|Beethoven, Berlioz, Brian (or, three Bs and more)|
Influences on one British
symphony and beyond
Plenty has been written on Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony—most of it stressing the undoubted individuality of the work. And who would doubt its incomparable unirichness of textures, moods and styles? Still, even a Havergal Brian was influenced by music history, though he may have been a composer to distil such influences into something more original than some of his British contemporaries. But this originality was, as we know, not at all always to his advantage—remember the only partial success of The Vision of Cleopatra (1907), which was awarded a prize largely through the generosity of Sir Henry Wood, or the Columbia Graphophone Company competition on the occasion of the Schubert centenary in Vienna of 1928 when the Gothic Symphony won second prize in the British division, but eventually won no prize. The influence of a jury should not be underestimated— Charles Villiers Stanford started his career through a symphony competition in 1876. Alexandra Palace (where a broadcast performance of Brian’s Das Siegeslied took place in 1974) had been opened in 1873, to rival the Crystal Palace, but it burned down a fortnight after its opening and was only re-opened in 1875—being used for concert purposes for only a short time, largely due to being ineffectively run. The judges for the 38 symphonies submitted to the 1876 competition (only three of which can still be identified) were Sir George Alexander Macfarren, professor of Music at Cambridge, and Joseph Joachim. The only symphony score known to have survived is that of Charles Villiers Stanford’s First Symphony, which won second prize.
But could one really say that the Gothic Symphony is “an apotheosis of the lyrical genius of Schubert”? What was it that the jury rejected—and what is so fascinating in the Gothic Symphony—and what, on the other hand, renders the Gothic Symphony for the less knowledgeable more of a curiosity, a curiosity that has even entered the Guinness Book of Records? The Gothic Symphony may perhaps be called a consummation of several spects of music history (what some critics would call eclecticism), though this consummation is transcended by Havergal Brian’s originality. ather superficially, we have two well-known compositions of the continental European choral orchestral tradition that became godparents, as it were, to the Gothic Symphony; and as the godfather, perhaps, we have Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony of 1824, a commission from the Philharmonic Society of London (though it had already been composed for and premiered in Vienna)—a work which would even be quoted extensively in Michael Tippett’s Third Symphony of 1965– 72. Here again we have a richness of textures hardly known elsewhere—and this indeed accounts for the fascination the symphony, which may by the way have been modelled on a Schlacht-Symphonie of 1814 by a certain Peter Winter, still holds for the public, a work described by 1939/40 Ralph Vaughan Williams as an “unapproachable masterwork”.2 Paul Rapoport states as early as 1978 that “many inspirations and influences have been mentioned for The Gothic, some by Brian himself.”3 Still, the influence of Beethoven has—though obvious—hardly been appreciated to its full extent. Of course we cannot analyze similarities (and dissimilarities) in close detail today—let me mention here only the obvious similarity of proportions in the solely orchestral first three movements. However, another work, less similar in the proportion of orchestral movements but possibly of considerable influence, does need to be mentioned here—Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), his second Symphony, also called Symphony-Cantata. Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise became a prototype for the combination of symphony and cantata, an idea frequently taken up by British composers (from Hubert Parry, via Leslie Bainton, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Bernard van Dieren and Josef Holbrooke to Henry Walford Davies, Granville Bantock and Arthur Bliss). However, and this has to be stressed explicitly, this concept was interpreted often in the direction of the cantata and the oratorio (Elgar’s The Black Knight, Ethel Smyth’s The Prison) so that some choral symphonies so designated can hardly be recognised as such. Also Liszt’s Faust and Dante Symphonies (1854–7) or Mahler’s Second and Third Symphonies (1888–96) are to be seen in Beethoven’s succession, and it was in this tradition in which they were received in