Un cercle français

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

I certainly enjoyed the atmosphere of cordiality that prevailed at the opening of the French musical centre at 17 Berners Street, on October 25th. The piquant French formality was over everything; and the display of programmes for forthcoming concerts in Paris recreated the feeling one had when for the first time one stood in the foyer of a famous concert room. Also were there orchestral scores of many contemporary French composers whose names, if not their works, are known in England. Frankly, here in this musical rendezvous, is a new sensation open to all musicians visiting London, whether they come from the counties or the colonies.

The French Ambassador, who presided over the opening ceremony, told us that he felt that French music in England was less warmly regarded than other French arts, and consequently he hoped that this new musical resort would tend in the end to diffuse more French music, with much wider appreciation. Here orchestral scores could be consulted and reliable renseignement obtained. Further, lectures on and recitals of French music were proposed, the first main object being to keep the French colony in London au courant with happenings beyond La Manche.

But certain phases of French music have never lacked the support of English musicians. I refer particularly to French organ music, which balances the popularity of the German here amongst us. What a time the organ music of Alexandre Guilmant has had in England during the past forty years! And that of Charles Marie Widor not a whit less. Among modern composers for the piano, Debussy stands abreast of the best, with English recitalists in full appreciation. In the days of French opera seasons at Covent Garden what an assemblage brillant was there in Gounod, Massenet, Messager, Saint-Saëns, Charpentier, and Bruneau!

The list of Frenchmen great in music may easily be extended: but there is one man who to me stands higher then any other of his race. I refer to Hector Berlioz, whose influence in England and other countries is greater than concertgoers even suspect. Interest in him ebbs and flows, as with other great composers, but he has held a secure position in the orchestral repertory of this country for almost a century. I advance this as a fact, and in the hope that the French Ambassador had nothing unjust at the back of his mind when he suggested that we in England give prior claim to composers of other nationalities.

Well, if there is any discrimination, it is directed against our own nationals, and certainly not against the French. English audiences have in the past been known to vanish or fail to appear following the announcement of the first performance of an English work, a phenomenon not yet noticed in regard to French works. What can be alleged against us is undue adulation of the already famous. For that reason, those still off the top rung and those a little way down grow old whilst hoping. You will remember Marryat’s lieutenant who baldness was due to so many shipmates climbing over his head to promotion!

However, as a near relation of Landon Ronald used to tell the people of Victorian England, there’s a good time coming, only the good time promised to composers rated as second or third class is in one of the Totalitarian states. But there, and among the western democracies, concerts will need to be increased a hundredfold if all the deserving cases are to be admitted. For early consideration by the governors, I mention the works of Dukas, Duparc, Roussel, Schmitt, Fauré, and some others.

Turning back to Berners Street, I ought to mention that the French Ambassador was introduced to the guests by Mr JH Wood, whom I have known by repute in the office of Musical opinion these many years. He was first with a London firm of music publishers, and then eighteen years ago migrated to Paris; where on weekdays he was associated with music publishing, but on Sundays he was again with his kindred as organist at the Embassy Church in the rue Saint-Honore. As Mr Wood is still young, and always genial, he will probably have a long reign as a leader in this cercle musical à Londres. M Dommerge, head of Durand’s, thanked the Ambassador for coming.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, November 1938, p. 200