Brian’s Sinfonia tragica (1)

Martin O’Leary

Analysis (1) - Martin O'Leary Part 1 (introduction) . Part 2 (Sections 1 and 2) . Part 3 (Section 3)

Symphony or Operatic Prelude?
Brian’s symphonism
Listening to the symphony: overview

Symphony or Operatic Prelude?

Havergal Brian wrote his sixth symphony, subtitled Sinfonia tragica, in January and February of 1948, at the age of 72. It was the first work he had written in over three years, since he had completed a setting of parts one and two of Shelley’s Prometheus unbound, lasting around four hours, which he considered a crowning achievement of his creative life. Work on that mammoth composition had gone on for seven years, and while it is true that Brian would have needed a long rest after finishing it, he also seems to have felt that he would write nothing more. Prometheus certainly constitutes a major punctuation point in his output, just as the twin opposites of the Gothic Symphony and the opera The Tigers had done almost 30 years earlier.

The return of his creative powers came as a surprise to him (‘a very strange circumstance’, as he wrote to the conductor Eric Warr), and he worked on two pieces simultaneously, both very different from each other, although both inspired by plays by John Millington Synge. As well as the Sinfonia tragica, Brian was sketching at the time a Comedy Overture on Synge’s The tinker’s wedding. The Tragica was originally intended to form an Operatic Prelude to a setting of Deirdre of the sorrows, but when Brian applied for permission to set the then copyright text, he was refused, at the request of the Arts Council of Greet Britain, who had commissioned an opera on that very subject from the Musical Director of Covent Garden, Karl Rankl.

The refusal of permission to set Deirdre must have come as a cruel blow to Brian; especially so considering his own view that the best of his music was to be found in his operas, rather than his symphonies; but, undaunted, he finished the Sinfonia and, when re-numbering his symphonies in the 1960s, added the Tragica to the canon as No 6. (An early Fantastic Symphony had been broken down into individual pieces, and The Gothic, formerly No 2, became No 1, and so on.) The decision to include it as a symphony raises the interesting question of what Brian considered a symphony (and what he didn’t).

There are two other works, neither of them registered as symphonies, but produced at a time when his output consisted largely of works in the genre, which may illuminate his thoughts on this matter. Between his 11th Symphony and the opera Faust, Brian wrote a piece titled A song of sorrow, which he described as a symphonic poem. However, he wrote to Robert Simpson about it in 1962, and after a reference to the as yet unnumbered Sinfonia tragica, he mentioned the Song of sorrow, describing it as another symphony without a number. In 1970, he wrote to Graham Hatton of Musica Viva, who were preparing facsimile editions of some of the scores, that he now preferred the title Elegy for what he called ‘that movement’. Since it was not added to the symphonic canon, he seems to have changed his mind about it being a ‘symphony without a number’. If nothing else, this episode shows that Brian’s conception of what constituted a symphony changed with time (and perhaps changed as the style of his own symphonies changed).

Brian described the Song of sorrow or Elegy as a symphonic poem, although no programme is provided. The title fits, however, if one considers that the finished work is both symphonic and poetic; it is not a tone-poem, which would imply a more literal depiction of programmatic events, but rather a poem written in symphonic language. The title points to the emotional content of the music, and in particular the opening melody, which returns before the coda, framing and defining the music that takes place in between. The work is in six sections, and is a succession of events without dramatic interpenetration, but motivically united by a consistent use of major and minor thirds to form melodic and thematic ideas.

One element crucial to Brian’s most typical symphonic manner is entirely absent from this work: juxtaposition of disparate strands of the musical argument does not take place, although one section may stop abruptly to be succeeded by another. As a result of this, the sections retain a greater degree of independence than is the case with the Tragica, and it may be for this reason that Brian decided against including the work as one of his numbered symphonies. The music is slow at crucial points, namely the beginning, middle and end, and although the quicker, louder music makes its impact, the balance leans towards a slower, calmer style, lending the work a certain stillness. The quicker sections, therefore, are not so much developmental, as depictive of separate emotional states outside of the main concerns of the work, and they enlarge upon, rather than eat away at, the calm at the centre of the music. Elegy is more poetic, or contemplative, than dramatic or dynamic; for this reason too, perhaps, Brian decided on the subtitle ‘Symphonic Poem’.

