Symphonies 16 to 19: Style and manner

Martin O’Leary

Style and manner - Martin O'Leary

In Brian’s symphonic output, each succeeding symphony is a comment on the previous one, and an illumination of it in retrospect. One can better understand Brian’s priorities in composing a new work if the achievement of its predecessor is taken into account, as he was never content to repeat himself (thus his oft-quoted remark that each new symphony was ‘not a whit like any of its predecessors’). Conversely, there are usually hints in one symphony as to what the next might attempt; so that, for example, knowing Number 2 well tells us quite a lot about Number 3. Sometimes a symphony which seems to mark a major turning point is in fact a reaction to, rather than a development from, the previous one. I believe this is partly true in the case of Symphonies 17 and 18, but to enlarge the scope of the discussion I will also consider the flanking Symphonies 16 and 19 to see how they illuminate Brian’s thinking.

Symphony 16

I see number 16 as a composite of many ideas. There is nothing like it in the symphonic literature that I know of, yet it is symphonic beyond doubt. Its wacky inventiveness and tendency to go off at tangents mark it out as some sort of ‘Fantasia’ or ‘Invention’. The Baroque implications of these terms are borne out in some of the formal workings of the piece; a French Overture to start with (slow introduction with dotted rhythms followed by quicker music of a contrapuntal nature) and, later, the shadows and substance (respectively) of Passacaglia and Fugue. The way the sections of the work follow each other has the effect, to me, of a series of left-hand brackets, all of which Brian manages to close by the end - which accounts for the sense of finality and completeness when the work bulldozes its way to a conclusion.

In its flamboyant orchestral writing there are overtones of a Concerto for Orchestra (and echoes, perhaps, of the Concerto Grosso). One is reminded of Berg’s remark that in a concerto the composer, too, gets a chance to show off. But since this work is a musical argument dressed up in brilliant colours, rather than a firework display per se, its nature is developmental and symphonic, in spite of its episodic qualities. It revolves around the contrast and interaction between fast and slow music, and manages to combine the aesthetics of Mahler and Sibelius in a wonderfully distinctive way. The compression and compactness of design are Sibelian, while it also succeeds in being like the world - it contains everything (an aspect of the symphony Mahler would have admired). The work is original because it goes its own way; it is a work of genius because it does so in such a convincing manner.

Symphony 17

The opening here recalls something of the atmosphere of the central span of the Sinfonia Tragica; it is wistful, romantic landscape music. As in No 16, Brian begins with an introduction which sets out the stall motivically, but does so within a frozen framework where time seems to stand still, with held chords and fragments of melody. Unlike Nos 18 and 19, both of which set a pulse immediately, this is a subtle inroad, not so much upbeat as anticipatory. There are relations to some of the thematic shapes found in No 16, and the tightness and vibrancy of the counterpoint is also a strong link. In its French Overture rhythms (once again) as well as the aforementioned contrapuntal fabric, the work is neo-baroque; in its atmospheric interludes, the mood is more neo-romantic. (Nos 18 and 19 are, by contrast, more neo-classical in outlook.) No 16 doesn’t subdivide in the tripartite way No 17 does (one of the few clues as to what was coming next) and No 16 initially seems better balanced. Yet the wealth of detail in the last span of No 17 just about saves the day. (I still think it’s too short sometimes, whereas I always feel No 16 has got it right.)

There’s a certain objectivity about Nos 16 and 17 which is replaced by the hard-bitten aggression of No 18 and the positive energies of No 19. The idea of non-literal repetition climaxes in No 17; the dynamism comes from the tension between opposites (atmosphere/stasis v counterpoint/movement). In Nos 18 and 19 there are formal blocks articulated by general repetition; these are points of reference in a way which makes the idea of return more relevant to these works than to Nos 16 or 17. In the finales the last reference to the main theme announces the beginning of a driving towards the end in Nos 16 and 17 a fanfare announces the arrival of a final, all-encompassing cadence. In these works the harmonic progress is stopped, whereas in 18 and 19 thematic processes are complete, and the harmony follows suit. Is it an over-simplification to say that harmonic design governs 16 and 17 more than in 18 and 19, where thematic development is predominant? Perhaps, yet there is a grain of truth in that change of emphasis. No 17 is enigmatic, and one of Brian’s most elusive pieces; No 18 is concrete and explicit.

Symphony 18

Perhaps the intervention of Bryan Fairfax was important in determining the reduced instrumentation here; but Brian, spurred on though he may have been by the thought of quick performances following the completion of the symphony, chose to emphasise the pared-down classicality in No 18 by the reduced forces. The result is just as characteristic as any work for larger forces, and it certainly packs the same textual punch as any other symphony. It is just as weighty a piece, despite the ‘lighter’ instrumentation. There was, for once, a happy coincidence between external circumstances and Brian’s inner creativity.

