The influence of Goethe’s Götz von Berlingen (2) - Damian Rees
Brian started sketching his Second Symphony in June 1930. He continued this process until September. He then began the full score on November 2 and finally completed it on April 6 1931. This was his method of composition over the next few years: rapid sketching during the summer months and then orchestration through the winter. The work is in four movements which can effectively be split in two, the first two movements (which play without a break) acting almost as a prelude to the main movements.
The overall tonal plan is very different from that of many of his earlier pieces. The language appears to be very modem in sound: its tonal centres seem much more distant and abstract than in the Gothic. The harmonic language is reminiscent of Sibelius, particularly his Fourth Symphony. Like Sibelius, Brian makes extensive use of the tritone. It is present in almost every major theme in the piece and, again like Sibelius, it is as if Brian were treating this as a harmonic cadence for the work. That is, the rising or falling tritone forms a constant within the ever-changing musical substance. It is also interesting to see that composers such as Wagner and Schoenberg also used the tritone regarding it as ‘stable" harmony and, as it were, the overall stable referential sonority. This is very evident, for example, in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No 1 0p 9.
The structure of this work, in comparison to his previous works, is more free in the broader sense or the word, ie there are no sonata forms or traditional tonal arguments. Rather, it is a symphony composed from a single germ cell, namely the tritone, which acts as a form of motto for the symphony.
First movement : Adagio solenne—Allegro assai
The first movement in this symphony is relatively short (c 12 mins) for a piece so huge in scale, and with a total playing time of 50 minutes. The movement has the quality of an introduction, particularly, as shall be discussed, because of the use of fragmented thematic ideas, gestating themes, rather than fully blown thematic statements in a truly symphonic sense
It begins with a 45 bar introduction which sets out all the material that is going to be used throughout the work. The opening is a bare fifth on three timpani (surely a conscious reminder of the timpani chords in Berlioz’s Symphonic fantastique), which bassoons and bass clarinets reinforce. Underneath this held chord the main chromatic motif is picked out in the bass on pizzicato cellos and basses. This stating of a theme in the bass is very characteristic of Brian: many of the most important themes in his symphonies are first heard in the bass. It is further typical of Brian to introduce tonal ambiguity right from the beginning so that we find all twelve notes of the chromatic scale appearing within the first four bars of the motif.
Some listeners have found Brian’s approach challenging and it has led to criticisms of his work as random, lacking in discipline or concentration. What is certain is that his approach does demand openness on the part of the listener. We are far more used to listening to the motifs being stated in the treble, with the bass as support, for example. Moreover, above this bass line Brian typically employs a process of continual development with very few repeated phrases to act as points of reference for the listener. In the opening of the Second Symphony Brian makes his motif more obvious by removing any upper layers.
The motif that the basses and cellos play has a falling tritone in it. This is the first melodic line that we hear and Brian makes extensive use of it throughout the symphony. He then prepares us for a symphony which will have more to do with motifs and dissonance than more traditional approaches of tonal battles by introducing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. This tonal ambiguity becomes a major characteristic of the themes and mottoes of the Second Symphony. It does not seem as if he is using all twelve notes for any structural purpose but rather to propose the response of tonal ambiguity. McDonald (op cit) says that in this symphony "there are many places where Brian approaches the frontiers of atonality." This is certainly true but, more than this, Brian chooses to remain at the frontier as if to remove himself from a formal structure for the symphony. Thus, Havergal Brian does not define a tonality early in the work, but rather saves it for a closing gesture.
The introduction approaches three climaxes, each time with the tritone theme appearing in the bass. Each time there is also an increase in volume and layers of texture until the climax is reached for the third time with all the bass instruments playing the motif loudly. After the final repeat of the tritone theme the dynamic level does not alter but there is a change of pace as the main body of the movement appears as an Allegro assai.
McDonald (op cit) suggests the appearance here of a concise sonata form. There are two reasons why I believe this view to be inaccurate. Firstly, the other three movements are very free in structure, which would make the opening movement seem out of place. Further, it is not Brian’s intention musically that the symphony should follow such a traditional plan. Indeed, it would seem incongruous to have a traditional in mind after such a modern approach to tonality as suggested by the opening
Secondly, although there are two clearly opposing subjects, Brian starts developing the first before even stating the second. There is, then, no battle of tonality nor true coda. In fact, both subjects share free tonal form each making prominent use of the tritone. There is a contrast section but it is there purely as a contrast with a change in tempo and a slight change in scoring.
What we have in the first movement is Brian continually varying and developing his opening idea, which also serves to reinforce the importance of that original idea in the other movements.
The Allegro assai begins with the orchestra presenting a new version of the tritone. Now Brian disguises the bass line by underscoring it for only cello, basses and clarinets against the violins, brass, and flutes of the counter melody. It is only here as full string section, horns, and tuba play the theme that we feel a tonal centre as the brass resolve around E major. Yet this is only a respite, for Brian introduces one of his short pauses which create suspense before introducing another variation on the tritone.