The second case where Brian chose a different title was for his Concerto for Orchestra, written between his 21st and 22nd symphonies, two very different works, and just after his Cello Concerto. It is not without significance that Brian sketched and destroyed a ‘Symphonic Movement’ just before beginning work on No 22, which marks a new departure and great change of style from the preceding symphony. Again, the line between a ‘symphony’ and a non-symphony seems to have occupied his thoughts. The Concerto certainly follows on from Symphonies 18-21, and is no less closely argued than any of those works.

It is, in fact, a good deal shorter than Symphony No 21; both these works end in Eb major, but the latter, in contrast to the former, is less firmly rooted in Eb for much of its course. The Concerto is continuous, unlike the symphonies, there being two "transitions" of eight bars each, between the first section and the slower middle span, and between the latter and the short finale. The principle of a three-movement work in which the slow movement lasts longest is also apparent in No 19, with which the Concerto also shares a skittish mood in the finale. The tautly argued first movement also shares a certain harshness of tone with the first movement of No 18.

The Concerto exhibits a tendency towards a concertino-like treatment of small instrumental groupings, and this is not found to the same extent in any of the symphonies of that time. It may well be that this slight shift in emphasis within the fabric of the work led Brian to decide on the title ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ rather than Symphony. The music is just as closely argued otherwise, and therefore as ‘symphonic’ as any of the preceding works, but the soloistic treatment of some instrumental colours (however brief) does represent a new departure in this work.

Brian does not use the title as Bartók, Lutoslawski, or Tippett have done, but rather more à la Petrassi or Hindemith. It is closer to a concerto grosso than to a display piece for full orchestra. On his own terms, the shift in emphasis justifies the change of title. The reasons for his choice of title, as in the case of Elegy, are not of primary importance; the incidents show, however, that the octogenarian composer was not writing for orchestra in a headlong manner and dubbing the finished work, whatever its shape, size, or form, a symphony. Despite the speed at which he was writing (22 symphonies between the ages of 80 and 92), he was careful in his choice of titles, and for him, the word "symphony" implied a certain type of musical work, and certain compositional principles. Just what those were should become clearer from a close examination of the Sixth Symphony and its construction.

Brian’s symphonism

To counter any charge that Brian changed his mind with each new work as to what a symphony should be, there are overriding concerns in each symphony, which can be summarized here and dealt with in more detail in relation to the particular case of Symphony No 6. Those concerns are, in no particular order since his emphasis is on a different aspect in diverse works:

(1) Tight motivic argument

(2) Contrapuntal elaboration

(3) The interchanging and superimposition of diatonicism (ie major and minor keys) with other types of harmony: whole-tone, intense chromaticism, parallel movement of chords, and modality

(4) The use of harmonically ambiguous chords (ie with false relations or dissonant intervals) to sidestep harmonic tension

(5) The complete avoidance of the ‘dominant’ and the sharpened leading-note moving to tonic. Where there is a tonic (as in the scherzo of Symphony No 3) it is approached in a variety of ways other than by the dominant

(6) The bare fifth as a neutral consonance

(7) Discontinuity — abrupt stops and changes of direction, again to divert tension (therefore alleviating the tension temporarily but storing it up)

(8) Giving his music a sense of spacing: off-stage trumpets in No 6, 16 horns grouped in fours in No 2, etc; also by sudden changes of direction, dynamics and orchestration (finale section of No 6)

(9) Very little modulation.

Brian is a ‘harmonic’ composer; not tonal, atonal, bitonal, modal, whole-tone, but a combination; his idiom utilizes major and minor chords as primary consonances, but it allows of harmonies that can defuse tension by having a lower level of dissonance than the preceding music, but still some tension so that the thread of the musical argument is sustained.

Brian’s strongest consonances are thirds and sixths; he also uses major seconds, minor sevenths, and perfect fourths and fifths as consonances of a secondary nature, capable of temporarily defusing tension but not closing off a piece. His ending on a bare fifth is therefore, on his terms, an ambiguity, neither major nor minor: beyond both. His dissonances are the tritone, minor seconds and major sevenths. The degree of dissonance depends to a large extent on the scoring and registral placing. One can see this clearly in the first chord of the Sixth Symphony (ie bar 10). This use of consonance and dissonance is a unifying factor in his music, which can, as a result, include many different harmonic configurations.

