Havergal Brian’s operas

Kate Baxter

An introduction - Kate Baxter Both Edward Elgar and Havergal Brian were principally self-taught composers. Elgar seems to have developed his music from the basis of the Stanford School, while Brian was strongly influenced by Wagnerism and music drama as an entity. Brian had mixed feelings about his lack of formal tuition: ‘I was compelled by force of circumstance to plan my career as a composer unaided. I don’t know which is worse - to be like Gustav Holst, the pupil of a teaching genius like Stanford and to be met with the criticism of ‘It’s all wrong, me boy!’ or sit unaided grasping for the light.’ (Truscott and Rapaport, 1978)

In an interview with local radio in 1969, when Brian was asked ‘What composer influenced you then?’ (in the early years) Brian answered ‘Oh, the Germans’. In Brian’s first opera The Tigers (1916-18), this German influence is obvious in the enormity of the work and his use of thematic material. It is easy, however, to overlook the peculiarly British influences. The work is a ‘Burlesque Opera’ in the very best tradition of English parody most commonly found in the Music Hall. Brian also uses folk-song, not the rural folk-song popularly used by Vaughan Williams, but the folk-song of the newly-industrialised people.

For instance, in the first Act the music of the popular song Has anybody here seen Kelly? is heard as a theme and variations. Perhaps because of the massive forces needed for its production The Tigers has only been performed as a concert for radio (BBC,1979) and has not been staged in a theatre. According to Edward Greenfield, Fritz Busch was interested in staging The Tigers soon after its completions, but ‘The emergence of Hitler and Busch’s departure for Stockholm put paid to the idea’. The score itself was lost for nearly thirty years, eventually being found in the basement of the Southern Music Publishing Company in 1977 after an appeal for information regarding its whereabouts by the Havergal Brian Society.

Brian’s opera composition halted until 1951, when Turandot was completed. The reason for this long interlude may be that Brian had written The Tigers as part of a new publishing contract with Cranz, and that either he had nothing more to say in this genre at the time, or that he recognised the English public’s apathy towards British operatic works. Turandot was quickly followed by The Cenci (1952) Faust (1954-56?), and finally Agamemnon (1957). It seems that Brian was never anxious to see these later operas either published or produced. Walker states that, in later years, when Brian’s wife Hilda had said that she did not like opera, Brian quipped ‘I daren’t tell her that I’ve got five operas of my own in the cupboard - if she knew about that, she’d probably throw them all out to the dustman!’. Perhaps, after so many years of his music being met with disapproval by the establishment, he was reluctant to invite further conflict, even from his own wife.

Gerald Cumberland, in his book of reminiscences (1918), wrote: ‘Havergal Brian was in the room… and he remarked, that he found it impossible to write music that the public really liked, "nearly all my stuff," said he, "is on a big scale for the orchestra. I am always trying to do something new, something out of the common rut."’

A t this time the only large scale vocal work that Brian had composed was the unorchestrated score of The Tigers. The Gothic Symphony, operas and cantatas had not even been thought of. In fact, the majority of Brian’s work had been songs both for solo voices, such as his three songs for contralto or baritone - Sorrow song, The message, and Farewell (1901), and part-songs, such as Grace for a child (1913), and The chimney sweeper (1914). These part songs were being written more and more for female rather than male or mixed voices. An examination of the ‘Catalogue of Works’ by Foreman (Nettel, 1976) [see Works by date] reveals an increase in the number of orchestral and instrumental works by the mid 1930s, for instance the Second English suite (1915) for orchestra, Three illuminations (1916) for piano, and the Third English suite (1914) for orchestra.

In a previous interview, with Nettel, after the first performance of his Gothic Symphony in 1966, Brian answered a question that people had wanted to ask for years:

‘Q. No regrets about the years of obscurity?
A. Not a bit. No. I never had any ambition to be a star; I only wanted to get the opportunity and the time to do the work I wanted to do.’

