out the storm and win through to a positive conclusion. This was impossible in Part 2. Perhaps the Gothic is as objective in its own way as Nielsen’s fifth. It is known, of course, that Brian was thinking of writing a large-scale piece long before the War. However, he did not begin to write the Gothic until 1919 - after the War had ended. Maybe his original conception had changed even before he started to write the Gothic.

Nevertheless, having listened again to the Boult performance, I think I see what you mean about the climax of the third movement. It is not just the culmination of that movement or Part 1. It is too big for that - out of proportion to the preceding music. When we reach the end of Part 1 we feel that we have arrived at a new starting point rather than at a conclusion. The music seems to have ‘broken through’ into a new dimension (I am almost using your words now).We see that Brian couldn’t have made a traditional four movement symphony out of the Gothic. Incidentally, I feel that Beethoven could have made a traditional four movement symphony out of the ninth. As it is, he has to go through some lengthy preliminaries before the finale gets going. Brian needs no preliminaries in Part 2 of the Gothic.

But did Brian miscalculate? Did he end up writing a work which was different from the one he set out to write? Perhaps the score contains evidence that he did. As a listener only I am not persuaded that he did miscalculate. It will be interesting to see whether Malcolm MacDonald holds to the view he expressed [here] when he comes to write the relevant chapter of Vol.3.

NL18 © 1978 Colin G Davis

Newsletter, NL 18, 1978