Review of The symphonies of Havergal Brian, volume 2

David J Brown

Review - David J Brown Malcolm MacDonald, The symphonies of Havergal Brian. Volume 2_, Symphonies 13-29_. Kahn & Averill, 1978. £6.25. 288pp.

In the two years I have spent as Secretary of the Havergal Brian Society, I have been asked one question probably more times than any other, and that has been ‘Do you know when volume 2 is coming out?’. Often just that; no need to define whose volume 2 about what. If the author is already groaning at such devoted attention, he has only himself to blame, for such penetrating insight as he gave in volume 1 into symphonies 1-12 was hardly likely to go unnoticed by aficionados and it should be stated at the outset that the 18 analytical essays in this book (he also discusses the Concerto for orchestra of 1964) in no way show any kind of falling-off in quality from his earlier level of achievement.

There is the same evidence on every page of a wealth of hard thinking, and an impatience with vague generalizations, but with everywhere the sharp analytical insight tempered and brightened by his sheer enthusiasm for, and delight in, Brian’s music; its timbres, its harmonic unpredictability, its always exploratory formal procedures and, perhaps most of all, its sheer sense of a whole, lived-in, many-sided world.

One unfavourable review of volume 1 wondered, in view of the lack of critical condemnation of any of the works discussed therein, whether any ‘geese’ would be found amongst the remaining 20 ‘swans’. Well, if that reviewer has the present volume to hand, he will find at least one gander and several others with variously strong goose-like tendencies; indeed, perhaps only nos 16, 27 and 29 are seen wholly as swans; thoroughgoing masterpieces on every level.

In a splendidly honest footnote on pp 135-136, Malcolm MacDonald acknowledges that his opinion of many of Brian’s works has changed since he first discussed them in print, some for better, some for worse. (Would that some lesser commentators would admit in public that they ever change their minds - but perhaps they don’t!) For this reason, amongst others, one awaits the promised second thoughts in volume 3 with great interest, with the new criticality brought to bear on the earlier symphonies.

A ll this may imply that volume 2 represents a sharp change in approach from volume 1. This is more apparent than real; the simple fact that there has been a break between volumes at Nos 12/13 inevitably gives the feeling of ‘something new’ when one opens the new book, a feeling that is strengthened when one finds the discussion now grouped in a few large chapters rather than with one symphony per chapter as previously. Also the fact that the first one to be dealt with receives some pretty stringent criticisms comes as a bit of a surprise. However, the disparate natures of, and very different creative circumstances of, Nos 1-12 and 13-29 inevitably have to be taken into account.

The earlier works, varying enormously in physical size and length, covered a period of nearly 40 years, sometimes with a good deal of other music (including some very big pieces indeed) separating successive symphonies. Those dealt with in volume 2 cover a mere nine years, with only two other works interrupting the sequence (The jolly miller between 19 and 20 and the cello concerto between 21 and the concerto for orchestra). With almost the whole of the composer’s work in this period thus available for discussion within the generic heading chosen, it was obviously necessary and desirable to devote a lot more attention than previously to tracing lines of growth and change through the whole sequence, rather than treat each symphony in an artificial isolation. A further important factor was the availability of Brian’s correspondence with Robert Simpson, and the numerous quotations from his letters with which the text is studded cast a strange, oblique light on the music he was conceiving at the time.

The works are grouped for discussion as follows: 13-17; 18-20; 21 and the concerto for orchestra; 22-24; 25-29. I will not attempt to paraphrase the arguments developed in these five large chapters. The whole book must be read for these to be fully appreciated. If there is one over-riding thread, it is that of the growth of a new ‘classicism’ in Brian’s work, beginning with No 18 and with intermissions, reaching its most perfect expression in Symphony 29; but many other musical and psychological traits are discussed as well.

Importantly, he draws attention to the effect on Brian of rediscovering for himself some of his earlier works, as they were discovered by others and prepared for performance. Several extra-musical factors are drawn in - other people, environment, literature, encroaching age - but always as adjuncts to the growth of Brian’s musical personality. Surely the myth is now finally despatched that Brian’s late symphonies were odd slabs of music written in a vacuum, uninfluenced by anything in the outside world and, by implication, devoid of individual character, varying quality and meaning of any kind?

Although the ‘frame’ is much more elaborate and richly detailed than before, the heart of this book remains in the analyses themselves. Following them, symphony by symphony, is a richly rewarding experience. One may question or be surprised by this point of emphasis, or wonder why that moment passed quietly by, but again and again levels, cross-references and even basic structural features are illuminated that had entirely passed one by at previous hearings. And if the reader comes to disagree with an assessment in the book, it should be borne in mind that these studies are the fruits of long familiarity with the scores themselves, whereas most of us have only the, in most cases, single performance with which to form an opinion.

My one complaint about the book, therefore, does not arise from the author’s treatment of Brian, but of others. In his prefatory remarks on No 21, he speculates whether it might have been written as a deliberate ‘Cheltenham symphony’ - not as a commission, but as an ironic emulation of the ‘formally correct, harmonically fairly innocuous symphony in a "modern English" idiom… acceptable to the English critical establishment of the 1950s but with little to offer more exploratory minds.’ We’ve probably all seen the term ‘Cheltenham symphony’ as a pejorative in record reviews - usually with protestations that the work under review is not one.

Malcolm MacDonald at least names names, and they will surprise none. What bothers me is not that he may or may not rate highly the symphonies of Alwyn, Berkeley, Fricker, Rawsthorne and Rubbra, but that in rolling them up together and dismissing them like this he seems to be giving them exactly the same sort of unfair, cursory treatment which is still meted out to Brian in most books and journals and which is normally so richly absent from his own writings. By all means find them wanting in comparison with Brian, but please let us have the reasons. I have probably made a little too much of this point. It is lightly done - and only one paragraph in a book of nearly 300 pages - but anyone curious about Brian, and who has, say, gained a lot of pleasure from the riches unfolded in Lyrita’s Alwyn recordings, is not going to be encouraged to progress further when he trips over this paragraph.

