Second thoughts

Christopher Kettle

Second thoughts - Christopher Kettle

Prologo Fantastico

Place: The Royal Festival Hall
Time: The foreseeable future

A discreet electronic ‘ping’ indicates that the interval is almost over; in the bars, drinks and conversations are hastily finished and, as the auditorium begins to fill up, the sense of anticipation grows. A few patrons are leaving, anxious to protect their recent experience of the Emperor concerto from contamination by contact with the unfamiliar; they hurry away, comparing tonight’s performance by the prestigious Beethoven player Alfrizio Brellini with the half-dozen others they have heard during the course of the season. But by and large, shrewd programme planning pays off: as the orchestra begins to assemble on the platform, the Hall is almost full.

Just taking their seats are ardent Brianophiles Ricardo Street and Victoria Hall, down from Stoke for the occasion:

R: At last! The moment we’ve been waiting for. In an hour from now, Brian will have taken London by storm. There’ll be ecstatic reviews tomorrow — "Belated Triumph for Brian Blockbuster. The music of Havergal Brian, hitherto the exclusive preserve of a handful of fanatical, self-styled cognoscenti has arrived at last. After the rapturous reception rightly accorded to the drama and panoply of his third symphony last night, further performances must surely follow…"

V: I wouldn’t be too sure. Brian’s luck may yet hold. How about "Sensation at Festival Hall. Conductor succumbs to nosebleed during interval"? They’ll probably send someone on to do some overplayed party piece like Heldenleben instead.’

R: Vicky, don’t say such things!

V: Sorry. But that impressive array up there is a bit like the Heldenleben army, isn’t it? Reinforced by a small detachment from Carmina burana.

R: That’s a bit incongruous, even for Brian. Anyway, since what we’re about to bear sounds nothing like deep-pile Strauss or deodorant-advert Orff, we’d better leave inept comparisons to lazy-eared critics.

V: … Fasten your safety-belt, we’re ready for lift-off.

(The Leader enters…)


This laboured exchange is not a fragment from the mercifully lost epic ‘Altarus Unbound: Or, Brian Perform’d at Last’, but merely a sample of the kind of harmless fantasising I indulged in from time to time during the lean years following the false dawn soon after the Society’s foundation, when thousands trekked through darkest Muswell Hill to the little-publicised BBC recording of Das Siegeslied.(I was reassured to find a distinguished precedent in Bantock’s account of the ‘premiere’ of The Tigers_in Newsletter 46*; though I have never understood why Bantock entrusted the baton for this auspicious if imaginary occasion to Herr Teufelsdrockh, the equally imaginary Professor whose Life and Opinions constitute Carlyle’s _Sartor Resartus— can anybody enlighten me?)

Such imaginings were particularly insistent at the time of the cancellation of the performance of the Sinfonia tragica scheduled for June 1982 — though that fiasco at least averted the national indignity of allowing the first note of Brian heard in the RFH to be played by cellos imported from Luxembourg for the purpose. The situation was saved, of course, by the magnificent piece of opportunism which secured the performance of the Symphonia brevis in October 1983; and I have never given credence to the rumour that the English so-called football supporters temporarily incarcerated in Luxembourg at that time were in fact disguised HBS members bent on a belated and unseemly revenge.

We are now inured to the reactions which No 22 (and the Great British Music Festival in general) brought from the critics — the ‘inclements’, as Martin Anderson once punned neatly; the general hostility provided an unneeded reminder that, despite the milestone of that performance, Brian can hardly be said to have established even a toe-hold on our concert life. It was heartening to read in Newsletter 52* Dr Simpson’s view that although Brian’s music is never likely to be popular, it will always be ‘there’ (and it is Simpson himself, of course, whom we have to thank for that); but I have not altogether given up hope that some of it may yet be ‘here’.

Perhaps the days of my private programme-planning are still far off — Das Siegeslied_at the Proms, preceded perhaps by the appropriate Chandos Anthem or Bach Cantata; Symphony 12 or 16 (scarcely less cosmic in their abstract, white-hot compression) given by the forces so regularly mustered for _The planets**; Wine of summer** occasionally displacing Les nuits d’été, the Wesendonck Lieder or the Mahler song-sets as middle item; Nos 22-24 in sequence… to say nothing of sillier ideas like a horn players’ benefit night, uneasily yoking the Alpine symphony_of Strauss to Brian’s No 2 (more of an anti-_Heldenleben really) — two works which resemble each other only by emerging from tenebrous stillness and sinking back into it about 45 eventful minutes later.