England. And it is indeed in this respect—as an important model—that both the Beethoven and the Mendelssohn may be called to some extent “British” choral symphonies. Beethoven’s concept of an orchestral symphony with choral finale became a widespread fashion; examples in Britain were (after the Gothic Symphony) Cyril Rootham’s Second Symphony of 1936–8, completed after his death by Patrick Hadley, Cyril Scott’s The Muses of 1939 (recently released on CD by Chandos), and Stanley Wilson’s 1942, which has remained unperformed due to the Second World War. So William Wordsworth is not entirely wrong with his remark on the British musical world when it comes to performing choral orchestral music: “I suppose they always fight shy of anything that wants a choir and soloists, unless it is by Mahler and Beethoven, of course.”4
Not very many choral symphonies can be found in 19th century Britain, in the direct succession of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and none of them (Alfred Holmes, Jacob Bradford) seems to have survived. The earliest known ones are to be found in the oeuvre of Parry who composed them, as later did Walford Davies, Granville Bantock and Edmund Rubbra, in the tradition of the ‘Sinfonia sacra’—therefore they were actually moral cantatas (as to text, even spiritual cantatas) with a relatively independent orchestral body. In formal terms however they are no more symphonies than are Schütz’, Hammerschmidt’s or Gabrieli’s Symphoniae sacrae—thus relating to a period much earlier than any other symphonies do, namely to the end of the 16th Century and the beginning of the 17th. This means that Parry, unlike Davies or Rubbra later on, was not even trying to create a symphony in the more contemporary sense, and was thus taking the same direction as Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (1906), albeit much more firmly rooted in 19th century harmony. In his 1902 analysis of the Symphonia Sacra Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich? by Heinrich Schütz (published in 1650), Hubert Parry wrote: “It illustrates the just view of the Teutonic composer, that music deals with the inward man and not with what is external to him, with the mood induced by the external and not with the external itself”.5 I would like to stress this tendency since Granville Bantock’s friendship with Brian will very probably also have made the latter aware of this thread of tradition—Bantock’s Christus of 1897–1907 (if called a “Festival Symphony”, as it is in the vocal score) together with Omar Khayyám and the Song of Songs perhaps being an important influence for Brian’s setting of Prometheus Unbound of 1937–44. There was an important change in choral writing in Bantock’s output just before World War I, when he composed his unaccompanied choral symphonies Atalanta in Calydon (1911) and Vanity of Vanities (1913). This change can also be detected in other composers, such as Peter Warlock and Gustav Holst, whose Choral Symphony (1923–5) became a model for another kind of concept for a choral symphony. But back to Bantock—his complicated multi-choir approach was obviously an important inspiration to Havergal Brian. In 1918 Mr. JA Rodgers, an enthusiastic chorus-master and critic, wrote the following in a paper on The New Choralism: “I have dreamed sometimes of a wonderful choir for which an unborn composer will write a miraculous work. The choir will be of some 200 voices, all supreme artists, perfect timists, chosen with an ear to varying qualities of tone— robust and light tenors, high baritones, thick mellow basses, a few male altos carefully chosen, strong-toned contraltos, bright and smooth sopranos, and perhaps a few boys’ voices of flute-like tone. Half a score of different timbres would then furnish a palette which would provide a composer with many novel and beautiful combinations. The chorus would be used in many ways—staccato and legato, closed and open tone, all degrees of intensity, combined and contrasted; vowel-chords and words, humming and nasal tone, head and chest voices—the choir would indeed be an orchestra in mezzotints. Such a choir singing a work specially written for them by some Elgar or Bantock, would provide a novelty in the musical world.”6
Havergal Brian, who had heard an English version of Peter Cornelius’ 8-part song Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht op. 11 No. 1 (1871) in Manchester which made a huge impact on him, may have read that text which was published in the Musical Quarterly of 1918, and it may even be no coincidence that the following year he started composing the Gothic Symphony.
