Play it backwards

Larry Alexander

Play it backwards - Larry Alexander I have been thinking over my immediate reactions to the Mackerras performance of the Brian seventh in Liverpool [29 April 1987] and, after a long 12 hour flight back home and several weeks of reacclimatizing, I still think my instincts in the concert hall were right: the order of these movements is backwards. Let me hasten to say that I am hardly like some of the more naive critics suggesting that Brian was a naif who joggled his movements and wherever they fell he ‘played’ them: not at all. I think that, creative person that he was, he wrote a traditional four movement, 40 minute symphony and then said ‘Now, how can I shake ’em up?’ The best way would be to put the last movement first and so on — as some might well suspect that Tchaikovsky originally wrote the Pathétique with the adagio third and the march as the finale; reversing that order ‘made’ that piece — enough for Mahler to copy it in his own ninth.

It is just possible that a searching man like Brian just wanted to see what a traditional symphony looked (and sounded) like, turned on its head. The result, as brilliantly played and conducted on 29 April, still leaves me scratching my head. A virtuoso opening complete to fanfare, a bucolic scherzo followed by a long slow movement followed by a deep, complex, craggy finale? Good stuff, every note of it; exciting, original music which has Havergal Brian’s signature on every note… but try it once, the other way, like I did. I took my tape of the first and until now only performance of the seventh and made up a new, companion tape: Havergal Brian’s seventh symphony in reverse order. I played it for myself and for several other musically knowledgeable friends — one a Brianite, the other not yet aware of him. All three sets of ears discovered a piece not only exciting and excellent, but one which is up there in the ranks of the great symphonies of all time.

Look at what you are given, this way: a first movement which poses all sorts of musical — and emotional — problems, setting up tremendous dramatic conflicts. A good ten minutes of raging forces which, as tradition has it, will be resolved in the subsequent movements. And look at what immediately comes after that: that discomforting ‘scherzo-prologue’ to the long slow movement, building up to that incredibly lovely theme — the first true ‘release’ that comes after all the musical torment, in and of itself a magical moment made even more magical by the outbursts which interrupt it, outbursts which Brian calms near the end with that (as Malcolm MacDonald has it) feline-sounding violin solo. Next: the real scherzo, serving in this scheme of things exactly as it would have in a Haydn, or a Beethoven, music to lighten the mood, to lift the balance of emotional power out of the dark.

Finally, a fanfare and a joyous finale, pausing for a (good) moment’s reflection on the struggles of the past before storming the final mountain. While I freely admit that the last few bars of this movement don’t have the same ‘over the top’ quality that the ending measures of Brian’s Ninth have, my impression is that they may once have had just that; that, when and if Brian decided to topsy-turvy the piece he couldn’t use it, and therefore didn’t. Even as is, though, the piece this way is amazingly satisfying; utterly grand. This is not to say that Brian’s order is wrong, or bullheaded, or confused, or curmudgeonly. The fact is that the symphony is a wondrous piece of music; it works, and works in either direction. There is a great deal to be said for a work which challenges tradition, which starts with the joyous outburst and then slowly but inevitably reveals the drama underneath, ending as The Gothic ends, on notes of question. That fits Brian’s mind too, and the sudden turn to the A major: that incredibly lovely cadence to the bell.

It’s just that my mind’s ear keeps hearing the Gb minor horn prelude to the adagio right after that.

NL 71 / © Larry Alexander 1987

Newsletter, NL 71, 1987