These variations are cleverly disguised as Brian introduces decoration all around them with extensive use of orchestral colour using woodwind, strings, harp and horns. Despite this the falling tritone is never far away and its use in a cascade of sound with harp, celesta and wind is a prominent feature of this movement and the next.
We are then presented with a semi repeat of the Allegro assai that quickly builds to a climax. Just as quickly the repeat disappears to leave once more flutes, glockenspiel and harp carrying a glowing image of the opening them against which there is another chromatic line in the violas. This line is unrelated to anything else except the idea of chromation. McDonald (op cit) describes this section as having "something dream-like in effect: it suggests that despite the foreground activity, the enigmatic music of the introduction is still going on in the background." Even more than this, Brian is taking the opportunity, having moved away from his theme in such wide variations, to restate the theme and the tritone.
There then follow more development of the Lento subject from the middle of the movement and it is this that finally leads to a recapitulation of all of the previous variations. Each of these, however, has been subjected to re-scoring and further figuration developments and counterpoints. They are though presented in their original order of appearance.
Next there is a massive outburst and we reach the main climax of the first movement. The descending tritone is played at full volume, first in the treble, then in the bass in its original form and pitch, and then in elongated fashion before finally dissolving into silence. We are then returned to the same effect as at the beginning of the piece, with a quiet reiteration of the opening bare fifth chord in E.
Second movement : Andante sostenuto e molto espressivo
The structure of this movement is freer than the last. It is much more difficult to perceive any form or structural principles at work. In fact, here we have Brian undertaking a process of continual development, which in a way confounds straightforward analysis. Nonetheless, the tritone once again does provide an anchor The main form of the movement is A-B-C with brief restatements of the B towards the end of the movement. Most of the material is stated by a wind instrument, (cor Anglais, oboe, and clarinet) yet there is also a feeling of disturbance. Many short outbursts of a militaristic character punctuate the movement; possibly hinting at the battle scherzo which appears in he third movement. This feeling of development is in contrast to the almost cyclical feel of the first movement.
The movement opens with a solo cor anglais which gives the bare rhythm which returns at the first of this movement’s climaxes as it is passed forcefully through the entire orchestral range. Once again in the first few bars we have the appearance of the falling tritone from F to C#. Although the pitch of this opening idea changes, Brian does very little to alter its rhythmic characteristics. While the orchestral colour changes as a matter of the overall discourse of the movement, the tonal centre of the first passage is ambiguous.
Suddenly, Brian introduces a two bar section of dead march rhythm which does not seem to relate to the material around it. What it does do, however, is to act as a precursor of the funeral march in the finale. Without entering into a full discussion of the influence of the original text at this stage, this blatant intrusion of military music certainly gives us a reminder that the central character, Götz, is not only complex but also a General and leader at a time of war.
Next in the music is a canon of the basic tritone fragment which serves to emphasise again the importance of the tritone to the whole symphony. (Indeed it may be seen as the Götz motif.) This leads to the first climax of the second movement. Full strings, timpani and four bassoons play the components to a fff climax.
Without a break the B section is introduced on woodwind over harp and timpani. Here we see Brian’s characteristic technique of continual variation. This time the opening theme, though hinted at is never restated. The new material is similarly developed and, as in the A section, there is no harmonic stability and chromaticism prevails. This lead to the next climax remains rhythmically close to the last as well as sharing its general mood. Tie orchestration, though, differs and we have a counter theme in low winds and brass. Now this section closes with brass once more in the foreground a further reminder of the military and possibly the battle calls of Götz himself.
The C section begins with yet another variant on the opening theme this time on clarinets against a sparkling background of chords on celesta, harp glissandi and flutes. This metallic shimmering sound provides the only continuity for the next forty bars. The tonal centre retains its ambiguity. Following a short climax the insertion of a D# suggests a definite shift to E major, though this is not confirmed until the end of the coda. Now we reach the largest climax of the movement. Brian’s use of woodwind again here suggests that he considers them to be central to the character of the movement. After a full orchestral fortissimo climax there is a brief coda for strings which does not restate any of the previous material, before the final chords of B and E flat minor resolve to the key of E major with the very last note of G#, the crucial third so often lacking in a Brian chord.
Thus ends a movement which is extremely bizarre when considered from a traditional perspective. The aim of the music is not altogether clear, except to provide us with the tension of continually changing ideas rising and falling from one climax to another. Nonetheless, Brian achieves this through constant permutations of his original idea.
Third movement : Scherzo Allegro assai
This is the movement known as the Battle Scherzo. Written in 6/8 it provides a huge contrast to the first two movements. Sweeping aside the chromatic approach to the first two movements, the scherzo is almost completely diatonic and is built up of a myriad of ostinato patterns which make up a "wall of sound." This movement requires 16 horns to be played in groups of four around the stage. This has the effect of emphasising a call to battle. Although we have diatonic music Brian still retains tonal ambiguity by superimposing one diatonic on top of another. There is one main theme in this movement which is stated by the first group of four horns.
