Brian’s Sinfonia tragica (2)

Martin O’Leary

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

Section 1: Prologue (bars 1-56)
Section 2, part 1 (bars 57-92)
Section 2, part 2 (bars 93-210)

Section 1: Prologue (bars 1-56)

There are three main factors which contribute to the unity of this section of the Symphony, and mark it off as distinct from the rest of the work. The first is the frequency of semiquavers in the music; indeed, they contribute greatly to its sound world and are rarely absent. The second factor is the way in which the music is organized, in that there are three chordal points in the section, each of which divides up the music into three compartments; the second chord is an expanded re-scoring of the first one, a semitone lower, whereas the last presentation hints at a triadic resolution of the harmonic tensions of the music, before returning to a more ambiguous harmony at bar 56.

These three events stand out all the more clearly in relief from the predominant semiquaver motion preceding them. The third unifying factor is perhaps the strongest of all. Brian’s treatment of the orchestra isvery tightly organized; melodic lines are almost always given to low instruments (as in the tuba idea starting at bar 5), an exception being where the glockenspiel, at bars 36-37, and later at bars 40-43 with pizzicato first violins, plays a series of crotchets whose intent, indeed, is more the outlining of a scale than a cantabile melody. The strings play mostly semiquavers, the woodwinds and brass, chords, with a few departures. These associations help to present the musical materials as clearly as possible, and one could use Brian’s terminology in describing their roles: the strings mostly ‘horizontal’, the winds ‘vertical’.

Of note also is the contrast between the glockenspiel and harp, one well exploited by the composer in this section. The former is associated with strings (as well as flutes and piccolo at the beginning, and at bars 17-18 and 19-20, where the appearance of the woodwinds is on account of their sustaining ability, thus adorning the glockenspiel’s percussive sound); the latter with woodwind and brass chords.

The music is narrative rather than dramatic, in that it is concerned with a sense of flow, a continuous onward movement, rather than being built as a series of juxtapositions of disparate textures creating conflict. The chords do not interrupt the semiquavers; rather, they are the outcome of the build-up (whether dynamic or registral) before their arrival. They are the three cumulative points of the section, but in this sense the music promises more than it delivers, in that the first two climaxes are quickly deflated (being marked fpp).

The third chordal event is concerned less with climax than resolution but, as has been noted, it doesn’t fully deliver on that level either. These are considerations which override the sectional divisions, and one can say that the true climaxes do not come until the first part of section 3. Another element which suggests future events is the appearance, on two successive occasions, of a trumpet fanfare (marked ‘in the distance, remote’ in the second copy of the full score), suggestive of a human element otherwise absent from section 1of the symphony. The melodic or motivic content of this first section is certainly not ‘vocal’; in this sense, again with the exception of the associations suggested by the fanfares, this Prologue is instrumental music of great purity.

Despite this purity, or perhaps as a consequence of its coexistence with the fanfare, the music does ‘suggest’ something; it is not ‘music about music’, although if one disregards the military associations of the fanfare and considers it merely as an interesting rhythmic motive, it can be regarded as such. Because of the consistency of the scoring, and allied with the registral spacing of the music (the sparse opening, for example), there is a suggestion of atmosphere, a setting.

It is a music suggestive of place rather than character, a consideration supported by the dynamic comings and goings. The associations of the trumpet fanfare, in the distance, add mystery to the atmosphere and, if one wishes, one can ‘interpret’ the high octave As as piercing birdcalls, the timpani rolls as portents of a future storm, the harp arpeggios as ripples on the surface of a lake (caused by the rising wind, in semiquavers).

Doubtless the music would suggest different associations to different listeners. To this listener, the spacing in the music (the rests before chords, the crescendi and diminuendi, and the fanfare, as well as the sheer distance between top and bottom at the beginning) is suggestive of geographic as well as temporal distance, and the cold landscape of the semiquaver-dominated music contrasts very strongly with the warmer, chordal sounds in which those ‘cold’ passages culminate. What is important is that although the chords are the audible outcome of the preceding music, the change in orchestral timbre is startling, and contributes greatly to the mysterious, atmospheric effect of the Section.

Bearing in mind this sense of mystery in the music, it is of relevance that the symphony was originally conceived as an operatic prelude, although the question of how much of this music was written, or reshaped when the project fell through, is an unanswerable one. However, even though the work as it stands today does not rely on association with Deirdre for its full import to be felt, Brian did decide, once the copyright had been refused and he had written a self-sufficient orchestral work instead, to give the title Sinfonia tragica to it. The result is that before the listener has heard a note of music, its general character (as opposed to the particular relevance of the music as an operatic prelude to the story and the predicament of Deirdre) is implicit in the title.

