The significance of Brian the journalist

Malcolm MacDonald

Malcolm MacDonald This is a slightly revised, but still unpolished, version of my address at the HBS AGM on the occasion of the launch of volume one of Havergal Brian on music - April 1986

I’d like first to address those members of the HBS — and there must be some of you — who aren’t entirely convinced that the production in book form of Brian’s journalism is one of the most necessary activities that the Society has ever engaged in. After all, we all came to esteem Havergal Brian through the experience of his music; it’s as a composer, first and foremost, that we wish to establish his reputation in the musical world. Shouldn’t his critical activities, however interesting, take a back seat to the promotion of performances and the sponsoring of records?

Now that seems to me an entirely reasonable view — in fact, I’m not altogether sure that I don’t hold it myself. Brian the journalist, though a substantial figure in his own terms, is not a creative phenomenon to set beside Brian the composer. And it’s only because I know that the Society remains deeply committed to the promotion of Brian the composer as its primary aim, and the heartening news of the future performances and recordings which are beginning to accumulate, that I’m able to justify to myself the labour — and the pleasure — which I’ve had in producing this book.

But I think I can justify it to you on more cogent grounds; first, that Brian the journalist has a lot to tell us about Brian the composer, and second, that Brian the journalist has a historical and to some extent a literary importance of his own. This book, and its eventual successors, should be required reading for every fan of Brian’s music who wants to know more about his mind, his tastes, and indeed his life; but I also believe it will be useful reading for people who have no interest in Brian’s works at all. For here Brian emerges as a fascinating — because fascinated — chronicler of the musical world in which he lived. That it has value as a historical source I have no doubt whatever, and in it we find that Brian has preserved many facts, many anecdotes, and touches of local colour that have escaped later writers who have taken a more Olympian view.

We discover something else as well — something with profound implications for the popularly received image of this (still) most puzzling of composers. One of the essential ingredients of the legend of Havergal Brian is the element of "creative isolation": the lone composer, forging his life-work in solitude, cut off from the public, from fellow-composers, from critics, from practising musicians. It’s one of the ways in which the Brian phenomenon was presented to almost all of us, when we first began to get interested in his music — indeed, let’s admit that it has a certain glamour, as a classic variation on the Romantic theme of retreat from the uncaring and uncomprehending world.

This picture of "lonely heroism" stems almost entirely from his last decades, when he was physically isolated in Shoreham and most of his closest acquaintances were dead: though in fact we know very well that even then, musical friendships meant a very great deal to him. But it’s a picture that has tended to dominate our imaginations. And in unfriendly or sceptical imaginations it has been a very useful starting-point for making a whole host of negative presumptions about Brian’s creative life: that he composed the sort of music he did because he was a species of hermit, completely cut off from contemporary developments in this country and abroad, that he had no contact with real music-making, that he was basically uninterested in anything except the late Romantics, whose precepts and example he followed in increasingly bizarre ways.

This is an interesting case of a circular argument: if those statements were true, such things might well have adversely affected his music — and so we have all seen them paraded in the national press as established facts which provide reasons for dismissing Brian s music.

Now there’s a certain amount of evidence that suggests Brian was rather awkward and self-effacing in company not of his own choosing; but if this book does anything it finally reveals the image of Brian the hermit as the product of our own overheated imaginations. We have him here, between the ages of 30 and 70, firmly located in a social milieu, a man able to move easily in the musical world of his time with the double authority of (1) personal acquaintance with many of the leading figures of his day and (2) his day-to-day role as a reviewer and reporter for the musical press.

As we shall find as the series of volumes unfolds, this is a man whom Delius would take with him on a stroll round the Liverpool docks; whom Beecham would call on, to pass the time while waiting for a train; who played piano duets with Arnold Bennett, who was Elgar’s guest at the 1905 Worcester Festival; who attended Elgar’s Peyton Lectures in Birmingham; who interviewed Glazunov and Rachmaninoff and Diaghilev and Sousa and Paul Robeson and Albert Schweitzer and the old Arnold Dolmetsch and the young Yehudi Menuhin; who corresponded with Strauss and Dukas; who was a judge at the 1923 National Brass Band Championships at Crystal Palace.

