Let the roar of the Tigers be heard in the land

Malcolm MacDonald

Let the roar of the Tigers be heard in the land… - Malcolm MacDonald _
© Malcolm MacDonald 1980
_This article was written before the BBC broadcast of
The Tigers in 1983

Though Havergal Brian’s 32 symphonies have now been performed, all but one of his operas still await their turn. And of these it is the first, The Tigers, which most urgently demands a hearing. No other work of Brian’s (not even the massive cantata Prometheus unbound — though that, perhaps, is the next in importance) will so radically enlarge our awareness of the composer’s range, and our understanding of him as an artist. The later music-dramas —Turandot, The Cenci, Faust, Agamemnon — are straight adaptations of stage plays ( or at least poems in dramatic form) by great writers of the past; Brian’s literary efforts were limited here to judicious compression, and the musical language has much in common, both in style and quality, with his symphonies of the late 1940s and early l950s. That’s to say, these works conform to a fairly orthodox conception of opera, and their music is compounded, however superbly, of elements with which we are already familiar.

The tigers is, in every sense, a very different story. First, the libretto is entirely his own invention, the largest piece of imaginative literature to have survived from his pen: and its sureness of touch, mastery of stagecraft, eldritch wackiness and psychological depth were hardly to be expected. Sir Donald Tovey’s verdict, that it showed Brian "to be a satirist of very wide range", is entirely valid, but only indicates one of the many levels on which the libretto operates. For, second, the entire conception is staggeringly original for mid-Great War England: a response to the Somme and the Home Front equally far removed from the stoicism of Wilfred Owen or the civilized rearguard action at Garsington.

If we had to guess the writer of this mixture of broad farce, satires on the military and authority generally, sheer fantasy, dream symbolism, melodrama, absurdist theatre and Marx Brothers anarchy played out against a background of world catastrophe (all the more compellingly present for being almost entirely ignored by the characters themselves), we might hazard that it was a brilliantly idiomatic English translation from the Viennese dialect of Karl Kraus, with interpolations from the more surrealist writings of Mikhail Bulgakov, edited for the stage by Bertolt Brecht — certainly not the work of an obscure clerk in a Birmingham munitions factory, contemplating the ruins of a once-promising composing career.

Much of the libretto, nevertheless, boils down to the venerable and incalculably precious comic occupation of deflating pomposity and showing up the ridiculousness of stock attitudes — especially the attitudes of the military and all those who think that there is really something rather splendid about war. For its time, therefore, it was a damned unpatriotic thing to write, nowadays, the fundamental common sense that powers the fantasy is more likely to excite our admiration.
We can point to many things which might have given Brian some of his ideas: his personal experiences of military bungling and bull in the Honourable Artillery company; images from his own early works (the English suite 1 stands far behind the opera’s Prologue; Doctor Merryheart even further but no less significantly behind the later Acts); the Music Hall; the works of Samuel Butler (an acknowledged influence on the libretto); a Wagner-parody opera like Strauss’s Feuersnot; Offenbach (Mrs. Pamela Freebody, who does so love soldiers, is plainly a daughter of the Grand Duchess of Geroletein); possibly Stravinsky’s La Rossignol (whose fantastic aspect Brian deeply admired); and, of course, Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.

Equally, we can point to many seeming echoes of its methods and attitudes in places as diverse as Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House (which has more than just a Zeppelin-raid in common with Brian s vision), Oh! What a lovely war, and Spike Milligan’s Goon show scripts. But the totality is like nothing else in English literature, and like no other opera libretto anyone has written; the "seeming echoes" are illusory, for the work has remained virtually unknown. and these spiritual kinships simply prove how far Brian was ahead of his time.