Perhaps it is against this foreknowledge of imminent catastrophe that the shadows, contrasting colours and distances of what I have called the ‘Prologue’ can be said to operate. Brian’s eighth symphony, for example, could be called a ‘tragic’ work, although he chose not to attach a subtitle to that particular symphony, perhaps for the reason that its jarring juxtapositions and funereal opening mark it out very clearly, from the outset, as a tragic work.

On the other hand, it is unlikely that one would correctly associate the Wagner overture with the particular legend of the Flying Dutchman, although its stormy character is unmistakable, were one not told the title of the work before listening to it. Brian’s use of the subtitle clearly plants a preconception in the listener’s mind, and this, in combination with the fanfare, the long ‘vocal’ melody which stands, on its two appearances, as the twin centre of the piece, and the battle sounds of the first part of section 3, gives the work its character.

It is a tragic work, but the tragedy is general, or universal, rather than particular or personal. The ‘imaginary landscape’ of section 1 is impersonal, but not totally so (on account of the fanfare), and even though it hints at the violence to come, its singular character and atmosphere separate it from the main body of the Symphony, and this justifies the appellation ‘Prologue’.

Section 2, part 1 (bars 57-92)

This is music which is unified by its use of sharp contrasts. There are three upheavals in the section, each of which pushes the music to extremes, whether of register, dynamics or thematic intensification. The first occurs at bars 64-65, and in its extreme violence rids the music of all the flats and moves the harmonic plane over to the sharp side. Although it effects harmonic change, it is not transitional, but abrupt and dismissive. Its crudity makes the strongest possible contrast with the music on either side of it. The second and third upheavals are less abrupt, and are closely related to one another.

The second, at bars 74-75, pushes the top and bottom register far apart and intensifies the rhythm of the preceding music in both areas, accompanied by an increase in dynamics. It provokes the reappearance of material from the Prologue: firstly semiquavers plus high notes, leading to the return of the tuba motive at bar 84. The third upheaval stretches from bars 84-92 and is concerned with an intensified, two part treatment of the tuba motive, at first a semitone apart (plus octave transposition), later in canon at the fourth. The canonic passage leads to a cadential opening out onto the perfect (and very bare) fifth, E-B, again pushing the dynamics and register to extremes, but augmenting the rhythm to prepare for the cadence.

These three climaxes continue the thread from the first section (along with the thematic recurrence mentioned above) by leading the listener closer still to the climactic eruptions of section 3, part one. The music just about stops short (at bar 92) of completely delivering what it has promised; the violence has come very clearly into focus, but has not (as yet) reached its peak. Brian doubtless pulled the reins back at this point because he considered it too soon for the work to reach its climax, and by introducing breathing spaces, and thematic and emotional contrast and respite, succeeds in enlarging the expressive scope of the symphony and prevents it from sounding too compressed. He uses temporal spacing to increase the comprehensibility of the symphony, and by so doing allows the cumulative Section 3 ‘battle’ sequence to assume its maximum power.

The cor anglais melody which begins the section, being the first melodic idea presented by a woodwind instrument, introduces a new, more human expression to the symphony. Its repeated, tolling Ebs and the downward melodic turn at the end express sorrow, prompting one to make the connection, if one wishes, between this idea and Deirdre herself. The descending minor scale and the ensuing unisons for cor anglais and two flutes confirm this mood.

The idea for cor anglais and two flutes is particularly expressive, using four notes and stepwise motion, with the exception of two upward leaps to Bb (a perfect fifth the first time, a perfect fourth the second), as well as rests between the halting phrases, to enlarge upon the sorrowful mood presented at the opening of the section by the cor anglais. This simplicity of presentation is rudely interrupted by the first upheaval, after which the bass clarinet reprises the cor anglais idea, against a fanfare-like idea on solo french horn. This dual presentation represents a development of both ideas, in that the two parts remain distinct, despite their simultaneity.

One can speculate that this ‘represents’ the martial and the human in direct conflict, but what is important is that the perfect fourth on which it ends (and on which the cor anglais and two flutes lament had ended as well) leads to an intensified treatment of the cor anglais idea, eventually pushing the registers apart and culminating in the return of the ‘landscape’ music of the Prologue. The music, by this time impersonal, becomes harsh with the semitonal clashes of the entries of the tuba motive from section 1 at bar 84.

Of note at this point is the first entry of the three side drums, further adding to the harsh tone of the music and providing another sound with military associations (again, one can, if one chooses, regard the side drums’ entry as an interesting addition purely in terms of timbre). The bare fifth at the end is very harshly scored, and is an ‘open’ sound on account of the registral disposition (mostly high and low, very little in between) and the fact that the highest note is the fifth (B) rather than the root (E).

