Analysis : Fourth movement and Conclusion

Graham Saxby

Fourth movement and Conclusion - Graham Saxby

Introduction . Movements 1 . 2 . 3 . 4 and Conclusion

The first impression of this movement is of a vast time-scale (it actually should last about 17 minutes), a broad sweep of vision and an intensity of emotion that at times borders on the apocalyptic. Although, as already noted, this movement has some of the appearances of formal construction, with episodes and returning thematic material which give it some of the character of a Mahler sonata-rondo, this is a very general and somewhat misleading description. It is a strongly unified movement, though much of its thematic materiel is plainly drawn from other movements, particularly the first.
A lthough there are numerous changes in tempo and rhythm, the overall impression is of a gigantic funeral march, complete with appropriate triplet figures and other motivic material which proclaim its kinship with its distinguished predecessors in the Eroica Symphony and Götterdämmerung. One should, of course, beware of attaching too much literal meaning to the thematic material, and of talking glibly of "nobility" or "grief". Equally, though, one need not go to the other extreme and assert, as did Stravinsky, that music is essentially powerless to express anything. It seems to me that since this music is clearly about’ death (in much the same way as is the finale of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony), it serves no useful purpose to deliberately ignore the fact.

The opening phrase occurs a great many times during the movement. The ascending scale which forms its second part is sometimes a simple major scale and sometimes minor, and occasionally a kind of quasi-diatonic scale that is neither, as for example in bar 721. It presents us with something of an enigma. It appears before each new episode, but it appears in many other places too. MacDonald suggests that it is a punctuation mark and also a heightener of tension; but for either purpose the phrase seems curiously unsatisfactory. Its banality contrasts oddly with the nobility of the music it so frequently interrupts. But perhaps that is the effect the composer had in mind, he was capable of being an "awkward cuss" in his music just as in his life. Be that as it may, the frequent repetition of this fussy little phrase serves not so much to increase tension as to provoke irritation. It seems to have been one of Brian’s rare miscalculations.

The opening bars of the funeral march are almost exactly the same as the passionate outburst which concludes the first movement, and are clearly derived from the opening of the symphony. The theme is first played on clarinets, to a bleak accompaniment in bare 5ths by harp and pizzicato strings. The theme ends with a series of falling tritones. and a solo horn adds a codetta like a sad reminiscence of the scherzo rhythm, in funeral march rhythm.

A new theme in the brass is cut off by the opening phrase and an upward-striving variant of the funeral march leads to the "Götterdämmerung" passage, where reiterated chords, fortissimo, alternate with the opening of the funeral march. At bar 726 an episode marked "Grandioso’ breaks in; it is none other than the "passionate outburst" transformed, combined with inversions and imitations, and with a glittering semiquaver accompaniment on flutes, cors anglais and strings divisi. These four bars are another example of the astonishing orchestral effects Brian was capable of creating. The funeral march continues with the funeral march again metamorphosed, leading into a new episode.
On cellos and basses, divided into no fewer than seven voices, arises a grave and beautiful elegy that is utterly English in character. This noble passage looks back to Elgar, and at the same time forwards to Tlppett. The violas join in, then the violins, and with exultant upward runs marked "Con Passione" lead to a further climax — but we hear once again the ominous outburst, this time framed in steely glitterings which turn downwards to despair. The final section continues with further climaxes. At bar 837 the final climax begins pianissimo with tremolandi sul ponticello on strings, closely harmonised brass chords and echoing born calls. Three times the "Götterdämmerung" motif is hammered out by the full orchestra; then at bar 844 the Grandioso passage explodes like the dazzling setpiece that culminates a firework display, in the most scintillating orchestration yet.

But the most lavish of setpieces must burn out, saving only empty shells. The music begins to disintegrate. The themes break into fragments, caught by small groups of instruments. The clarinet’s tritonal descent is heard again, and quietly turned into a perfect 5th by the lower strings; and as they mutter the movement’s opening phrase for the last time the few remaining instruments, including timpani, confirm the bare 5th E minor with which the symphony began.


What does the score tell us of Brian the symphonist at this point in his life? As with other composers who have extended an existing tradition, Brian had, like Newton, stood on the shoulders of giants. In Brian’s case the giants were the composers in the late 19th century Romantic tradition such as Elgar and Richard Strauss: echoes of these, as well as Wagner and Mahler, can clearly be heard in the themes of the Second Symphony. But as we have seen, his roots go back much farther in time, to the contrapuntal lines and the modes of Tallis and his predecessors.
A t the same time his treatment of symphonic form is already breaking with tradition, looking for a unity through thematic development rather than formal structure based on classical symphonic forms. He was well aware of the new music, of the innovations of Debussy, Bartok, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and he knew and admired their music, as is clear from his own writings. But, looking at this comparatively early symphony, it is equally clear that Brian’s individualism, and his extraordinary musical imagination, left little room for adopting other composers’ methods, however admirable they might be. He had too much to say himself, in his own musical language. Showing as it does its Romantic origins, this symphony often looks hack over its shoulder, but it also looks forward, in a highly original way.

It shows us how a formal sonata movement can be transformed without losing its essential nature — as Bartok and Hindemith were also showing, in their own way. It shows how counterpoint can be extended in concept to become so free and independent as to be truly heterophonic, without losing its basic musicality — as Ives and Schoenberg were showing, also in their own way. It shows us the path Brian was following towards new ways of treating diatonicism, in which even a scale of C major can be made to sound strange and disturbing, as Sibelius and Vaughan Williams were also doing in their rather more traditional way; and it goes further, showing us that new and exciting music can be written with scales that are not merely diatonic but restricted to a few notes.

It shows how a knowledge of the effects of mixing different timbres and pitches, combined with an extraordinary ability to construct an edifice of sound in the head and write it down with precision, can enable a composer to widen the limits of timbre and texture in orchestral music to an unprecedented extent. It shows, too, that it is possible to write funeral music that is utterly English, containing no concessions to Teutonic idiom, yet of a grandeur that fits it to stand alongside that of the German masters. But, perhaps most important of all, it shows that a composer of sufficient talent and doggedness can thumb his nose at the rest of the musical world and write a symphony of genius without any expectation of public performance. That the music was, indeed, not performed until 41 years after its composition was our loss, not Brian’s.

I should like to thank Graham Hatton of Musica Viva, who kindly lent me photocopies of the preliminary draft and autograph full score of the symphony, and Malcolm MacDonald for permission to make use of material from his book "The Symphonies of Havergal Brian, volume one, symphonies 1—12".