Two interpretations of The Cenci (5)

William Newman

Havergal Brian’s The Cenci and Berthold Goldschmidt’s

_Beatrice Cenci _ Part 5 : Musical treatment - William Newman

Apologies for the absence of musical examples; these will be instated as soon as possible - JRM

Both composers use fairly large orchestras with triple to quadruple wind, four horns, 3-4 trumpets, three trombones, tuba, four percussion/timpani and harps (one for Goldschmidt and two for Brian). Both make extensive use of the xylophone, as they frequently did in other works, and Brian, demonstrating again his ability to border on the eccentric, included a passage requiring four timpanists. Both composers demonstrate their considerable accomplishments in brass writing, which is prominent, and Brian in particular writes very effectively for the tuba (though Goldschmidt also features the tuba occasionally).

Brian and Goldschmidt both write diatonically, but with fluid tonality and both write horizontally rather than vertically. In Brian’s case, dissonance and the frequent ambiguity of tonal centre arises primarily from his contrapuntal writing [^60], whereas Goldschmidt’s harmonic continuity seems more carefully planned and not solely dependent on his linear writing. Brian’s vocal writing cannot be said to be particularly sympathetic: speed of delivery, syllable by syllable writing and an almost continuous use of parlando militate against mellifluous effects for their own sake.

Moreover, Brian’s vocal writing has virtually no expression marks, although they are comprehensive in the orchestral parts. These characteristics are quite deliberate and categorically do not represent any naivety or incompetence in writing. Brian wrote over 100 songs and part songs, many of which show fresh lyricism and it is necessary to emphasise that Brian’s primary purpose in The Cenci is to propel the characters towards their fate, for which purpose sustained lyricism was not required. The absence of expression marks for the singers is almost certainly because Brian would expect the vocalists to apply their own interpretation in accord with the orchestral writing.

In contrast, Goldschmidt writes very grateful parts for his singers. Quasi-recitative and parlando are used extensively, but these are frequently heightened into sustained lyric intensity. The introduction of three separate Shelley poems, plus the setting of False friend, already in Shelley’s play, gives Goldschmidt the opportunity to spread his lyrical wings. As already mentioned in the previous chapter, these tend to interrupt the flow of the narrative, but the three songs added to the text are fully idiomatic with the style of the opera, even though one was written six years earlier.

The setting of False friend is quite different in style, however, with a beautiful, simple melodic line reminiscent of a folk song and a relatively simple harmonic structure, though the unexpected transposition from F sharp minor to C minor at bar 9, and the tonal wandering which immediately precedes it are typical not only of Goldschmidt but also of Franz Schmidt. Indeed, it is difficult to believe that the slow movement of Franz Schmidt’s Quintet in G major for piano, 2 violins, viola and cello (1926) was not a direct influence on this song.

It seems certain that Goldschmidt heard this fine piece of chamber music before he left Germany, though whether the imitation is conscious or not at the time Beatrice Cenci was written is unknown. Certainly, the more lyrical development of Goldschmidt’s music from the late 1930s onwards could have been due in part to the influence of Franz Schmidt.

Both operas use recurrent motifs in a fairly fluid manner, the motifs being invariably introduced in the orchestra. Beatrice Cenci opens with a brief orchestral flourish of 23 bars, but these few bars contain two of the opera’s main motifs, the first of which is a striking passage using very effective horn shakes (Ex 1).

This can be said to represent Count Cenci and its air of dark menace is ideal for this purpose. Its use in the banquet scene just before the Count gleeful announces the death of two of his sons in Salamanca prepares the audience for the depravity of this joyous announcement and underlines the ominous presentiments felt by Beatrice (Ex 2).

The second motif follows the first at bar nine (Ex 3), consisting of a single bar and is less static in meaning than its predecessor, being used as a structural element as much as a character or emotional motif. As far as specific meaning can be attached to it, it is often associated with grief. It is a so used with the first motif in the banquet scene mentioned above, but elsewhere it appears frequently in varied forms as, for example, at the end of the trio where Beatrice, Lucrezia and Bernardo tell of their love for one another in the First Scene of Act One (Ex 4).

Although the melody of False friend does not appear until the song is sung toward the end of the opera, it is presaged at various points before this, and always in association with Beatrice. The earliest reference comes at the opening of Act One, Scene One with Lucrezia’s first words (Ex 5).

A strong feature of the opera is the extensive use of descending diatonic and chromatic lines in the bass, almost, at times, in the form of a passacaglia (a form which Goldschmidt was fond of using).

Interestingly bearing in mind Brian’s frequent use of open fifths

New material is introduced in the Third Act, but, leaving aside False friend, this is not as fully developed as the motifs cited earlier. One rhythmic idea (associated with fate) which recurs is first of all announced at the end of Act Two, neatly acting as a link between the two acts (Ex 7).

It has already been mentioned that the extension of the libretto beyond the conclusion of Shelley’s play weakens the end and it can also be said that the final choral procession (recalled from an early lost requiem by Goldschmidt) has a definite bathetic feel to it, the irony being too broad to be effective.

Brian’s The Cenci lasts about 100 minutes (roughly 10 minutes less than Beatrice Cenci), each of its eight scenes lasting 10-15 minutes. The Overture lasts about 12 minutes, about the same length as his twelfth symphony and has much of the structure of one of his single-movement symphonies. Indeed, it has a loose affinity to sonata form, the thematic material at the opening (see exx 8 and 9) being developed and briefly recapitulated at the end. In fact, the Overture was prepared for separate performance as his Preludio tragico 63, the same name which he gave to a lost work written in 1900-1902 64. Indeed, the whole opera has strong symphonic elements. After the Overture introduces the First Scene, each following scene except the last has an orchestral introduction which both sets the tone and tends to introduce the thematic material to be used.