“What sorts of influences are involved with the Gothic Symphony is a question that cannot be answered simply. Similarities between Brian’s and an earlier composer’s work may suggest that they were both influenced by still other composers or by similar aspects of culture. For example, the features of complex polyphony, large-scale orchestration, and extreme length in works by Brian, Mahler, Wagner, Strauss, Bantock and Schönberg may result partially from Western European aesthetics of the last half of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th up to the First World War, in which there was a notable emphasis on heroism, grandeur, dramatic power, the colossal, and the expansion of technique, in music as in other domains. They may also result, partially, from all these composers’ admiration of earlier examples of the same from composers as different as Byrd, Bach, and Berlioz. These considerations are important for any study of influences, even in the most obvious cases of parody. Receptivity to parodying and even direct copying is itself a variable.”7 It is in this connection, emphasized by Paul Rapoport in 1978, that one has to understand Brian writing to Granville Bantock in 1924, referring to the first three movements of the Gothic Symphony: “As regards this Symphony—I wonder how many people have helped to the making of it? Structurally it belongs more to Palestrina and our own William Byrd—well, quite as much as the Tristan Prelude is the development of a germ or an idea, as are the Palestrina, Byrd works.”8 Malcolm MacDonald summarizes: “On the expressive plane Part I is dynamic in the familiar symphonic sense, a demonstration of artistic continuity with the recent past, a logical development from the achievements of Wagner, Bruckner, Strauss, Elgar and early Schönberg (Brian knew almost nothing of Mahler at this time).”9 He stresses that the first three movements move “away from an initially familiar pre-Romantic language with ever-increasing stylistic and structural freedom, arriving in the third movement at a fully 20th-century idiom and a completely personal handling of symphonic form.”10 We may add that in this respect Brian continues his own path already obvious from earlier compositions such as the Overtures For Valour and Doctor Merryheart or the part-abandoned Fantastic Symphony. You may wonder whether there is anywhere any real “Gothic”, that is medieval music, mentioned by either author, or Brian himself—there is not.
The spiritual quality of the Gothic Symphony is reflected in the motto, taken from Goethe’s Faust, Part II: “Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, / den können wir erlösen”. Brian writes on Goethe’s influence: “As the first part (orchestral) was largely coloured by Goethe’s Faust (Part I), I had an idea of setting to a choral finale a large portion of the last act of Faust (Part II).”11 So if Goethe was so highly important to him, why did Brian decide against a setting of the finale on Faust II? The answer well may be that he had come to know Robert Schumann’s setting of Goethe’s text, in his Scenen aus Göthes Faust of 1844–53, and therefore retreated from setting it himself. You may also recall that Franz Liszt, too, set the final chorus at the end of his Eine Faust-Symphonie of 1854–57, in full knowledge of Schumann’s composition. One word on Mahler and his Eighth Symphony (and you may recall its nickname—“Symphonie der Tausend” / “Symphony of a Thousand”) which however was not performed in England until 1928: Brian’s Gothic Symphony has quite often been linked to Mahler’s musical world for the sheer number of performers required. Still, the connection seems not to have been particularly strong, notably because Mahler’s music was hardly performed in England up to that time (though there may be evidence that Brian knew the score, as we will see later). Eventually Brian did preview Sir Henry Wood’s 1930 performance of the work: “Mahler was no slave to a system or a theory; with such vast forces, his finely poised imaginative mind obtained remarkable inspiration. As the Pentecostal Hymn symbolises the Holy Trinity, so Mahler’s setting symbolises the artistic perfection of the three dimensional sonata form. He makes use of every known contrapuntal device... These are placed inside an orchestral canvas which glows with the ardour of a Berlioz picture in inexhaustible fantasy. Whilst, theoretically, it pays tribute to academicism, in its execution and performance it is the very negation and antithesis of any fixed system.”12 It was only after this performance that Brian became more deeply interested in Mahler’s music and obtained all the scores.
