What is truth?

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

As I sat reading the address of the learned gentleman engaged in the recent passing-off case5, I could but think that he would fail if he relied on the assertion that any moderately talented composer could write ordinary Bach or Handel with success. Rather impolitely, I uttered to myself, Fudge. Beyond parodying certain individual characteristics, such as passage-work and cadences, no other person can possibly reproduce that indefinable quality we instantly recognise as genius. Hubert Parry got very near the spirit of those composers in his lovely intermezzo, God breaketh the battle in his oratorio, Judith. In listening to this aria, we think more of Bach and Handel than of Parry: but I continue to wonder whether Parry lapsed into a style of which we know he had a great understanding, or was there deliberate imitation?

The hand is Parry: the spirit is Bach and Handel, represented as it seemed well to a composer in this century. And really, apart from the manner of announcement (which is not my concern), that is what Kreisler has done in his short fugitive pieces: he has in truth captured the spirit of certain ancient Italian composers. The strange thing is that he has not attempted to write as they wrote, nor has he stolen their ideas. Had a defence along these lines been presented with ability, I am sure the public interested would have seen all the issues in better proportion.

So far as I see, Kreisler has worked no less skilfully than Parry; but his one disservice is that he has given these old Italians a notoriety not merited. Their works, fortunately, can only be seen in antiquarian libraries, and goodness knows why, judging how the few published, they are still retained6. What little vitality they may once have possessed has long since departed; and Kreisler, perhaps knowing this, decided to produce something which embodied the spirit of old-time music, feeling the charm himself and imparting it to all listeners.

I was distressed to read of this as an ‘industry’, which word can only justly be applied to the work of men who, at the behest of publishers, ransack any library to which they can gain entry in the hope of finding something that can be issued at small initial cost. Men finding such works are not comparable in ability to Kreisler, and their ‘arrangements' never show an appreciation of the spirit of ancient or any other music. Finally, I wonder that the whole matter ever interested either composer or commentator. One explanation is that it arose in New York: it was telegraphed to London, and in the present phase of Fleet Street servility to American dictation, our men simply had to fall for it.

  1. The reference, as becomes clear later, is to Fritz Kreisler's admission that several items which he had long been passing off as arrangements of Pugnani and other 18th century Italians were in fact entirely his own compositions. Again, Brian’s robust commonsense is much on display here. ↩︎

  2. Before we dismiss these words as ignorant prejudice, remember that Brian was actually interested in Early Music, and was no mean ransacker of libraries; he is writing from familiarity with the music — and if there is anything worse than a mediocre contemporary composer, it is surely a mediocre Baroque one. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, June 1935, p. 754