Some thoughts on the thirtieth

Rodney Stephen Newton

Introduction - Rodney Stephen Newton Of the works performed at the 1976 Havergal Brian Centenary concerts at the Alexandra Palace, few others seemed to provoke as much controversy as Symphony No 30. This astonishing product of Brian’s extreme old age has been commented on and debated - sometimes quite vehemently. However, I decided to withhold my personal judgement until an opportunity presented itself of studying the full score, since I knew that there had been a number of accidents during the Alexandra Palace performance, and that the acoustic of that hall often played tricks upon the hearer.

Upon obtaining a copy of the score very kindly loaned by the indefatigable Graham Hatton, I realised that what came over the radio of the first performance of the work was indeed only a partial account of what was in the score. The "Ally Pally" acoustic did its usual job of submerging much of the detail of the first movement under a general mud of excessive reverberation, and in the second movement things went badly awry with the orchestra. Whole sections of instruments missed their entries, the strings crept in nervously at one point hopelessly out of place, and the only section free from accident was the percussion (and please do not accuse me of nepotism). The powerful coda began uncertainly and the ultimate denoument seemed to fail to make its true impact. I do not intend to discuss the reasons for these mishaps as I never see the point of such post-mortems, but I think I have made it clear that the Alexandra Palace performance did not present a completely true picture of the work. I think it fruitless to argue for and against this piece solely on the grounds of the performance, and feel the symphony will only make its full impact in an accurate professional performance in a more sympathetic acoustic.

Brian completed his 30th Symphony on 13 November 1967 - a year of outstanding activity for the veteran composer. He had put the finishing touches to Symphony No 27, written Nos 28 and 29, then, in just three months after the completion of the 29th Symphony, the 30th appeared. As Brian generally sketched out a work in pencil before making a short score, then a full score, it is reasonable to suppose that the music of No 30 was already firmly in his mind even before he began to work on it. Furthermore, this symphony is so drastically unlike its predecessors - gone is the neo-classicism of No 29 - that one searches for a parallel. To obtain an idea of what might have inspired "Brian 30", we must go back to 1963.

It is believed that in this year, the year of the 21st Symphony, Brian began to make plans for an opera on the subject of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. He shelved the idea for a while before starting work in earnest in the fecund year of 1967. During this time he also envisaged a further opera on Sophocles’ Antigone to make a double bill with Oedipus. Brian eventually ceased his labours on the Oedipus project, believing that the English translation be was using as a libretto was still in copyright - his adventures with Deirdre of the sorrows had had taught him all about that kind of problem. He declared, however, that the music contained some "fine stuff" and that he would use it in an orchestral work. The next one to appear was Symphony No30.

Searching back further, one comes across the Symphony No 22 of 1964/65. This was written within a year or so of Brian’s first ideas about Oedipus, and the similarities between this work and Symphony No 30 are, I believe, more than coincidental. Both are two movement symphonies; both share the same dark mood; both are constructed in a similar, highly compressed manner. To add to these likenesses, the opening motive of the 22nd Symphony is quoted no less than three times in the second movement of Symphony No 30. Thus, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Symphonies 22 and 30 are in fact companion pieces and that No 30 is a further development of the events in No 22.

Brian calls the 30th Symphony Sinfonia in B flat minor, although this key is studiously avoided until the climax of the first movement. Even the opening phrase twists like a snake around the Bb tonal centre: this is followed by string and wind phrases which blossom into a warm cadence in F - the opening eight-note motive being ever-present in the bass line. There then follows a development of the opening material with increased chromaticism resulting from Brian’s multi-layered counterpoint. The mood soon darkens and Brian begins moving in chords built on fourths (rather than his beloved parallel fifths). This gives the resultant harmony a misty feeling - a mist which the Alexandra Palace acoustic obligingly turned into a dense fog!).

A number of episodes appear - some reflective, some fantastic and bizarre, some wild and warlike. With the probable dramatic basis of this work in mind, it is perfectly possible to imagine that one is listening to the prelude to a stage tragedy. Perhaps that is what this first movement was intended to be in the first place. The wildness is answered by a melancholy passage for strings remarkably like one in Symphony No 22.

A further strong episode leads to a calmato passage in which we suddenly find ourselves listening to a string quartet. In just five bars Brian has moved from the power of the full orchestra to the intimacy of the quartet. A strong passage in the "home" key of Bb minor brings us to the final climax of the movement which is abruptly truncated and answered by a calmer coda in which the opening theme appears in the bass once more. The final cadence is one of resignation, leading to the inevitable bare fifths by means of a shortened statement of the "theme". There is a tiny bridge of a single pizzicato crotchet in F before the curtain rises on what is obviously the second movement - although Brian does not place any double bar line before it nor does he designate it in the full score as a separate movement.

The process here is so similar to the 22nd symphony as to deserve comment. In both cases the second movement begins with a kind of march episode. The mood is similar, although in the 30th the textures are tenuous and melancholy. Perhaps we have here two different treatments of the same operatic scene. The sparse writing continues until a short passage for wind quartet leads to an allegro in which 3/4 time is juxtaposed with 4/4 time. From here on the mood becomes increasingly darker and the textures appreciably thicken. Without warning, and in one single bar, Brian plunges us into a maestoso e niarcaro quote from Symphony No 22. This is repeated a little further along by the brass and strings and leads to a powerful climax.

There then follows a curious passage in 3/4 time in which the soft, marching percussion returns, over which the strings and wind play melancholy phrases. Strange visions seem to pass before as weird figurations are heard. Solemn bells ring out, supported by heavy string chords, and with a roar from angry timpani we pass straight into the coda. This is announced by the opening motive of Symphony No 22 once more - as clear a quote as one could wish for - and one is tempted to wonder whether this was not intended to represent Oedipus himself in the opera, as the upsurging theme in the opera The Cenci represents the evil Count Cenci.

The coda is broad and powerful. Heavy descending figures stride through the brass line with the upper strings and wind soaring higher and higher whilst trumpets and side drums (the usual trio and used to great effect) sound out martially. The final cadence is as harsh a discord as may be imagined. Before the final Bb and F open fifths are reached, there is a penultimate cry of despair with the trombones and tuba holding Cb and Gb against the Bb and F of the rest. Perhaps this may have been a cry from the throat of the blinded Oedipus. The unsettled end of Symphony No 22 has here found its grim resolution.

I do not intend this article to be an analytical study of Brian’s 30th Symphony. There is much that I have not mentioned and discussed for the reason that I prefer to leave such things to the more able pen of Malcolm MacDonald. My aim here has been to stir up interest in this powerful work in the hope that one day it will take its place as one of Brian’s most significant symphonies, and that further performances will reveal it to be the powerful experience for its hearers that I believe it to be.

NL16 / © Rodney Stephen Newton 1978

Newsletter, NL 16, 1978