Nevertheless I am sure that a breakthrough into popular awareness, even popularity, is still possible for at least a handful of the symphonies. I cannot imagine more persuasive advocacy than Mackerras’ magnificent seventh in Liverpool (my brother and I agreed, as soon as we were capable of speech, that ‘If that doesn’t launch a Brian revival, nothing will’); but I think that the most likely means of achieving it, despite the obvious practical, economic and artistic difficulties (which militated against the success of Paul Venn’s enterprise in Birmingham), is an equally polished and intense London performance of the third.

Why the third? Martyn Becker has indicated some of the reasons in his article in Newsletter 60*. It is an undeniably colourful, brilliant and attractive work on a grand scale, likely to woo admirers of the late Romantic mainstream who may not have been able to make too much of No 22 on a single hearing; its structure is relatively clear and its proportions by no means eccentric — very similar, indeed, to those of the greatest of all third symphonies; and it has what I can only call a ‘fully written-out’ quality which may make it easier for people to explore and chart than the more compressed (but, in some cases, no less compelling) experiences provided by the later symphonies — since these, while having an undeniable power and logic of their own, are sometimes composed in what might be called Brianic shorthand.

Beyond these obvious attractions lie mysteries and paradoxes. It is the most positive and accessible of the middle-period symphonies; but it is the one about which we have least information or extra-musical clues. It is the only one to end in apparently unqualified optimism; but it is enigmatic, as Malcolm MacDonald concludes in his chapter on the work in the first volume of his study of the symphonies, and we may feel compelled to search it for the darker undertones (they are plain enough, it must be admitted) which will make it reassuringly Brianic, an expression of the ‘dark heroism’ (Simpson’s phrase) which is the received view of the overall character of Brian’s greatest music, claiming kinship with Brahms’ fourth rather than Beethoven.

It is the central work of the three large-scale symphonies which Brian wrote so close together after the long labour of The Gothic: in this remarkable constellation it hangs between the sombre nobility of the second and the brazen splendour of the fourth with a luminosity, a pulsing brilliance, of its own. The second shows flashes of extraordinary originality and intensity before collapsing into a disappointingly derivative and rhetorical finale; the fireball fourth erupts as from a furnace, a work of molten inspiration; and the no-less-powerful third shines less glaringly as the completely satisfying piece of absolute music which its predecessor failed to be and its successor was not intended to be. MacDonald, introducing the work in The listener before its broadcast in October 1974, called it ‘perhaps the most remarkable orchestral music to have been written by a British composer in the 1930s’ (what rivals has Des .Siegeslied, I wonder, in the choral music of the whole century?); and he added ‘whatever the final estimate of Brian’s creative stature, this is probably one of the crucial scores.

(I sometimes wonder what the ‘estimate’ would be if Brian, like Bruckner or Janácek, had had the decency to enjoy only a brief extension of the Biblical threescore years and ten, leaving behind him a manageable symphonic corpus stretching from the vast Gothic to the apparently valedictory seventh? Interesting, of course, that it was the next work — the quintessential eighth — which captured Simpson’s interest and led to the Brian revival.)

It is certainly remarkable music, written at a time when, at the heart of the musical Old World, Brian’s near-contemporary Franz Schmidt was forging the moving personal utterance of his own fourth symphony from traditional materials, without straying far from the shadow of Wagner, Bruckner and Strauss; and in the New World, Brian’s exact contemporary, the craggy loner Carl Ruggles was painstakingly completing Suntreader, with its completely original rough-hewn, declamatory style. Brian’s Eroica — for such it is — stands between them more than geographically, handling recognizable classical antecedents in a totally personal and individual way.

The first movement

So what are we to make of this extraordinary work — a purely musical triumph, whose character must elude any attempt to detach from it a separable metaphysical statement or any form of explanation? The wisest response I could probably make to this question would be to shut up and sit down; but I shall blunder on in the hope that I may at least provoke some fruitful disagreement from those who know it better than I. For most of the dozen years since the broadcast I have regarded it as a serious work, pregnant with tragic possibilities (despite the truculence of the scherzo, so necessary and effective in its context), faced and overcome by a giant and life-enhancing effort of will, and justly culminating in a great tide of sound which gathers and subsumes all that has gone before into a controlled, exuberant flood which bursts through into the final bars.

