Brian’s working class origins

Brown, Goodsell, Stevenson

David J Brown, Don Goodsell, Ronald Stevenson Ronald Stevenson’s review of three books on Brian prompted this exchange

I do like your conclusion pointing Brian’s working-class origins. That raises the fascinating question of what class he and his music belong to now - at what stratum or strata, in what analysis of our society, is he appreciated ? Judging on the membership of the Society, I would say with some certainty that appreciation of his music has no relationship at all with traditional class structure, unless very broadly in the misty middle-class. Brian certainly isn’t a fashionable composer, nor with equal certainty is he a ‘cosy’ composer. On the other hand, is he a ‘musician’s musician’? I’ve heard tales of eminent conductors who turn puce at the sound of his name - the critical reaction to the Festival was another instance of his posthumous ability to stimulate flows of vitriol…
David J Brown 14 Feb 1977

To which social class did Brian belong? His story does not quite follow the fabled path of ‘rags to riches to rags’, but assuredly he began his working life as a proletarian when he was an apprentice carpenter; he was ‘kicked upstairs’ when he squandered his patron’s largesse; and he returned to the archetypal habitat of the British worker when he lived his last days in a council flat. I use the word ‘proletarian’ as it is employed in modern political philosophy: that is, one who has no means of production, no resources by using which he could live. Brian, as is well known, produced a prodigious amount of music, but it provided him with no means, no material resources. He is a classic case of the artist in an overwhelmingly anti-cultural society.

A nd to which social class does his music belong? All music which speaks in the ‘vernacular’ (to use Deryck Cooke’s expression), and not in a private language, belongs surely to all the progressive elements which cut across all social classes though most work for social progress is undoubtedly to be done in the working-class when it is socially aware and when it is organized by progressives who have often come from the middle-class. The ‘vernacular’ in music is tonality. Brian was a master of tonality. Symphonic tonality is a cosmology in sound, structured with relevance to sonic ‘centres of gravity’. Only sophisticated simpletons think of tonality as merely the major and minor keys.

To say that Brian was a tonalist doesn’t mean that he was a purveyor of tonal pleasantries. His music ‘curses’ in the vernacular with a grim humour, as much as any navvy or bricklayer. A composer who writes in a private language may be a ‘musician’s musician’ but he will never appeal to the millions to be embraced by his art, as Beethoven, setting Schiller’s words, appealed in his Ninth. In a society which was truly directed to socio-cultural progress, Brian would have the chance to make that appeal. In a materialistically manipulated society, such as the UK which, despite pockets of progress, renders art subservient to commercialism and prefers sensationalism and fashion to a direct statement of human purport, Brian’s work has no chance of adequate, repeated hearings.

The Brian Society works, as William Blake said in another context, ‘to keep the Divine Vision in time of trouble’; so that, if a greater measure of social justice is won one day, Brian and other art-workers for humanity may have the chance to come into their own. Ronald Stevenson 18 April 1977

Brian’s strength, and the strength of any creative individual worth his salt, is that his art transcends class. Class is a fabrication, of meaning only in a society which is pre-occupied with privilege and deprivation. Certainly the term ‘proletarian’ is used in modern political philosophy because it is a convenient generalization (a tool, in other words) with which political philosophers but more generally political activists with an axe to grind) can manipulate the ideas of the vast majority of people whom they neither know nor understand.

To class Brian as ‘proletarian’ is as meaningless as classing music as ‘highbrow’ or ‘lowbrow’, and Brian surely was mature enough to realise that the vital quality of a musician is his musicianship, and was therefore as willing to learn from Bantock and Elgar (who were not really of the ‘working class’) as from the bandsmen and amateur musicians of the Potteries (who presumably were).

I have long admired Brian, never the ‘cantankerous old devil’ in the years he corresponded with a group of young enthusiasts, from as varied a background as you could imagine, who did their level best to get his music known in the late 1950s and early 60s. I admire Brian’s music, as I have done for more than 20 years, because it speaks a language of human depth and not, thank Heaven, of any glorious revolution of any social class, working or otherwise. It will speak comprehensibly to men with hearts, and with imagination, and with compassion, and with some of that same truculence, whether they happen to work with a carpenter’s plane or a computer, or whether (like his own patron) they handle the affairs of industry or commerce.

The truth, it is said, belongs to all of us, and this applies just as much to musical truth as to any other. I wonder if it really is any easier for a monied man to succeed in the arts than for a poor man, and whether the music of a Mendelssohn is necessarily lesser than that of a Schubert, or for that matter Beethoven who was (dare I say it) middle class.

Music is the musician is the man. When we are concerned with stature class becomes a mere impudence. Not only is the concept of ‘working class’ completely out of context in considering Brian’s music, but the idea and its examination belittle the achievement of one who was fundamentally a man, beyond politics and class (which seem to have a more stultifying effect on the arts than does commerce) and who would, I suggest, be as nonplussed as I am by the contention that ‘…the working class… are the true inheritors of the accumulated cultural achievements of all other classes…’.

I put this idea to a shipwright friend of mine, having first established that he was a member of the Working Class. ‘Did you realise’, I asked him, ‘that you are the true inheritor etc, etc ?’ He put down his plane, looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, and said, ‘Well, bless you boy. I didn’t know.’
Don Goodsell

I very much like Mr Goodsell’s sentence ‘Music is the musician is the man’. What goes to make the man must therefore go to make the music. Casals held that ‘more important than a man’s music is his attitude to life. Nor can the two be separated.’ A man’s attitude to life is surely determined by his social class and his environment - particularly his early environment.

A s a simple fact, Brian was born into the working class. The characteristic sound of English proletarian music-making in the early years of this century was massed brass and choirs. Brian was the first English composer to put these sounds into the forefront of his music. Other English composers have of course written for brass and voices, but not as Brian did. Elgar’s music featuring brass is that of Imperial Pomp and Circumstance. Brian’s is a music of struggle - the prime factor in a proletarian background, whether the person is politically active or not. The influence of a man’s attitude to life on the music he composes may be traced by a comparison of early and late Elgar. Through his disillusion with organized religion and what he saw as the vulgarity of Royalty, he wrote a different music in his last works, shedding panoply and bequeathing a personal statement.

I’d have been surprised if Mr Goodsell’s shipwright friend had answered his question any differently, put to him as it was. The fact remains that when working class people visit an art gallery or a concert hall and appreciate works of art which in former centuries were enjoyed by the privileged few; they are inheriting past culture and the culture of other classes; though the typical British ‘plain person’ would be a bit embarrassed to admit it.

Brian added to his inheritance the music he had absorbed from working class music-making.
Ronald Stevenson July 1977


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