This is music about themes, and about how those themes are developed; it is not suggestive of place, but rather of drama and of conflict. It is interesting to note how Brian’s writing for percussion in this section affects the tone of his music. It has already been remarked how the entry of the side drums affects the passage from bar 84 onwards; his use of the bass drum at the opening of the Section is also noteworthy, its rumble underlining (and undermining) the sorrowful lament between bars 61 and 63 (where it stops after the first beat and thereby makes its absence strongly felt), before the thud at bar 64 sets off the upheaval that immediately follows at that point. That upheaval is made all the more violent by the presence of a cymbal clash at its climax, which is then allowed to reverberate.

The cymbal also returns at bar 84 to enhance the semitonal clash implied in the entry of the oboes and trumpets at that point (and later at bar 86). To this listener, its subsequent absence until bar 92 (and that of the side drums) is very effective, in that one expects it to come crashing in at the highpoint (a fact which ensures the passage cannot register as the true climax of the work). Indeed, it does not return until the beginning of the ‘Battle’ section.

This section constitutes not so much a succession of events (which could be said of the first section) as a succession of juxtapositions, of a very violent nature (particularly the first upheaval). It is made all the more abrupt by the complete absence of transition. It is line which is more important than harmony (indeed, in one sequence (bars 70-75) moving chords become moving parts), and this sense of line gives the music its strong sense of direction and onward movement. As a result of this single-mindedness and direct (not to say abrupt or crude) presentation, the music, in strong contrast to section 1, does not have any sense of mystery; it is clearly music of conflict, and it creates the need for breathing space in the next section on account of its harsh, violent expression.

Section 2, part 2 (bars 93-210)

The music of this subsection is presented in a processional manner; it consists of a succession of distinct, and distinctive units, marked off from one another orchestrally, yet linked as a chain of related, though diverse, events by subtle connections of register, dynamics and general musical character. Although the music stands clearly as a succession of events, it is also developmental. Ideas (both musical and philosophical) from the earlier parts of the symphony are moved forward and presented in new guises, so that while the music may well be considered as an extended interlude from the tragic drama of both earlier and later parts of the work (thus the ‘breathing space’ referred to above), it also develops the purely musical argument, albeit in a subtle and low-key manner.

It begins by looking back, both in terms of pitch (starting with the bare fifth (E-B) which brought the last section to a halt), as well as musical character (a fanfare followed by birdlike calls on solo flute, which together with the spacing of the bare fifth evoke once again a sense of landscape, a sense similar to that evoked in the Prologue). This changes the tone of the Symphony, moving away from the harshness of the preceding music towards the more impersonal mode of expression found at earlier points of the work (the Prologue in particular).

The slow march (or procession) which ensues presents two distinctive instrumental colours which look back to earlier events, as well as one which is to be a strong link in the chain uniting the various strands of this subsection. The use of three solo flutes (‘unison but solo’ is the direction in the score at this point), as well as the melodic character, harks back to the two flutes and cor anglais idea in section 2, part one (bars 61-63); to this listener, the absence of the cor anglais makes the flute-only sound a colder timbre, less of a personal lament than an inhuman, objective processional.

The use of three side drums and bass drum as markers of the slow march complements this effect, as well as providing a subtle link with the use of these instruments in the previous pact of section 2 (and hinting, in subdued fashion, at their explosive use in part one of section 3). Incidentally, Brian maximizes their re-entry in the later section by silencing them until then, a choice which greatly enhances the calmer motion of the music under discussion. The forward-looking instrumental colour again underlines the processional aspect if the music and, indeed, acts as a rhythmic marker in a percussive way, thus subtly compensating for the absence of the three side drums and bass drum.

The use of harp, violas, celli and basses in crotchet rhythm and parallel motion acts as a link with the first harmonization of the long melody that occupies a twin central position in this symphony. It is, again, a rather cold, impersonal sound; it is in this manner that Brian keeps his ‘military’ or ‘martial’ thread alive; it switches, for the duration of this span, from violent foreground to unobtrusive yet distinctive background, and strongly colours the character of the music as a consequence.

A s a preparation for the presentation of the long central melody of the work. Brian uses two devices conspicuous by their absence from the music up to this point. By so doing, he very effectively frames the melody and makes its entry both striking and immediately apparent for the important event which it is. Firstly, there is a transition; a one bar change repeated, but a transition nonetheless. This is followed by a cadence onto Eb major, confirming the change in harmonic area from the sharp side back to the flat side. If the music is not to stop dead at this juncture, something must happen, and the ‘something’ which happens is the first presentation, underpinned initially by the harp and low strings’ crotchets in parallel motion, heard just before (bars 102-107), of the central melody of the symphony (starting at bar 111).

Brian’s two presentations of the long melody contrast strongly, while at the same time offering some interesting points of comparison. The accompaniment to the first version starts out as a processional, and moving in parallel motion, only to switch (at bar 120) to alternating brass and woodwind support, both joining together at bar 128, before three bassoons accompany the entry of a solo french horn at bar 129.

