Breaking the mirror…

Larry Alexander

Breaking the mirror… - Larry Alexander_ _

After several hearings of The Tigers, the upshot is that I have never heard a more schizophrenic work of art in my whole life, one which left me gasping, simultaneously awed and confused. It’s got all of Brian’s mature virtues (as they were at the time of The Gothic) and magnifies all the flaws. It veers, or should I say careers, from mind-boggling brilliance to mind-boggling incompetence—I can’t think of another word—within the space of bars, and then ricochets back like the steel dumdum in a pinball machine.

What is especially striking is how closely it does parallel The Gothic: the interlude with the compliant ladies during the battle, for instance, is right out of the last movement of the symphony, and the penultimate section of Wild horsemen could almost be considered a first draft for the xylophone-infested nightmare in the third movement.

But whereas everything flows naturally and creatively in The Gothic, building and building a huge and imposing edifice, that sadly doesn’t seem to be the case with The Tigers (not, at least, on the basis of these first hearings). What’s missing is structure. Inner logic. Consistency. That may be due to the fact that this is so personal a work to Brian, coming as it does out of his dreadful First World War experiences, everything going mixed-up and upside down and coming out untranslatable in terms of anyone else’s experiences. What had attracted me to the best that this amazing composer was capable of was the fact that his ‘quirky’ individuality was, when considered whole, utterly universal in appeal. The Tigers just isn’t that—although, to come down in agreement with Andrew Clements in The Financial Times, it is indeed ‘in the purely orchestral music that the most memorable moments occur’.

In my opinion, the reason for this is the fact that Brian was a creative genius who was at his very best when he was at his most abstract, dealing with pure rather than specific drama and emotion. Theatrical performance with its concrete images and physical limitations was just too confining to the scope of that incredibly unencumbered brain. The logic of plot and character (development) were too tedious to waste time over: nit-picking. Whereas he could build to the imposing and utterly devastating climax which crowns The Gothic, it is just nowhere near the case with the opera.

A nd the music, monumental though it hose surely is, suffers as a result. Oddly enough (and I know I am a heretic for this), I have always considered most opera to contain lesser music than that which is written directly for the orchestra, leaving out the usual Mozart masterpieces, the occasional Puccini and Mussorgsky, not to mention Peter Grimes. Verdi to me is a ‘nice’ composer, only rising to greatness at the very end of his life and then more because of having all that preceding practice (it falls into the category of ‘he finally got it right, thank God’). But at least those composers had some decent libretti to set their music to, words with as nice a logic as the music.

I understand that Brian was eager to throw away the rules and I am hardly against that: when it comes to art the rules have to he expendable—as long as you first let your audience in on what you are up to. For example, A funny thing happened on the way to the forum when it first opened pre-Broadway in Washington DC began with a charming little duet called Love is in the air. The rest of the musical was a raucous piece of slapstick hysteria but it opened with Love is in the air and after that audiences weren’t sure that it was ‘all right’ for them to laugh! Only after Stephen Sondheim was induced to replace the song with Comedy tonight! did (a) the audiences feel they had licence to laugh and (b) the show became a hit. Brian’s Hampstead Heath opening is quite lovely end even makes a kind of way-out sense in relation to the rest of the opera just on the strength of the ‘War is declared’ announcement (although it does take a bit of a stretch to shoehorn the Pantalon and Columbine love duet into the point). But, strict old constructionalist that I am, it really would have pleased me a whole lot more had the Prologue been used to sow a few seeds which later in the piece could grow into wonderful flowers.

As for the other little odds and ends, wandering through the minefield Brian has left us, the first thing which comes to mind is the difference in creative level one gets when one considers, say, the character of Sir John. Take his lectures to his regiment. All I have been able to think of was that other lecturer to the troops, George C Scott at the commencement of the film Patton. Imagine if you will how a Havergal Brian could have set such imagistic words as ‘let some other sonafabitch die for his country’. That’s the kind of real acid The Tigers seems to be crying out for, the kind that the elder Brian would have revelled in, the old curmudgeon.

