|Brian and the percussion section|
broad survey - Rodney Stephen Newton
Rodney Stephen Newton was born in Birmingham in 1945 and has pursued the dual careers of composer and orchestral player. At the time of writing he was sub-principal percussionist with the English National Opera Orchestra.
You like Havergal Brian's music because of all that percussion! So said an orchestral player to me recently - and one who had taken part in the 1976 Brian Centenary concerts. My enthusiasm for Brian is certainly not founded on his percussion writing alone, although I must confess that at times he appears somewhat generous with respect to that department. Although by present-day standards his percussion writing is generally conventional, Brian certainly manages in places to put his own individual stamp on his percussion parts.
Brian's percussion department is basically that of the romantic orchestra of the first half of this century, the orchestra used by Elgar, Strauss, Mahler and to a large extent Shostakovitch. The instruments principally employed are glockenspiel, xylophone, tubular bells, side drum(s), cymbals, castanets, triangle, tambourine, occasional use of vibraphone, wind and thunder machines and the Indian tabla. In the main, only one set of timpani is used, although that requirement is occasionally raised to two or even three sets. In the operas there are a few passages needing more than one timpanist, but in general these spots could be covered by the percusssonists who are resting at these points.
There are a few instances of notes in the upper register of the timpani being used (top A in Symphony no 2, top G in the Prelude to The Cenci and Part Two of the Gothic) but nothing like the stratospheric writing of Janacek, for example, is found. At the other end, however, we find Brian frequently employing the low register of the timpani to great effect. In the first half of this century timpani heads were exclusively made from animal hide, calf and goat being the most common - and a distinctive feature of animal heads as against the plastic heads in general use today is a great richness of sound in the lower range of any given drum.
Thus composers from Wagner onwards showed great interest in the sombre, funereal qualities of low timpani notes (listen to the low D and Eb entries in Mahler's ninth symphony and observe the way they colour the music with dark thunder-clouds). Brian was obviously acutely aware of this potential and frequently makes use of low notes to give an effect of foreboding, However, with characteristic independence Brian does something quite different from anyone else at the very outset of the Gothic Symphony. After a couple of bars of introduction, two timpanists crash out a rhythmic motto - in octaves.
This type of writing is quite unique in my experience, and I should be most interested to hear from anyone who can quote a parallel example from any other composer. The effect is of elemental power and force, grasping the listener by the scruff of the neck, as it were.
Brian's disposition of notes between timpanists is sensible and practical - although there are places in Symphony no 2 where, from my examination of the score, there seems to be some confusion as to which timpanist plays which notes. Perhaps someone involved in the performance of this work might let me know how these problems were resolved. Havergal Brian's admiration of Berlioz caused him not only to emulate the French master in the use of large choral and orchestral forces, but also in the use of timpani as harmonic instruments. The opening of Symphony no 2 recalls the Berlioz of the Symphonic Fantastique.
In The Cenci there are two entries involving four timpanists (one drum per player). These spots may be played on one set of timpani by the principal timpanist and three other percussionist who are tacet. In the first case, however, the players must take up their positions as Beatrice sings 'Am I, or am I not, a parricide ?', involving a bit of a scramble over a couple of bars of very quiet music. This, however, is not beyond the bounds of practicality and has a parallel in Ginastera's opera Bomarzo -also in a passage involving four timpanists.
The most striking example of Brian's multiple timpani writing is to be found in Part Two of the Gothic Symphony. Here the writing (for two orchestral timpanists and four in the additional brass groups) is so individual as to almost call for a separate study. At one point the low range of the timpani is again exploited together with some showy stick work in the playing of the grace notes. Such writing is quite unique to Brian. During the period encompassing Brian's later works, pedal timpani (complete with plastic heads sized drums), fine tuning devices and note gauges affording a wider upper range from standard (ensuring accurate intonation in rapid changes of pitch) established their preeminence over the hand-screw models. However, we find Brian ignoring the glissandi and scales that were now becoming commonplace in contemporary music. On the contrary, his timpani writing still remained basically simple, showing no desire to return to the flamboyant style of the Gothic Symphony. In the main, only one set of timpani is required in the later symphonies - with the exceptions of nos 22 and 25 which both require two players, the parts still being conservatively written.
Xylophone and glockenspiel
In addition to these typical ways, for Brian, of using these instruments, the glockenspiel and xylophone are also given many solo passages containing elements of both virtuosity and atmosphere. For instance, the glockenspiel is featured in Symphony no 8 and at the opening of Symphony no 12, as well as in the highly imaginative music preceding the 'storm' in Symphony no 10. One could go on for pages giving examples from his oeuvre, but I think the above cases give an adequate impression of Brian's feeling for colour in his writing for the glockenspiel.
