Truth in romance

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

A rare example of HB as literary critic

The number of novels written around musicians rarely have claims to he regarded as literature. Among the few exceptions is Romaine Rolland’s Jean Christophe, a six-volume work that secured a Nobel prize. Years ago I read it in an English translation, and convinced myself that it was a masterpiece. Of a different type is Bernard Shaw’s Love among the Artists, a work of his youth, and for many years out of print. Well written and real comedy, one sees the reason for Shaw’s subsequent success as a writer, though his philosophy of life never moved far from farce.

Another music-novel has recently been issued, called Pathetic Symphony, and recalling Tchaikovsky. The author is Klaus Mann, and in has been done into English by Hermon Ould (Victor Gollancz: 8s.6d. [42p]). The author is the son of Thomas Mann, a German whose novel The Buddenbrookes, also gained for him a Nobel prize. Shaw did not identify his hero, but Rolland portrays a great composer, who successively may be Beethoven or Hugo Wolf.

In Pathetic Symphony, Tchaikovsky is the hero-composer standing out on every page. What interests me is the correctness of the data and the successful creation of atmosphere in the successive periods. Obstructionists and friends vibrate with life, and Tchaikovsky himself is seen as sensitive and neurasthenic, living on his nerves and for ever miserable. He must have cursed the day when his overture 1812 first saw the light and began its career. He visited Germany as a symphonist, and the agent demanded 1812 and the Third suite. We cannot blame the Germans, for actually these two works were orchestral sensations in England. In Vienna, Hanslick’s refined senses were offended by the Violin Concerto (a not unusual experience in that quarter); and Leopold Auer, to whom it was inscribed, said that it was too difficult for him to play.

Yet Imperial Russia smiled on him, with a pension from the Czar. Even Cambridge awoke, and with eyes half opened bestowed a MusD honoris causa. Among men, the little Norwegian, Edvard Grieg, charmed him, and his music was abiding fascination. But Brahms! Here are strange pictures of conflict, and details of their mutual antagonism. Yet all is presented with seeming truth: especially that evening party where Tchaikovsly first met Brahms in the flat of Adolf Brodsky at Leipzig.

Did this man, profoundly sad, ever laugh at himself or at others? In this book he is made to appear haunted, fleeing from himself. It is probable that his nervous system was subversed by Frau von Meck, who early in his career became his patron. This lady had leanings that way, for she took Debussy as a boy of seventeen from the Paris Conservatoire into her retinue; but she does not appear to have advanced his artistic career. She sent some Debussy manuscripts to Tchaikovsky, but he arraigned them as though he feared a rival. That was tactless on the part of madame, but threatening to cut off Tchaikovsky’s allowance was feline cruelty. It is authentic history that Frau von Meck was neurasthenic herself, with a spiteful and vacillating mind.

Finally, the allowance was stopped on the plea that her income was greatly reduced: but that statement she repudiated when Tchaikovsky offered help from the increasing sales of his music. Then came the episode of the expensive gold watch given by madame to Tchaikovsky and regarded by him as a talisman: but it was retrieved or stolen by a servant of Frau von Meck, for what reason only Dorothy Sayers could tell. The trouble with Tchaikovsky was that he always wanted to be where and what he could not be. Married: he repented after forty eight hours! What a feast of reason and unreason for the psychologists!

Musical opinion, August 1938, pp. 938–939