The influence of Goethe’s ‘Götz von Berlingen’ (1)

Damian Rees

The influence of Goethe’s Götz von Berlingen (1) - Damian Rees

It seems fitting that a man who lives much of his life in dire poverty and whose prolific creative output is almost entirely neglected by his contemporaries should have a love of Romantic literature where the theme of the struggling artist is so prevalent. Such was the case with Havergal Brian (1876-1972) who had a particular affection for the German Romantics. Moreover, the influence of these writers whether as impulse, catalyst or underlying structure can be traced in much of his work. In fact many of his major works, both symphonies and operas, can be said to have come to fruition from an initial literary stimulus.

His first Symphony (1919-27) is entitled The Gothic. To Brian the term "gothic" was synonymous with "almost unlimited expansion of human knowledge both secular and spiritual" 1. How appropriate then that, on his own admission, the first part of this symphony "was largely coloured by Goethe’s Faust" 2. This was a theme he would return to twenty years later in the context of an opera. There is, further, a sense in which Brian’s approach to the music may be regarded as Faustian in so far as the whole work was written with no regard for a public nor limited in any way by possible performance, but was rather purely conceived as an act of self-expression. As Nettel remarks, it was "set down because the impulse to do so could not be resisted." 3

The Second Symphony also takes its inspiration, and arguably its context, from Goethe, this time Götz von Berlichingen. The Fourth Symphony, Das Siegeslied (1932-33) is a setting of Psalm 68 Let God arise but significantly he chose to set his music to Luther’s German translation of the original Hebrew. Indeed so enamoured was Brian of German language, literature, culture and tradition that he set about studying the German language so as to achieve a better understanding of his favourite texts.

His Fifth Symphony Wine of summer (1937) is a setting of Romantic poetry, though this time that of an Englishman, Lord Alfred Douglas. Similarly, in 1944 he completed a full musical version of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound though sadly the full score of this has since been lost. Again, his Sixth Symphony Sinfonia tragica of 1948 was originally begun as an overture for an opera based on Deirdre of the Sorrows by the Irish dramatist JM Synge.

Brian’s operatic works of the fifties also have their origin in classic Romantic literature with Shelley providing the stimulus for The Cenci (1952), and Schiller Turandot (1951) before he returned to Goethe with Faust (1956). Next Aeschylus’ Agamemnon provided the starting point for a short one act opera in 1957. This Greek drama also provided the catalyst for the Twelfth Symphony which, although it was his shortest symphony to date, was typically scored for quite a large orchestra including, for example, triple woodwind and six horns.

Though Brian was by now 80 years old he retained both his health and his head full of music which "would give him no peace until he had got it down on paper. (McDonald op cit). Once again literary influences, especially the work of Sophocles and Socrates can be traced in his symphonic trilogy Nos. 22-24 (1963-65).

Despite the clear literary influences, especially in the so-called "early symphonies" (he was after all over fifty when he wrote them), and statements of Brian’s such as that cited earlier, in later life he tended to play down a programmatic approach to his music perhaps in an attempt to create a more universal image of the symphonies. This raises what McDonald has called the "vexed question of literary influence in Brian’s work" (op cit). He goes on to say that Brian "made [it] clear that he wished all his works to be treated as pure music just like the Brahms symphonies."

This is a very interesting comment especially in the context of the Second Symphony for not only does the inspiration come from Goethe but also it can be argued that the very structure of the piece is closely related to the central character of the drama: there are four movements, which correspond in turn to Götz’s ambitions, loves, battles and death. (cf Nettel op cit).

According to McDonald Brian’s reasons for denying this connection and for wishing his work to be viewed as "pure music" were based on "his anxiety lest those works with a known inspiration in literature be vulnerable to facile misinterpretation from people who look no further in music than for a programme. Brian never wrote programme music in that sense" (op cit).

Attempting to justify Brian’s comment in this way seems in some way to contradict not only the specific case of the Second Symphony but also the very fact of his being steeped in Romanticism. It is tine that some 19th Century critics such as Eduard Hanslick felt that Liszt failed in his effort to realise a new musical form and that "it was a great heresy to attempt to transform the symphony into a programmatic drama." 4 Nonetheless, Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) argued that the only worthwhile music was programmatic

To explore this dilemma more closely I now propose to attempt an analysis of the Second Symphony and a close look at the structure of the drama and the character of Götz.

