Early English atonality in the first movement

Martin O’Leary

Early English atonality in the first movement of Brian’s third

symphony - Martin O'Leary This is the text of a talk given by Martin O'Leary at the Maynooth International Musicological Confererence in September 1995


Havergal Brian is a composer who defies categorisation. Although a contemporary of Vaughan Williams and Holst, his compositional style is completely different from theirs. His thirty-two symphonies reflect influences from Bruckner, Elgar, Mahler, Sibelius and perhaps Nielsen too, from within the symphonic tradition. Beyond that one can detect the influences of composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Varèse. With regard to the great Viennese pioneer of serialism, his liking for extremely elaborate orchestral textures, as well as his stretching of (and eventual abandonment of) tonality finds an echo in the first four symphonies of Brian.

This orchestral flamboyance stems from Richard Strauss, to whom Brian dedicated his mammoth first symphony, The Gothic. The former’s operas, Salome and Elektra, as well as early works of Schoenberg, such as Gurrelieder and Pelleas und Melisande, provide the closest ties within the musical mainstream to the sort of musical language that Brian uses in the first movement of his third symphony.

At this point, however, one must make an important distinction. Schoenberg’s harmonic adventurousness led to a complete break with triadic tonality, whereas Strauss, after the heady excesses of Elektra rarely, if ever, pushed his use of tonality to the same extremes. The first movement of Brian’s third symphony, however, begins and ends in C sharp (minor at the beginning, major at the end), and returns to that key at pivotal points throughout the movement, so that it is possible to see this central key area, or tonic, as an anchor for the movement.

No matter how far and wide Brian’s harmonic imagination may wander (and it wanders very far afield indeed), C sharp is always a point of return. Therefore, the points where tonality is stretched beyond the triadic and into a language which may conveniently be labelled as ‘atonal’ are all contained within a movement whose main points of articulation are centred around a tonic key of C sharp minor.

This raises the issue of harmonic consistency, and the related manipulation of dissonance. These features were a source of unity and strength in music from Monteverdi to Mahler, and even in the music of Brian’s contemporary Franz Schmidt, who also sought to continue the tradition of symphonic writing, one can hear this consistency working to marvellous effect.

On the other hand, the music of Alfred Schnittke has derived much of its potency from the deliberate juxtaposition of wildly differing levels of dissonance and the use of many different harmonic idioms. To accuse Brian (or Schnittke) of inconsistency is to miss the point: as becomes clear from an analysis of the music, there is a consistency of approach and method in the first movement of the third symphony in the way in which Brian places, and treats, his non-triadic passages. This argues for the composer striving for a particular effect, rather than indulging in the whims of an over fertile musical imagination without any resource to compositional discipline.

The aim would appear to be to accommodate the non-tonal within the tonal. The resulting tension can be either stimulating or original, or disruptive and undisciplined, depending on one’s attitude. The music attempts a balance between an overall unity (provided by thematic and harmonic focus and repetition) and within that a strikingly diverse use of musical language. Brian challenges the notion of the seeming mutual exclusivity of the triadic and non-triadic harmonic idioms; the coherence of the resulting music depends more on a consistency of approach, resulting in intelligibility, than a unified sound-world.

Since the harmonic language is concerned with diversity, Brian uses rhythmic and thematic elements, combined with orchestration to bind together this first movement into a coherent musical experience. Brian’s originality lies in the potency of this mix, which results in a soundscape that is sometimes familiar sounding, and at others startlingly unfamiliar. With regard to his British contemporaries, Brian stands out as a rugged and dogged individualist, so that his aesthetic position outside the mainstream is paralleled by his neglect, a position comparable to those of Charles Ives or Carl Ruggles in America, Fartein Valen in Norway, and Allan Pettersson in Sweden.

The first movement

There are three spans of music in this movement deserving of consideration within the context of the present article:

1) From fig 8 to fig 11:7
2) From fig 14 to fig 15:5
3) From fig 18.5 to fig 19:6

(Note, the references to figure numbers, and bars within those figures, are based on the following example: fig 4:1 is the bar at the beginning of which is written, above the bar-line, the large circled number 4).