We find him sharing a railway compartment with Percy Grainger; interviewing Stravinsky through a hotel speaking-tube: and attending the rehearsals of Richter, Furtwängler, Toscanini, Wood, Beecham, Weingartner, Oskar Fried, and even Schönberg. If, after all this, Brian still went away and composed the kind of music that he did, ignorance had nothing to do with it. On the contrary, he thrived on personal contact with music and musicians, and it all went into the melting-pot to be transformed by his personal alchemy into something that could be absorbed into his inner life, and so eventually into his own music.

Brian’s career as a journalist has been referred to in most of the published biographical accounts of his life, but I don’t believe it has yet been accorded the importance it deserves. I think this is partly because few people have realized how much writing he actually did. Of course, we all know that he worked at a wide variety of jobs, from carpenter’s apprentice in his teens to Civil Servant in the Ministry of Supply in his 70s: but most of the time he was involved in musical journalism of one kind or another. I would like to be sure that in doing the groundwork for this series of volumes I’d actually read all of it that found its way into print; but, to be frank, I can’t be certain. A large proportion of what he wrote was unsigned, or under pseudonyms, and without some kind of supporting evidence such as references in Brian’s letters, it’s difficult to know where to start looking. Although I have identified dozens of unsigned articles, there’s a certain element of luck involved.

To give an example: I had known, for many years (Reginald Nettel said it in the original Ordeal by music) that Brian wrote a number of articles for The British bandsman in the early 1920s, and I had collated photocopies of them all, so I thought — all signed "Havergal Brian" or initialled "H.B.". It was really just over a year ago, while I was going through the run of that paper in the British Museum just to double-check that I hadn’t missed one, that I gradually became aware that there was something rather familiar about the tone and content of a weekly column of comment entitled Music and musicians and signed with the nom de plume of "Wassail". After a while I recalled that the weekly column which Brian had written for the Staffordshire Sentinel in 1909-10 had also been called Music and musicians. So I started looking at this British bandsman column rather carefully; and slowly the details piled up.

Compared to the rest of the magazine, it devoted very little space to the activities of brass bands. It was clearly contributed by someone who had lived in the Potteries who had attended the Hallé Concerts before the War; someone who knew Granville Bantock well and, even more significant, wrote fulsomely of the early performances of Gerontius involving the Talk o’ the Hill Choir and their conductor James Whewall; someone given to walking the South Downs with an Irish Terrier named Pete… By this time I was perfectly sure who I was dealing with, but the utter confirmation came when I found that "Wassail"’s column for 1 September 1923 had already appeared, almost word for word, under Brian’s own name in the August 1923 issue of Musical opinion. So suddenly I found I had about thirty "Wassail" columns to add to my list for possible inclusion in the volumes of Havergal Brian on music. So I cannot promise you, even at this stage, that there may not be more to be found yet, in some other publication.

Brian’s writing career begins, as far as we know, in 1904, when he became the Manchester correspondent of the recently-revived weekly magazine The musical world. His principal duties were to review the concerts of the Hallé Orchestra, at that time of course conducted by Hans Richter, but he also contributed articles on a wide range of topics, reviewed books and newly-published printed music, and made forays elsewhere to review concerts and festivals as far afield as Morecambe, Wales, Liverpool, Birmingham and the Potteries. After about a year The musical world was converted to a monthly and moved its offices from Manchester to London, but

Brian remained the principal Manchester correspondent until the magazine folded in 1908.

Overlapping the end of this period, and continuing until about 1911, he wrote articles, reviews, and for a time a weekly column for his local paper in Stoke, the Staffordshire Sentinel. As we have been told by his biographers, Brian’s writing was lively and combative and offended a lot of local sensibilities — there are a few examples in this volume. At the same time he was writing brief local reports for the Musical times; I haven’t found anything of interest in this category, but of course it was also the Musical times that published his famous letter criticising Beecham’s drastic cutting of Elgar’s First Symphony — a letter that’s been reproduced in several books over the years.

There’s then a gap until 1922 before Brian begins again to appear regularly in print — but from his letters to Granville Bantock we know that he was, in fact, writing articles and bits of books throughout most of that period and sending them to various publications without success. I’ve chronicled this in more detail in my introduction to volume one. The only printed writings of this period were his contributions to the motorcycle and automobile magazine The motor trader in 1916-17: this appears to have been pure hackwork, writing up technical reports and describing motor shows. Everything is unsigned, there’s no mention of music. But from 1922 he began contributing to a reasonable number of journals on an occasional basis — Musical opinion, The British bandsman, The Chesterian, The sackbut, The monthly musical record, an organ magazine called The rotunda, and so on. And then in 1927 he moved from Sussex, where he had been living, to London, and was appointed as assistant editor of Musical opinion.