That aside, the only other negative points which have to be made about this book are practical ones; in a word, misprints. Most are exceedingly minor, but two damage the sense of the text, one of them to the point of incomprehensibility. The first is on p 75, line 7. If the word ‘and‘ is deleted, order is restored to the sentence. Secondly, on p 259, a whole line has been lost. After line 8 (’leggiero - implies’), the following words should begin the new paragraph: ‘Whence springs this imaginative unity? From the sonorities,’. The text then reads naturally on with ‘the always ambiguous harmony’. etc.

To sum up, we are all even further in Malcolm MacDonald‘s debt with the appearance of this volume, and he may be assured that he will be given no peace until volume 3 crowns the work. In addition to the reassessment of some of the earlier symphonies, we are promised a broader discussion of the essential characteristics of Brian’s style, and an attempt to place him in ‘the general context of 2Oth century European culture’. I would personally hope to find in the concluding chapters some space devoted to the general question of Brian’s single and multi-movement forms. I wonder if I am alone in finding that some ‘movements’ seem less of an independent whole than some other sections within movements, eg the four movements of No 28 vis-à-vis some parts of Nos 13-17.

NL 17 / © 1978 David J Brown

Malcolm MacDonald replies:

I should like to comment on three points raised by David Brown in his appallingly generous review of my ‘Volume 2’.

The first concerns my passing remark, which he fears some readers may find offensive, concerning a representative clutch of ‘Cheltenham symphonists’ and their achievements, or lack of them, in relation to the symphonies of Brian. I am perfectly prepared to stand by what I wrote: and what I wrote is a fairly careful sentence which is intended, however lightly, to convey a number of degrees of discrimination that were lost in David‘s paraphrase. Neither the Newsletter [nor website] nor the pages of a volume devoted to Brian’s symphonies is the proper place to discuss the respective merits of such composers as Alwyn, Berkeley, Fricker, Rawsthorne and Rubbra; though Volume 3 may well find room for an explanation of why I think Brian stands apart from these figures.

But I will readily avow, if it will set minds at rest, that I enjoy music by all these composers - some more, some less; and that out of those named I think Rubbra the most deserving of respect (which is why, in my original sentence, he was removed from reach of my strictures by a parenthesis). However (Rubbra excepted again) I would not hold that their finest and most characteristic music is to be found in their symphonies; and I continue to believe that Brian is a different order of symphonist altogether.

As to the idea of ‘the Cheltenham symphony’ as an easy target for cheap critical scorn, I may say that I think the intention behind the commissions of the Cheltenham Festival in its heyday - to nourish and promote a continuing tradition of large-scale orchestral music in this country - was absolutely right. However, the products of those commissions, however expertly fashioned and enjoyable to listen to, cannot on the whole be ranked among the most vital contributions to British music of the post-war decades.

If I was asked to hazard a guess as to the best symphony, qua symphony, that was written to a Cheltenham commission, I think I would say Rawsthorne’s Third - a memorable and quietly original work, if no great masterpiece (that word is prone to the most extraordinary overuse in the context of British music); and that the best orchestral work all round was the Gerhard Concerto for Orchestra (and even that has somewhat the air of an intellectual exercise beside the grand passions of his third and fourth symphonies).

Secondly, I think David allows my judgements too much weight when he says that ‘if the reader comes to disagree with an assessment… it should be borne in mind that these studies are the fruits of long familiarity with the scores themselves…’. If the reader disagrees with an assessment, he has every right to do so. The symphonies of Havergal Brian is not intended to be the single everlasting authority on its subject. On the contrary, I have always viewed it as a personal exploration in the world of Brian’s symphonies, designed to inform the reader as to their contents, and to speculate about their processes and their expressive import, attempting to provide an intellectual framework within which they may be understood as more than simply notes on the page or lovely noises coming over the radio. There is nothing final about my studies, and my own views continue to modify as I write the book. Eventually, I fully expect it to be superseded, and I’ll be quite content if in 30 years or so it is simply affectionately remembered as a quaint bit of trail-blazing, and a few of its judgements have stood the test of time.

Thirdly, David mentions the large number of annoying misprints, My publisher tells me that these will he corrected in the paperback edition of Vols 1 & 2 which will be published in the not too distant future. But I must now pre-empt further reviews by drawing attention to an amazingly stupid blunder of my own, which has only just been pointed out to me by an indulgent friend.

On pp 100-101 I describe how after the 18th Symphony, Brian considered writing a choral work - in his own words, ‘a choral and orchestral setting of the 52nd Psalm in the Vulgate’ . I then reproduced part of Psalm 52 in the King James version, like a good son of the Kirk, and puzzled for a few lines over what significance Brian might have found in ‘Why boastest thyself in mischief, O mighty man?’. Quite uselessly. What I ought to have remembered, and didn’t, was that the numbering of the Psalms in the Vulgate - as in the Lutheran Bible - does not correspond exactly to the Authorized Version.

In fact, the whole question of Brian’s proposed choral work now becomes more fascinating: for ‘the 52nd Psalm in the Vulgate’ is actually Dixit insipiens - or, in the Authorized Version, Psalm 53: ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God … God looked down from Heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God…’. Though it is a common misapprehension that the words which composers set to music must represent their own feelings and beliefs, that conclusion is not invariably incorrect; and the fact that Brian considered setting these words sheds a strange light, in my view, on his public avowals of wholehearted atheism.

NL18 1978

Newsletter, NL 18, 1978