(1) from fig 8:2 to fig 11:7

This large span of music consists of the passage between the first and second versions of the theme first heard at fig 5:9 (no 3 on the BBCSO CD recording), the second version itself, and the transitionary passage which leads back to C sharp minor (and a clear sense of triadic tonality). It may be subdivided as follows:

1a) from fig 8:2 to fig 8:10
1b) from fig 9:1 to fig 10:6
1c) from fig 10:7 to fig 11:7

(1a) from fig 8:2 to fig 8:10

This passage, before the second version of the theme first heard at fig 5:9 is unified more by rhythmic gesture than any binding sense of tonality. In the first four bars, there are dotted rhythms in trombones and tuba, heard against florid writing for piano 1. The next two bars feature the rhythm semiquaver+semiquaver triplet on flutes and piano 1, with rising scale-like semiquavers in the left hand of the piano, as well as horns and clarinets. This is followed, by inversion, with one bar of the rhythm semiquaver triplet+semiquaver against descending scale-like semiquavers. The next two bars are anticipatory in nature, and both make use of the same rhythmic gesture: a demisemiquaver flourish on the first crotchet beat in the first piano, followed by dotted rhythms in piano 2.

(1b) from fig 9:1 to fig 10:6

It is important to hear this version (or harmonisation) of the second main theme as a counterfoil to its earlier incarnation, considering that both make use of the same melody. This implies that the present version is perceived as a much-varied restatement (or re-interpretation) of the earlier passage. In the first version, harmony supported the melody; here the melody is all but overwhelmed by the surrounding texture. Perhaps Brian is standing an age-old idea on its head. In many Classical and Romantic works, melodic variation was the key where varied restatements were concerned, and the surrounding harmonies remained substantially the same (as, for example, in the early stages of a set of variations).

In the present case the melody is unchanged, but the texture around it is totally transformed; little wonder that the effect is so disconcerting. What was a Late-Romantic English-tinged melody almost becomes an Ivesian textural battleground. Furthermore, rather than strengthening the character of the melody, this elaborate restatement challenges and undermines it, thus contributing in a disruptive way to the perceptible unity of the musical discourse.

The expectation of a ‘lyrical second subject’ is satisfied, and then dispelled. Whereas the first subject had remained constant in its musical character for its two appearances earlier in the movement, this is clearly not the case here. Shostakovich presents a comparable example of the first movement of his fourth symphony, where the themes swap musical characteristics between the exposition and recapitulation. The accompaniment in the Brian moves from triplet quavers to sextuplet semiquavers as it becomes more overwhelming, and the composer’s use of discontinuity is highlighted by the way the passage breaks off suddenly, and expectantly.

(1c) from fig 10:7 to fig 11:7

Brian achieves a successful and smooth transition here between the non-tonal (in which a similarity of motivic shape is the binding element) and the key-centred. C sharp is heralded as the goal of this passage and is clearly articulated as a point of arrival. The motivic outline of a step upwards followed by a larger leap downwards pervades this passage until four bars before the re-emergence of C sharp minor as a key-centre. At that stage the prevalent pattern changes to a step downward followed by a leap downward (eg A-G-D, D-C-G, E-D-A).

In the last bar before C sharp reasserts itself, this is further reduced to a single step downward, namely from D to C. The fact that both pitches are semitonally adjacent to C sharp paves the way quite clearly for that pitch, and their repetition underlines this effect. In this way the non-tonal has become tonal, and a key centre is the recognisable goal of a lengthy stretch of music without one. The following table of pitches makes this progression from roving tonality to fixed circle of notes (which reintroduce the notion of pitch centricity and thus the idea of a tonal centre) very clear:

11:4 A G D C
11:5 D C G E
11:6 D C G
11:7 D C

The emphasis on the pitches D, C and G above provides a striking illustration of how Brian manages to integrate the tonal and the non-tonal by achieving a smooth and logical transition from one to the other.

(To be continued)

NL 123 / © Martin O'Leary 1995

Newsletter, NL 123, 1995