Some of the reasons why Brian’s music can seem difficult have been mentioned earlier but the productive discontinuities which can be so puzzling in his later symphonies are not, in general, a problem in the operas as the music necessarily closely follows the dramatic narrative. Other difficulties are apparent in The Cenci, however. The contrapuntal writing is dense at times and the problems of focussing on the dominant strands can be daunting for those unused to the idiom, as motivic themes can be scattered over a range of instruments at widely varying pitches. If it is remembered, however, that much of the main melodic material is carried by the bass instruments (particularly the tuba and trombones), then the musical language becomes much easier to assimilate.

A notable example of Brian’s methods can be observed in the opening bars of the opera where virtually all the thematic material is presented in the first few bars; moreover, it is all stated in the bass instruments. The shifting tonality, the paucity of full cadences, the strenuous counterpoint and this cornucopia of thematic material make it difficult for unwary listeners to make musical sense of this opening, the first six and a half bars of which are given in ex 8.

A s with Beatrice Cenci, not all of this thematic material should be ascribed to particular figures, situations or emotions, but all are used extensively in constantly shifting variants. ‘A’ is used at times of agitation and is often extended into lengthy scale passages. Brian’s curious way of separating four quavers into two batches of two quavers can be largely put down to a personal idiosyncrasy as, at the speeds demanded, the emphasis implied is inaudible *. Typical uses of these running semiquavers (sometimes written as demisemiquavers) can be heard at he opening of Scene 1 (ex 9) and at the close of the scene (ex 10).

The second thematic cell, ‘B’, is less frequently heard, not least as its peaceful lilt is not often appropriate. An adaptation can be heard at the opening of Scene 2, to show the continuing affection of Beatrice for Orsino (ex 11).

The simple descending scale passages heralded by ‘C’, usually in the low brass, are used for ominous effects particularly for death, as in the orchestral comment on Marzio’s death on the rack (ex 12) and in the judge’s comment on the initial confession of murder by Marzio (ex 13).

The thematic cell, ‘D’, is directly associated with Count Cenci and with the perverse pleasure he takes in cruelty. A typical example accompanies his description of his philosophy of life in Scene 1 (ex 14).

The cell, ‘E’, is the first example in the opera of Brian’s use of the open fifth, which he often seemed to prefer to triads. Its function varies, but bare fifths are often used as punctuation marks as at the end of Scene 5 (ex 15).

The motif which represents Beatrice appears first at bar 14 (‘F’), overlapping the descending scale passage cited above (‘C’). This is immediately followed, again with a slight overlap, by a passage (‘G’) which is basically an inversion of the Beatrice motif and could be said to be a part of the theme (ex 16).

The theme representing Beatrice makes a full appearance in the upper register at bar 21 (rehearsal mark 3 [^65]) as shown in ex 17.

Although the vocal lines are written in a parlando style, from time to time these assume a more lyrical manner as in Count Cenci’s description of his philosophy of life (see ex 14), but the most lyrical moment occurs when, in saying farewell to her young brother, Beatrice sings the theme which has been representing her since the Overture.

This sudden outburst of melody in the vocal line is very touching, and the spoken words by Bernardo in response ‘I cannot say farewell’ can surely be seen as among the most dramatically and psychologically effective in all opera (ex 18).

The continuation of speech by Beatrice thereafter continues the mood of cathartic tragedy as the opera speeds towards its conclusion. This final speech is accompanied by four timpanists playing four separate notes as a roll with an oboe playing Beatrice’s theme on top. This unusual effect is highly effective, though it must be wondered whether a single timpanist could not have been almost as valid.


The Cenci and Beatrice Cenci were written when Brian and Goldschmidt were at the height of their powers and it is extraordinary that both works languished for so long unperformed and almost forgotten. It is indeed fortunate that both composers lived into their 90s, for it was their rediscovery late in life that led to a revival of public interest in their lives and music. The BBC Music Magazine for August 1995 reported Goldschmidt as saying, ‘If I had died ten years ago, not a soul would know a note of Cenci or anything’, and much the same could have been said of Brian’s music had he died at the biblical three score years and ten.

It should be added, however, that without the advocacy of isolated champions of their music like Robert Simpson, Bernard Keeffe and Malcolm MacDonald, performances of their music would still be even more infrequent than is currently the case

I consider it a privilege to have attended the only performance to date of Brian’s The Cenci, given at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 12 December 1997 and to have been present at the first staged performance given in the UK of Beatrice Cenci by Trinity College of Music on 9-11 July 1998. Beatrice Cenci has now had successful professional performances in Germany and an excellent recording has been issued. Its quasi-romantic style, strong dramatic narrative and lyrical melodic lines should make it a strong candidate for a professional performance at last in Britain.

Brian’s more austere Cenci setting has less obvious appeal given the density of its musical syntax, but it is a carefully constructed work with a strong libretto and a direct dramatic thrust. A professional quality recording was made of the Queen Elizabeth Hall performance and it is difficult to understand why the BBC has declined to broadcast it and why no record company has agreed to issue it. Brian’s music is not easy, but his unique voice should be heard more frequently.

It would be invidious to evaluate one work against the other as their purposes are so different, and, doubtless, facets which appeal to one listener would not necessarily appeal to another, but both composers had clear visions of what they wished to achieve and the ability to achieve their ambitions. Both settings of The Cenci are extremely impressive works of art.

NL 149 © 1999 William Lawrence Newman

  1. MacDonald op cit, vol 1, 1974, p173 ↩︎

  2. Schaarwächter 1997 op cit p405 ↩︎

Newsletter, NL 149, 1999