Musically, The Tigers is the work in which Brian finally seems to find himself ( a fact which makes the loss of the two major scores preceding it, Kevlaar and English suite 2, all the more regrettable). The opera does indeed sum up and capitalize upon the satirical orchestral works of the pre-War years but just as the humour is far more complex (and has a far more serious point), so is the music incomparably richer and capable of far greater emotional depth. (Any one of the several ‘symphonic dances" which punctuate the action would have counted as a major achievement in his pre-1914 oeuvre.) It anticipates, and goes far beyond, anything that Bliss, Walton, Lambert or Berners were to produce in the way of musical humour in the 1920s.

The presence in the Prologue of a complete set of symphonic variations on Has anybody here seen Kelly? seems to parody, before the event, Berg’s use of self-sufficient instrumental forms in Wozzeck just as the extensive use of vibraphones in Act II anticipates by years their official "first appearance" in serious music in Lulu__; while the counter-marching bands in the same passage sees to have strayed in from Ives'’s ‘Putnam’s camp’. There are, too, intentional parodies — of Walküre, Tristan and even, the Battle Scene from Ein Heldenleben — but they are always gloriously relevant to what happens on stage.

More important, however, is the fact that here, for the first time, Brian seems to be making the fully creative use of his unconscious mind that is a hallmark of his mature compositions. Not only is the humour (both literary and musical) predominantly associative, sparking off spontaneously (and "laterally") along unexpected trains of thought: but the whole opera, with its non-sequiturs and nonsense which nevertheless have such disturbing power, begins to look like a metaphor for the processes of the unconscious. Its logic is dream-logic — Colonel Stout (a dreamer in at least two senses) tells us as much at the end, as he stands pop-eyed in his nightshirt: "This is the worst of all nightmares".

We, and Brian, are the dreamers, and part of the fascination is that nightmare is never far away. The Tigers, that regiment "of ancient glory", fights only sham battles, the only Zeppelin raid is a false alarm — but these are inversions of the fact that, somewhere off-stage, people really are suffering and dying in their thousands. The opera lets us know this inescapably in the symbolic ballet around a cathedral tower that begins Act III — a weird vision of demons end weeping angels, apparently dreamt by a dozing policeman. Here everything that the "conscious" action (the parade-ground pomposities, the shambolic drill, the casual flirtations) has tried to suppress comes boiling to the surface. Here is the heart of the opera, and doubtless it was in Brian’s mind when he later averred that The tigers was no simple burlesque but "just as serious as Die Meistersinger."
Composed between 1917 and 1919, The Tigers was the first fruit of the most traumatic, and perhaps most crucially formative, period of Brian’s life. The second main fruit was, of course, The Gothic. But the opera seems to have been revised (both in libretto and therefore, presumably in music) at various times in the years that The Gothic was in the making; and it was only after The Gothic reached completion the The tigers was fully scored. The orchestra isn’t quite so large, but it is very different in constitution, highly flexible, and the style of scoring is unique — it looks forward, indeed, to the Second and (especially) the Third symphonies, but stakes out its own entirely individual, iridescent sound—world to intensify the dreamlike aura.

The Gothic and The Tigers are poles apart. They have a few points of contact: the grand miscellaneousness of inspiration, the compulsive march-rhythms, so differently treated. Most significant is the fact that what "boils to the surface" in the cathedral-tower ballet is the most substantial musical pre-vision of The Gothic in Brian’s oeuvre so far: the symphony’s tremendous slow movement and fantastic scherzo are adumbrated in the two finest of the symphonic dances, Lachryma and Gargoyles.

But in general The Tigers inverts all The Gothic’s values — it is the last thing one would anticipate from the composer of that vast, deeply serious, choral symphony. Which is why it is so significant to our understanding of Brian. They are the opposite sides of the same coin: the obverse knows nothing of the reverse, yet both are graven into the same piece of metal. We must know them both to begin to grasp the toughness and flexibility of Brian’s metal (and mettle!). Without doubt, The Tigers is a queer, idiosyncratic creation — as eccentric to operatic history (and especially to the unhappy, often lacklustre story of British opera) as The Gothic is ultimately central to the traditions of the European symphony. But it is also, just possibly, the greatest comic opera in the English language. It is high time we all had a chance to hear it.