What I am really flailing about to say here is that my objection isn’t really to the lack of any conflict whatever in the piece, but to the lack of anything being at stake. We aren’t even given the impression that these boys are going to be cannon fodder ‘over there’, because we don’t have any idea who they are. To offer another example, the Tigers as a regiment aren’t in any danger of being disbanded, so that’s not at stake either. The illicit ‘affair’ between Sir John and Mrs Freebody not only goes nowhere, but causes nothing else to go anywhere. If death is not a consequence, how about dishonour?

Wasn’t it Ibsen who said that if the stage directions at the beginning of a play describe a gun over a mantelpiece, then by golly by the end of Act Three that gun had damned well better go off? Where is Lady Stout when we need her? Or the man on the elephant? Or the Wild Horses? A practical joke and its reverberations just cannot be where it all ends, not if we are to care for the people and their circumstances, comic or otherwise. Effect and unbridled imagination are just not sufficient, not now, nor in 1918. What it leaves this listener with is a feeling not of modernity, nor even of surrealism—it leaves me with a feeling of unprofessionalism.

It makes a writer drool, though, in a way. ‘Now let’s see—I could take this score note for note and still change the storyline so and the characters so, making it all one lovely, coherent and funny piece.’ Anything to make it not look as though Brian took all his twigs and threw them up in the air, writing them down wherever they landed, never minding the fact that a few fell down a kerbside grate and were never missed.

For all that, I have to reiterate: musically speaking, the opera is an ear-opener from beginning to end, never for a moment dull or tedious even when it is at its most outrageously unstructured. Every opera (as far as I as concerned) has highs and lows; the good ones have more highs, and The Tigers is on that level very good indeed. What amazes me most is how much the music relates in its own Brianesque way to what Britten only got around to doing a quarter of a century later in Peter Grimes. That Havergal Brian was writing a score on that level, as ‘modern’ as that, I find nothing short of astounding. however, what ultimately makes Peter Grimes more of a total achievement than The Tigers is its dramatic impact, the fact that its narrative is inexorable and incontestable, a latter-day Greek tragedy existing to give its audience catharsis. On one hand this seems to be a non-musical aspect of the two works but in an opera (speaking utopianly) the essence of the drama is the essence of the music, the latter expressing the former and vice versa. To discuss a libretto without the music attached might be a real exercise in futility. Does one discuss a blueprint once the building is up?

That some believe this work to be as great an achievement as The Gothic is not un-understandable to me. It is in its way a great work, flaws and all, and I can see many people reacting to it with immense enthusiasm. There isn’t the least bit of musical incompetence in it anywhere, and I hope no-one gets the impression that I am suggesting there is. What Brian created he created deliberately and, like The Gothic, it will have to he dealt with as a sin of commission, rather than a sin of omission. One man’s lack of coherence is another man’s deliberate fragmentation: the breaking of the mirror and the replacing of its shards in a mosaic pattern which might even have no need of all the pieces that fell in the first place—thus explaining the ‘loose ends’. My complaint is that the mosaic Brian constructed lacks the cumulative power that any, any work of art I think ought to boast. Whether that comes from making us, the audience, really care about the people on the stage, or making our jaws drop open at the sheer inventiveness of what has been written down, or whatever, that last line between brilliance and greatness is toed, but not crossed.

On mulling it over, I have to conclude that perhaps The Tigers is in its own way as ‘abstract’ as The Gothic. Perhaps my problem is that I accept abstractions on a concert stage end I am just not as comfortable with them in the opera house, when I am watching and hearing real live people in roles. Roles just aren’t abstract to this mind of mine. They must live and breathe and act according to the constraints of their own characterisations: they can be parody but only if they are at the same time honest and real, I feel somewhat cheated when I am presented with something the creator chooses to lose, or to not follow through. Why? Did he lose interest? If so, why keep them in the first place? Or, conversely, if they serve a function, wouldn’t it be only fair play to give us a hint as to what that function is?

And yet, through all of it, the bits and pieces, the shards, are just so incredibly Brian. As I felt when the Forlane set came out, this is the first music which sounds like Havergal Brian wrote it, he and no other. And that alone, finally, makes The Tigers as a whole important and special.

NL48 © Larry Alexander 1983

Newsletter, NL 48, 1983