PJ Taylor The recent Marco Polo CD [of symphonies 11 and 15], which I agree with everyone else is superb, highlights for me certain aspects of Brian’s style which I think deserve discussion. As usual, I fear that what I have to say may not altogether appeal to my fellow-members of the HBS.
I confine my comments to the two substantial works, #11 and #15, on the latter of which opinions appear very mixed. In his Record Review John Grimshaw describes himself as ‘pleasantly surprised’ by
15, whereas Larry Alexander says it ‘dismays’ him, and while
Malcolm Macdonald’s sleeve notes are objective, I seem to remember him making deprecating remarks on some previous occasion. Praise for #11 by contrast is unstinted, with Larry Alexander describing its opening movement as ‘startlingly beautiful’ and Malcolm Macdonald as ‘one of Brian’s most profound inspirations,’ with no dissenting opinions. By contrast #15 is and has long been one of my favourite Brian symphonies, whereas I have severe reservations concerning #11.
I consider #15 to be the outstanding example in Brian of a genre that I shall describe as the urban pastorale. Since this term is unfamiliar—I may even have invented it—I shall try to describe what I mean.
Anyone familiar with the kind of Northern industrial landscape in which Brian grew up will be aware that its townships consist essentially of overgrown villages that have merged into one another. These developed in linear fashion along the main roads, and from each village centre there branched off at right angles the streets of terrace houses one is familiar with, say, from Lowry’s paintings. At the edge of each village these streets would frequently give rise to cul-de-sacs, at the end of which, quite startlingly to those unfamiliar with them, one would find oneself suddenly in the countryside. But it was not a true countryside such as real villages know.
True, there would have been genuine grass, genuine trees, genuine unspoilt fields; but a few hundred yards away, perhaps across a shallow valley, the next set of cul-de-sacs would be clearly visible. These jagged patches of green would often contain within them a working farmstead, or if not that, at least working fields, with sheep or cattle or maybe a horse or two. Nevertheless it was commonly accepted that this was common land, at least so far as dog-walkers and small boys were concerned. And the latter would be down there, once let out of school or with their elder brothers out of the mill, playing cricket or football or, with their jam-jars, catching tiddlers in the stream. I am familiar with this since my wife comes from just such a background; half a century ago it was there almost unchanged and even now it is still to be found, if you look for it, in many Northern districts.
I see this as a pervasive background to much of Brian’s music, some distant echo of his childhood, especially in slow movements such as that of #19, but one gets glimpses of it in his quieter passages almost anywhere. These urban pastorales do not derive from the kind of landscape that inspired Beethoven or Schubert or Mahler. For all the enjoyment that a small boy might get from them they are crabbed and bleak, constrained by their grimy surroundings.
The edge of the Pennines lay just beyond, but these are not Pennine landscapes. They are Lowry landscapes, just as I feel that Brian was a Lowry sort of person, with many of the characteristics and limitations of that strange genius. And the special feature of #15 is that, uniquely I think, the entire symphony is an urban pastorale. (The ‘entrancing violin solo’ to which John Grimshaw draws attention is an almost infallible indicator of the genre; so also is the chalumeau register of the clarinet). I get the most vivid impression when listening to it of the kind of festive day which, just occasionally, brought some relief into these rather drab lives; perhaps at Whitsun, or some time like that. There at the start is the village brass band, and as it parades round the streets the small boys with their jam-jars, intent on their own business, keep getting sudden reminders of it as perhaps a corner is rounded or it stops at the end of a cul-de-sac.
Malcolm Macdonald describes this opening theme as ‘pompous’ and of course it is, but it is a genial sort of pomposity, not at all martial, the ‘triumphal’ character he remarks on being, perhaps, that of a prize-winning band properly proud of itself. I am not of course suggesting that Brian was trying to convey directly anything of the sort, yet the festive character is unmistakable and, to paraphrase Tovey, this symphony possesses the great virtue of finishing inside its own length. Perhaps Larry Alexander might like it better if I compare it with Charles Ives?
By contrast, I am afraid I cannot join the eulogies on the opening Adagio of #11. It is unquestionably intended to be profound, with more than a suggestion to me of the opening Adagio of Beethoven’s C sharp minor Quartet, but for me I’m afraid it isn’t. In fact, I might even describe it as pseud. The truth is that, after an impressive opening, Brian cannot sustain the flow. The ‘slow, seamless web of elegiac polyphony’ described by Malcolm Macdonald is there only on the surface. Brian tries a line of themes, but each in turn peters out before it has really got going. Telltale signs include the modulations that tend to announce the point where one theme is abandoned and the next one enters, or the changes in scoring that sometimes accomplish the same purpose. And the longer it goes on the more incoherent it becomes, in the literal sense that it fails to cohere. There is none of the sense of progression one would get from a greater composer. Brian’s material will simply not stand the weight he wishes to put on it.
But isn’t this just what we expect from Brian, what we mean by his ‘sudden changes of direction’ (to quote Malcolm Macdonald again), by the ‘intercalation’ of his themes? Yes, I think it is, and what it means is that those short arresting phrases found throughout his symphonies, which pull one up sharp and which I for one have often longed to hear expanded into something more prolonged and radiant, are not really capable of such expansion at all.
L ike some oracular pronouncement from the Sibyl, they are pregnant with meaning only because they are not elaborated on. For my money, that part of #15 which Malcolm Macdonald calls its slow movement — bands  and  is much more convincing than the Adagio of #11. Despite its intense nostalgia it is not necessarily more ‘profound’; arguably it is not profound at all; but it is Brian composing within his limitations, conveying the impression of depth if not necessarily its substance by never subjecting his material to more exposure than it will take.
I have come to believe, in fact, that Brian was essentially a short-winded composer, even when his intention was clearly otherwise. That might seem to be contradicted by the Gothic and perhaps it is, but one should note that (a) Brian was still at that stage leaning somewhat on symphonic form, (b) choral music being moulded round the words tends to be episodic anyway, and (c) Brian worked on the Gothic for far longer than on anything else, giving him plenty of time for second thoughts and the opportunity to produce a more flowing texture anywhere he wanted to. And it is not in the least contradicted by The Tigers, whose best friends (of whom I am not one) could not describe as other than episodic.
More importantly, it is also contradicted by the slow movement of
6, where for once in his life Brian produced a progressive
unfolding of the musical argument with thematic material that never let him down, to give what, to me, is the most moving music he ever wrote. Some later slow movements seem to me to have this same unfolding character, notably those of #9 and #19 among the ones I know, but mostly he takes refuge in a succession of tantalising fragments seen as at its best in #15. (1 do not wish to imply that only his slower music can unfold; the whole of #9 seems to me to do so.)
All these are pinnacles of his achievement but the are rare. Mostly, I fear, the ‘intercalation’ and ‘sudden changes of direction’ on which everyone remarks are less virtues of Brian’s music or even deliberately defining characteristics than a sort of escape hatch, a way of dealing with musical material that tends to run out of steam sooner than it ought; in short, the result of a paucity of invention. And after about #20, in my view, mannerisms and the re-working of half-remembered older material take over for most of the time from genuine musical inspiration. I’m sorry to have to say all this and as usual I shall no doubt call down fire and brimstone on my head, but so be it. The more I hear, the more this becomes my opinion.
NL150 / ©2000 by PJ Taylor
Newsletter, NL 150