Second quality? - Paul Kettle Listening to The Gothic always, after a recovery period, makes me want to listen to the Second Symphony. The earlier piece, although, and perhaps because it explores deeper into its own territory than any previous work of Brian, does not reach a resolution. The gap between hope and the perceived reality of a universe where the power of evil is paramount is as wide at the end of the symphony as at the beginning. Does the second fare any better? For me it provides a resolution that is both convincing and positive. (A resolution is not, of course, a prerequisite of a good symphony!)
Listening to the second always wakes me wonder that it sometimes seems to be thought of as the ‘dud’ of the first four Symphonies. Like Mahler’s seventh, which provokes similar reactions, it may not be the easiest piece to get to grips with but it is quintessential and very personal. The lack of solo voices and choirs implies a narrowing down of focus: Brian seems to need to look inward, and is relating more to nature than to humanity and its social and architectural constructions. He finds meaning through the transcendence of experience and the sure knowledge of belonging. Some find the piece tragic; I don’t — perhaps these are ‘thoughts that… lie too deep for tears’.
The third symphony at first hearing seems to come back from the edge, but this is illusory. Here the very integrity of the self is at stake. Its confidence, drawing strength from the nature that pervades it rather than from assurance as in the second, has two main adversaries: a disintegration into mocking formlessness, and fossilisation into the straitjacket of an imposed, brutalising, unthinking perception of reality as a way of trying to contain the former disintegration.
The schizophrenic flavour of my metaphors is not accidental. Brian’s victory in the third is greater still because the stakes are higher even than in the second. The latter adversary, a social as well as psychological construct, demands a return to the social context of The Gothic, the chorus providing the added dimension in Das Siegeslied, which explores the ‘social’ mechanisms of alienation to an unprecedented extent, while facing squarely the fact that cruelty comes from within, continuing where The Gothic left off. But back to the second…
I am not a musician, and my thoughts on the Second Symphony proceed more by analogy than analysis. Malcolm MacDonald and _Graham Saxby_ have provided highly illuminating analyses of the work. My defence of my disorderly approach is that we listen to music with our associative right cerebral hemispheres as much as we do with our analytical left hemispheres, and imposing the structures of the first on the processes of the second is not often productive. Another defence is that we have a precedent for the conjunction of apparently disconnected ideas.
Paul Rapoport has discussed Beethoven’s ninth as a model for and point of departure of The Gothic, and it performs a similar function, differently, for the second. This is explicit in the finale although it is the first three movements which provide the closer parallel. The first movement of the ninth opens similarly, with ‘cosmic loneliness’ which is countered, with open-hearted determination, by resourceful harmonic infilling and a consoling ‘pastoral’ second subject. Brian’s
slow movement could be heard as a distortion of the Beethoven adagio and does make me think of Maxwell Davies, not least at its close which has the same effect as the endings of Taverner, St Thomas wake and Worldes blis.
Another parallel in the first three movements is with an unexpected bedfellow for Beethoven, Jean-Paul Sartre. The latter’s concept of the absurdity of otherness and the reliance on direct experience, with action and the freedom and commitment to act as the main method of giving meaning to ‘nauseating’ reality, all seem relevant. The anguish of meaninglessness and not belonging (NB Durkheim’s anomie) needs an answer which is not merely a defence, and Sartre’s embrace of freedom is part of this. Brian realises that this is not enough; it is necessary to feel the beginning.
For me, the first two movements of Brian’s second symphony reflect Sartre’s standpoint in a nutshell, while the third conjures up the image of Mathieu in The roads to freedom on top of the church tower, finding meaning at last in fighting impossible odds. Mathieu’s resourceful exploration of as wide a variety of experience as possible is reflected here, as it is transcended in the finale. Graham Saxby’s comparison with Elgar’s second seems absolutely right in this context. This exploration of existential anguish has a lot to do with Brian’s dialogue with the tritone, and it would be interesting to compare this work with the other great tritone symphony, Sibelius’s fourth.
After the relatively long introduction, setting the cosmic scene and unfolding ideas used later in the symphony, the exposition is short. The ‘first subject’ is a highly chromatic non-theme and the ‘second subject’ mainly a tune that could have dropped out of an English Suite, pantheistic as opposed to its Marian counterpart in The Gothic: there is no redemption on offer here. The first movement of The Gothic has been criticised for the excessive contrast between the first and second subjects and for me the equally stark contrast does work better. This movement also has a Rheingold-_like function and to criticise either it or the first movement of _The Gothic for not having the weight of a Brahms first movement surely misses the point.
