Observations on Havergal Brian’s 6th symphony

Josef Schreier

Josef Schreier

Translated by Alan Marshall

Translator’s note: Newsletter 168 carried an article by Anno Schreier on Brian’s Symphony 6, the Sinfonia tragica__. That was originally written as background material for a paper by Mr Schreier’s father, our member Dr Josef Schreier. Dr Schreier sent me his paper for translation way back in January 2003, and I can only apologise for taking so long to deliver. I have found the task very difficult—not because of the syntax but because the argument, which Dr Schreier has said owes something (in places, and remotely) to the writings of Heidegger, engages in abstractions and refined distinctions to a degree for which the German language seems well designed but with which the English language is not comfortable.

I have, therefore, struggled in this case, despite a career background which should have equipped me well. I have to say that I am even now not wholly happy with my translation, and if any member wishes to see the original I will be happy to e-mail, fax or post it. On the other hand, the task of translation has forced me to follow very closely an argument with which I could easily have become impatient, and in the process I have found it highly instructive and rewarding. The reader will, I trust, emerge from this fascinating paper with new eyes and ears for the work and for much other music with an underlying, if silent, textual foundation.—AM

The relationship between music and verbal expression has always interested me. Often it seemed part of the intention of musical expression to bring out something which might be missing in the sphere of spoken expression—or which at least the musician senses as missing there. That is clearly what drives many composers to set texts to music, or find a stimulus in literature. Music could therefore be aiming, on the one hand, for a clarity or potency of expression which the word has yet to achieve. But on the other hand, music is evidently capable of subverting the directness of what words convey (or are intended to convey). That much is apparent from the simple observation that familiar texts, with the directness of the spoken word being obscured, can actually become incomprehensible qua text. Again, that is not without significance for the sense of the text, because it exposes a distinction between what a text seeks to convey and what is expressed (and how it is expressed). My first acquaintance with Havergal Brian was through the Gothic Symphony and the Fourth Symphony Das Siegeslied (cf Newsletter 120 of 1995). So what I at first focussed on with this remarkable composer was the presence of literary subtexts, and I was indeed able to hear and understand his work as the rendering of these subtexts into musical language. My personal discovery of the Sixth Symphony, and its connection with J M Synge’s play Deirdre of the Sorrows, again got me thinking about this relationship. Regardless of whether Brian composed his Sixth out of material from a planned but aborted opera, my question was this: what does this manifest literary connection contribute to understanding the text-free symphonic piece that now exists? From the very first hearing, and thereafter ever more strongly, I found that the central melody especially seemed to be “speaking” to a quite uncommon extent, and by that I mean it does not follow a path that is straight and natural, structured and “mono-logical”; rather it is forever deviating, detouring and dodging, seeming somehow to “respond” to objections, in an unfolding dialogue (with the listener, or who else?) which still leaves things open at the end. It seemed, therefore, that a specific rhetoric underlay this melody; one might say “responsivity”, to use a coinage by the German philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels. And now it struck me that this rhetoric of deviation and avoidance, of “gradual construction” (Kleist) and changing, through the musical diction, that which was be expressed, can be found again and again in the history of music, once one is alerted to it. Moreover this musical rhetoric manifests itself in opposition to (or at most complementary to) the rhetoric inherent in the text on its own—for this always tends towards the mono-logical directness. For instance, Bach’s church cantatas make a musical impression going far beyond the text—often of dubious literary quality—on which they are based; and if today we can draw any content from the text, that is obviously due to the musical setting. Or—different yet similar—the texts of Richard Wagner: taken on their own they are almost intolerable, yet with the music there is a phenomenon which can be respected in a literary as well as purely musical sense. From that I infer that we do not know what the text contains when we know only the text; it is only when transmuted into music that the text becomes responsive and “speaks”. I encountered a comparable differentiation—this time one internal to music—when recalling Gerard Manley Hopkins’ reception of the music of Henry Purcell (cf his poem Henry Purcell with the various epistolary commentaries thereon). For Hopkins there is, alongside the overt “meaning in hand”, in Purcell’s case also “his specific, his individual markings and mottlings”; the poem itself speaks of “the sakes of him, quaint moonmarks” according to which the music becomes a “rehearsal of own, of abrupt self”. This abrupt-individual quality, which one could probably not point to in the written notes themselves, takes the work beyond what is obvious and bears testimony to an unmistakable individuality (which Hopkins sometimes calls “inscape”). So Hopkins’ train of thought permits the inference that where an expression—or an entire work—has that inner quality of multiple voices, of responding, it is a sign of individuality, of subjectivity. And, coming on now to Brian’s Sixth, what distinguishes the central melody in this