It has always sounded to me like the work of a man at the height of his powers, shot through with a heroic purposefulness (Brian’s own, not the tramping of impersonal forces) which has yet to be beaten into dogged defiance. I have felt that I could sense Brian’s confidence as he embarks on a Symphony which, unlike its uneven predecessors, is neither to be blown off course nor to run out of steam, but to reach a conclusion of resoundingly affirmative conviction and compact power — a memorable ending of a type convincingly achieved elsewhere in Brian’s oeuvre I think only, and equally exhilaratingly, in the 16th.

I am not qualified to attempt a systematic examination of the Symphony; in any case, Malcolm MacDonald has of course written of it eloquently in the first of his three-volume study, and trenchantly in his listener article; and he has returned to it most interestingly in his third volume. Like Martyn Becker, I am offering a ‘range of impressions’ — and in my case, as will I fear already be evident, digressions — amounting to no more that a subjective commentary on those elements of the work which have come to possess especial significance for this listener.

The first movement, with its extraordinary density and range of sonority, its teeming fertility which is nonetheless under the strict governance of the home key and the opening rhythmic impetus, is the one which I expect to find most revelatory in a top-drawer performance: it is hard to probe the depths beneath its glittering surface while listening to a much-played tape without a score, hard to perceive its astonishing kaleidoscope of sounds as anything but a huge, surging groundswell, forever changing form and contour, relentlessly carrying one forward. Surfing the music in this way is, of course, highly exhilarating, but one becomes curious about the forces at work underneath.

I have always been puzzled by Edmund Rubbra’s remarks in his listener review of the Pope performance (quoted in Lewis Foreman’s Havergal Brian and the performance of his orchestral music): ‘It is, I think, the prime necessity in a composer’s development, not only to hear his work, but to have it subjected to enlightened criticism. Without this, he can so easily turn in on himself, and self-indulgently accept whatever a fluent invention suggests.’

This has, of course, become a commonplace of Brian criticism; I don’t know how far Brian would have bothered with revisions if he had heard his work widely played and discussed, but despite its opulence the third has never struck me as being self-indulgent. On the contrary, repeated hearings seem to confirm the impression that in this work Brian knows exactly what he is doing, never loses his way and does not waste notes in pursuing it: the master of the later compressed forms is here also the master of expansive symphonic design, not the slave of an undisciplined musical imagination. Yet in this opening movement last year’s performance in Birmingham did raise doubts, driving home the heaviness of the scoring whilst blurring its variety, with the wind, brass and percussion juggernaut regularly rough-riding the reduced strings (the customary string section is surely a bare minimum for this piece). There were factors here for which Brian himself cannot be held responsible: but I did find myself wondering whether he might have pared down some passages.

MacDonald has elucidated the structure, characterising it in The listener as a ‘much expanded sonata-form with concertante elements’. It is the proportions which are so singular. Within the outer frame of introduction at one end and cadenza and coda at the other, there is a broad ‘expository’ complex (first and second subjects with repetitions, connected by transitional episodes; codetta); a ‘recapitulatory’ complex of about equal length, in which both main subjects appear; and, sandwiched tightly between these massive flanking sections, a brief ‘development’ which only gradually assumes a developmental function by homing in on the first subject via three unrelated themes in rapid succession.

This novel adaptation of sonata form is nonetheless satisfying, since the ‘development’ seems to act as a kind of vortex towards which the music moves, impelled by the purposeful opening, and from which it flows towards its broad (not in Birmingham!) and powerful conclusion. As for the material, MacDonald identifies ‘two main impulses, heroic and lyrical’. He adds that the two main themes are ‘rather static and formal’; certainly this is true of the first subject, and the lack of clear contrast between it and the second, ‘lyrical’, subject comes dangerously close to masking the considerable melodic richness of the latter.

Nevertheless the treatment to which Brian subjects these themes, and the weird and wonderful soundscapes which he throws up around them, are a source of endless astonishment to me; particularly, perhaps, the chameleon-like role of the pianos, gilding the orchestral sound, gleaming from deep within it or glittering at its edge, continually extending the range of sonorities, roving freely within the framework of the movement, assuming a spectrum of functions from the decorative to the propulsive.

