Brian’s Sinfonia tragica (3)

Martin O’Leary

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

Section 3, part 1 (bars 211—288)
Section 3, part 2: Epilogue (bars 289 to end)

Section 3, part 1 (bars 211—288)

Brian returns to the manner of the first part of section 2 for this climactic sequence of the music, but with the difference that the juxtapositions here are of musics of like character, as opposed to the strong contrasts which typified the earlier Section. The music gains a great sense of momentum out of these juxtapositions, in which rhythm and melody alternate, and finally clash. The overall pattern, then, is geared towards the elimination of the human element of melody in the symphony by the two impersonal forces which have been consistent features of the work up to this point, namely fanfare-like rhythms and continuous semiquaver motion.

Thematic development is not achieved in a large span (or a ‘development section’), but in short, successive spurts in which the ‘battle’ between melody on the one hand, and rhythm and semiquaver motion on the other, is carried stage by stage in its culmination. The effect to this listener is extremely cinematic, and the music is again suggestive of place, namely a large, multi-sided battle area, from all sides of which the ‘military’ and ‘vocal’ music seem to emanate. The multi-dimensionality is achieved by the cuts from one type of fanfare to another, as the intervening melodies are gradually drowned out and then transformed into the very patterns against which they were originally in conflict. The process could be described as one of dehumanization, which complements the warlike imagery of the music.

The section begins with a smallscale presentation of the conflict which generates the music of this sequence. Over a pedal D, the violas play the cor anglais melody from the beginning of Section 2, with a new, dissonant three part harmonic support from three trombones; this is immediately followed by an outburst from the percussion section which, as has been noted above, has had nothing to play since the beginning of the previous section in a slow march.

Timpani play three rapid descending triplet semiquavers, E-C-G; there is a roll on three sidedrums, and a thud from the bass drum. The latter accompanies the return of the tuba motive in the brass, at bar 214, in a slightly changed form, using the first four notes in a new rhythmic shape. The sequence is marked by two changes of tempo in as many bars, firstly to Allegro vivace at bar 213, then to Adagio at bar 214, as well as the use of a long pause. The effect, one of violent juxtaposition, is expanded upon in the ensuing music. At the end of the section, Brian uses similar gestures to close it off (bar 285), although by that stage the cor anglais melody has been reduced to three As at the top of the three brass chords.

The timpani figure in bars 285 and 286 bears a very strong resemblance, nonetheless, to the gesture referred to above. It is also noteworthy, and of significance as a musical sign—post, that the top and bottom of the chord are the same; A above middle C and D below the bass clef respectively, although the notes in between differ strongly. This similarity binds the two gestures together and unites, by implication, the music that comes in between.

The ‘Battle’ proper begins with a rendition of the cor anglais idea, accompanied by cuivre horns and battering timpani (at bar 286); already the ‘human’ melody (which, as has been mentioned earlier, could be taken to represent Deirdre) has acquired a violent tone through the combative, tense nature of the accompaniment. On a purely musical level, the melody, last heard at bar 211, has been placed on top of a timpani pattern not unlike that of bars 218-222: the musical argument has been carried forward by a certain type of development of the material, namely superimposition.

The next melodic presentation does not take place until bar 246 with the return of the tuba motive. The intervening music has been dominated by various rhythmic patternings, and the melody here is preceded by triplet semiquavers on three trumpets and three side drums; once again the warlike tone is patently clear. The tuba melody, now on all low brass, woodwinds and all the strings, rises in register as it had done on its two appearances in the Prologue, but has to compete with the continued triplet semiquavers, which contract into demisemiquavers on side drums as the melody reaches its apex.

The gesture as a whole is an intensified restatement of bars 5-9, but it is followed, not by a chord, but by a new long melody in horns, violas and celli, which in turn has to fight its way through an increasingly strongly profiled rhythmic accompaniment (bars 255-260 in particular). The next part of the section returns purely to rhythmic devices and rapid-note patternings, but just before the climactic version of the tuba motive, there is a brief, minimal melodic fragment on oboe (bars 272-275) using just three notes (D, E, F) and having only one true vocal idea, the last two quavers of bar 274 and first crotchet of 275 constituting a tiny melodic curve.

As has been said, the tuba melody, in this its cumulative appearance, loses its melodic and rhythmic profile, and by bar 284 has become a descending scale fragment of four semiquavers, rapidly falling from piccolo down to contrabassoon in the course of that bar. These melodic presentations act as a brief, and increasingly short-lived, contrast to the succession of military rhythms which dominate and overwhelm other elements in this section of the symphony, in league with the rapid-note patterns as a dehumanising force in the music.

Brian begins his rhythmic assault at bar 213, with the return of the untuned percussion, as well as the triplet semiquavers on timpani, which return at bar 218 in a changing rhythmic configuration consisting of semiquavers, quavers and semiquaver rests. The five bar unit is marked by a decrescendo, suggesting that the drumbeats are approaching from a distance; their arrival is signalled by a thrice-repeated chord in semiquavers from the woodwinds.

The ensuing music for strings is related both in terms of rhythm and timbre, being percussive in effect. Thereafter the primarily rhythmic profile of the music is accentuated by the use of bar-long patterns which are repeated (at bars 231-233, in 5/4: bar 234 in 3/4; bars 239-240 in 3/4; bars 270-271 also in 3/4), or a pattern extending over a few bars, such as occurs at bars 261-268. Beyond these passages, where there is no competing melodic interest, there are strongly profiled rhythmic accompaniments to the melodic sections when they occur (the triplet semiquavers which precede and underline the return of the tuba motive at bar 245; the entire accompaniment to the new melody at bar 251, from bar 254 especially, as the rhythm grips the entire orchestral complement to the cor anglais, french horn, violas and celli).

