A listener’s impressions

Martyn Becker

A listener’s impression - Martyn Becker

What makes a great symphony great? If the answer to that were known, then it would be the most valuable commodity in the entire world of orchestral music, and we would be in the enviable position of having countless masterpieces to try to cram into concert programmes and record catalogues. That there are masterpieces to be heard by such composers who have that extra ‘something’ is a testament to the indefinable quality that we call genius, and its comparative rarity makes it all the more valuable. Would we hold Mozart in such high esteem if the 18th century had produced scores (sic) of such comparably gifted men? No, of course not. It is not a word to be bandied about lightly, and we are fortunate that in the realm of British music we have our fair share, past and present.

It would be invidious to name names at this juncture, but as far as Havergal Brian is concerned, genius surfaces time and time again throughout his life’s work, and at no time with greater intensity than with the creation of his third symphony. Indeed, it is instructive to view this work alongside another great epic symphony of the 1930s — the first of Sir William Walton, as the contrasts stand out starkly. Walton, with his perhaps more orthodox tonality, builds a grim, forbidding edifice which dissolves via heartrending melancholy into grand triumph. Brian, similar in format and length, couldn’t be more different in device and treatment, giving us a sight of a mythical, never never land where many nameless things flit across the vast scenic canvas that Brian paints. In the grim reality of the pre-War years, the reactions of these two hugely different composers to surrounding stimuli is nothing short of stunning.

Brian’s third occupies a special place in his oeuvre of 32 symphonies for several reasons. Because of its dimensions and layout it is easily approachable by all who appreciate the symphonic diversities of many composers between the times of Schubert and Shostakovich. The third is tuneful in the Romantic sense to a degree rarely found in Brian’s other symphonies. It is meticulously crafted in its overall design, and as Brian’s longest symphony after The Gothic it has an aura of bigness which is very impressive on first encounter.

The word ‘Altarus’, semi-erased on the cover page of the manuscript, has provoked much thought amongst various commentators. What significance the title had for Brian can only be guessed at, as reference books and encyclopaedias have no entries to help elucidate the matter. Indeed, the word appears to have no place in standard Latin grammar, three words coming close with only one letter different: ALTARIS - ‘from the high altar’; ALTARUM - ‘from on high’; ALTURUS - ‘about to cherish’. Whether or not Brian intended to use one of these but misspelt it is a matter for considerable speculation, as is ‘Altarus’ being a mythological or astronomical name buried in the realms of obscurity. Whatever the source, it is likely to remain obscure unless further evidence comes to light.

As a listener, it is not my intention to present a critical dissection of the music per se, or a series of signposts by which to follow the music, but rather a range of impressions left by listening to the only performance thus far of this monumental symphony. Regardless of what the title may have been meant to convey, there is a tremendous sense of powerful doggedness in this music, a great sense of purpose which can be felt directly from the outset. It is a symphony of many moods: of grim determination, struggle, joy, exhilaration and ultimate frustration during which the orchestra is asked to produce some daringly original sounds. The peculiar bleakness which is so often part of the tonal palette of so many English composers (Brian included) is absent from this work, and right from the word go throughout the first two movements, the originality of the orchestration cascading about our ears is almost bewildering in its brilliance.

The feeling of purpose with which the first movement begins is immediately impressive, and it is easy to be carried along by the stateliness of the thing without realising what the underlying rhythm is doing. Woven into the gravity of the introduction, by a Brian that I can only imagine with a smirk on his face at the time, is nothing short of a habañera, à la Bizet! Perhaps it is the very familiarity of this rhythm allied with the originality of the scoring that gives the feeling of ‘other worldliness’ that is so integral to these first two movements. The music, as it progresses into the first movement, is highly evocative, and highly surprising at every turn.

The concertante pianos impart a fantastic quality to the overall texture which constantly cause the little hairs on the back of one’s neck to tingle with anticipation. Delicately scored sections are juxtaposed with martial music, and in one case with upward-swirling piano and string figurations that are simply dazzling in their effect. The whole structure is almost deliberately anti-Romantic; except that Brian slips in the occasional phrase that almost lifts you out of your seat. There are a couple of lush bars for strings just before the onset of the movement’s development which almost echo any of the great Romantic masters.

Yet underlying all this fascinating music is a striving that gradually becomes more insistent until one is suddenly presented with a cadenza for the two pianos and the timpani which throws all that has gone before it into stark relief. Angular and jagged, the great piano chords thrust through the fabric of the movement like exposed ribs and remind us that maybe all is not as clear-cut as it may seem. The ascent to the movement’s final climax crystallises the striving into a sense of disquiet as the final chords pound out a derivative of the habañera rhythm in the minor.

The second movement is the most pictorially evocative of the four, depicting a very weird pastoral scene indeed. The first thing we hear is the vague pottering of — what? It sounds elephantine, but that seems a little incongruous. Mammoth? Brontosaurus, even. The landscape still isn’t ‘real’ in a sense that we can recognise. Solo violin and woodwinds evoke images of insects and birds; the music expands melodiously in a shimmer of tropical heat when suddenly a change in harmony and texture brings an invading chill borne in the rattlings of a xylophone A subdued, ponderous march initiates in the bass instruments and soon begins to incorporate the tonal coloration of the string and woodwind flutterings, allied to distant, fragmentary trumpet fanfares.