For all its colour and brilliance, the movement’s essential character is determined by the powerful momentum and rigidity of key established in the introduction and massively confirmed in the cadenza and coda. It is disconcerting to find the movement’s main artery, which pulses throughout beneath the orchestral activity, most palpable — closest to its ‘skin’ — in its short enclosing sections, in which the main themes are ignored entirely (as in the coda to the whole work). Its elemental, heroic character seems to thrust up through the orchestral fabric from beneath its melodic and harmonic activity: there is something impersonal about it, as if Brian has tapped in to a raw energy-source which feeds the whole movement, but which he is unable to convert, to channel, to contain within sonata form, traditionally a vehicle for the delineation, development and eventual resolution of some form of argument or conflict; in consequence, the themes appear not so much as carriers of the main matter of the movement, more as diluted articulations of the titanic, unmanageable energy beneath.

This may be just a roundabout way of stating the obvious fact that Brian’s achievement here is at a lower level than Beethoven’s in the corresponding movement of his ninth (though it is considerably more successful than the first movement of The Gothic): but it still seems to me that the creation and release (if not the full harnessing) of this energy, combined within a clear framework with Brian’s riotous orchestral imagination, makes this extraordinary movement distinctive and memorable — it is, as MacDonald says. ‘Like nothing else in music’, and it works powerfully on its own terms.

It is in the cadenza that the movement’s character is most forcefully projected. I used to find its bold, big-boned obviousness and simple rhythmic insistence faintly embarrassing but of course, being by Brian, this is an anti-cadenza — not a virtuoso elaboration or decoration of the principal themes, but a stripping-down, a baring of essentials: the piano chords are ‘like exposed ribs’, as Becker observes. The very simplicity is somehow enormously effective and satisfying: the sensation is similar to that I remember as a boy, looking into the engine-room of a Bristol Channel paddle-steamer, hypnotised by the huge, gleaming pair of piston rods pulsing like an immense heartbeat. This is not the kind of merely illustrative association produced, for instance, by Elgar’s potent evocation of ship’s engines in the Enigma variations: it is as if I have been allowed to look into the engine-room of the movement, to have a glimpse of what has been powering it.

More than this, the passage has the clean, emphatic force of other fourfold statements in Brian — one may think of the crux of the ‘Judex’ movement in The Gothic, the climax of the ‘Battle’ scherzo in the second, the endings of Nos 21 and 22 (the latter itself, perhaps, a sardonic gloss on the end of Elgar 2). There is also, to my ears, something primitive about its power — a quality in some of Brian’s music which cannot always be satisfactorily explained away as the result of weirdness of orchestration allied to boldness of gesture. Readers of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon will remember the gigantic hollow statues guarding the mountainous frontier of the land, through which the wind blows as through organ pipes, producing a stentorian booming which Butler’s terrified hero compares to a grandly sonorous procession of chords by Handel (the ones used by Tippett to open his Fantasia on a theme of Handel). In his place, I might well have thought of Brian’s cadenza.

I was unaccountably reminded of it not long ago in the London Coliseum by the splintering electronic thunderbolt of Zeus in the last act of Birtwistle’s The mask of Orpheus. Perhaps this is what Martyn Becker means by the ‘other-worldliness’ of Brian’s music (rather than the sound-pictures that send us groping after images of dinosaurs or distant planets): the power to produce an impact at once strange and familiar, indefinable yet instantly recognizable ‘He evokes… worlds alien to, yet deep within us’: so wrote Wilfred Mellers of the similarly enigmatic Birtwistle, whose powerful, percussive, bass-heavy music simultaneously bewilders my brain and belabours my gut.

Only after writing much of the above did I remember the pivotal passage of the scherzo of The Gothic, of which MacDonald wrote, ‘Words cannot give the flavour of the thing: it is like the majestic rotation of a planet. It has a looming, elemental quality — as if a veil has been lifted to allow us a brief glimpse of the mighty engine, that ‘larger momentum’ that powers the movement and the symphony as a whole.’ I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had quoted that passage, planet image and all, earlier.

This cadenza is such a passage too. I have written about it at disproportionate length; yet as I leave this movement I must do so with the admission that there is something equivocal about it, and about its significance in the symphony as a whole: it raises questions to which I shall have to return. Is it a statement of rock-like heroism, and determination, suffused with something like the epic, forward-looking confidence of Varèse’s Amériques (with whose percussion parts Brian was only too familiar), with its affirmation of ‘new worlds on the earth, in the sky, or in the minds of men’? Or are its energies crude and destructive — machine-age forces distorting, dismembering and disposing of the remnants of late Romanticism, so that we hear, as David Rudkin has memorably expressed it, on its viscous streams of ever-rolling dissonance… Elgarian nobilities borne drowning away’? Perhaps our perception of this extraordinary stretch of music will be clarified, or qualified, by the equally imposing movement that follows it.

