Once upon a time

David Jenkins

Once upon a time - David Jenkins

First thoughts on the seventh symphony’s last movement

Fairly recently I spent a cheerful day in the Library at the Royal College of Music investigating various Brian autograph scores including some sketches. Some of the ink sketches of symphony 20 carry early pencil drafts for Prometheus and symphony 7 on what are now the reverse sides. Whilst perusing these drafts/fragments for symphony 7 I came across an interesting ‘find’ regarding the ‘Once upon a time’ epilogue. I should like to share some thoughts I have had about this movement and hope for forbearance from those who have already arrived at similar conclusions.

As we know, in the symphony as it now stands, this final epilogue movement makes for a satisfying (albeit uncomfortable) and logical last ‘chapter’. Indeed, I have always felt it to be one of the more inevitable Brian finales. Imagine my surprise when I came across an early pencil version of the familiar march-like opening of this movement headed by a Roman ‘I’, followed by a ‘(?)’, subsequently scribbled over - all this (in pencil) on a sheet bearing ‘Page 1’ on its top right hand corner! As the page now stands, the ‘I’ is prefigured by (Roman) ‘IV 4’ in green biro - this latter doesn’t appear to be in Brian’s hand.

I wonder if Brian intended what is now ‘once upon a time’ as an opening movement for a symphony which did not eventually work out, and if so, why it didn’t work out? Writing to Harry Newstone I asked if Brian had said anything during rehearsals for the symphony which might clarify the situation. In a most helpful and generous reply Mr Newstone says he doesn’t recall Brian mentioning anything of the background to the work.

He thinks it possible that Brian may have intended a ‘pathetic’ symphony, but could not find a way of following a dark first movement and so switched that movement to a finale. Besides, as he points out, Brian had only just completed a Sinfonia tragica and might have felt in danger of duplicating the experience. In any event, this does throw an interesting light on sequencing - musical and emotional - in Brian’s symphonies and makes one wary of accepting the finished piece as a ‘pre-ordained’ chain of events.

The other point I should like to raise regarding this movement is connected with both tempi and emotional content. Both Sir Charles Mackerras and Harry Newstone take approximately ten minutes: Brian allocates eighteen minutes on the autograph score. The discrepancy is considerable, even taking into account Brian’s habitual overestimation of the length of his works. Mr Newstone tells me that Brian didn’t attempt to correct the tempi he adopted for the performance - yet it plays for only just over half of Brian’s eighteen minutes. Mr Newstone feels that Brian was satisfied with his rendering of the music. This would not be surprising; despite some ‘raw’ playing, the performance is finely characterised. And yet, and yet… there is still the nagging discrepancy… not to mention the matter of tempo indications and the character of the music itself.

Some sort of clue regarding the question was provided by another Brian work, Symphony 2. This, of course, concludes with a funeral march. When writing my article on comparative renderings of the seventh symphony I was much struck by the anomaly between the tempi adopted for ‘Once upon a time’ by Mackerras and Newstone, and the tempi indicated in the score; basically a Lento maestoso for the duration of the movement, once the music has moved into C minor (four bars after cue 100). It occurs to me that if the music is read Lento maestoso two things emerge.

First, the movement moves nearer Brian’s estimated eighteen minutes: secondly, it begins to sound much more like a funeral march, or at least ‘funeral’ in its basic tone. If ‘Once upon a time’ were to be played truly Lento maestoso for much of its length I believe the whole emotional balance of the Symphony would be drastically altered. Indeed, this begs the question: have we heard the work as Brian intended it to he heard? (Maybe whoever conducts the Marco Polo recording might consider this?).

I would venture to suggest that the symphony may acquire the feel of a tripartite work; viz, the first two movements comprising an optimistic ‘Part One’, the double-barrelled third movement providing the fulcrum of the work - much in the manner of the scherzo in Mahler 5 - and lastly a sombre finale balancing the first two movements, whilst supplying a working-out of some aspects of the third movement. Interestingly, on his autograph score, Brian designates the third movement as ‘Part III’ on his dating at the end of the movement. The symphony would still give us a ‘youth passing into age’ sequence, but this last movement could also be construed to be an elegy or even a funeral oration, hence ‘once upon a time’ and its designation as an epilogue; a true rounding-off.

However, whilst the movement as it now stands is a completely convincing conclusion, there exists the possibility that this may not have been the piece’s original function!

NL 107 / © David Jenkins

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