The tides of opinion

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

We are a strangely mixed and mobile community, changing our opinions as often as our hats, and jostling against men and things we cordially dislike or ardently admire. Here on one page of my newspaper I read of Thomas Beecham denouncing as a thing of ill omen all mechanised music: and then with only a film of clay to hold off the wretched thing, an announcement that the latest Beecham gramophone records were now on sale. We are not amused: but later I was when I found Ernest Newman rebuking Eugene Goossens, now of the Cincinnati Orchestra. Goossens had sent to Newman a copy of a letter previously sent to a music critic residing at Cincinnati, Ohio. Imbued doubtless with the spirit of Cincinnatus, who did not like plebeian things1, Goossens has come to prefer old music to new.

Whereupon Newman drew from his wallet a letter from Goossens written as recently as 1924, in which the ultras were pitted against the classicists to their great advantage. Now, if a man be not allowed to change his opinions in the course of eleven years simple creatures like myself might be condemned to enthuse for ever over Tannhäuser which of course has not changed as I have changed. But I also have a wallet containing newspaper cuttings which set out the opinions of the two Newmans on a little matter of gramophone records and radio reproduction. Doubtless these things have changed in quality, but hardly so much as Mr Newman’s fundamental regard for them. I do not complain, but those who accept, week by week, all that is proclaimed are apt to wonder where they are being led, — along a straight road or round the houses.

When drawing attention to the changed views of musicians we should be tolerant, admitting that we all change as creatures of circumstances, these including our own physical conditions. Things we once thought vital we pass by unheeded. An instance arises when I remember the findings of the committee that sat in 1924 to consider the question of Harmony2 that committee included Goossens and Bantock, and it looked as though the ultras would win and oust music as by custom established. But the tide has left them stranded, some few among them still mumbling anathema against the old fogeys who continue to swim around in costumes that are shockingly dated. After all, there are only two forms of music, good and bad; and it must be admitted that no great composer ever began by turning the world upside down and leaving it in that state. The result of the best work has ever and only been to widen the boundaries of expression. However, if ever I had been an ultra, I should feel that the world would again be listening to me in 1944, if only with one ear3.

  1. HB proves adept with classical allusion. The city of Cincinnati, Ohio (where Eugene Goossens was currently conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra) was named in 1790 in honour of ‘The Cincinnati’, a brotherhood of Revolutionary War army officers who took their name from the half-legendary Roman general L Quinctius Cincinnatus. The story everybody knows about Cincinnatus, is that he was summoned from the plough and appointed Dictator (in 458 BC) in order to rescue a besieged Roman army from certain destruction: he rescued them, defeated the enemy, resigned his supreme power and returned to his ploughing within 16 days. With or without the ploughing, this has some basis in historical fact. But HB here refers to his (probably mythical) second Dictatorship of 439 BC, when (as narrated in Livy, Book IV, ch 13) Cincinnatus is supposed to have encompassed the murder of the democratic leader Spurius Maelius to suppress plebian agitation. ↩︎

  2. The reference is to the committee of composers who produced the article on ‘Modern Harmony’ in Eaglefield Hull’s Dictionary of Modern Music & Musicians↩︎

  3. Actually in 1944 some people could listen to HB: Gargoyles and Wild Horsemen were broadcast that year by the BBC, one of his rare BBC broadcasts before the advent of Robert Simpson. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, July 1935, pp. 815–816