The second movement

This beautiful, revelatory slow movement — music to inspire not merely respect and admiration, but love — unfolds unhurriedly, encompassing an astonishing variety of moods with absolute coherence as it moves steadily, and with ever-increasing intensity, towards the heart of the work. ‘Moves’ is the operative word. For all its colour and excitement, the narrative and propulsive energies of its predecessor — hamstrung by rigidities of key and rhythm — end up by going round in circles: it is in this movement that the significant journey is made.

It does not represent the continuation of an argument, or merely a contrast in mood: complementary in scale, but antithetical in character, it explores, moves inwards towards the bleak admission that there is tragedy in the heart of things. It is a world of feeling and awareness, not of activity: following the first movement’s vivid daylight as moon to its sun, it guides us to a consciousness that ‘the world is deep, and deeper than the day imagined. Deep is its grief!’. The journey reaches its inevitable conclusion in the sad, majestic risoluto outburst — a stoic version of the drooping refrain of the first song of Das Lied von der Erde, ‘Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod’ — and the immensely affecting music of resignation, at once tender and unclouded by illusion, with which the movement ends.

I mentioned earlier the Symphony’s ‘fully written-out’ quality: this seems to me particularly impressive in the case of this enormously compelling movement, which has a complete and satisfying emotional logic of its own, a fully-expressed world of feeling which enables it to act as a kind of correlative for many of the brief flowerings of lyricism, bleak or tender, embedded in the later symphonies. Its beauty of sound is never an end in itself; its intensity never disperses itself in empty rhetorical gestures; grandly conceived, it rings true throughout as a personal testament. Free from the constraints which bound the first movement (whose lyricism does indeed seem formal by comparison), rhapsodic, tonally rootless, the music seems at first to disengage from fruitless linearity, to stop and examine itself, and in doing so to open up a new world. It is as if Brian, after showing us an outward fate of apparently purposeful activity, admits us now to the country of his mind.

Warning: the following paragraphs are more than usually speculative and fanciful, and you may like to skip them, although they have eventual slight relevance to the slow movement.

When David Brown originally suggested that I might try writing something about the Third Symphony he wisely warned me against idle speculation about the possible significance of ‘Altarus’, the cryptic inscription, or perhaps pseudonym, on the title-page of the score. Being contra-suggestible I decided to play a game with it, subjecting it not so much to serious investigation as to a process of free associative thinking (idle speculation, in fact), which led me illogically via Latin and astronomy through Varèse to our old friend Paracelsus (see MacDonald’s engrossing essay on Brian as Faust).

‘Altarus’ suggested a combination of altus (high) and Altair, the star (see also MacDonald Vol 3, p 231); this brought to mind the epigraph of Varèse’s Arcana (a Brianically brief, dense and pugnacious work, and a title he might well have used — ‘hidden things’, ‘mysteries’; alchemically, ‘elixirs’). The quotation begins ‘One star exists higher than all the rest’, and ends — five stars later — ‘Beside these there is still another star, imagination, which begets a new star and a new heaven’. This comes from Paracelsus Hermetic Astronomy (one of Varèse’s connections with Brian is his interest in these matters), and it intrigued me enough to look him up in Colin Wilson’s book The occult, where I learned much.

This is not the space to expand on such things; but at the risk of distortion, here is a very edited version of Wilson’s explanation of ‘the inner core of truth in Paracelsus’, which caught my attention: ‘Again and again there is this insistence on the power of imagination… Man is a small model of the universe, but seen as if in a mirror. Vast spaces stretch inside him — the ‘inner firmament’ - and he identifies imagination with this inner firmament. In a state of imaginative inspiration, these inner spaces seem to open up, giving rise to a sense of freedom, of other realities… Imagination is the explosive flare that lights up the inner spaces, revealing meaning.’ I mustn’t labour this comparison, arrived at by accident; but it chimes closely with my own imaginative response to the slow movement as an opening-up of inner spaces, almost a kind of self-disclosure: a rare privilege, if so, for listeners to this enigmatic composer. The ‘meaning’ eventually revealed is sombre; but the quest for it is a uniquely beautiful and moving one.

