Introduction - Graham Saxby This article - and the detailed analysis of the symphony referenced below - began life as the main project in the Open University Course A308, The Rise of Modernism in Music, 1895-1935, which the author was studying in his final year for an honours degree with the Open University.
A trait seen particularly in Brian’s later symphonies, but already evident in the Second, is his tendency to juxtapose material so as to produce abrupt changes in mood, often at climaxes. This is a habit which can at times be disconcerting, though a careful study will usually show a good reason for the change. Another individual characteristic is the way the endings of his symphonies show a tendency to disintegrate rather than integrate, producing what Harold Truscott has called an ‘anti-symphony’ rather than a ‘symphony’ 5. This is, of course, not unprecedented: Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique and Mahler’s Ninth are obvious parallels; and so, in a rather different way, is Ravel’s La Valse. Both of these characteristics are the direct antitheses of the methods of composers such as Sibelius who, in MacDonald’s words, ‘reconciles extremes by imperceptible transitions from one to the other, [whereas] Brian brings them into direct confrontation’ 6. Although these elements are already discernible in the Second Symphony, in his later symphonies Brian was to take the practices a good deal further.
In this connection one should bear in mind that the Second Symphony
was not an early work. Brian was 55 when he completed it, and had
already composed two symphonies (The Gothic and an earlier
one which he had dismantled and used in otter works) as well as a
full-scale opera, several orchestral suites and a large number of
In view of the excellent analysis of the Second Symphony carried out by MacDonald 7 it would be presumptuous as well as pointless to attempt to repeat the process; and in the discussion which follows I have tried as far as possible to avoid anything resembling a paraphrase of MacDonald’s work, though in order to provide am adequate discussion of the symphony’s qualities it is, of course, necessary to use a certain amount of formal analysis.
The symphony had a literary origin. Brian was inspired to write it after reading Goethe’s drama Götz von Berlichingen, and the four movements were associated respectively with Götz’s ambitions, loves, battles and death. It is not programmatic in the way Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben is, but is, rather, suggestive or evocative, as is, for example, Mahler’s Second Symphony. Later, Brian withdrew the literary allusions, and claimed instead that the symphony represented ‘Man in his cosmic loneliness’; its overall tragic atmosphere certainly gives this impression. Throughout his life, however, he referred to it as his ‘Battle Symphony’, the tumultuous scherzo suggesting the title. However, one should beware of attaching too much to a nickname, even one bestowed by the composer.
Superficially, the symphony appears to be fairly orthodox in overall structure. There is a first movement in sonata form, a slow movement, a scherzo, and a finale cast in a form that resembles a sonata-rondo. But when we look more closely we find that such a description is grossly oversimplified. To begin with, the first movement does not have the weight that one might expect of a traditional first movement; it is more of a curtain-raiser, setting the scene both thematically and in terms of orchestration for the rest of the symphony. Its most important thematic material is to appear again, most notably at the climax of the finale, and on a very much grander scale.
The orchestration of the first movement begins traditionally, but
its recapitulation has a completely transformed texture, one which
foreshadows the extraordinary orchestral effects of the finale. As
to the other three movements, a closer examination shows that they,
too, have formats that are far from traditional. However, in
dealing with the special qualities of each movement it is important
not to lose sight of the unity of the entire symphony, a
characteristic which, while often elusive, is crucial to Brian’s
Since completing the draft of this article, Malcolm MacDonald has suggested in conversation that the symphony falls into two parts: the agitated first movement leading directly into the expansive second, with its glittering climax and final disintegration, mirrored by the obsessive dance of the third which leads directly into the fourth, with its parallel effect of brilliant climax and similar disintegration. The short first movement and much more expansive second are matched by the even shorter third movement and even more expansive finale. The durations of the two halves are the same; indeed, in the performance in May 1979 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras, there were only five seconds in it. This two-part structure appears in several of Brian’s early symphonies, most notably of course in The Gothic but he seems to have abandoned it in his later symphonies.
The symphony is written fog a large orchestra including quadruple woodwind, four trumpets, four trombones including parts for bass and contrabass, two bass tubas, and a number of horns which ranges from six in the first two movements to 16 in the scherzo. The final two movements also require two pianos and organ. There is a large array of percussion, with parts for three timpanists, and 1—3 side drums (from Symphony No 6 onwards Brian invariably specified three side drums, to be played "sempre a3", and later suggested that this should also apply to his earlier works).