…takes your breath away

Larry Alexander

…takes your breath away - Larry Alexander Larry Alexander, in inimitable style, develops some ideas expressed by PJ Taylor here

I was utterly fascinated by PJ Taylor’s detailed letter re his reactions to HB’s works; my congratulations to him for writing it and to you for publishing it in the NL. While I do not entirely agree with him piece for piece I think most of his points are generally well taken re the total output of what was in essence a 70 year career. Unlike Mr Taylor, I have all 32 of the symphonies and, I think, everything else that has ever been taped. Based on that I can say that, yes, the totality of the oeuvre is ‘uneven’, but name me a composer of any worth whatsoever who didn’t write his share of bombs and duds and shrugs.

Shall we cite Wellington’s victory to begin with and go on to the lesser Haydn symphonies, say the ones in the 30s or 70s (yes, I know that no doubt these works have their champions, but generally speaking I think it is agreed that they are still for the most part not the greatest advertisements for their creators): at least Brian isn’t a Bruch who had one (well, two maybe) single spark of genius which fizzled the moment it was committed to stave, or a Reznicek who is known for an overture but not the opera to which it is attached.

A nd yet - and yet. Mr Taylor is, I’m convinced, right on the button when it comes to his feelings re the psychology of the composer, although I don’t think he takes the circumstances that led to it into account. Brian may very well have been scared to submit himself to ‘peer review’, but perhaps because the peers didn’t care to review in the first place - because perhaps (!) the peers, at least those of the Edwardian era, thought he was for the most part a presumptuous upstart who didn’t know his place.

How dare a man from his background expect anyone of culture to take his musical pretensions seriously? Too many cold shoulders and short shrifts make a creative person curdle within; how many out-of-hand rejections does it take before he doesn’t want to bother simply because he knows from the start what the reaction will be? (By which I mean that the piece under review would be returned on the basis that it is no good when most probably - most certainly - it was not even studied at all.) That the man persevered even in the face of this is astounding; most would have gone into teaching, or drinking, or suicide.

But, of absolute necessity, the ears had to be shut off when it came to criticism, both from without and, more importantly, within. One has to be completely and utterly convinced that what one is doing is important and that eventually – finally – it will be recognized, and appreciated. Towards that end one leaps with excessive gratitude toward anyone at all who says a kind word, especially if it comes from out of the blue; I refer, of course, to the support Brian finally enjoyed from Robert Simpson. If but one person and one alone says to the neglected craftsman ‘I like your work, I think that what you do is good, or better than good’, it is sufficient to fuel the creative engine. In effect, it gives you an audience. It is very important to have an audience, small though it be, especially if your aim is the stratosphere…

… and here, too, Mr Taylor is bullseye. For Brian, as for Mahler, it is greatness or nothing. Where he and I tend to differ is that I am convinced that Brian’s greatness comes primarily from the fact that he was ‘untutored’ or, more accurately, self-taught. My theory of creative genius is in large measure based on that. When a talented youngster goes to an accredited school to learn his craft he learns it ‘properly’, as his teachers command. Oh, there is lip service to individuality, of course, but that’s all it is, I’m afraid. One can be ‘creative’ only within the boundaries, adhering to all the rules, particularly when it comes to structure and the getting from A to B to Z. A man who has to in effect rediscover the wheel might very well, if he is a true creator, rediscover it in a way nobody else ever thought of before… which at first usually makes the establishment reject it, utterly. That is just wrong, they sneer; it isn’t done that way.

But the fact is that it damn well can be done that way and what frightens them is that they didn’t think of it… and that it feels to them as though it negates everything they have stood for. It becomes a challenge to their authority and to their own work itself, as if one being good means that the other by definition has to be bad. So the attack, or the neglect — better the neglect. Why publicize a foe?

What I’m getting at is that this comes down to nothing less than a vicious circle. Brian is unlettered in the official ways of writing music so he writes oddball music which those in the know, those with the power, have to reject psychologically because they feel personally threatened by it. The result of the rejection is that the composer curls in on himself and curmudgeons. He has only his faith in himself to rely on and he lives on that, and the pieces don’t get the hearings they deserve and HB has no choice but to turn a deaf ear to criticism, deserved or not. Outside or in. So: because of this some of the work is flawed, seriously – but a larger pack of it is so touched by individuality and surprise and originality that the breath of the open-eared latter-day listener is literally taken away.

NL80 / ©1988 by Larry Alexander

Newsletter, NL 80, 1988