Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Wagner and his operas have always been provocative: in the eighties and nineties, some ingenious people professed to find in the Ring and in Parsifal all that was anti-social, and now some other people, with less imagination, think that the operas would be improved by the omission of the (alleged) dull parts and the retention of the purple patches. They speak of the platitudes mumbled by Wotan, Gurnemanz and King Mark, and of Wagner’s downright wickedness in giving the parts of these old men to the finest singing-voice, the bass-baritone.

What is not emphasized is the devastating effect of the continued popularity of the operas on the operatic repertoire: Meyerbeer and Gounod have gone down, beyond hope of recovery, before Wagner’s logic and greater skill, and the new operas that have never had a chance because of Wagner’s string of winners must be legion. We in England are, in music at least, inveterate hero-worshippers, and the greatest of our heroes is Success. Richard Strauss was at one time in the running with Wagner, but only Der Rosenkavalier was ‘placed’ in England, despite ten others running currently in Germany.

Consequently, according to our appraisement, Strauss as a composer has less than one tenth the stature of Wagner! And now, for many years to come, Wagner will have increasing popular success because, copyright in the works having expired, they may be performed without payment of fees. When thinking of success and composers, people rarely know how much a composer has been hindered or helped by the operation of the copyright laws in relation to his own works as well as to those of other men.

However, there are modern composers in Germany and Italy whose operas remain in the repertoires of their respective countries. Something might happen to open our eyes to the poverty of our operatic repertoire: but that something would have to be violent an its operation. Were the two successful seasons of Russian opera in London (1913-1914) the result of a psychological disturbance within us, or were we the favoured victims of mere propaganda?7

A nyhow, the success of those seasons has never been repeated, though we have heard several of the operas since. Dame Ethel Smyth suggests the existence of a Machine, which I suppose, like the American caucus, shapes minds until they all think (and vote) alike. In Germany today, they have a similar machine working, for they are shouting ‘Wagner über Alles!’8 all over the country. If this continues for long, the German operatic stage will certainly lose its claim for variety end interest.

I am of the opinion that the one way to kill Wagner is to truncate the operas and to give a snappy presentation of the ‘purple patches’. Of course, that might be the end of him; but we have to remember that opera houses and theatres are filled largely by those who cry aloud for the Adam and Eve business, and no one has treated it more eloquently and beautifully than Wagner. He was always in love with his heroines, and there are few finer in dramatic art than Sieglinde, Brunhilde and Isolde. So long as love rules the world, Wagner will be admired for the magnificent way he treats the subject. If he is appreciated now more than formerly, it must be, apart from questions of copyright, because opera audiences have a clearer perception of his aims.

  1. Brian is presumably referring to both the Diaghelev and Beecham series of those years, during which he made the thorough acquaintance of — among other scores — Boris Godunov and Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol↩︎

  2. The 'similar machine' was of course partly politically inspired, given the warm mutual esteem between the National Socialist Party and Bayreuth. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, June 1936, p. 751