When and what is new

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

When does a novelty in music cease to be a novelty? Or, is the novelty of 1870 to one person again a novelty in 1910 to another person? There is no conclusive answer. The thrill on first leaving England can never be repeated in the same person, though similar thrills may be felt by many. Think of those exciting moments when first reading Gautier’s Nights with Cleopatra, or when the novels of Hardy, Meredith and Bennett and the poetry of Wilde, Yeats and Masefield were new to us. The lines linger, but the air of freshness has vanished. In twenty years’ time our passion for poetry may have passed and our interest in old wives’ tales be replaced by absorption in studies in philosophy. So what happens with letters will surely be the same in the matter of music. That strange, original, haunting note we heard when first listening to Grieg, Strauss, Debussy, Elgar and Delius was lovely when new, and we felt transported.

When did it cease to be new? Having passed the stage of wonderment, we begin to probe for reasons, and we find that certain idioms explain themselves quite readily. The sparkling bell-like impression of Grieg fades with analysis, and only Ase’s Tod remains: it is one of the profoundest things sung in simple language. What was the fascination of Elgar? Something very nearly related to Grieg, and instantly heard in the opening bars of either his Light of Life or King Olaf . In both instances there comes a new style of musical expression: and novel idiom fascinates many imaginative musicians. The technique was simple, and consisted only in a new presentation of familiar things: really no more than an original way of harmonising the descending melodic minor scale.

Similar overwhelming moments must have been experienced when Strauss and Tchaikovsky first came amongst us in all their freshness. But why did our wonder pass away, for here indeed was orchestral excitement that seemed destined to last? The extraordinary, rousing, luscious and full-blooded quality of Bantock’s Omar Khayyam, the poignancy and the haunting sad note of Delius’s Sea Drift: these were two distinctly new types of musical expression. Where are they now?

Nothing in or out of music goes by its own propulsion. Someone must give it a start. Had Wood not acted as missionary for Strauss and Tchaikovsky, or Beecham for Delius, or the festivals for Bantock, how much of their music would ever have been heard? And more, if it has again a vogue, will it appear as a freshening force, or will it be suspect by those who inherit familiarity, as it would seem many of us must? But, apart from the question of freshness, music has a habit of appearing and disappearing: no successful music has ever remained at its apex of favour.

The ebb and flow of Mozart’s music during the past fifty years is remarkable: it never ceases, but the rippling seems at times to reveal something hitherto undiscovered and to hold the attention of varying great numbers. Probably Mozart has at times been over played so as to become tiresome: just as sonatas do to the man compelled to listen in the examination room to the Waldstein played in fifty different ways in one day.

But musicologists cannot adequately account for the goings of once-great men. Handel as a composer of operas is no more: but his contemporary Bach, who passed his life in German provincial towns, now rules in the world of music, though at the time of his death he was rated as an awful old fogey, and probably only a fair cantor and schoolmaster. They did not then speak of him as a composer: but the revaluation of his music during the past century-and-a-half is a phenomenon that can be neither explained nor explained away.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, July 1936, pp. 833–835