Investigating The Tigers (2) Costers : Prologue, scene 1 (1)

Adrian Ure

Part 2 : Costers : Prologue, scene 1 (1) - Adrian Ure Apologies for the absence of music examples - these will be added as soon as possible - JRM

  • ‘Anything serious, Henry?’
  • ‘There’s a war…’

The survey which follows started as a ‘musical and dramatic analysis’, but it remains constant to neither aspect. The most I can hope for is a tentative ground-clearing for the benefit of some more determined foresters. Since it is impossible, luckily, to view this rich and complex work from every perspective within the space of a few articles, frequent digressions will be inevitable. Some may think that I have been guilty of an undue amount of subjective interpretation and supposition. This I cannot deny, yet it seems to me unavoidable in cases when the visual impact of the work in question cannot be experienced [though it can be heard by joining the HBS and borrowing a tape of the BBC recording! – JRM]. Imaginations are sadly inadequate substitutes for staged performances.

For those unfamiliar with the opera, I will begin each section with a summary of the relevant part of the plot.

Hampstead Heath: August Bank Holiday Carnival. Four stallholders converse. One of them stops a fight between his dog and his donkey.

There is no overture or prelude of any kind: one is flung in media res. Yet the very first bar contains three ideas of crucial importance in the development of the work —the rhythm quaver+dotted semiquaver, the intervals of a fourth and fifth, and the shape of the figure. ex 1 shows Brian experimenting with some of the possibilities. It will be noted that (b), (c) and (d) all incorporate a perfect fourth, and fifths are prominent in bars 3 and 4.

ex 1 to be added

A nother figure which Brian treats in an interesting way is the stepwise progression of three notes with a twist at the end. Although barely noticeable, it exists in embryo in ex 1(x) and comes into its own shortly afterwards. More expansive versions of (c) and (d) (in one of its many permutations) announce the armistice of dog and donkey.

This opening sets its cap at a jaunty angle; indeed, its firm E major is dangerously cocksure of itself, and there is something almost too pat about these half closes. It may take some time to realise Brian is pulling our legs, but the spirit of mockery is there in the way the 1½ bar vocal (or verbal) phrases in ex l cut across the two-bar orchestral ones, and in the sly nudge in the ribs given by the ‘spare’ 2/4 bar.

A bill-poster breezes in, slaps up a notice and leaves without revealing what it contains, despite a costerwoman’s entreaty. All the costers are perplexed until Henry, the only one of their number who can read, studies it.

One would think Brian might consider the practicalities of staging and dispense with his animals as soon as possible, but a command to the dog later (fig 43 plus 7 bars) suggests otherwise. Perhaps the donkey at least could be allowed tactfully to wander off.

A clarinet announces the arrival of the bill poster with an exuberant pentatonic tune, which has been carefully prepared for a few bars in advance (fig2, 4). The continuing influence of ex 1(a) in both its rhythmic and its melodic aspects can be detected here. In the ensuing bars other subsidiaries of ex 1 appear, and the retrograde of (d) becomes an ostinato. This develops, beneath the stallholders’ cries, in a manner which again recalls previous figuration (fig 1, 3 and fig 1, 4). It dissolves beneath an augmented triad, and the bill poster’s laconic comments are sung against a reprise of some of the elements that accompanied his entrance.

ex2 to be added

The orchestra toys fretfully with a scrap developed from these elements, before rejecting it in favour of ex l(b) and (c) and a clutch of new figures expressive of the costers’ frustration (ex 2). Having consolidated these figures Brian subjects the first of them to independent treatment: two bars (following fig 10) contain four different manifestations of (a) and in what follows it is welded to ex 1(b) in one unbroken line. The costerwoman mocks her comrades’ ignorance to ex 2(a) and a diminution of ex 1(b). The third coster’s riposte, his rapid descending fifths balancing jagged, upward-thrusting fourths in the orchestra, is an amusing and imaginative stroke. Further byplay with ex 2(a) leads to a precipitous descent, whereupon a pompous statement of ex 1(b) on brass ushers Henry in.

The cast list on page 2 of the vocal score (compiled by the publishers?) states that Henry is identical with the second coster. This is dubious. The second coster has just added, ‘Who can read it [the poster]?’, which proves, surely, that he cannot.

Henry assumes him task with a comic gravitas which contrasts with the excitement generated by rapidly mounting violins, and the reappearance of the ‘precipitous descent’ figuration. The entry at this point of the full SATB chorus for the first time is most effective.

ex 3 to be added

A pause: then Henry swaggers up to the poster (ex 3). The bassoon entry shortly afterwards affirms the episode’s roots in ex 2(a) more strongly, and soon another tune, based on the tonic and dominant triads of A, crawls into earshot, coiling and uncoiling like a great snake, doubling back on itself and ultimately going nowhere. This, together with a persistent chromatic bass figure which settles into an ostinato, amusingly underlines the laborious movement of Henry’s finger along the lines of print. Suddenly, the bassoon reaches an alien note, a dramatic three-note figure warns of approaching danger: then a catastrophe is upon us.

The three-note idea, transformed into the first notes of ex 3(a), is punctuated by a minatory lightning flash from the same source. (With its histrionics and diminished sevenths, this passage sounds like a sideswipe at stock operatic methods of whipping up dramatic tension.) Just as abrupt is the diminuendo which succeeds this. The rhythm of 3(a) is reduced to a throb – 2semiquavers+semiquaver rest – on the timpani. Continuing this rhythm, the costers ask, ‘Anything serious, Henry?’ Yawns he: ‘There’s a war…’ (ex 4).

ex 4 to be added

This exchange is the essence of Brian’s black comedy. Implicit in the costers’ enquiry is anxiety about both Henry’s collapse and what he has seen on the notice to occasion it. His yawn dispels concern about both (effectively treating them as of equal importance), just as musically it denies the outburst that precedes it. It is a technique to which Brian returns again and again: bathos is all the more ludicrous (and, with hindsight all the more terrible) when in an ordered world the means employed would be grossly inadequate to the ends.

