David Hackbridge Johnson
‘In the mountains, there you feel free’ - David Hackbridge Johnson
Well, something like that; although I have experienced some emotions more frequently than that of freedom: isolation, exhilaration, fear, among these. Those members familiar with that section of the Alps to the south of Montreux will not need my confirmation of their splendour, yet having now assayed some of their peaks (and fallen off two of them), I can certainly vouch for their hazards. An unscheduled slide down a perilous ridge on ‘Le Grand Muveran’ has put me in a thoughtful frame of mind; one that has admitted not a little musical rumination. I have succumbed to regular listenings of Brian symphonies, particularly nos 28, 29 and 30.
Initially I felt these works might comfort me in any lingering nostalgia for England, that I might conjure up that rural landscape or Gothic spire so totally absent on Swiss horizons. However, I found Brian’s terse and monolithic style in these later works curiously suited to the jagged ‘dents’ visible from my chalet window. No 28 begins innocently enough perhaps, but nothing prepares one for the aching nobility of the slow movement and the wild energy that greets its release. Stokowski gives the percussion their head at this moment so that one throws up one’s hand and cries ‘What’s going on?’ - quite possibly Brian’s intention. And a sudden almost throw away ending, as it to say ‘Well, that’s it’. I would venture this as Brian at his most human. With Homeric perception he realises that after such a tragedy, with perhaps much blood spilt - you still have to interrupt your mourning and eat! (After the ‘Grand Muveran’ I tucked into a pleasant cheese fondue).
My thoughts on no 29 are less graphic; I simply marvel at the perfection of this work, the mastery of structure and counterpoint and many felicitous ideas - some heard more than once! Perhaps here, there is a glance back to the lessons of Bach and Haydn.
And no 30 - from chippings of a Sophoclean opera to a compact, unseen Greek drama rolled up under its own gravity to 20 minutes or less. ‘Fine stuff’ indeed. Frightening stuff, too; formidable as the ‘Dents du Midi’ apparently rising through a veil of clouds to reveal its treacherous slopes. But enough of these pictorialisms; music is music after all, and what I think is worth saying about Brian’s is that it contains little of those elements that might ‘keep him in England’ - whatever they might be. His was a cosmopolitan mind and his music reflects this. Large numbers of musicians from all over the world are now experiencing his music. Maybe it is Brian’s knowledge of Continental traits (one of the first English commentators on the second Viennese school for instance) and a desire to develop his own music that led the English to resist him in the past. The path from the early ‘Victorian’ songs to the 30th symphony is a long one, rocky too, and allowing of sonic precipitous falls.
On a more personal note, my own music has been fermenting in the rarefied air of the Alps. In November 1996 I had some Latin motets premiered in Hamburg by the choir of North German Radio under Robin Gritton. They will receive a broadcast later in the year. A few miles from my chalet there is a cauldron of cliffs called Solalex, not unlike that which contains the Devil’s Kitchen’ in Snowdonia. I have spent many a time contemplating these rocks and there might be something in there. Of course it will not sound a bit like Brian, but his music, his example, and his photograph (propped up on a raclette machine!) will always inspire me to go on.