The movement opens playing repeated notes from the D major triad. It is over this that the first group of horns plays in C major. For the first time in this symphony a piano part is introduced and as the main figure is passed from one group of horns to the next the movement reaches its first climax as there is a striking clash between these two keys.
Now strings, wind and brass join forces against the sixteen horns. The underlying ostinati are layered together to create an insistent pulse. Just as we are perhaps thinking that the music is as wild as it can be, with stereo effects and the horns leading into remote keys, Brian introduces the organ for the first time (pedals only). Amid this frenetic activity the horns play the main them in canon firmly in the key of C while a variety of other keys swirl about them. For a short while the whole orchestra seems to settle on C but then, over the next twenty bars, as the climax grows so the brass and organ blaze out in B flat minor and D flat against chords of D major from piano, strings and woodwind, while the horns remain in C.
Finally, the music subsides slowly through E flat to C. A solo horn plays the theme for the last time again in the key of C over a C-G ostinato in the harps. Interestingly though the last note played is not C but D. We could take the D, as possibly leading us back to the open E of the first movement but Brian is not usually that straightforward. Against the held D we have at first a suggestion of F minor from the strings, but the descending lines in the wind section suggest other keys before we reach a final soft dissonance approaching a cluster.
This ambiguity between D and C even in a diatonic setting is not only typical of Brian’s approach, it is perfectly fitting for this symphony in at least two ways Firstly, a strongly stated key would be very much at odds with the first two movements but, more than this, the two keys perform as combatants in the battle. They are not merely stated as opposing sides, but rather they actively engage one another as they clash. First one key seems dominant then the other. Nor is it simply that one tonality then "wins". In fact, neither of them wins but the other pitches around them instead overcome both. Again to no more than touch on the literary source, could this battle which has taken place in musical terms be seen not only as a clash between opposing armies, but also as representing the conflict within Götz himself?
Fourth movement : Lento maestoso e mesto
This movement is in many respects free of formal design and in that relates to the second movement to some extent. However, we do find again the tritone from the first two movements, albeit this time in the context of musical phrases rather than as a motif. A strong link is thus established with the first movement bringing a sense of symphonic finality to the whole. This is achieved not by reconciliation with the other movements but rather by intensification of the conflicts. The mood is that of a funeral march, a grand final procession after the raging storm of the third movement.
There are three main ideas in this section, each with strong links to the tritone. Indeed, the first melodic passage after the initial viola outburst contains the same intervallic relationships as the very opening idea of the whole symphony. The opening viola line itself reappears many times as a returning figure, almost as an unchanging character in a play, a constant which does not bow to the changes taking place all around it. Similarly, the clarinet melody appears twice and in its second appearance the ever important tritone is formed into an anti-cadence, as suggested in the first movement. It is this falling tritone that appears in many guises throughout this movement.
Next there occurs a huge orchestral tutti outburst of the whole statement that created the climax to the first movement, the falling tritone being passed through the entire orchestra. Tonality remains ambiguous. Though E major can be felt at this climax the instability of the falling tritone as a tonal centre blurs any definite tonality. There follows a possible E flat minor theme on the oboe which has similarities with the earlier clarinet theme. From E flat minor the music modulates to F minor with horn fanfares which remind us of the military influences of the piece.
There is then a central episode in E major for cello and basses. The tritone is absent and for once a clear tonal centre is achieved. Violas and then strings add further texture to this passage as a broad orchestral crescendo begins. This in fact rises in a series of three crescendi all of which lead inevitably to the funeral march rhythm which hammers out in the relative minor of C#. Massive gong crashes add to the final effect before silence is resumed. Here Brian uses almost a direct quote from Siegfried’s funeral march in Götterdämmerung to emphasise the death, not only of a general, but also that of a hero.
The final coda has the opening clarinet theme to a background of tolling bells. The oboes and flutes use for the last time the ever-present falling tritone before the bassoons and cellos finally move to a perfect fifth, setting the key as E minor. There is a soft recall of the Götterdämmerung figure and the grand funeral ceremony closes. The death of the hero is mirrored by the augmented fourth giving way to the perfect fifth drum roll on timpani with which the symphony opened.
Clearly, the form of this analysis has been descriptive rather than one of formal structure. There is a very important reason for this: Brian’s music generally and this symphony in particular do not lend themselves to a formal analysis because of the constantly changing tonality and motifs. As a result of these ever-changing developments it is virtually impossible to provide a true vertical analysis as one might expect to get from, for example, a Brahms symphony. The main motifs have therefore been indicated but a linear plan of each movement has been avoided for it would quickly become over-complicated with a resultant loss in overall coherence.
NL156 © P Damian Rees 2001
Newsletter, NL 156