These changes in instrumental accompaniment not only provide variety, but rather more significantly substitute a more chordal support for the martial accompaniment above which the melody had started. The chords at the end are offering harmonic background, in sharp contrast to the greater independence of the parallel chords in harp and low strings; the effect is of moving closer to a triadic harmony for the melody, which is where the second version of it clearly starts out. If one can refer to the first version of the melody as being ‘on’ E whether major or not (the hint of major is there, especially in bar 115 in violins, where the triad is presented horizontally in the melody), the second version is, at its opening particularly, ‘in’ E major.

The lower part-writing (another stage in the growth of the accompaniment) is supporting the melody rather than shadowing it, or merely taking place at the same time; melody and accompaniment are interdependent. This changes before the end; from bars 174-178 the melody repeats the same rhythmic pattern, highlighting the high E, and below this the chords of the accompaniment move downwards in parallel motion as they had earlier moved in parallel motion under the Eb version of the melody.

The music between these twin versions of the melody, at the heart of this symphony, is transitional in intent and effect, but it is a transition achieved in blocks rather than by degrees. By treating ideas found earlier in the work in a new way, it moves the musical argument forward by developing those ideas. The music from bars 133-152 is concerned with canonic entries of different versions of the cor anglais melody first heard at the beginning of section 2.

The first series of entries occurs on solo woodwinds over a bass line moving in steady crotchets, harking back to the steady crotchets which accompanied the three ‘unison but solo’ flutes heard earlier. Changed though the melody is (the first note repeated five times instead of ten; a leap upwards of a perfect fourth instead of the earlier minor third), it is clearly recognizable, and acts as a strong tie with the earlier music on this account. The string passage which follows features two more versions of the melody, each treated canonically, but the music is chordal and more static, rather than contrapuntal and processional. This in turn is followed by another short passage using the flute (this time solo) over a bass, moving, once again, in crotchets. The oboe plays an E as a central pedal point, preparing the way for the clear E major treatment of the long melody to come.

A fter the second presentation of the long melody, which constitutes the lyrical high-point of the symphony, Brian leads, via a bass line moving upwards in crotchets underneath high, static woodwind parts, to a section which gives the impression of marking time, albeit in an uneasy fashion (caused by the high writing for piccolo, oboe and bassoon, as well as the static nature of their individual parts). The tension is temporarily abated by string chords moving downwards (in crotchets), but this leads to the recall of the high As (this time on flutes only) heard at the very beginning of the symphony, again underpinned by crotchets in the bass, but the più animato marking pushes the music forward.

This thematic recall serves to forge a link forward as well as backward, because it hints at the return, not only of impersonal, but harsh music, such as has not been heard since the high notes were last heard (at bar 75, as Gs). However, the closing bars of this section are given to a new, long and lyrical cello melody, which eventually lands on a perfect fifth on D (bar 208), linking back to the end of the first part of this section (bar 92), followed by a harp arpeggio which spells out D minor with a prominent E, culminating in a pizzicato D minor chord on violins over a sustained D pedal in cellos.

This return to more impersonal music at the end (the cello melody becomes a bass line at the end, moving from the personal to the impersonal, or from the vocal to the instrumental) means that the silence above the cellos’ D is an uneasy one. The E in the harp’s pattern also contributes to this atmosphere of unease. The presence of the harp also makes a strong link with the Prologue, where it figured prominently.

This succession of events is remarkable easy to follow, but what should not go unnoticed is the way in which Brian shapes the music around the two appearances of the main melody, as well as preparing for the events of part one of section 3. The music is not disruptive, but represents a progression as well as a succession, which by itself would imply static blocks of material. Each appearance of the melody is prefaced by impersonal and processional music (featuring the flute on both occasions) and succeeded by objective, contrapuntal part-writing.

The string passage from bars 141 to 152 represents a further stage of transition between the two melody versions, balancing as it does strict counterpoint with expressive harmony. The music as a whole can be said to continue the philosophical thread of earlier parts of the symphony, but in strong contrast to part one of section 2 it presents the human and the impersonal not in direct juxtaposition, but as a series of carefully judged, and subtly interlinked subsections.

By means of the links, he avoids becoming too discursive, a danger always inherent in what is the most expansive part of the symphony (in terms of overall pacing as well as melody). This section is not a slow movement, although it does contain the slowest music in the symphony; its thematic relation to the rest of the Symphony ensures that as well as providing ‘breathing space’ it carries and maintains the momentum of the work, albeit at a lower level, and paves the way for the climactic section to follow.

NL83 / © Martin O'Leary 1989

Newsletter, NL 83, 1989