Review of The symphonies of Havergal Brian, volume 3

Martin Anderson

Review -

Martin Anderson

Malcolm MacDonald, The symphonies of Havergal Brian. Volume 3_, Sy__mphonies 30-32: Survey and summing-up. Kahn & Averill, 1983. £12.95. 309pp_

Havergal Brian is not a neglected composer. Not, at least, if you judge by the amount that has been written about him, even excluding the many thousands of words that have appeared in these columns [ie the Havergal Brian Society Newsletter, and latterly this website—JRM]. If HB remains ‘neglected’ in terms of performances, there now exists a sizeable literature which will be of immense value in promoting future performances. It is, of course, with the singular exception of Reginald Nettel’s Ordeal by music, a recent phenomenon: if anyone had suggested twenty years ago [MA is writing in 1983—JRM] that by the end of 1983 nine books would have been published about Havergal Brian and his music, the notion would have been met with some incredulity. Chief among these are, of course, the three volumes of Malcolm MacDonald’s The symphonies of Havergal Brian, the writing of which must have required a verbal and analytical assiduity comparable to the composer’s musical doggedness (these three books run to one chapter more than the number of symphonies).

Volume 3 of MM’s study both rounds off his descriptive analyses of the Symphonies themselves and, much more importantly (I think), provides by far the most comprehensive assessment of the composer and his achievement yet to appear. Indeed, it now offers the simplest way to rebut the constant carpings of the nation’s professional Beckmessers (the most recently voluble examples were pulpitted in The financial Times and The observer): take in the right hand the vast body of knowledge printed in this book and, gently but firmly, crack them over the ears with it. It is packed with the kind of information that may at last bring home to them the painful realisation that Havergal Brian did, in fact, know what he was doing, that here is not a gifted but incompetent amateur (as the Heyworths, Gills and other inclements would have us believe), but a composer who not only was equipped with one of the most original minds of this century but whose knowledge of music may have been as deep and as broad as any composer ever.

A wild claim, if not one that will surprise anyone reading the Newsletter, and, of course, it cries out for qualification; the point is that volume 3 will do immensely useful work among those who are not members of the lodge in promoting reassessment of HB’s stature. For the ‘Volume 3’ aspect is its least important, and takes up only 18 pages out of the 309. The rest examine at fascinating length how Brian composed, the physical act itself: the scope of his awareness of other composers, seen in the light of his critical writings (the extracts quoted here whet the appetite massively for the three collections of HB’s writings which I—wearing my Toccata Press hat—hope to publish in collaboration with the HBS); his treatment of line and harmony, tonality and form; his handling of the orchestra, the symphonies as echoes of drama and reflections of architecture; and an attempt — a brave one — to fathom the workings of this most elliptical of musical minds. The final main chapter reverts to MM’s descriptive-analytical approach to examine Brian’s Elegy and offers a final ‘Recapitulation’.

But although I can applaud MM’s achievement with the excited enthusiasm it deserves—entirely without feeling beholden by our friendship—I do have reservations, one of them substantial. A few years ago Michael Evans wrote a book entitled The tragic operas of Janácek. One of its reviewers quite rightly took him to task: why write about almost all of Janácek’s operatic output; why not knock out the title’s adjective and cover the lot? Similarly, I feel that MM has missed a golden opportunity to write three magnificent volumes on ‘The Orchestral Music of Havergal Brian’. It wouldn’t have taken much more: a chapter on each of the concertos, and a little more on the overtures, suites and early works. As it is, he finds he often has to refer to them in absentia—so why did he baulk at a few thousand mere words?

Members (all?) who have MM’S first two volumes will not need to be told of the approachability of his style, one which gently conceals a vast amount of often unexpectedly apposite learning (especially in the latter chapters). Flaubert once said, somewhat flippantly, that his method of writing was to get everything down on paper and then to go through it changing the adjectives. MM’s adjectives are, I think, equally carefully prepared: anyone who can write of ‘avuncular octave Es’ has taken Flaubert’s message on board. His accessibility is especially important when he is discussing fairly complex musical phenomena, ones with which this listener at least took several years to come to terms. As this examination involves the bulk of the book, the effort merits gratitude; Volume 1 of this series was very useful in leading my puzzled if eager ears through the early symphonies, and what Volume 3 does is to offer the same guiding insights, made from a more general point of vantage. Sometimes, indeed, in an attempt to provide the music with analogies that will facilitate the listener’s response to HB, especially in the chapters examining the symphonies as drama and as architecture, MM goes over the top, and his approach becomes not so much illuminative as fanciful. Although he is at pains to admit this weakness himself, my feeling is that it detracts somewhat from the cogency of the serious analysis and assessment elsewhere in the book. Mind you, it does result in a convincing explanation of Brian’s previously unfathomable remark that the ‘pivot’ of The Gothic was to be found in the miles of freshly ploughed fields he found in the South Downs. (No —read it yourself!)

MM’s analysis of the complexities of Brian’s style is, I suspect, profoundly perspicacious, although this is a bold claim from one of my low level of musicological ability! I can support it up only to the limits of my technical comprehension (no sniggering at the back please). For us lesser mortals one of the chief fascinations of the book is the survey of Brian’s writings on other composers—from Byrd to Berg, Verdi to Varèse—which MM and we can see against the background of his own compositions. Some of them, of course, are more important than others—Bach, Handel, Berlioz, Schumann, Strauss pre-eminently, Beethoven and Brahms less so. And there are real surprises among his sympathies: what on earth, for example, can have possessed him to claim that ‘Many of us have found all we wanted in the only symphony of César Franck which we did not find in the whole nine of Beethoven’; nor did he have much time for those of Sibelius. Perhaps, too, we’d have had more on

other figures to whom Brian’s reactions would have been fascinating had his position at Musical opinion required him to write on them, even though he occasionally strayed from the editorial path: among my favourites, Busoni, Reger and Nielsen all interested him (the first of these perhaps most of all), but he appears to have penned little about them—one more reproach to lay at the feet of the concert promoters of his days (and ours, for that matter).

MM draws attention to Brian’s ‘coming of age’ not so much in The Gothic as in The Tigers, the former an apotheosis of the past, the latter ‘the crucible in which the musical language of the symphonies took shape’. And I think he hits upon a crucial aspect of HB’s art when he quotes Brian on Delius’s A mass of life: ‘it may be argued that there is no central plot or plan. Of course, plot is always with us; neither is there a central plot in Tristram Shandy or in the great B minor Mass of Bach. Ignoring HB’s curious phrasing (which reveals much, as MM goes on to show), the juxtaposition of the B minor Mass and Tristram Shandy highlights something fundamental about the cast of mind that gave rise not only to The Tigers, which is all plot and none, but also the succeeding symphonies—‘a chain of soliloquies and meditations’, as Brian wrote of the Delius, though Brian’s are bigger—for they too are all plot and none. Indeed, if I were asked whether I felt Brian to be closer to the world of Shandy or the B minor Mass, I would opt, after some thought, for the former. And with two readings of Malcolm MacDonald’s Volume 3 behind me, I might at least be able to justify my choice.

NL 51 / © 1984 Martin Anderson

Newsletter, NL 51, 1984