come now to what, if you will allow me, I am calling the “godmother” to the
Gothic Symphony. Havergal Brian writes, though later in the 1930s:
Havergal Brian’s respect for Berlioz should not be underestimated. He owned Richard Strauss’ 1904 extended edition of Berlioz’ Orchestration treatise and had first heard Berlioz’ Requiem as early as 1906, though he had to wait until 1936 for another performance; and until 1961 for a complete performance of Roméo et Juliette, when he was 85! It is highly interesting to compare Berlioz’ Requiem, or Grande Messe des morts, of 1837, and the Gothic Symphony. Some parallels are obvious: they have about the same length, the forces requested are very comparable (though Brian extends Berlioz, adding forces that he may have derived from Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder of 1900–10). Like Berlioz, Brian uses the orchestral forces in a highly refined way, but while Berlioz writes an essentially Christian composition, the setting of the Te Deum had for Brian an altogether somewhat different importance. He writes: “The Te Deum had never been out of my mind as a work to be done. As it pushed itself forward as the only possible finale for a Gothic Symphony, I got to work at it very quickly, and it was written as stated. A rainy night or a howling wind with rain driving on the panes is an inspiration. I always work with a green-shaded table-lamp; in the days of writing the Gothic the shade was extra thick, so that the rest of the room away from my table was in darkness. If in those midnight hours I sometimes saw Frederick the Great, a shrunken figure at the end of a long life of fighting, John Sebastian Bach, Goethe, Berlioz, sitting in an armchair in the darkness by the fire, I attached no importance to the phenomenon.”15 As Malcolm MacDonald points out, the musical parallels between Brian and Berlioz are many, both on a general and detailed level. “In both composers we find what Hugh Macdonald, writing of Berlioz, has called the ‘constant interpenetration of symphony, cantata, opera, and oratorio’ [...]. Both were drawn to large forces and adventurous orchestration, especially with regard to the percussion and the wind band. Both were masters of the fanfare and the march [...]; both were rich in powers of motivic development [...]; both cultivated a melodic style which, though capable of great simplicity and regularity of proportion, is more often elegantly asymmetrical.”16 While however Brian’s use of brass bands was rather rooted in the brass band tradition of the Potteries, “music for the masses” had quite a tradition in France which went back well into the French Revolution.
On 27 June 1926 Brian wrote to Granville Bantock: “I told you I intended one day to do a large setting of the Te Deum. This is most written (the sketches are complete and forms the finale to my Gothic Symphony). In my spare time I am writing at a ‘Vocal Score’. I had intended using Latin, German and English words. I am using only the Latin words, for my German Prayer Book is with my books in Stoke and my efforts to get a copy from Germany have proved fruitless. I know nothing of the Latin language—I know something of Italian and have used this knowledge in deploying the words in syllables—but they may be wrong and if so may appear foolish. The Te Deum is written in three sections. The first Vocal Score is copied out. Do you think you would have the time just to look it over and see that my excursion into Latin is OK.”17 In its tripartite form the “finale”, as Brian calls it, is, we may recall, not too dissimilar to Das Siegeslied, Brian’s second choral symphony of 1932–3, which has been related to Brahms’ Triumphlied (and indeed there are some similarities between the Brahms and the Gothic Symphony as well). The importance of the bipartite division of the entire symphony may also be found in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, though Paul Rapoport parallels this division half an hour/one full hour to the naves, the intersection and the choir of a Gothic cathedral.
What is Gothic about the Gothic Symphony? As we have seen, the musical inspiration is obviously not. Brian recalls, in his How the Gothic Symphony came to be written of 1938: “Somewhere about this time (1909) I had the most extraordinary and vivid dream I’ve ever experienced. I was in an old-world town (I felt sure it must be Nuremberg), walking by the side of a drowsy, narrow river. I remember the curious gables which appeared to intrude on the river path. I left the path and turned into a medieval church with a lovely Gothic interior. I sat down near the entrance to study it. As I did so I saw an extraordinary sight in the distant chancel. There in front of me was a magnificent-looking horse with its head towards the altar; on one side was a lady in riding habit, on the other side a man also dressed in riding habit. The decorative colours of the horse’s saddle and the riding habits were strange and bizarre. I got the impression that the two people wanted to talk to each other and they were trying to touch hands but could not do so because of the horse’s unusual height. I then left the church and made for the house where I was apparently living. I opened the door and walked inside a wide spacious hall. The wide staircase ran up one side of it and across the top which gave it an appearance of a verandah.