The potterings continue in the bass and all the while the sense of unrest is still there, though not so overtly as previously. The movement climaxes in a full-throated pseudo-Romantic haze reminiscent of part one of The Gothic before the music brings itself to a halt in much the same mood as it began. In a way, this movement has a sort of ‘day in the life’ feel about it, as if we’re on the outside looking in on a scenario that it is impossible to alter: a dream that one can’t influence in any way. It must run its course in its own way, in its own time. The music here is unmistakably English, and unerringly, poignantly beautiful.

Brian, as was his wont so often, has lulled us into a sense of false security and expectancy. All the disquiet that the music has engendered up to now is swept aside by a quicksilver scherzo that is as robustly English as anything that Elgar put into a Pomp and circumstance march. The concertante pianos, an essential tone-colouring up to this point, are now silent, and the orchestration for the initial exposition slightly reduced. The good-natured bustle that one encounters here is hardly characteristic of the mature Brian of the later Symphonies; indeed, some of the woodwind writing is reminiscent of The Tigers in the feel of its harmony, and its almost comic, fantastic quality is characteristic of the opera itself: or at least it is until we come across the trio.

From a most unorthodox man writing a most unorthodox, powerful work, one realises that here is a classic scherzo-and-trio in the mould of Schubert or Bruckner: one of the last things we expect from Brian! From the scherzo’s ebullient, carefree soundworld we are dropped into the half light of what for all the world could be a backstreet club in the depths of murky Vienna: dinginess and unease; maybe the haze of cigar smoke. This very evocative music brings to mind the Rosenkavalier waltzes of Richard Strauss, or perhaps the subtle harmonic shifting of Franz Schmidt, and the delicacy with which it is scored is an absolute delight to the ear. We realise that Brian has done it again. In the first two movements we were being so fascinated with the masterly use of all the orchestral colour that the underlying unease crept up almost unnoticed, like a viper in the grass.

Now Brian, having elevated the spirits in a different direction with the robust Englishness of the scherzo’s march, slips us into this honey-sweet waltz with barely a hiccup. The trio is tapped finally with some of the drive end energy of the main scherzo’s rhythm and percussion, and it becomes obvious how marvellous Brian’s invention really is as waltz and march elements begin to mesh before the reprise of the scherzo proper. When it does reappear, it is with the full orchestra but still minus pianos. It is now a riot of sound and the end comes with much fanfaring and final chords that don’t really end where one expects them to.

The finale instantly returns us to graver matters. A mournful, dropping bass clarinet line gradually leads to an unfolding of a noble, almost elegiac tune which will reappear in various guises in the course of the movement as it develops towards the ultimate climactic pinnacle of the whole work. The finely-spun polyphony introduces a gradual climax, after which Brian makes us catch our breath yet again. Over a shimmering chord in the strings, a distant trumpet calls out a ghostly fanfare; time stands still and an answer is demanded. The shimmering chord rises a semitone, a solo horn echoes from a similar distance, and the effect is magical.

R omantic allusions have flickered in and out of this Symphony like wraiths, and this one, the most effective of all, betrays Brian’s compositional roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It doesn’t last long though, and soon we are back in the mainstream of the music, an energetic development making it plain that the unsettled tension of the earlier movements is still there, and waiting to make itself felt. The pianos glitter in the orchestration like jewels, and their, presence heightens the feeling of expectancy when restive figures in the bass instruments act as the tiny pebbles which, tumbling down a mountainside, cause the landslide which is the almost catastrophic climax to the movement, and the work.

There is a feeling of inevitability about the progression to the climax: the tension in the music dictates that it must come; that it must break free, like a great whale smashing through the surface of the sea. There is more than a trace of that imagery present, for when the organ-augmented final bars do come, they are crushing, decisive, and sweep away all that has gone before peremptorily, hut there is no victory, or even resolution. As the frustrated tumult dies, there is the image of a shackled leviathan silenced — for the moment.

It is a matter for great sadness that there is no performing tradition associated with any of Havergal Brian’s works: indeed, this great symphony and many others have been performed only once. It is surely one of the injustices of the 20th century that Brian’s third has not only not become a concert repertoire item, but indeed had to wait for over 40 years for a first performance, and we must be grateful that Stanley Pope conducted that performance in 1974.

How this work has submerged again after its solitary performance defeats the imagination. There is invention in it to rival the best that Elgar could offer in his two symphonies, and worthy to stand alongside those of Vaughan Williams. Walton’s first has a fitting partner here in the representation of the best of thirties’ British symphonism, and we can only hope that Brian’s third is rediscovered, and performed regularly to the acclaim with which it deserves to be greeted.

NL 60 / © Martyn Becker 1985


Newsletter, NL 60, 1985