Musical opinion is of course still in publication; I don’t know if any of you ever see it regularly, but if you do, let me assure that in its present shape it is the palest of pale shadows of what it was while Brian was writing for it. Then, it was an extremely lively, wide-ranging magazine, one of the leaders in its field, a hundred pages to an issue, to which all the leading musical writers of the day contributed as a matter of course. The impression one gets is that the Editor, Arthur Fitzsimmons, tended rather to take a back seat and let his deputies make most of the running as far as the breadth and direction of the magazine were concerned.

Brian wrote almost every kind of contribution to it: editorials, main articles, concert reviews, book reviews, reviews of printed music (not record reviews), interviews, personality profiles, reports and summaries of public lectures, obituaries, news items, filler paragraphs. Also translations — in 1928 the magazine carried a report on that year’s Bayreuth Festival sent in by no less a personage than Siegfried Wagner: the byline tells us that it has been specially translated for the magazine by Havergal Brian.

Of course he was also involved in the day-to-day activities proper to an Editor, from the sub-editing of other writers’ copy down to seeing the issue off the press; and from about the mid-1930s, when Musical opinion began to dispense with the luxury of engraved music examples, Brian’s hand may quite literally be seen upon the articles of the other contributors — for he drew all the music examples, which then appeared in facsimile. I must say — perhaps it’s only me — but I get quite a kick out of seeing bits of Finzi song-cycles, William Byrd keyboard music, or Sibelius symphonies, copied out in Brian’s handwriting in the middle of other people’s articles — just as I do when I find bits of Beethoven string quartets or Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire copied out in the middle of his own.

Brian worked for Musical opinion from June 1927 until May 1940. Those 13 years were incomparably his most productive in journalistic terms, and it’s quite inevitable that the bulk of the items making up the volumes of Havergal Brian on music are drawn from that period. He also did a little writing at this time for the Radio times and for two magazines edited by his acquaintance Norman Dagg, Modern mystic and Tomorrow.

He also wrote a book, which was never published, and is lost, about contemporary composers. When we reflect that during this same period he orchestrated the whole of The Tigers, composed his second, third, fourth and fifth symphonies, two violin concertos, and more than half of Prometheus unbound, we can only marvel anew at the man’s capacity for sheer hard work. "Hack-work", he called his journalism. Well, so some of it is — but there’s an enormous amount of it that’s a lot better than hack-work; and if one wouldn’t place very much of it among the highest achievements of musical literature, most of it is still a damn good read.

Brian continued to write for Musical opinion for another nine years after he left its editorial staff — but his contributions became more and more infrequent, and many of them sound an elegiac note, because a fair number are obituaries for musical friends who were dying off as the years advanced.

There’s a different cause for sadness, too, which I felt it best not to comment on in my preface to volume one, and that is the sad decline of Musical opinion itself, from the broad-minded and forward-looking, internationally oriented general musical magazine it was in the 1930s, to the (one has to say) narrow-minded, thin-in-content publication, directed most of all at a readership of church organists, that it had become by the late l940s. This phenomenon does not seem unconnected with the activities of a certain Miss Dora Bright, who seems to have taken over most of what had been Brian’s duties, along with an enormous column of comment on radio broadcasts which she seems to have initiated.

She was a pianist and composer of some little reputation in the 1890s, and was in fact twelve years older than Brian (so when he left the magazine at the age of 64, she joined it at the age of 76). Among reactionary, blinkered, blood-boiling British music critics (of which there have been many), she was what one might call a palmary specimen. She loathed and despised practically every piece of music written after, let us say, 1861. She believed that composers who wrote anything more dissonant than a dominant seventh did so for the pure and simple reason that they had never properly learned their craft and needed elementary lessons in harmony; and perhaps most unfortunately for the magazine she was especially contemptuous of people who professed to like, admire, or enjoy the music that she thus deemed to be incompetent.