Brian's xylophonist is frequently allowed to demonstrate his technique in passages demanding the utmost ingenuity in sticking. Such moments have already ensconced themselves in the percussionists' rogues gallery of tricky solos.
The exciting discovery of the manuscript full score of The tigers causes me [to amend this view to an extent]. The most astonishing feature regarding the percussion score of The tigers is the use in Act 2 of the vibraphone - two vibraphones to be exact. [Despite] the fact that Brian uses the vibraphone only in a couple of brief instances in his later symphonies... here we have him employing the instrument only a few years after its introduction.
The vibraphone was invented by a certain Hermann Winterhof of the Leedy Drum Company of America in 1916, and by 1921 the original instrument had been developed into more or less the instrument we know today. However, the vibraphone was not exported to this country much before the 1930s and then was only to be found in the dance band. However, we now have the evidence of Brian's own hand that the opera was completed in July 1929. Moreover, Alban Berg is generally credited with the introduction of the vibraphone into serious music in his opera Lulu - but this was not until 1934. How, then, did Brian come across what was at that time a very obscure instrument?
I think the answer lies in the fact that much of the early work on The tigers was done in Birmingham where the firm of EA Parsons - then one of the world's foremost percussion instrument manufacturers - had its premises. At that time they were in serious competition with Messrs Leedy and would have wasted no time in obtaining details of the latest developments and possibly even constructing their own prototypes. Furthermore, as Ernest Parsons Snr, and his sons, Ernest Jnr (under whom I studied) and Albert were all distinguished timpanists and percussionists and close friends of Sir Granville Bantock, they would doubtless have known Brian well in those days.
The part in the opera is given to two players on one line each (one consistently bass and the other treble) and combined with the tubaphone - an instrument consisting of a series of slim metal tubes laid horizontally after the manner of the glockenspiel. It is clear that Brian fully understood the vibrato effect and the possibilities of phrasing by using the damper pedal.
Malcolm MacDonald has described the sound of three side-drums in unison as 'heavy' and 'penetrating - and this is so. However, the final result is sometimes so heavy and penetrating that the music is all but obscured. It is perfectly possible to obtain a heavy, threatening sound from a large, deep shell side-drum tuned carefully (an instrument with calf or goat heads and gut snares would be especially suitable) and a single instrument of this nature might prove perfectly acceptable In symphonies like nos 20, 21 and 22, where no undue prominence is given to the side-drum. However, I don't think this is the ultimate answer by any means.
There are plenty of Brian works such as Symphonies 6, 7 and 8 in which any reduction in the number of side-drums would considerably weaken the overall effect. Here, for example, much of the bizarre, funereal atmosphere would be lost with only one sidedrum in action. Notice also that Brian is fully aware of the differences in tonal colour obtained by releasing the snare mechanism. This can be done fairly quietly on most modern instruments - although on older models with only a screw to tension the snare, it was necessary to muffle the instrument by placing a handkerchief between the snare and the snare head.
Returning to the 'à3 or not à3' problem, I think the only satisfactory solution is for both conductor and principal percussionist to use their discretion and musicianship in deciding just when three drums are essential to the overall effect, and when one drum may do. In addition a close ear must be kept on the balance of the drums. From an examination of the scores, it is clear that Brian wrote his side-drum parts with one composite sound in mind - that is, when a fortissimo passage occurs, the resultant dynamic of the drums must be fortissimo not the individual dynamic of each player! Observing this point in future Brian performances may greatly assist in clarifying the general orchestral texture, and may allow the principal lines to emerge instead of being submerged under a barrage of sound.
Jingles (sleigh bells)
Returning to Brian's louder passages, we come once again across the problem of balance. Over the last 20 years or so the dynamic ranges of most major orchestras have become wider and, with the increase in the size of timpani, drums, cymbals and gongs, it is very easy for the percussion to swamp in passages like the coda to Symphony no 18. In the recording studio these moments are no problem but in the concert hall great care must be taken to ensure a correct balance while preserving the dramatic impact.
In the course of this article I have only scratched the surface of the subject under consideration and I hope I may deal with further issues at a later date - particularly with regard to the operas, which I am hoping to make the subject of a detailed study in the near future. However, I hope I have at least provided an insight into a significant aspect of Brian's work and perhaps provoked discussion over a few points. Increased public performance will help to bring the problems into focus and provide answers in future years - until then there are so many areas of this fascinating and important composer to study, and I hope this article may encourage other instrumentalists to make a study of Brian from their own standpoint.
NL13,14 / © Rodney Stephen Newton 1977
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