The resultant danger of inconsistency can be averted by orchestration, dovetailing of harmonic areas, and clear voice-leading. The moments when this harmony is expressed vertically are few and far between, and therefore both striking and significant. Long stretches of his music are conceived contrapuntally, or as he would have termed it, ‘horizontally’ (ie the line determines the vertical sound, rather than the other way round). Once an intervallic content is consistent, this is not a weakness, and, as shown below, Brian is as clear-headed in this area as he is in many others.

One can now suggest strong reasons for Brian’s use of discontinuity: (1) his avoidance of modulation, and its general unsuitability for his style, given the cross-currents in it; (2) his liking for shifts of harmony (ie up or down a minor or major second). These can become tedious and dangerously lower the tension, as the music would tend to divide into blocks, rather than accumulate a sense of direction or intensification. Abrupt stops, if judiciously used, can increase tension and accomplish these changes of harmonic orbit.

The role of orchestration is important here; if the stops are orchestrated in a like manner their effect in the long run will be cumulative, and constructive, rather than destructive, adding to the work’s sense of structure rather than taking from it. Brian’s use of melody is also striking; his choice, and placing, of melodies is often masterly: for instance the terse and highly contrapuntal first movement of Symphony No 22 culminates in a broad-spanned melody which represents both the culmination, and the most stable point of the movement. No 6 centres on two different harmonizations of the same long melody: how they differ is of fundamental importance to the work and represents the still centre of the music, contrasting with the fragmentary and abrupt music which precedes and follows it. This contrast is central to the tensions of the symphony.

Contrast, then, whether of harmonic areas, orchestration, melody and motif, or dynamics, is a central concern in Brian’s symphonies, which is natural and common to all symphonies, because without contrast one cannot have tension or, for that matter, resolution. This contrast, in turn, results in, and necessitates, a sense of direction; one cannot endlessly change abruptly from one type of texture to another; there must be a building towards a culmination-point, as distinct from an ending. This overall sense of direction gives the work a sense of oneness, of unity; each element, each strand of argument, however divergent, is of necessity a contributing factor towards this unity. Unity achieved by the drawing together of contrasting types of music is central to Brian’s conception of what a symphony should be.

Listening to the Symphony: Overview

Before a consideration of the individual sections of the Sinfonia tragica an overview of its shape is necessary to explain the subdivisions used later. Malcolm MacDonald treats the Symphony as a three-part design, a judgement which I would support, albeit with two slight modifications, to be explained in due course. I would call each unit of the Symphony (as discussed in sequence), a ‘section’, not a movement for the reason that ‘movement’ implies a greater degree of independence between parts of the work than is the case here.

As will be stated later, there are significant factors at work in the sections of this piece, matters beyond the occurrence of themes from one section in a later one, which create the necessity for the work to be heard as a whole if its full impact is to assert itself. To clarify this distinction, one need only compare Brian’s symphony with any Beethoven work in four movements, for example the fourth symphony. Each Beethoven movement is presented as a unit, and while the symphony should always be heard as a whole, there are four separate blocks, each of which concentrates on different strands of the musical argument, and each of which is clearly marked off from the others by a double bar-line. The effect is akin to that of chapters of a novel, or, if you will, single novels within a tetralogy.

Brian’s sixth symphony, however, not only presents itself as complete from beginning to end, but each section is not as singular in its concentration on separate strands of the musical argument, with the possible exception of the opening which I regard as a Prologue, slightly distanced from the symphony’s main events. The sections are clearly marked off by cadential gestures, but Brian does not allow the music to stop; each section is linked, either attacca or by a sustained note, to the next.

To consider the symphony’s build from another angle: just as it is, I believe, erroneous to speak of the Tragica as a three movement work (but not as a three-section work), it is equally so to regard it as a one movement symphony. Again, I find fault with the term used, the Tragica is most certainly a single arch symphony (in that it should be heard as the sum of its parts (or sections) for its full significance to emerge); it is hardly alone in that; virtually every symphony is viewed by its composer as an indivisible unit. One can recall Mahler’s gall at having to settle for performances of the second movements of his second and third symphonies as better than no performances at all, but doubtless these helped to generate a public which could then be led to digest the works as whole, having had its appetite whetted. An exception to this indivisibility is the Sea symphony of Vaughan Williams, where the composer states in the score that each movement may be performed separately, although this is rarely done in present-day performances.