The results may be seen in the correspondence columns of Musical opinion during the early years of the second world war, when droves of readers who had been used in the ’30s to a considerably higher standard of critical discourse wrote in, lamenting her jack-booted Philistinism; while she in turn took plenty of space to pour scorn on the correspondents for failing to swallow the bitter but necessary pills of her musical re-education. She was a classic Old Fogey, with all the noisome vigour that we nowadays associate with the Young Ones. I suspect very strongly that the magazine never recovered from the loss of the readership that she actively drove away, and though she died in 1951 she had founded a bad tradition, which saw Musical opinion in the early ’60s pronouncing the Organ symphony of Malcolm Williamson a piece of disgusting and incomprehensible modernism, and Roberto Gerhard’s third symphony as "not music at all", but a hoax perpetrated by the composer on his unwitting audience.

Sorry, that’s taken me rather far away from Havergal Brian, but I’ve wanted to get that particular piece of bile off my chest for some time, and it may help to explain why Brian himself contributed less and less until he finally signed off in 1949, turning away from journalism altogether to devote his next 20 years to writing his own music. (In fairness to Musical opinion’s last two editors I should say that they have somewhat halted the magazine’s decline, but they have a great deal of lost ground to make up — so much that the present [1986] editor, I notice, is employing the expedient of plumping it out by reprinting, in each issue, pages and pages of the corresponding issue of 50 years ago — that’s to say from what we might call the high summer of the Brian era…)

Now a somewhat tentative forecast of how I envisage the series of volumes progressing. I make no promises as to a timetable of their appearance…

Volume two will be subtitled European music in his time. I think it is the volume that the critics may find most worthy of note as it deals with Brian’s reactions — usually very enlightened ones — to such contemporaries as Bartók, Berg, Schönberg, Mahler and Stravinsky. In fact, some of this material has not remained entirely unknown, though it’s remained unattributed. For example, on p 96 of his excellent study of The BBC Sym_phony Orchestra 1930-1980_, Nicholas Kenyon approvingly quotes from Brian’s (unsigned) review of the first performance in this country of Mahler’s ninth symphony.

Volume three is tentatively subtitled The great old masters in imitation of the title of a Brian essay on Schubert, Wagner and Verdi — The great young masters. This is fairly self-explanatory — Brian on the music of the ages previous to his own, from the songs of Dowland to the cantatas of Dvorák…

Volume four has the working title Conductors and other contemporaries and deals principally with performers — some of whom were among his closest friends…

This may give the impression that Volumes two to four are already completely formulated in my mind. They’re not, [but they contain] items… which I already know I wouldn’t want to omit under any circumstances. Volumes five and six are as yet even more inchoate. Volume five… should be a sort of repository of essays dealing with general musical topics and indeed on anything musical under the sun…

Volume six, which might possibly be called The faraway years (another Brian title) may be rather different from the others. My idea is that it will collate all the more or less autobiographical material that occurs in Brian’s writings…

That will be the end of Havergal Brian on music: but it’s my hope that eventually it’ll be possible to publish a couple of companion volumes of his letters. Certainly at least a couple of thousand letters survive, spanning most of his life, and only a fraction of them have ever been quoted in print, and many of them are immensely entertaining…

The cumulative effect of all this, I think, will be to establish Brian ever more firmly as part of the British musical landscape. Not necessarily as a composer — though personally I think it can only do good for his music — but as a historical phenomenon whom it simply becomes increasingly impossible to bypass, or ignore, or pretend isn’t or wasn’t there.

I suppose I should remind you that even when all six volumes are completed they will still represent the "selected" journalism. My hope is that I’ll have left out little that didn’t deserve to be left out, but you may well wonder what is being left out? My priorities have been, in this order, (1) Readability, (2) Historical and musical importance. (3) Literary merit; (1) and (3) are not always the same thing.

There’s much that for obvious reasons doesn’t fulfil those criteria. There is no reason, for example, to resuscitate announcements that Musical opinion sends its congratulations to So-and-so who has just been awarded the Handel’s Cook Prize for composition/appointed to the Rockinge Chair of Harmony/joined the staff of Boring College; nor do we need details of artists taking part and works to be played at the forthcoming Gröner Tercentenary Festival in Mumblestein. Brian had to write thousands of humble news items of that kind.