(As for Paracelsus himself — unconventional, prickly, obstinate, unfortunate, rejected by patrons, dying at exactly half Brian’s age — he seems to have been something of a kindred spirit. He adopted his name for effect (as Brian did ‘Havergal’); one of his real ones, Bombast, might be considered by some not inappropriate to Brian himself.)

I do not as a rule find Brian’s music at all ‘pictorial’, for all its suggestiveness, its power to evoke new worlds (though while reading with a class recently the flamboyant descriptions of colossal deep-space phenomena towards the end of Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A space odyssey, I kept ‘hearing’ parts of this Symphony as suitable accompaniment); but the opening of this movement, admitting us to the ‘inner firmament’, is wonderfully evocative. Both MacDonald and Becker have been explicit about the associations it has for them; for me it has the character of a nocturne, perfectly establishing contrast with the previous movement.

Perhaps this has something to do with passing echoes of other night-pieces: the quiet five-note upward tremor on the cellos recalls the opening of the Witches’ sabbath in the Symphonic fantastique; other elements recall the middle movements of Mahler’s seventh, even the colouring of the Midnight music in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. But this is not dramatic scene-painting; there is no Walpurgisnacht or Wild Ride to follow; it is simply a marvellously effective setting of the right wavelength for Brian’s meditative purpose, which I have already tried to express by quoting from Zarathustra’s midnight song, itself wonderfully set by Mahler in his third symphony.

The third movement

If the opening of the slow movement is highly effective by contrast, then so is the commencement of the scherzo which follows. After hearing this symphony’s two predecessors, we could be forgiven for expecting grotesquerie or frenzy; but, not for the first time, we find ourselves a world away from our expectations. The kinship of this breezy, robust, English music with the Austrian equivalent in Bruckner has been noted. It is very refreshing. In Cockaigne, Elgar provides a chauffeur-driven tour of London, permitting us to stop and wind down the window, but not actually to leave the limousine; in the London symphony, Vaughan Williams takes us for a stroll along Westminster Embankment and enables us to catch evocative snatches of Cockney merriment; Brian, enjoying the thick of the street bustle, takes us by the shoulders and propels us through the door. The Palm Court music, with its whiff of the seedy underside of Rosenkavalier opulence, is delicious; though as David Rudkin observes, it manages to be ‘at the same time exquisite in itself and ironic in context’. We seem to be in the belly of the symphony, as it were.

How are we to view the formal, aspiring heroism and lyricism of the first movement from here? Are we just enjoying light relief? The cold currents which flow into the final reprise of the dance/march from the work’s deeper channels seem to forbid us to take the music simply at face value. A more universal sense of unease seems to be creeping in, infecting the jollity; it is rather like the sinister repetitions of the landlord’s cry HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME, which punctuate the pub monologue about Albert and Lil at the end of the second section of The waste land, chilling the conviviality with the cold wind of mortality, and adding grim resonance to the ‘Goodnight’s exchanged by the revellers as they scatter into the dark. I think I am probably getting too portentous about this hugely enjoyable gem of a movement; but it is fair to note the sense of disproportion at the end, whether one views it as a disturbing pre-echo of the very end of the work, or simply as a skilful preparation for the finale’s re-entry of the mainstream of the symphony — an unexpected and effective deepening and darkening of mood.

The fourth movement

And so to the Finale. As the slowly-woven counterpoint of the glorious opening paragraph evolves towards its burnished climax, it is clear that we are in for no shrugging off of the Symphony’s undercurrents, no headlong sprint for the tape: informed by the seriousness of the slow movement, the music re-engages with the deepest levels of the work in order to build steadily, taking account of all that has happened, towards its triumphant conclusion.

The mood of measured solemnity is immediately established by the horn octaves pulsing quietly against the bass clarinet, recalling the section ‘like a solemn march’ in the Lento of The Gothic related to other superb opening gestures such as the corresponding moment in the seventh symphony, itself perhaps transmuted in the opening of the thirteenth. We come to the wonderful moment when offstage trumpet and horn spin their single threads of silver and gold against quiet, held string chords; and then the resumption of foreground activity with the ‘strong passage of development’ (MacDonald) of the bass clarinet’s opening phrase, marked stark und dunkel, acting as a transition to the second theme.