Brian’s sixth symphony, then, is an indivisible unit, but it is not a single movement symphony. There are, indeed, very few so called one movement symphonies which do not subdivide into sections, whether those sections are interlinked or attacca. Sibelius’s seventh symphony is a good example of this type of work, consisting as it does of dovetailings between sections to provide a continuous, and a continuously changing, sound world. Other single span works, such as the Chamber symphony No 1 of Schönberg, and the fourth symphony of Franz Schmidt, clearly subdivide into different movements.

It is not without significance that both these works exhibit many tendencies towards a cyclic nature, and the lack of divisions between movements helps to ensure a continuity which complements the singlemindedness of their thematic workings. Brian’s symphony falls somewhere between the two extremes represented by the Beethoven fourth symphony and Schönberg’s first chamber symphony; it cannot be subdivided in performance, as each section follows on from the previous one without a break, and yet these sections are, to a certain superficial degree, independent of one another.

But since Brian’s musical grammar is unusual enough, and disjointed in its initial effect, it is my opinion that a substantial break between, say, sections 1 and 2 of the Tragica would greatly weaken the work’s unified aspect by imposing a period of relaxation on the listener. This has already been catered for in the music by the way the events of the work are presented.

To return to the division between sections 1 and 2, the first is transparently easy to follow, and there is no need to pause before proceeding to the next stage of the musical argument. It also makes musical sense to go straight on because of the way the note Eb is highlighted in the harp part, then excluded to maximize its re-entry at the very beginning of the next section; a substantial gap would cancel this clearly audible pitch-link between the two sections.

One can contrast this need for continuity with Mahler’s recommendations, in the cases of his second and third symphonies, that there should be substantial breaks between the huge first movements and the succeeding ones (the second movement in each case is planned on a much more intimate scale, and Mahler rightly felt the first movements would dwarf their successors were there not a sufficient amount of breathing space between them). To give a further example, the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique should follow hard on the heels of the third movement’s thundering March; the contrast is made all the more effective by its direct juxtaposition.

Brian seems, in his sixth symphony, and in particular in the direct run into section 2 from section 1, to have ‘written in’ the gaps, so to speak. His use of spacing, both orchestral and temporal, is masterly, and bears comparison with the very different use of those features in Summer marches in, the first movement of Mahler’s third symphony. The effect is rather cinematic; the "editing" complements, if not dictates, the pacing of the music.

Two further instances will suffice to illustrate Brian’s technique of interchanging ideas without transition, which is what I mean by his ‘editing’. The first case is that of the way the chords at bar 10 and bar 33 are preceded by rests; the music gets louder as the tuba’s motive moves upwards registrally and contracts rhythmically and, after the rest, the chord is marked fpp which in both cases represents, if not an anticlimax, certainly a very quickly deflated one. The rest creates a sense of distance between the build up to the chord and its presentation, and by distancing the two events, ‘edits’ one from the other.

The second case is the last section of the symphony where, as will be discussed, there are rapid changes of pace, direction and timbre, to great cumulative effect; again, there is no transition and one gets the impression that the music, with its various march rhythms, is approaching from all sides. As a result of this lack of transition music is often left hanging (the bare fifth at bar 92 is a case in point, even though the same notes resume, the extreme change in dynamics separates one very clearly from the other), only to be taken up again later, or approached from a different angle. It is this fragmentation which actually creates a stronger sense of unity between the sections than would at first appear to be the case, and this explains my reluctance to confer the title ‘movement’ on each of those sections.

The ensuing discussion of the Tragica, then, divides the work up into the following sections:

(1) Bars 1—56 Section one: Prologue

(2) Bars 57—92 Section two, part one

(3) Bars 93—210 Section two, part two

(4) Bars 211—288 Section three, part one

(5) Bars 289—end Section three, part two: Epilogue

Section two is divided into two parts for the following reasons:

(i) The major break in texture across bars 92-93
(ii) Between bars 93-210 there are no disruptions of the slow pace, as was the case between bars 57-92
(iii) Bars 93-210 are centred on the two presentations of the long melody; this marks off the character of the music from bars 57-92.

Section three is divided into two for the following reasons:

(i) The music moves towards its final cadence from bar 289 to the end
(ii) The lightning changes and violence of the music from bars 211-288 are past, which is why I call the last section an ‘Epilogue’.

NL82 / © Martin O'Leary 1989

Newsletter, NL 82, 1989