I’ve also excluded items where he’s simply relaying the views of others, with little or no comment: this category includes the more routine of his book reviews, and his sometimes very lengthy and detailed reports of the contents of public lectures. Less clear-cut cases are offered by some of his articles on the great composers of the past, which are essentially biographical introductions in popular style, recycling well-known anecdotes and a few facts for "simple music-lovers" and often founded on sources which have nowadays been superseded. Yet nestling here — for instance, in the large article he wrote for Schubert’s death centenary, which as a whole makes pretty routine reading — are nuggets of personal opinion and critical insight which certainly deserve to be extracted.

Concert and score reviews present a special problem. The magazines he worked for generally liked to keep these as brief as possible, so he had often to pack several items into a single paragraph. This drastically restricted the scope for detailed or illuminating comment, and though a telling phrase will often flash out, single phrases hardly justify filling pages of Havergal Brian on music with routine summaries of programmes and conventionally temperate praise of forgotten artists.

Yet these items, unrewarding in a literary sense, have a strong historical interest: they provide a fascinating detailed register of the music Brian heard and read. It ought to be possible to list this information, somewhere, sometime — but it would be a massive task. (Why is it that all Brian-related tasks are massive?) For instance (plucking a page of Musical opinion at random from my desk) I find that in the third week of March 1931 he attended and reviewed the following concerts:

17 March: Cello recital by Sheridan Russell at Grotrian Hall — Sonata by Henry Eccles, Sonatina by Benjamin Burrows, three pieces from Lambert’s Clavichord by Howells ("fugitive, but genuinely romantic"), Suite for Oboe and Cello by Lennox Berkeley, Idyllic Fantasy by Harold Craxton, items by Giles Farnaby, Arne, and Richard Johnson.

19 March: Bach B minor Mass under Sargent at the Albert Hell ("a vital and vivid rendering")

20 March: Strolling Players Amateur Orchestral Society at Queen’s Hall — Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 2, Parry Symphony No 5 in B minor ("it will occupy a foremost place amongst the music of any consequence written by Englishmen before the War").

21 March: Glasgow Orpheus Choir ("quite up to their well-known lofty level") at Queen’s Hall — items by Bantock, Elgar, Coleridge-Taylor, Boughton, Lassus, Byrd, and "numerous Scottish songs".

Passion Sunday: Bach’s St Matthew Passion under Boult at Queen’s Hall ("on the whole, a fine achievement… Richter in Manchester and Wood at the unforgettable performance at the Sheffield Festival of 1908 treated the wonderful opening… with more dramatic subtlety, and emphasized the antiphonal questions and answers").

And so on.

So, what really is Brian’s status as a writer on music? You won’t find him in this book engaged in close analysis of any Schenkerian or even Simpsonesque persuasion, although there are some detailed descriptions of particular works; nor plumbing the depths of musico-philosophical profundity —he’s not an Adorno or a Dalhaus or an Ernst Bloch, nor yet (thank heaven) a Babbit or Forte. But you will find plenty of wisdom, and wit, and experience, and anecdote, not infrequently spiced with a pleasing sarcasm. He’s a writer more or less of the stamp of Newman and Cardus, occasionally of Tovey, but his own flavour is inimitable. As a writer he certainly has his failings and a certain lack of polish, but nothing that prevents [his writing] being, as I said before, a damn good read.

One of the things that’s continually surprising about Brian is his breadth of sympathy and understanding, often for music that, just on the evidence of his own works, one might have expected to be quite foreign to him. The admiration for Strauss and Elgar and Berlioz and Bach and Handel should, I hope, have been obvious. That for Brahms and Schönberg and Varèse is perhaps more surprising, though I think in fact it could have been anticipated.

But who would have guessed that his favourite piece of Ravel would be the Trois poèmes de Mallarmé; that he should have valued the piano music of Cyril Scott and Eugene Goossens; the Mazurkas of Szymanowski, Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, Busoni’s Arlecchino, Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for piano and 12 instruments, the songs of Kilpinen, the operettas of Léhar, Shostakovich’s The nose, Stravinsky’s Les noces, Clara Schumann’s piano trio, Lili Boulanger’s choral works? There isn’t much we can point to in our recorded and performed repertoire of the mid-1980s without our being made aware that Havergal Brian was here before us!

NL67 / ©1986 by Malcolm MacDonald

Newsletter, NL 67, 1986