Contemporary review of premiere

at the Southport Triennial Music Festival

One of the enquiries I made during my ‘lost scores’ research was about Arthur Speed, chorus master of the choir which performed in The vision of Cleopatra. The Atkinson Library, Southport, has very kindly provided a copy of the following article from the Southport visitor of 16 October 1909. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the Metropolitan Borough of Sefton, Libraries and Arts Department. Wilfrid Chadwick

The Second Day

Havergal Brian’s New Work, The Vision of Cleopatra

Mr Havergal Brian is a native of Staffordshire. He is, perhaps, best known to musicians through his English Suite and a setting of the ancient Psalm, By the Waters of Babylon. His latest work, The Vision of Cleopatra — a tragic poem for orchestra, soli and chorus, the words of which are by Gerald Cumberland — is inscribed to the Southport Triennial Musical Festival, and, as will be surmised, received its first performance on Thursday evening last. In addition to the usual complement of strings, woodwind and drums, the work is scored for english horn, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, and bass tuba, castanets, Indian drum, gong, large and small cymbals and organ. From this it will be readily gathered that the orchestration is highly coloured and of a pretentious character. The whole work demands exceptional technical attainments on the part of the performers, and despite the acknowledged skilfulness of all those taking part we think that Mr Brian should consider himself extremely fortunate in having secured so clever a first performance. However, with mere technical difficulties we are not concerned, that is Mr Brian’s lookout.

The Prelude commences with some twelve bars of an introductory character after which is heard the Dance section. From then it was comparatively easy to form a pretty clear idea as to the style of the whole composition. That it is essentially Eastern need scarcely be stated. It hears the influence of Elgar and Bantock and possesses no little taint of the atmospheric music of Debussy and others. Genius there is undoubtedly – it is writ on every page of the score – and yet there are portions wherein this same genius appears to be unbridled. Occasional passages possess considerable charm of orchestral colouring, and display remarkable skill and ingenuity; nevertheless, to be perfectly candid, we should be compelled to state that the greater part of the music was disliked by a large majority of those present at the performance. We do not for one moment suggest that this fact would of itself be just condemnation for we are well aware it is just within recent years that the works of Richard Wagner were referred to as ‘the music of the future’. What we do wish to accentuate is this, that thoughtful musicians quite as much as the general public, are making for music which is unmelodious.


Southport Visitor, October 1909