The operas of Havergal Brian
(1) Opera in England, and the British opera composer -  Kate Baxter



The growth of the English choral tradition demanded a certain type of composition, one that was understandable by its audience and, more importantly, one that was not too demanding and that could be sung by an amateur group. That concert-going was not widely seen as a statement of social status outside the capital, and that there was an absence of professional performers in the provinces, may explain why there was little interest in opera outside fashionable London, whether this was opera from the continent or from British composers.

Carl Rosa’s Opera Company, although based in London, toured the provinces with continental operas translated into English. He also introduced some English works into his repertoire. After his death in 1889 English opera became overshadowed by that of European composers. When Wagner’s Flying Dutchman (1843) was premiered in London in 1880 it had been translated into Italian, in order to conform to the London musical fashion of the time. Efforts to give opera a distinctly British character will be explored later, but first it is necessary to examine endeavours to establish a native opera.

There were many experiments. For instance, in 1891 the English Opera House was opened in London with Sullivan’s Ivanhoe, but it soon succumbed to popular taste and became a music hall. At the end of June 1898 a committee of nineteen members, including Sullivan, and chaired by Sir Alexander Mackenzie, prepared a petition which was signed by almost one hundred and fifty ‘distinguished persons’, calling for the establishment of a permanent Municipal Opera House for London. It read:

To the London County Council.

The humble petition of the undersigned sheweth as follows:

1. That in this, the richest capital in the world, there exists no means whereby the highest class of operatic music can be systematically brought within the reach of the great mass of the people.

2. That under the existing conditions the very classes of the community which would benefit most constantly by the presentation of the greatest operatic masterpieces are now debarred from enjoying such a privilege, and the musical education of the public is thereby much restricted

3. That, for this reason, little encouragement is offered to young artists to pursue the highest paths of their profession.

4. That the development of native operatic art is seriously hindered and discouraged by the lack of any permanent establishment where the works of native composers can be produced.

5. That in most important towns in Europe it has been found practicable, with the assistance of the public authorities and at no great cost to the public exchequer to make provision for the systematic representation of the best class of opera, which has thus, by long-established usage, become part of the life of the people.

6.   That it would be possible for your council, by an annual grant of money of no excessive amount, to bring about the establishment of a permanent Opera House in London, which would fulfil the requirements hereinbefore set forth and thereby promote the musical interests and refinement of the public and the advancement of the art of music.

It is interesting to note that, by the inclusion of the word ‘refinement’, these gentlemen revealed strong Victorian values regarding the improvement of the moral welfare of the ‘public’. The letter clearly highlights the lack of serious provision for opera in London (and therefore England) coupled with the feeling that this provision was necessary both to encourage the British composer, and to satisfy a perceived demand for this genre of entertainment. By making comparisons with the music establishments of Europe, these gentlemen must also have thought that there were capable composers in England who, given the right encouragement, could compose opera equal to that of European origin.

By 1908 nothing had been done to fulfil the demands of the 1898 petition, as Charles Stanford raised the issue in his paper ‘The Case for National Opera’. Quite suddenly however, in 1911, ‘Oscar Hammerstein...decided to present London with a new opera house’. The London Opera House was opened in November 1911, but after nine months of a predominantly French repertoire the venture was bankrupt. It seems that the public mentioned in the petition of 1898 was only a hoped-for illusion of its promoters.

A year later, in 1909, in a letter from HV Higgins to Percy Pitt of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the financial problems of opera were discussed: ‘English people only come to the opera to hear something sensational or unusual... My conviction is that there is very little demand for Opera at all outside the season… the idea that a craving for Opera to be given in English as an absolute delusion’.

Just over ten years later the problem seems to have been the reverse. In a letter from Robert Radford to The Daily Telegraph, dated 29 June 1922, the liquidation of the Sir Thomas Beecham Opera Company Ltd is said to have been a direct result of poor returns, particularly of foreign opera. He introduced the new British National Opera Company, which aimed to give two seasons each year in London, and to tour the provinces for the remainder of the year, justified by their ‘Know(ing) from experience that there is a great public anxious to hear and eager to support performances of opera in English.’

It appears that the public demand for opera was either changing, for reasons such as fashion or education, or that there was very little demand for opera, be it foreign or in English. The English musical establishment and composers were not put off by public apathy as they continued to cry out for English opera and continued composing it despite the lack of public support.

Despite a rise of interest in British compositions and the genre of British opera - albeit in a seemingly small circle, led by Sullivan and Mackenzie - a premiere of a British piece was not a common occurrence. Of those which did occur, many enjoyed only limited success.

Some British composers had more success in Europe than in England. One of the first of these was Sir Frederick Cowen’s Signa (1892). It was commissioned by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, but was rejected due to late completion. Cowen took this work to Italy; the libretto was translated into Italian and it received its first performance in Milan in 1893. It became a great success before being taken back to England by Sir Augustus Harris, manager of the Royal Opera seasons at Covent Garden.

It was reduced from four acts to two, and, in its Italian translation, [!!! Ed] gained popularity after its first performance in London in 1894. Cowen’s next opera, Harold (1895) was commissioned by Harris. It only received three performances because, as Harris told Cowen: ‘...he had received a letter from one of his influential lady patrons to the effect that she and her friends did not go to Covent Garden to hear English Opera, and that if he intended to continue that sort of thing, they would have to give up subscribing’.

This clearly shows the musical snobbery of the opera-going public of the period, and illustrates why many native operas written in English had little, if any, success in this country.

This example is contradictory to Dzamba’s statement, when discussing the later works of Wagner. ‘Critics reported the rise of a more earnest and educated audience from the business classes who enjoyed opera in the original language’. It appears, however, that there were many contradictions not only in Wagner’s essays, but also in the way that his ideas were perceived. German influence on British music reached new dimensions by the knowledge of Wagner’s essays: ‘Wagner was first and foremost a theatrical entrepreneur, not a thinker - but his writings had considerably more to do with the initial spread of his reputation than did his music.’ (Large and Weber, 1984).

The Flying Dutchman (1843) was first heard in England in 1880, translated into Italian for the occasion, four years after people had flocked to the opening of the Bayreuth Festival. From 1910 to 1913 the Denhof Opera Company, based in Edinburgh, toured England with Der Ring des Nibelungen (1869-76), this time with the original German libretto. The rise of Wagnerism in England was also to have the effect of further lowering the status of contemporary British composers, as the most striking tendency in musical life was a move away from a preference for contemporary music to a preference for works by dead masters.

This is yet another contradiction of Wagnerism. Wagner, as well as praising the work of men such as Haydn, had also promoted the idea of music of the Volk, using traditional folk-tunes and legends. Thus the influence of Wagnerism in England was to have a profound effect on musical life. The inevitable consequence of Wagnerite praising of ‘dead composers’ was that the works of contemporary British composers such as Brian had little chance of receiving public interest.

At the same time a schism opened among those composers: Stanford, and his pupils at the Royal College of Music heralded the music of the Volk, in what became the English Folk Song School, while at the Royal Academy Frederick Corder and his pupils, such as Granville Bantock, supported German romanticism and the giganticism of Wagner. Examples of this can be seen in Holbrooke’s The cauldron of Annwyn (1912,14,29) a trilogy of operas based on Welsh myth, and in the works and influence of Rutland Boughton (1878-1960) who promoted a Music and Drama festival at Glastonbury, which ran from 1914-1926. The English Musical Renaissance grew out of a melting pot of ideas and influences, both in and out of the musical establishment.

Havergal Brian's operas - Kate Baxter continues this article, introducing Brian's operas

NL 128 Kate Baxter 1996


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