The development continues the conflict between cosmic indifference and Nielsenesque ‘bottle’. Although there are blocks of different musics as in Tippett’s fourth, for example, the development seems real, although I don’t have the expertise to tease out the tonal basis for this impression. The impression I get is of the tight but rhapsodic forms of the late Beethoven quartets. The recapitulation is elliptical — although the argument has been deepened there are no answers yet and a standard recapitulation would be highly inappropriate (cf Nielsen’s fourth). The movement ends rather like HB’s own tenth symphony.
The second movement, ‘his loves’ (sweet irony), speaks of guilt, anguish, and above all of alienation, loveless despite its passion until the last bar when in a moment of great beauty the argument is overturned by a shred of hope (the Maxwell Davies link suggested above). After the first movement ends with a pre-echo of the recitative from the last, the second drifts into a lost meandering. The second and third movements of The Gothic are at each shoulder. Through this meditation we arrive, naturally but unexpectedly, at a passage which irresistibly makes me think of reaching heaven but finding it deserted, a ghost town - everyone has gone away. Towards the end of the movement there is an unassuming statement of part of the main theme on lower strings which seems the heart of the work, a pure statement of will (or, if you prefer, faith — here they seem the same). The endings of the first two movements remind me of the ‘Muss es sein? Es muss sein’ bits, respectively, from Beethoven’s last quartet, op 135.
The third movement appears at first to have all the subtlety of a rutting stag. Malcolm MacDonald and Graham Saxby have, however, revealed its complexity. To return to my association with Mathieu’s demise, it gives a strong hint of Brian’s resolution of the conflict between personal will and hope and exterior meaninglessness, through transcendence. This transcendence, though, through action is only the beginning of the pageant of transcendence unfurled in the last movement.
The nobility at the end of the third movement gives way to the desolate wind chord, low down, which contradicts it. The ‘recitative’ for low strings, which Graham Saxby felt to be a miscalculation, is to me right and fundamental to the strength of the movement. Its meaning includes that of its forerunners in Götterdämmerung and, more significantly, Beethoven’s ninth. It is utterly human in a way which might perhaps foreshadow Prometheus unbound. In the last movement Brian seems to step back. It seems to be a comment on the ‘hero’s life’ as well as a continuing personal search for the meaning of it. This objectivity allows him to find the transcendence which illuminates the later part of the movement, but not before the anguish and the struggle against it are intensified even further, intensifying in turn the transcendence.
In recent music parody and harmonic banality are often used to express alienation, Schnittke being the obvious example. In the finale Brian reverses this, as does Henze in his seventh symphony. (In Das Siegeslied Brian uses both harmonic extremes to express the all-pervading alienation.) The chromaticism of the first two movements is countered by honest harmonic simplicity in the third and fourth, and the harmonic aura makes the quotes and ‘polystylism’ in the last sees natural and integral. Beethoven’s ninth, ‘Siegfried’s Funeral March’, Strauss’s Alpine symphony and Mahler, to name a few, bring their associations with them, then enrich the argument with, to me, no suggestion of irony.
Later in the movement, the spirit of Elgar takes over, Shostakovich’s death music is invented, and the music from the end of the third movement comes back. Elgar returns, but is transmuted into the sound-world of the Tallis fantasia, a moment of great dignity and warmth. The harmony rarefies, forces muster, the cosmos echoes with Mahlerian battles. ‘Siegfried’s Funeral March’ reaches its culmination accompanied by harmony of stunning richness. There is a moment of pure Delius the effect of which, like that of the rest of these closing pages, is indescribable. The final clarinet solo, passing to bass clarinet in the last two bars, distils the essence of frail, uncertain, dogged humanity. As the focus moves out onto the cosmic scale on which the symphony started, the alienation has gone, man belongs to the universe, all shall be well.
Malcolm MacDonald felt that the symphony ended in the previous century from that in which it started. Now, with such diverse phenomena’ as minimalism, Stockhausen, and the reinstatement of tonality safely under the belt it seems to lead more towards the next.
My purpose in writing this was twofold: partly to explore the way I listen to music and how this differs from proper analysis. Is there a way of objectifying this and communicating it to others? Apparently not, although the best writers about music, like Deryck Cooke and our own Malcolm MacDonald, seem to manage it. The main purpose, however, was to counter any tendency to dismiss this piece as transitional, overshadowed by its two neighbours. Although the tensions resolved and transcended by Brian in this work continued to be a potent force in his later music, the serenity he achieves here is always within reach, and this allows him to explore further into the human predicament. His first five symphonies, while being direct in their expression, contain some of the profoundest music ever written and their insights remain as opportune now as they were sixty years ago.
NL 96 / © Paul Kettle 1991
Newsletter, NL 96, 1991