However, this answer seems to be the one that Brian had contented himself with over the years of obscurity. Rapoport, among others, discusses the years of neglect, saying that the reasons are many and varied; that between the wars, at a time when it was not financially viable, Brian was composing work that demanded large orchestral forces. It is also probable that Brian made many enemies in the British musical establishment during his years as a music journalist when he had been in contact with many contemporary composers and their music. For instance in October 1936 in a piece called ‘The Composers Desolation’ Brian wrote that: ‘Apart from the Promenade Concerts, the musical life of this country is as badly organised or as haphazard in its national arrangements as is national defence.’ (M. MacDonald 1986)

R apoport also suggests that Brian disliked the difficulties involved in getting his works published and performed, and the events surrounding the break-up of his first marriage caused consternation among many of his musical acquaintances, such as Elgar, and lost him the income he had received from his patron, Herbert Minion Robinson. Perhaps the most damaging to Brian’s career as a composer was his move away from the Potteries to London in 1913. Previously, whilst living and working in the Potteries, an area renowned for its great choirs and performances of new works under the baton of local conductor James Whewall, Brian had been useful to his composer acquaintances such as Elgar and Bantock in aiding the local performance of their choral works. When Whewall died and Brian moved to London it seems that the only one of these men who did not forget him was Bantock, but ‘after he left the Potteries his [Brian’s] influence was negligible’ (Nettel,1976).

As mentioned previously, Brian called Agamemnon and his other works in this genre ‘operas’. His use of the word is significant, as previous to this, ‘in Brian’s own listing of his ‘drama compositions’ this [Faust] was the fifth of the six that he had completed, though most writers, placing Prometheus unbound with the cantatas, list only five. Brian believed that his music dramas contained the best of his creative abilities.’ (Easthaugh, 1976.)

David J Brown also, among others, refers to Brian’s operatic works as music dramas, so implying a strong Wagnerian influence, maybe striving for ‘Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft’. As seen above, Brian was a self-acknowledged Wagnerian and lover of German music and philosophy, teaching himself to read German at an early age. The contradictory nature of Brian’s references to opera and music drama could mean that in his earlier operas, such as Turandot (1950-51), and The Cenci (1951-2), he was striving towards the Wagnerian ideal of music drama; but in the later works, such as Faust (1955-6?) and Agamemnon (1957), had reached a form that he was content to describe as opera.

The Tigers (orchestrated 1929) does not seem to fit into either of these genres, but stands alone; a foray into the realms of the music hall. Since Brian seems to have mentioned only five operas in the cupboard, either one was lost or stored elsewhere, or, by the time of his interview with Matthew-Walker, Brian himself thought of Prometheus unbound as belonging to a genre other than opera. It is difficult to come to a firm conclusion since the score, on which Brian was working from 1935 to 1944, has been lost.

Brian said, in discussion with Matthew-Walker, that the one-act opera Agamemnon was meant as a curtain-raiser for Richard Strauss’ Elektra. ‘To explain what happens before Elektra begins, you see’. There seem to be many reasons why this could not be a viable proposition, among them the differences between the two orchestras, and the lack of correspondence between voices for some of the main characters in each. Further, the text used by Brian itself presupposes a listener’s prior knowledge of the tragedy.

Composed in 1957, Agamemnon appears to be a part of the Post-Romantic German tradition, rather than being influenced by, and part of, English opera in the twentieth century. Like Elektra (1909), Salome (1905) Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), and Capriccio (1945), Agamemnon is a one-act opera. Strauss’ Elektra appears to be fluid in tonality throughout, and concludes by the orchestra and chorus exploring polytonality. Like Strauss, Brian was very much influenced by the music dramas and essays of Wagner, culminating in Intermezzo (1924), when Strauss was his own librettist. In Agamemnon Brian derives his own libretto from Blackie’s translation (1911), and discussed here, The Tigers being the only opera in which Brian was his own librettist throughout.

NL 129 © Kate Baxter 1996

Newsletter, NL 129, 1996