Brian’s resourcefulness is remarkable, as he manages to sustain variety and tension in the music by a careful choice of rhythm, whether using two semiquavers plus a quaver, or triplet semiquavers, as well as by well-judged and articulated changes of time signature. The momentum is sustained, but the pacing or rhythmic profile never becomes predictable, and the volatile surface activity is a major factor in binding the sequence together as a cumulative unit, rather than a miscellany of fanfare-like gestures.

The section as a whole, then, represents a true climactic point of the symphony, and not only in terms of noise. After the restraint of the previous section, this is virtuoso music for conductor, for orchestra and, not least, for composer. The thematic and dramatic preoccupations of the earlier sections of the work are brought together in fittingly violent clashes, as the tensions inherent in the very first build-up of the tuba motive, as well as the music from bars 84-92, are driven to their ultimate points. It is very striking, however, how Brian uses silence at the climactic moment to enhance the harsh and brutal nature of the music at that point; the pauses over rests from the beginning of the section return, and rather than have the full orchestra play a climactic chord or gesture, he reverts to the crude manner found in earlier points of the symphony.

The result is starkly effective; all sense of mystery is banished, and chords are used again as the culmination of a massive orchestral build-up, matching up in tone, if not in register. This represents a subtle reversal of the way in which the chords in the Prologue fitted registrally, but did not represent a true culmination of the previous build-up in terms of tone.

The orchestration of the whole section is masterly, as the orchestral body is augmented by the addition of tambourine and castanets to the very active and prominent percussion section, although Brian reserves the coup de grace for the climactic moment of bar 288; he recalls the tamtam, not heard since its dual appearance with bass drum in the Prologue, and its sound, combined with cymbal clash and timpani quavers, again using the notes C, E and G, all add immensely to the impact of the climactic chord in the brass. The chord is, in fact, nothing more dissonant than C major, but its context, as well as tone, contributes very importantly to its shattering, and fittingly climactic impact; the brass approach their notes by use of parallel tritones. This has the effect of wrenching the music onto C major, rather than a cadence in, or modulation to, that key. Brian’s refusal to use modulation as a major element of his musical style has borne very striking fruit; the culmination-point is not only effectively climactic, but consistent.

Section 3, part 2: Epilogue (bars 289 to end)

Brian begins his final summing-up by reverting to the slow march used at earlier points of the work (bars 102-107 in particular) and by recalling the solo cor anglais to add an elegiac tone. The march divides into four distinct units, each characterized by a different rhythm. Over the first three bar unit, the cor anglais plays two minor thirds, and then a major one; the first interval and the choice of instruments form a tentative link with bars 57-58, perhaps reducing that idea to its essentials. The next unit (bars 292-294) reintroduces the crotchet bass in harp and low strings, also from bars 102-107, as well as the first version of the central melody of the symphony.

The cor anglais hints at that melody in the first three notes here, but the rhythmic presentation is different: three quavers as opposed to a quaver and two crotchets. The cor anglais ties this subsection with the next one by continuing its melody and reaching a dynamic highpoint; the semibreves in bars 295 and 296 are underpinned by another march rhythm in trombones and tuba, while the tamtam is heard again. The final unit is scored entirely for percussion, bass drum and side drums marking the bar and half-bar respectively underneath a rhythm in timpani which succeeds in changing the note expected at the beginning of the next bar from E to A.

Even in this short span of music, which because of its links with earlier events of the symphony sounds akin to a subdued summary of the course of those events, Brian’s rhythmic resourcefulness and mastery of the percussion section, as well as his thorough understanding of the march, is most noteworthy; the addition of cor anglais succeeds in binding the units together. March and elegiac melody are combined rather than contrasted, to produce a very effective lament, which expands the expressive range of the work in a new way after the climax of the previous section, and paves the way for the peroration and tonal resolution to come.

The peroration is preceded by a one bar flourish, a further link with earlier events; the way in which the notes accelerate as they rise in register is akin to bars 80-83, 230 and 234-235. The timpani roll on A which underpins it accentuates its upbeat nature, and the end of the bar leaves both top and bottom hanging in the air in the pause which follows, skin in some degree to what had happened in bar 75 and bar 92. Brian’s answer to the silence is to purge the music of the minor scale in both directions, starting from the middle register and using a rhythmic pattern close to that of the tuba motive from bar 5 of the Prologue.

The inner part complements this effect, moving increasingly in parallel fourths, and this three-part harmonic counterpoint prepares for the resolution at bar 304 onto D major instead of D minor. The harmonic tensions of the music find their ultimate resolution in the consonance of this D major chord, which fills the entire register. Brian had featured a march rhythm in the passage from bars 300 to 303 in side drums and trumpets, underpinned by bass drum (on beat 1) and cymbal (on beat 4); the feeling of slow march is retained, albeit at a subdued level, in order to allow the harmonic events to occupy a central position.

The final coup-de-grace is typical; as the D major chord continues, the violas play the cor anglais melody from bar 57 one last time, contributing a harmonic ambiguity by means of the melodic turn, this time using C and Bbs in the D major chord, so the ambiguity is one of scale rather than one of a direct clash between two contradictory semitones. The final scale, D-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C, combines both major and minor in a way which is harmonically consistent with the rest of the symphony. One can say, if one so wishes, that harmony is major and melody is minor, but one does not separate one from the other. In combination with this final appearance of melody in the symphony, march rhythm returns to a more forward position in timpani (augmenting and complementing the rhythm already present in trumpets and sidedrums).

As the chord fades, or perhaps more aptly recedes, the symphony closes with two dismissive sounds on percussion; the tamtam is struck, and allowed to vibrate, and on the last beat of the last bar the bass drum closes the work with a subdued stroke.

NL84 / © Martin O'Leary 1989

Newsletter, NL 84, 1989