ather than define the terms "symphony" and "programme music" or to attempt value judgements on "pure" music and music which illustrates a story or character, I feel it is more pertinent to examine Brian in the context of his time and influences to see how clearly programme music was important to him. From this starting point we may see in the analysis how Brian changes the traditional view of the symphony to suit his purpose. Thus, in order to fully understand Havergal Brian’s Second Symphony and its programmatic elements it is necessary to consider it within the historical context surrounding him and within the context of the musical influences upon his work. Although he was very much taken with the Romantic idea of the artist alone in a hostile world it is worth remembering, for instance, that he was music critic for Musical Opinion during the 1920s and 30s. Although he would clearly have had a financial interest in retaining such a post, yet one constant emerges: his high praise and high regard for Richard Strauss. Indeed, he dedicated the Gothic Symphony to his mentor.

As I stated earlier, I believe that there is a strong programmatic element to the Second Symphony and the influence of Strauss may be seen to bear this out given that Strauss used such elements in his symphonic poems and also in his depiction of heroic figures. The heroic qualities of man became a prominent feature of Brian’s work, for example, In memoriam and several symphonies owe their stimulus to an heroic figure.

Despite the modem approach to harmony that emerges from a musical analysis of this symphony (see part 2 of this series), the idea of a programmatic symphony was by no means a new one. It may be argued that one of the first true programme symphonies is Beethoven’s Sixth. Even more important from the point of view of his influence on Brian is the work of Franz Liszt. Liszt’s use of programme extended into his creation of the symphonic poem. In fact, after his visit to the Royal Academy of Music in 1886 Liszt became influential in British music generally especially with the publication of books about his work by the likes of Frederic Corder and Percy Scholes. Liszt was a particular influence on one of Brian’s greatest friends, Granville Bantock, who was one of the only supporters of Brian’s music throughout the inter war years.

Bantock himself wrote many symphonic poems and symphonies in the Liszt tradition ie single movement works each with a single motif that develops and changes its appearance throughout the piece. This is also very characteristic of Brian. In many of his symphonic works he continually develops a single motif until eventually it is almost impossible to see from where they have originated. Bantock then, provides the main link in the Liszt-Brian connection.

In September 1937 Brian wrote an article called "The Neglect of Schumann" in the Musical Opinion which clearly showed his high regard for the composer. Perhaps he was drawn to him partly because of the similarities in their persona: both experienced very intense responses to Romantic literature. In fact, Schumann’s one movement Fourth Symphony can be considered a forerunner of many of the compressed later symphonies of Havergal Brian. Also through Schumann comes what may be seen as the strongest influence upon the programmatic elements of Brian’s Second Symphony, namely, Berlioz.

Schumann was a great admirer of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique going so far as to write two glowing reviews of it in Zeitschrift in 1835. A case may be made that it is this symphony which hides within Brian’s Second. McDonald (op cit) goes so far as to say that Brian worships Berlioz. Certainly it is Berlioz who provides the most direct influence. Many factors of orchestration, especially in the winds and brass can be traced directly to Berlioz. Moreover, the only book on orchestration that Brian made regular use of was Berlioz’s Traité de l’orchestration. This admiration for and reliance on a much neglected composer did little to make Brian’s music more accessible. Further, both men were often drawn to the same texts for example, Te Deum, Faust (though Liszt is also an influence here), and the works of Shakespeare and Byron.

A further point in support of Brian’s use of a literary stimulus as a basis for programme music is that this appears to have been a very fashionable approach in British music during the early part of the twentieth century. Parry and Stanford both wrote incidental music for famous dramas while Parry’s Prometheus unbound can be seen as the herald of the second British Renaissance in music. Brian also used this text as the focus for a four and a half hour epic for choir and orchestra in the 1940s. Bantock found inspiration in Browning as well as classical literature while Bax and Stanford found theirs in Irish and Celtic legends creating fine, large-scale musical dramas. Similarly, Holbrooke and Boughton were among many others whose best work has a literary origin.

Brian is clearly in tune with his contemporaries over this and while he like the others could find inspiration in British folklore and legend, eg King Arthur, given his predilection for Germany it is not surprising to find him drawing inspiration from Goethe’s Götz.

NL155 © P Damian Rees 2001

continued >

  1. M McDonald The Symphonies of Havergal Brian (Kahn and Averill 1974) ↩︎

  2. Havergal Brian How the Gothic Symphony came to be written in Modern Mystic (Dec 1938) ↩︎

  3. R Nettel Havergal Brian: The Man and his Music (Dobson 1976) ↩︎

  4. Arnold Whitall Romantic Music (Thames and Hudson 1987) ↩︎

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