work, as seen from this perspective, is that it is where subjectivity enters the music. (Here and in what follows I refer to the analyses of Martin O’Leary in Newsletters 82-84, 1989, and complementary observations by my son Anno Schreier [Newsletter 168, 2003]. Until the melody enters, the symphony announces that which does not arrive; several times we experience, in terms of expression, an energetic run-up which seizes up or is choked off without achieving any outcome. Then, with the melody, arrives something which so to speak announces itself—“autopoetic”—and with an inner response emerging from within the listener or being conveyed to him. (This is why the listener can feel as though he is hearing something profoundly familiar though he may never have heard it before.) And at this point it is crucial to appreciate that there is something comparable in the structure of the literary subtext. In the various—almost contemporary—literary versions, but especially in that of Synge, the figure of Deirdre symbolises the revelation of beauty—a beauty that is fundamentally and shockingly out of joint with the actual reality, though that reality does as it were long for it and strives towards it; and in that reality it becomes a force for deconstruction, for destruction or—to use neutral and general language—for “difference”. We might infer that the melody in the second part of the symphony alludes to something which audibly transcends that difference; it cannot be clearly determined, and is elusive in the symphony as a whole. Accordingly the relationship between musical work and literary subtext is not just the representation and reproduction of the text in a musical environment. The link lies rather in a more profound structural analogy, differential and somehow turned in upon itself. (Perhaps one could speak of a “depth structure”, corresponding to the concept of “depth psychology”. Here also I am drawing on the thoughts of the contemporary German philosopher Heinrich Rombach.) What is intended might be paraphrased thus: in the musical case there is an element of differential understanding, whereas in the literary expression there is a factor of understanding differentiation. That is, the musical image opens up the semantics of the spoken word, while the literary subtext connects the free flow of the music to a comprehensible sense—admittedly without closing it off. The issue or the meaning of such a relationship arises particularly in those cases where a musical work refers to a literary text without allowing it a verbal role, or where it is unclear whether the work refers to a text at all. The latter is for example the case with Brian’s Symphony 2 with its possible link to Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen (a link made very much after the event by the composer). The clear (though not explicit) link is in Brian’s Sixth; the manuscript shows Brian putting the title of Synge’s play as a sort of motto at the head of his score. If, to get closer to the sense of this phenomenon, one were to look for comparable examples, one might consider Julius Reubke’s organ sonata Psalm 94 (with its interesting connection to Brian’s Symphony 4 which sets the thematically related Psalm 68) or Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Flos campi with its allusive connection to the biblical Song of Solomon. We can now attempt a concrete indication of the differential structure analogy between Brian’s Sixth and the Synge play (with, however, the interpolating comment that Synge himself, in the preface to The Tinker’s Wedding, notes as an analogy between drama and symphony that neither needs to “teach or prove anything”—so a similarity consists not in any content but in the structure, pre-eminently in not operating with content or “message”). In the first act of the play, consider a number of comments by Deirdre’s nurse Lavarcham which point to the element of destructiveness in the phenomenon of Deirdre: “…so they were right saying she’d bring destruction on the world”; “…though she’d spoil the world”; and finally the reproachful question to Deirdre: “Are you choosing this night to destroy the world?” In the second act we note the motif of evanescence in Deirdre’s own words, speaking of there being “no place to stay always”, or (broken-hearted) “there’s no safe place”. The immanent destructiveness of this existential searching is evident not only in the stage direction “broken-hearted” but also in Deirdre’s resigned realisation that “there’s a reason all times for an end that’s come”. Perhaps one may say that, if the opera Deirdre of the Sorrows had come about, then we would had had an overview of what could have been expressed through it. Namely that beauty, truth, happiness (if these metaphors and “symbols” can convey the concept)—that all this, as emblem and trauma of human existence, slips through our fingers in the real world. One might further say that, precisely because it never made it into an opera but “only” to a symphony, that we can hear all the more clearly how the drama and the music are both opposed and structurally analogous—which is the basis for the “difference” I have been describing. On the other hand I have also been helped towards this line of thought by a number of music theatre works of the twentieth century. These are works which turn on the same concept (following Martin Heidegger) of the “existential”. It would be interesting to know whether Brian himself might have known these works. He surely knew Frederick Delius’ A Village Romeo and Juliet (1901). The basic idea was for my part illuminated by two works by Slav composers, namely Rimsky-Korsakov’s Legend of the invisible city of Kitezh (1907) and Bohuslav Martinů’s Julietta (1938). One might well be able to find, in all these works, a musical element analogous to the melody in Brian’s Sixth and its function. © Dr Josef Schreier 2003 / NL169 translation © Alan Marshall 2003

Newsletter, NL 169