Henry’s grave declamation of the substance of the bill ends with a stepwise descent through a fifth which is immediately echoed by the trombones. It comes from Wagner’s Ring cycle, and is first used in Das Rheingold at the point when Fricka reminds Wotan of the treaty he has made with the Giants: that he will give them Freia (ie youth) in return for wealth and aggrandisement. This seems as apt a comment as any on the reasons for war! It is given added point by the fact that the quotation itself takes the form of a reminder (to the audience) and that ‘youth’ is in this case ‘every man under seventy five’.

Henry goes on to quote that artless melody much beloved of 19th century opera composers (including Flotow in Martha), The last rose of summer. Brian is evidently mocking the pathos with which The last rose was traditionally invested. At the same time, the irony of the song in such a context continues the notion of sacrificed youth.

‘Whose war is it?’ asks the costerwoman. To a snatch of folk-like music, in both melody and bass of which thirds are prominent (together with the rhythms dotted quaver+semiquaver and 4 semiquavers+quaver), Henry protests his ignorance: be can only repeat, ‘Everybody under seventy five’. This seems to be saying that patriotism is not enough: what matters is not who is fighting, or their beliefs or ideals, it is ‘everybody under seventy five’. And the setting gives the words a grim emphasis.

The crowd, however, after some consternation, finds in the announcement an excuse for merry-making. After all, their inability to read the poster turns out to be am obvious symbolic manifestation of their inability to appreciate the implications of its contents.

The music which accompanies the jubilation, Allegro vivace, is based partly on permutations of ex l(a) and (b), and makes use of the two rhythms mentioned above. As it grows more animated with the entry of the full chorus, echoes of the battle sequence from Elgar’s Falstaff, with bellowing brass and clashing cymbals, announce quite clearly a parody of the conventional ‘heroic’ response to war.

So far I have concentrated almost solely on the music. But it is the colourful setting of the very opening of the opera which has attracted a fair degree of speculation, with research being undertaken into the question of whether there really was a fair on Hampstead Heath at the outbreak of war in 1914 2. As to the fair, the evidence appears to be inconclusive, whilst, sadly, the implacable witness of history is that World War One broke out after the August Bank Holiday was over and done with. As we penetrate further into the opera we discover similar incongruities, for example, a recruiting poster that invites ‘every man under seventy-five’ to join up - unlikely enough, though enjoyably perverse.

But the earnest researchers were missing the point. Brian is writing in fictional terms, not about World War One, but about any war. Any resemblance between this and the real thing is, as they say, purely coincidental, although Brian certainly intends comparisons to be drawn 3.

To be sure, there is talk of Zeppelins and the Kaiser’s birthday in the last act; but this is akin to the way a contemporary writer might insert a reference to stealth bombers in a satire on modern warfare. He wouldn’t necessarily intend a reader to say, ‘Ah, he must be writing about the Balkan conflict!’ As for the Kaiser, he is so insubstantial a presence that Brian might as well have substituted ‘Mr Jones’, if ‘Mr Jones’ could have been made to rhyme with ‘Tigers’.

So the bank holiday on Hampstead Heath portrayed in the Prologue of The Tigers is partly by way of being a gentle leg-pull. I believe that there are far more sound reasons for Brian to have selected the setting of a bank holiday carnival, however, and I shall be exploring these later (particularly in Part 5 of Investigating ‘The Tigers’). For the present, it might be sufficient to note that the Prologue - indeed, the opera as a whole - develops a fascination with the notions of costume and disguise, and exploits the symbolic significance of these to the full.

Given these concerns, it is unsurprising that the opening scenes of The Tigers are influenced also by two other forms of entertainment greatly concerned with ‘dressing up’ - pantomime and music hall. Malcolm MacDonald indeed has drawn attention to the pervasive influence of music hall throughout the work 4. This topic deserves to be explored by someone more versed in the lore of the halls than I: but it seems to me that the stallholders and costers who people the first pages of the score owe not a little to Albert Chevalier, most famous of all music hall coster impersonators, and his fellows 5. They immediately strike one as earthy, flesh-and-blood creatures, yet their dialogue, idiosyncratic though it is, courts stereotype and caricature (take page 11 of the published vocal score as an example). There is ultimately a sense of being ‘removed’, a certain staginess about these characters.

Albert Chevalier it was who wrote the song which the holiday crowd in this first scene of The Tigers might almost have taken as their motto.

Oh, ’Ampstead! ’Appy, ’appy ’Ampstead.
All the doners look so nice;
Talk about a Paradise!
Oh, ’Ampstead’s very hard to beat,
If you want a beano it’s a fair old treat!

NL63 revised / © Adrian Ure 1999

  1. Newsletter 47 Editorial; Newsletter 48, p7 ↩︎

  2. Martyn Becker’s article ‘Brian’s impatient Tigers’ (Newsletter 65 and HB: Aspects of Havergal Brian, ed. Jürgen Schaarwächter, Ashgate, 1998), in which he develops a similar argument, has helped to focus my thoughts here. ↩︎

  3. In a broadcast talk given on BBC Radio 3’s Music Weekly, 1 May 1983. ↩︎

  4. Penny Scantlebury argues in New maps for _The Tigers_ that Brian may well have seen Chevalier on stage [Penny Scantlebury’s article considers a number of other possibly contemporary references in the Prologue - JRM]. ↩︎

Newsletter, NL 63, 1999