As I walked up the ancient stairs, the vibration from my ascending steps shook particles of dirt off the ceiling which as they fell on me became phosphorescent, making an uncanny effect in the gloomy hall. As I left the verandah the phosphorescence ceased. I entered my bedroom, undressed and got into bed. I was awakened from my sleep by a brilliant white light and as I pulled myself up in bed I saw an open panel before me with the unflinching, inscrutable face of Beethoven, the flames rising and curling over it. In my consternation at this sight, I fell sideways from the bed and saved myself by putting my hand out on the floor. As I did so, I felt something thick and hairy brush past my wrist, and saw a dog, a black retriever. This fright woke me up, and I found myself with my body half out of bed resting on my right hand on the floor, but not at Nuremberg, but at Hartshill, Stoke-on-Trent.”18 It might be recalled that Brian had a definite dislike of travelling, and that he never visited Germany himself.
Comparing it with the Gargoyles in the opera The Tigers, which has been described by Godfrey Berry as “a series of ‘dream’ sequences”,20 Simpson’s interpretation is much more convincing indeed. If Simpson’s interpretation applies, Brian’s entire concept is to be explained as a collection of reflections and associations to individual aspects or thoughts that come to mind with a Gothic cathedral (many authors point to Lichfield). “It is fantastic and gigantic, not in any egotistical would-be sense, but in reality. Anyone who has read the score (...) has discovered that this is remarkably disciplined music, despite its dimensions. Its dimensions are, in fact, real and necessary for the expression of a mighty thought.”21 In this light, Paul Rapoport’s examination of the relationship between the compositional form of the Gothic Symphony and its individual aspects, and the architecture of a Gothic cathedral, probably has firmer foundations than an independent examination. Still, we must not exaggerate since Brian expressly states in a letter to Granville Bantock of 12 November 1924 that “This work has no programme.”22 In 1914 Herbert Howells composed an orchestral suite The Bs, and while only two British composers, then young and later to be symphonists, with names actually beginning with B—Arthur Bliss and Arthur Benjamin—are portrayed in two of the five movements, Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony is indeed much more a “consummation of B’s”, if one may say so.23 Beethoven, Berlioz, Bantock, Byrd, Brahms ... — the importance of B’s is obvious for Brian’s Gothic Symphony.
1 Ronald Pearsall, Popular Music of the Twenties, Newton Abbot etc. 1976, pp 106-7.
2 Ralph Vaughan Williams, ‘Some thoughts on Beethoven's Choral
Symphony’, in National Music and other essays, Oxford etc. 31986, p 83.
5 Quoted in Bernard Benoliel, Sleeve-note to the recording of The
Soul's Ransom, London 1991, p 5.
7 Paul Rapoport, ‘The music of the symphony’, in Harold
12 Havergal Brian, ‘Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony’, Musical
Opinion and Music Trade Review March 1930, p525.
14 Havergal Brian, ‘On the Other Hand’, Musical Opinion and Music
Trade Review February 1933, p 397.
17 Havergal Brian to Granville Bantock, 27 June 1926. Quoted from Kenneth Eastaugh, Havergal Brian – the making of a composer, London 1976, p 251.
18 Havergal Brian, ‘How the Gothic Symphony Came to be Written’,
The Modern Mystic and Monthly Science Review 2/11, 1938, p 481. Reprint in
Harold Truscott/Paul Rapoport, Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony. Two
Studies, Little Heath 1978, p 8.
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