A late harvest
Review - Ronald Stevenson



This review covers Reginald Nettel's Havergal Brian, the man and his music, Kenneth Eastaugh's Havergal Brian: the making of a composer and Lewis Foreman's Havergal Brian and the performance of his orchestral music. There is also copious biographgicval material.
This review was first published in
Books and bookmen, December 1976.

In 1974 I lived for one intensive week with the music of Havergal Brian.  With David Wilde I was one of the two pianists required for Brian's Third Symphony (1932), a premiere belated by 42 years.  David Wilde and I rehearsed daily, either as a duo or with the NPO under Stanley Pope. Friends of Brian and members of his family attended the BBC recording.  Afterwards I spoke to the composer's son, Patrick Brian.  He told me that every time he heard one of his father's works, he felt as though he had been in his company again: the company, as he put it, of 'a cantankerous old devil, still likeable for all that'.

Preparation and performance of the Symphony made me feel exactly the same.  There was a sure feeling of having been involved with a real creative character, a powerful individual persona.  After that intensive week of work, there was a hole in my life for some days.  It was as though a valued friend had departed and left a void.  But resurrection is the very stuff of the performing arts and soon I was booked for more Havergal Brian performances - and there again I was in the musical company of this craggy, likeable character.

That same year, 1974, Malcolm MacDonald published his first volume on Brian's Symphonies (Kahn & Averill).  And, now in the centenary year of Brian's birth, a late harvest of literature on him has been garnered: biographies by Nettel and Eastaugh and a pictorial bibliography by Foreman.  In all these I meet again the same creative character I got to know in performing his music.  This, for me, is the measure of the success, the authenticity, of these books.  I have no doubt that Nettel, of the three literary portraitists, has got nearest to the features.   That is not only because Nettel shares a similar social background (working-class) to Brian's, as, for that matter, does Eastaugh, but also because Nettel also has something of Brian's tough psychology, bred of the necessity for social survival in the milieu of 'devil take the hindmost'.

Eastaugh, by contrast, as an extravert journalist, has seized on those characteristics of Brian which afford scope for colourful prose:  that is, Brian the young man, after some years of neglect and struggle, suddenly finding himself with a rich patron.  Like other people from deprived backgrounds who suddenly find fortune (like, for example, the Russian basso Chaliapin forgetting the gutters of Moscow when he gaped at the sumptuously caparisoned shop windows of Fifth Avenue) Brian became besotted when the years of plenty came at last.  Eastaugh relishes this episode:   'he employed maids, cooks, gardeners.  He sent his children to expensive schools.  He spent lavishly on home decorating and assembled a large and impressive library which was one of his proudest joys.  He had mistresses and played the part of the bohemian artist.  He bought expensive suits, shirts, shoes and bow ties.   One of his suits was made of cream flannel.  He wore it with a broad-brimmed panama hat, a large, floppy bow tie and a bright orange cummerbund'.

Turning from that description to a small photo of Brian, reproduced on p99 of Foreman's pictorial sourcebook, we glimpse Brian the nonagenarian, sitting alone on a deck-chair in a field, wearing a trilby and in his shirt-sleeves, his hearing-aid poking out of his waistcoat pocket:  a row of functional buildings in the distance.  He has left the swashbuckling dandy far behind.  But Eastaugh so hugely enjoys writing about the earlier bizarre episodes in the life of this artist, with all the psychological turmoil and family rows, that comparatively little of his book is concerned with the last years which witnessed a sustained burst of creativity unparalleled not only in Brian's earlier life but in the career of any other earlier composer:  a total of 32 symphonies.  Twenty of them composed, incredibly, after 80 years of age.

Eastaugh's book views Brian through the wrong end of the telescope:  it is top-heavy in its emphasis of the earlier, less creative period, and the creative giant of the last period appears diminished.  Eastaugh has researched the family background and the earlier years painstakingly and he writes with panache.   But he has got his perspective and his proportions wrong.  The trouble is one endemic to non-musician biographers of musicians.

Even the great writers produce the most awful gaffes when venturing to write about music.  I recall a harrowing, searing short story by that master of fiction, Joseph Conrad, Freya of the seven isles, in which he has the female protagonist playing 'wild Wagner music' at the piano:  as gauche a situation as any musician can imagine, with the commander of a great literary style for one moment completely out of command.

Nettel, on the contrary, gets his proportions right.  He was the author of the first book on Brian, Ordeal by music, a slender but tough volume which appeared during the Second World War.  It gave an account of the near-mythical Gothic symphony and posed the Brian problem, which was why such a master symphonist should be almost totally unperformed.  Brian's prodigious Indian Summer during the last 25 years of his life necessitated a continuation and amplification of Nettel's book.   His new book is, indeed, a completely different work.  Nettel, like Brian, is an almost totally self-taught musician.  His prose-style could hardly be further removed from Eastaugh's:  Nettel knows the virtue of laconicism. 

And he knows the music.  He knew Brian as he was known to very few others.  He knew his shortcomings.  Despite them, and notwithstanding his objectivity, he acknowledges Brian's stature, not only as a composer but as a thinking man.  What a simple, noble ending Nettel writes to his book:  'even in his swan-song... he is thinking of human society.  He was never a misanthrope.  In the classical manner he was saying farewell to his friends'.

Though both Nettel's and Eastaugh's books are richly illustrated, it was a masterstroke of imagination (and truth) for Nettel to choose scenes from Brian's childhood in the Potteries - especially an old postcard of the 'dark satanic mills' of a Pottery town - as the sombre backcloth to this Blakean life.

Foreman's book is a thesaurus, a real treasure-trove, both photographically and bibliographically.  It has been produced with an eye for what is not only attractive but what is also tasteful.  To document every performance of Brian's orchestral music - Foreman's daunting self-imposed task - is to strive for a 100% accuracy that can never be attained:  at least in no first edition.  He gets a detail wrong about the 3rd Symphony premiere in which I personally participated:  the orchestra was the NPO, not the BBC SO.

The two champions of Brian's music who emerge in the three volumes are Sir Granville Bantock and Dr Robert Simpson;  both dedicated, but Simpson by far the more effective.  Simpson's advocacy of Brian is all the more admirable, as he is himself a major symphonist;  his propaganda for and promotion of Brian's cause must have cost him many hours away from his own orchestral scores.

Brian was the first and, so far, one of the extremely few British composers of working-class origin. He worked as a labourer in his early days: he was, among other things, a carpenter's apprentice getting the sack for scribbling music on planks').  A proletarian intellectual is a phenomenon in British music, though not in British literature.  I have heard some people opine that the enormity of the sheerly physical difficulties involved in acquiring both the skill and the time necessary for the making of a symphony puts it beyond the reach of a working-class person.  And one still hears that the worker is bound to lack culture; culture misinterpreted as finesse.   My own personal view is that, as the working class are the last to be afforded opportunities they are the true inheritors of the accumulated cultural achievements of all the other classes which have emerged throughout history.  Havergal Brian is a case in point.



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