Or is it just a transition? From the first, it has seemed to me to be more than that: nothing less, in fact, than the dramatic crux of the work, in which the risoluto outburst which was the goal (or discovery) of the second movement rears up again, transformed now into a terrifyingly immediate presence slamming the door abruptly on the promised land which we have been allowed to glimpse briefly, suddenly confronting us like some monstrous guardian from myth. The force of this apparition, after the distant magic which has preceded it, is tremendous. We have not been vouchsafed a foretaste of what is to come (as we are, for example, in the hint of the concluding chorale which briefly interrupts the stormy activity of the finale of Mahler’s first): the vision has been denied; the momentum halted.

Furthermore, there are resonances (to my ears) which confirm this impression. As the trombones and tubas bear the opening four-note figure down into the depths, they are strongly reminiscent of the trombone sequence on the same four-note rhythm, ending fff, at the crux of the opening movement of Tchaikovsky’s sixth (bars 285—300); and as they hit bottom with the repeated hammering, with timpani, of an irregular four-note rhythmic figure — a fearful, crushing sound — they recall the equivalent moment (mit höchste Gewalt) in the first movement of Mahler’s ninth (which marks the appearance, Berg wrote, of ‘Death in Person’).

These are points of crisis in two works interesting, amongst other things, for the direction they eventually take — the two 19th century symphonies (if we may count the Mahler as such) par excellence which, rather than reaching a conclusion, die (Tchaikovsky, in a scribbled note, labelled his finale ‘Death’; the last bar of the Mahler, written in the shadow of his own impending death, is marked ersterbend [lit, dying away - JRM]). Brian’s first two symphonies (not counting the one which he broke up himself), for all their energy and aspiration, have taken or have been forced to take, the same direction; now here he is, in the latter stages of his third, confronted once more by the spirit which denies.

Re-reading (quite independently of all this) Graham Saxby’s study of the second symphony*, I was interested to cone across this part of his introduction: ‘the endings of (Brian’s) symphonies show a tendency to disintegrate rather than integrate, producing what Harold Truscott has called an ‘anti-symphony’ rather than a ‘symphony’. This is, of course, not unprecedented: Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique and Mahler’s ninth are obvious parallels’.

He goes on to comment that Brian, instead of trying to reconcile extremes in his symphonies by a process of gradual transformation, brings them into direct confrontation. Here is such a confrontation of extremes: after the distant silver and gold, we are plunged into darkness — indeed, this music produces a frisson which approaches that caused by the blackest sound I know in all music — the sepulchral trombone snap which extinguishes the first song of Das Lied von der Erde, referred to above. So what now? Disintegration? An anti-symphony?

Brian, already older than either Tchaikovsky or Mahler lived to be, but working on the first fully successful symphony of a long career, chooses another way: picking up the threads with the flowing second theme, he builds the music in a series of waves which gradually amass tidal force, at which point the coda bursts in. In passing, I must confess that I have always been unable to hear the repeated two and three note figures which accompany the first appearance of the second theme without thinking of the main theme of the first movement of Mahler’s ninth: at one point the resemblance is so close as almost to constitute a quotation. I have often wondered whether Brian heard the work, first performed in this country in Manchester in 1930; and so I was glad to have light shed on this in MacDonald’s third volume, and more recently in the Newsletter.

After a magnificent (and often beautiful) process of accumulating orchestral power, in which the splendour of the first movement seems to be combined with the breadth and depth more recently achieved, we reach the pulverising coda, providing a fittingly titanic close. And has not Brian earned the right as he reaches the end of this huge, staggeringly diverse, perfectly controlled symphony — a bold, idiosyncratic, successful ascent of the Everest of Western orchestral musical forms — to make a bunched fist, as it were, of his full forces, take over the rhythm of Beethoven’s ‘Fate knocking at the door’, and shake it in triumph, as if to proclaim ‘I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul’? (Henley, long-time sufferer from tubercular arthritis, model for Stevenson’s Long John Silver, called his stoically defiant poem ‘Invictus’ — not a bad title for this and perhaps other Brian symphonies, despite Brian’s very un-Victorian sense of irony.)

Yet doubts persist. Unlike the end of the first movement, this coda does not quite seem the finale’s natural goal. It is hardly one of the arbitrary ‘makeshift barriers’ of which MacDonald has written in his third volume, ‘hastily erected to stem the flood of the composer’s invention’; but its arrival is a surprise. We do not know where it has come from; it may leave us reeling with shock rather than elated with a sense of arrival, of completion. When Beethoven’s Eroica, hurtling into the home straight, goes into a bracing routine of orchestral press-ups just before the end, it seems entirely natural and right; but the concluding gesture of Brian’s Eroica creates a sense of (MacDonald again) ‘Emotional ambivalence — at once unpremeditated and over-emphatic’. (Perhaps I should make clear that in these quoted passages MacDonald is considering the weaknesses of Brian’s endings in general, not that of the third symphony in particular.)