The fact that he knew the limitations of his potential performers may also have chimed in neatly with the more regular pulse of the new piece; one can imagine the horrors in store for an amateur orchestra with the elusive changes and twists of No 17 (not to mention its Concerto for Orchestra-like instrumental writing). 18 is certainly a more straightforward piece, musically and interpretively, although strictly on Brian’s terms; it is by no means an easy piece. However, there is a slight, and very practical, compromise. No 18 is also more immediate than its predecessor, and because more externally traditional, perhaps more accessible to an initial audience.

The classicism revisited results in a more regular pulse, which has the side effect of making the musical argument seem more direct, and easier to follow. The minor-major progression over the course of the work is an ambiguous one, as the ending is just as hard-edged as the beginning. As in other works, there are things going on beneath the surface, but here the surface is misleading, especially at the beginning of the last movement. The centre of gravity is found in the slow movement, which reveals its true dark colouring in the viola solo and its funereal aftermath. The disgust at the end of this movement runs under the ostensibly brighter music of the finale. There’s a dark night of the soul here, but there also seems to be bitterness as well as despair. ‘Nothing matters’ would appear to be the conclusion of this symphony. (‘So what if there’s rejoicing? I’m not part of it’.) The inner mood is unchanged in the finale.

One of Brian’s great skills is his trick of making the bare fifth expressive of different things; a sort of triumph of the will in Symphony 16; a defiant slamming of the door in No 17; a stony indifference in No 18, and a defiant optimism in No 19. Same sounds, different contexts, yet the way it is approached makes it apposite in each case. The allusion to the Gothic just before the viola solo in the slow movement is perhaps revealing. I feel this is a conscious reference (in tribute to Fairfax, no doubt) but within the context of Symphony 18 it seems to ask a question which receives an answer in the following music. It is possible to view the dark mood as indicative of Brian’s dejection at what had happened to him since the Gothic was written. There was hope then; the music of the second half of this slow movement seems to say that there is no hope left now. Brian’s music often inhabits a no-mans land of emotion only to turn in a surprising direction; here, the interior wasteland leads to despair and disgust, one of the darkest passages in all Brian.

Symphony 19

The symphony represents a heartening renewal, as Brian rediscovers his joy in music making. The playfulness of parts of Symphonies 16 and 17 returns here (without the cynical undercurrent of the finale of No 18) and the work as a whole is one of his most genial and immediately likeable. It’s possible to view the renewed vitality in the music as a reaction to the premiere of the Gothic. Brian expands the scale of his ‘classical’ style by allowing slow music to feature in the fast first movement (following on from the example of the nobilmente music in the finale of 18) and fast music to feature in the slow second movement. After the gap in his creativity he seems, not unnaturally, to have been a little uncertain about what to do next. The Psalm setting he thought about seems to have left no mark on this work (so far as we can judge) but the joy in music making here harks back to Nos 16 and 17, perhaps suggesting that No 18 was a dark corner which had been turned and left behind.

The minor-major progression is here used amusingly at the beginning of the finale (G natural v G sharp), and E major is unambiguously declared at the end of the first movement. The sense of a ‘home key’ is important, even more so than in 18. This is a monoharmonic work (like several of Haydn’s symphonies) whose concentration around one key gives the piece an atmosphere of certainty very different from the voyages of discovery in 16 and 17. Hearing such a large work as the Gothic can spark off many different reactions. One of these may have been that Brian felt vindicated as the composer of this massive work. This confidence perhaps finds an outlet in No 19, which has an assurance different from the sense of a very strong will being asserted in No 16. No 17 does this again, but with more than a hint of ‘enough is enough’ at the end, which leads to the sense of ‘nothing matters’ at the close of 18. Symphony 19 regains the higher ground, and the upper hand is confidently held over darker forces.


Even without Fairfax’s question to Brian about ‘symphonies for reduced forces’, it seems likely from internal evidence that he had reached a point, after 17, at which he was ready to try new things. 17 is the compressed counterpart to 16, and in succession 19 was to become the expanded companion to 18. Despite this apparent pairing (accentuated by the far less tonally centred harmonic languages of Nos 18 and 19) 17 is as different from 16 as 18 is from 19. Achieving a balance between building on the success of each symphony in composing a new one, Brian forged ahead to create an endlessly fascinating body of work. As Malcolm MacDonald has written, sometimes Brian’s ‘failures’ are at least as interesting as his successes. As a fellow composer, it is Brian’s continual determination to try that provides such an inspiration. Some scores are slow to yield up their secrets (No 17 being, for me, a case in point) but as the Marco Polo cycle progresses, we are getting the chance to bear each work anew (in very fine performances); this can only lead to greater understanding of the importance of Brian’s symphonic output as a whole, both amongst his devotees, and those yet to be convinced.

© Martin O'Leary 1994 / NL115

17 . 18 .

Newsletter, NL 115