What is melody?

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Sir Frederic Cowen, who is only eighty-three, has shown quite youthful vigour in defending the artistic principles of his early days, indeed of times much more remote than that. A start was made by a correspondent who protested against the broadcasting of a certain new English symphony: and that evoked counter protests4. It was ever thus, even in the days of mediaeval polyphony: remember how Josquin de Pres was rebuked for his new and adventurous spirit. Since those days almost every new composer has provoked a revival of the old query, What is Melody? the disputants seeming never to weary of their old game of battledore and shuttlecock.

Melody, like harmony and orchestration, varies in its quality with its period, and is almost as diverse as language: slang to the father is classic to the son, and a crude Americanism may have been a polite English expression on board the Golden Hind. Verdi himself changed: what was Italian melody in Aida was not the same substance as that in Ernani. Rameau was a melodist: so also was Debussy. But they are still fighting over the dead body of Debussy as they are over that of Berlioz. I recall well how thirty years ago they said that Richard Strauss had no melodic sense, while now 'tis declared that folk sicken with it, as of a vintage that becomes too familiar. On the other hand there are those who think that nothing equals Château Strauss. Farther back, in the sixteenth century, some people thought Palestrina a music much too fruity.

This present discussion on What is Melody? shows that, as of old, two different views still persist, and traverse everything in music. Some people rave over the silvery voiced tenor, while others hear beauty only in the declamation of the Wagnerian tenor. Both types have their place, but each is limited and is not interchangeable. Similarly, melodies of the bel canto order have a very different origin from those of the Wagnerian dramatic quality: the first is something that acts and springs out of itself, whilst the second is chained to the harmony in which it has its being and of which it must remain an integral part. Think of Cherry ripe as a type of the one, and of the Liebestod from Tristan as a symbol of the other: they differ as two languages, and obviously what is intelligible to one will be Greek to most others.

Thus we reach the point where some make neither head nor tail of recent instrumental music. The traditional vocal type of melody in orchestral works has been with us during the lives of most now living, but the path diverged. Wagner, and then Strauss, went out into the open; and now we see pioneers from Austria and Russia cutting a way through with intervals in their orchestral works unknown to either Wagner or Strauss. Enter Sir Frederic Cowen, who declares that the new melody is no melody at all. Of course, it isn’t a bit like the old vocal or instrumental melodic line: and as it is not, it seems sheer folly to denounce it. Familiarity will in time smooth down what is now thought crude. As an instance, an occasional performance of a work by Schönberg (for his Five orchestral pieces have, I believe, been played only twice at Queens Hall during thirty years5) is not likely to hasten a favourable reaction to the new idiom.

What is so stimulating about the present discussion is the frontal attack by the grand old musician. Sir Frederic Cowen very definitely asks Sir Henry Wood whether he conducts the works of ultra-modern composers because he really admires them, or because he falls for the distorted taste of a few highbrows? and then suggests that Sir Thomas Beecham as on side of the angels because he cleaves to the classics, sweetened by the luscious charm found in the music of Delius. Well, after listening to Wood and Boult conduct many ultra-modern works with obvious relish and enjoyment. I think they like them. However, deductions being dangerous, I do not conclude that Beecham does not play music of the Austrian and Russian schools because he dislikes them: it may be that he will not do so without adequate rehearsal.

And now, in closing, here’s a health unto Sir Frederic! and may he long remain with us defending the faith that is in him.

  1. I have not traced the correspondence referred to, nor determined whether Cowen contributed to it or wrote a separate article. The reference to ‘a certain English symphony’ is probably to either the Vaughan Williams F minor or the (still unfinished) Walton B flat minor, both of which had performances in April 1935. This whole article is an excellent example of Brian’s open-mindedness on the subject of ‘modernism’. ↩︎

  2. In 1912 (under Wood) and 1914 (under Schoenberg). ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, June 1935, pp. 753–754