In fact, I think Brian gets away with it in the third; the ambivalence reminds us that we cannot take this symphony simply, in isolation. There is for me a specific connotation which enriches the slightly disturbing flavour of this ending. To be fanciful, there is an echo of another fist — the frail one of Chrysomethis, at the end of Strauss’s Elektra, beating in vain terror on the doors of Agamemnon’s palace as the orchestra brings down the curtain with a sickening modulation into C major and a pitiless battery of brutal, crushing chords. Thus ends the second of Strauss’s pair of ‘opera nasties’, in which he deployed the resources of late Romantic gigantism and opulence to sensationalise the stories of Salome and Elektra, transporting them from the Bible and Greek drama into the age of Freud, using them to embody perversions of the Wagnerian love-death (‘both children of Isolde’, as one critic has commented, ‘but badly brought up’), providing music which is not so much a flirtation with atonality as over-ripe Romanticism gone off in the heat (too long Im Treibhaus, perhaps).

We know from Harold Truscott that Brian s knowledge of Elektra was ‘phenomenal’. Its savagery allies it more closely, of course, with Das Siegeslied, a work of bludgeoning force which culminates in a gross, gorged, super-Straussian C major cadence which seems to offer us the decadence and excitement of the opera in concentrated form. Although only this shocking, brilliantly calculated ending has anything to do with Strauss, Brian’s treatment of this Victory Psalm suggests parallels with the spitting hate of the caged daughter of Agamemnon prowling about the courtyard of the usurped palace, thirsting with revenge. It is interesting, for example, that both works invoke the grisly idea of dancing in the blood of one’s enemies; and I for one find Strauss’s grotesque, lurching dance — beside which the excesses of Salome’s cabaret turn with the veils pall almost into respectability — less interesting than the oddness, the chilling obsessiveness and the casually murderous hilarity of Brian’s multiple setting of the relevant portion of the Psalm 1.

But to return, finally, to the coda of the third. I have tried to consider it as a Nietzschean show of force, the epic vitality of the symphony finally gatecrashed by the violence of the fourth; not so much an apotheosis as an obliteration by some destructive deus ex machina, coming down (like the Monty Python foot) to squash the symphony flat. MacDonald considers it ‘an explosion of frustration’, provoked by failure to escape the ‘trudging rhythms of the first movement’ and ‘the cruel weight of C sharp minor’: and maybe a great performance will slam the door on the work in this fashion.

Yet, despite all this, it still leaves me with a sense of tremendous exhilaration, of resounding success — not so much a programmatic ‘triumph’ as a contained explosion, a release of accumulated energies into orchestral overdrive: a magnificent and characteristic conclusion to a fully-achieved work in which irreconcilable extremes — the vigour and variety of life, and the inescapability of tragedy, waste and pain — have been recognised, yet held in a creative embrace; a symphony which triumphantly inhabits its own world, but is not sealed off from the rest of Brian’s output.

The true grit — the refusal to give up, to cease from exploration, or to give illusory solutions — perhaps finds starker expression in some of the tauter, darker works which followed; but it is here in full measure. We cannot dismiss the awesome surge of this spectacular, celebratory piece, with its undertow of ambiguities, as in any way untypical or immature — as anything less, in fact, than vintage Brian: Brian at his greatest. Unlike some of the symphonies, it sounds like a work which had to be written; I hope, like Martyn Becker, that its long exclusion from the familiar round of unnecessary duplications, routine performances of established masterpieces and proven box-office successes which constitute the bulk of our concert seasons will soon be over. The experience of my two imaginary Brian fans (rather frivolously named after the street where Brian was born and his local concert hall, which has seen posthumous performances of this symphony’s two predecessors) must become available to concertgoers. It must be heard.

  • The four articles referred to (Havergal Brian and The Tigers - Granville Bantock; The Brian revival – Robert Simpson; Brian’s third symphony – Martyn Becker; Brian’s second symphony – Graham Saxby) are all contained in HB: Aspects of Havergal Brian, ed Schaarwaechter - see bibliography

NL 78 / © Christopher Kettle 1988

  1. at dein Fuss… in the finale of Das Siegeslied, track 10 of the Marco Polo CD ↩︎

Newsletter, NL 78, 1988