Introduction to the symphonies

Graham Saxby

An introduction - Graham Saxby This article - and the introduction and detailed analysis of symphony 2 here - began life as the main project in the Open University Course A308, The Rise of Modernism in Music, 1895-1935, which the author was studying in his final year for an honours degree with the Open University.

In spite of broadcast performances of his works over the past few years, and a good deal of publicity from some fairly influential musical figures, it is probably true to say that, for most of the public (and a good many music critics), Havergal Brian’s sole claim to fame is a symphony that lasts longer, and requires more performers, than any other symphony (neither of which may be, nor can be proven to be, true). To those whose interest in music goes beyond the Guinness Book of Records he is a man who, with very little of his music played in public between the ages of 40 and 80, went on after that age to complete 20 symphonies end two operas amongst other music — an achievement that dwarfs even Janacek’s Indian summer — and lived to be nearly 97.

But Brian’s music cannot be judged in terms of its seeming prolixity any more than his approach to the symphonic concept can be deduced from an examination of the structure and orchestration of the Gothic Symphony, useful though that may be in understanding The Gothic itself. In fact, every one of his 32 symphonies is quite different from all the others, and yet, paradoxically, the hand of the composer can readily be recognised in a few bars taken at random from any one of them. Like Charles Ives, Brian was a rugged individualist in his music, and gave the impression of not being particularly interested in whether anyone wanted to perform it, once the act of creation was over. Again, as with Ives, recognition was late in coming to Brian, though at least he lived long enough to hear The Gothic and several of his other works performed in public, and to be acknowledged by a number of discerning critics and musicologists as one of the major symphonists of the century.

Though he may in some respects have resembled Ives, Brian’s character was very much unlike Ives’s. He was an indifferent businessmen and for most of his life was very poor. He was outspoken and lacking in tact, and his imperceptiveness seems to have lost him the friendship of several valuable allies, including Elgar and Arnold Bennett. He was also the victim of a number of misfortunes not of his own making. He refused to compromise his ideals, whether musical, political or social, and to make any concessions to current tastes. This led him eventually to be dubbed (not without affection) ‘the original Awkward Cuss’.

Let us begin by examining Brian’s general approach to the symphony. It was his declared wish to continue along the traditional path of the European Romantic school, though in the event he travelled much further along it than any of his predecessors, and altogether in his own way. As Malcolm MacDonald has put it 1, stylistically his symphonic music stands midway between the poles of Mahler, for whom a symphony needed to express the whole world, and Sibelius, for when it had to create a profound inner logic by stylistic unity and severity of form. That Brian succeeded to a large extent in reconciling these two ideals is already evident in his Second Symphony.

Much as he admired the late German Romantic idiom typified by the work of composers like Richard Strauss, Brian was concerned that his music should be thoroughly English. Moreover, he was determined to achieve this by purely symphonic means, and not to produce an artificial flavour by incorporating folk elements as so many of his contemporaries were doing. In this respect he followed Elgar’s lead: the spirit of Elgar permeates the Second Symphony. Nettel

It must emphatically not be assumed that because Brian was self-taught there is anything crude shout his orchestration, or that his strange timbres were the result of ignorance or an untrained ear. The truth is that he had a flair for orchestration that far outshone that of his contemporaries such as Bantock or Holbrooke. From the start his orchestration was original and brilliant, and there is. too, little doubt that the difficulties in performance that such scoring raised, as well as the unfamiliar sounds it produced, contributed to the neglect of the music. Brian was an excellent reader of scores, and though his favourite instrument was, and remained, the organ, he had at an early age learnt to play many of the orchestral instruments.

From his study of the organ he learned a great deal about sonorities, in particular the generation of sum and difference tones by mixture stops. Dr Ted Heaton has shown 3, for example, that the bare 5th with which Brian so often ends his orchestral works generates a powerful difference tone an octave below the fundamental. In fact, the same combination also generates a sum tone an 18th above the fundamental, that is, an octave and a major 3rd above it in just intonation. This sum tone is real and audible (piano tuners make use of it) and with an appropriate mixture of instrumental timbre it can be clearly heard. Indeed, it is heard in those symphonies where a ‘major’ tonality seems to be indicated by the final notes. Such felicities do not occur by accident.

The structures of Brian’s symphonies are also highly original. Leaving aside The Gothic, which can really only be discussed within its own frame of reference, we find in the symphonies, disparate though they are, a number of common characteristics. Brian distrusted conventional sonata forms, and had an extreme dislike of exact repetition — in both respects a parallel to Debussy. And, like Debussy, he found his answer in a structure which developed by internal growth and thematic metamorphosis: the achievement of unity by thematic rather than formal structural means. His thematic treatment is highly personal. Though he was capable of writing splendid chorale—like material (and often did so) , his thematic developments tend to be highly contrapuntal, the lines so independent as to be heterophonic 4 in a way reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.

Another trait seen particularly in Brian’s later symphonies, but already evident in the Second, is his tendency to juxtapose material so as to produce abrupt changes in mood, often at climaxes. This is a habit which can at times be disconcerting, though a careful study will usually show a good reason for the change. Another individual characteristic is the way the endings of his symphonies show a tendency to disintegrate rather than integrate, producing what Harold Truscott has called an ‘anti-symphony’ rather than a ‘symphony’ 5. This is, of course, not unprecedented: Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique and Mahler’s Ninth are obvious parallels; and so, in a rather different way, is Ravel’s La Valse. Both of these characteristics are the direct antitheses of the methods of composers such as Sibelius who, in MacDonald’s words, ‘reconciles extremes by imperceptible transitions from one to the other, [whereas] Brian brings them into direct confrontation’ 6. Although these elements are already discernible in the Second Symphony, in his later symphonies Brian was to take the practices a good deal further.


  1. Malcolm MacDonald The Symphonies of Havergal Brian, Vol.1, Symphonies 1—12, Kahn & Averill, 1974 (Introduction) ↩︎

  2. Dr Ted Heaton: Havergal Brian Society Newsletter No 23, May 1978. ↩︎

  3. This is a term coined by Rudi Blesh in "Shining Trumpets" (1947) to describe an idiom in which contrapuntal lines have become totally independent of one another. ↩︎

  4. Harold Truscott and Paul Rapoport: Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony: Two Studies, The Havergal Brian Society, 1972 (p11) ↩︎

  5. MacDonald, op cit, p12 ↩︎


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