|Havergal Brian's writings|
of Toccata Press vol 1 - Steven Schwartz
I suppose most people see the cultural landscape as a feudal one - a lone, high tower representing the great artist, dominating a plain inhabited by everybody else. We talk of the Age of Beethoven or perhaps of Brahms and Wagner or Haydn and Mozart and in so doing get a rather distorted view of what really went on. Britain for the longest time seemed peculiarly susceptible to the inability to hold more than one composer in its head at any one time. Elgar crowded out his contemporaries. Vaughan Williams overshadowed several interesting composers. Britten did the same, blotting out even such formidable figures as Walton and Tippett. Britain, of course, isnt alone in this. For some reason, people want to know the Absolute Best, rather than the merely wonderful.
The concept of absolute best holds almost no aesthetic attraction or interest for me. Further, I find it without any valid practical consequence. If I listen to only the Absolute Best, I wind up listening to only one work, a dismal thought. I view good composers as individuals. In my ignorance, I hold Vorisek as a fabulous composer, whose music gives me something I like thats not what any other composers music gives me. To call one better than another is like asking me which of my family I like best.
Havergal Brian lived during one of the most vital periods of British music, the so-called British Renaissance, which scholars tend to date from Parry and Stanford. Fine composers cover the ground, and not just the big names: Delius, Ireland, Bridge, Holst, Leigh, Chagrin, Cooke, Goossens, Bax, Arnold, Alwyn, Addison, Leighton, Rubbra, Berners, Clarke, Joseph, Dyson, Sorabji, Smyth, Foulds, Scott, Maconchy, Grainger, Jacob, Frankel, Searle, Rawsthorne, Maw, Brian himself, and the list goes on. Brian heard a staggering amount of it, as well as composers from the continent. He recognized the genius of Mahler and Bruckner as soon as the early 1900s. On one side or the other of the edge of poverty all his life and with no substantial recognition of his music until near its end, he made his meagre living as a musical journalist and copyist. The journalism got him free tickets to performances, and the reviews provide the proof that he went to as many as he could.
This book documents a major composers thoughts on his contemporary countrymen. Brian writes lively, if not especially distinguished prose, and I suppose a Brian fan would get the most out of it. Even so, it conveys a sense of exciting times that should interest devotees of the British musical century in general. Malcolm MacDonald is a selfless editor, zealous even in the thankless task of checking dates and programs, since Brian relied mainly on his memory to write on events taking place decades beforehand.
Some of Brians articles penetrate to the heart of certain works. Ive not read a more insightful critique of the Vaughan Williams Pastoral symphony until Michael Kennedys. The symphony remains one of Vaughan Williamss works which least accommodate the new listener. The articles on Delius make a strong, effective case for that composer, pointing out where at least some of his attraction lies. The articles on Elgar interest me mainly because of Brians identification with the older composer as an outsider from the North trying to crack the powerful London cultural market. Yet, even here, Brians knowledge of Elgars music runs wide and deep, encompassing even such relatively little-known works as The black knight and The apostles. The articles show Brians profound acquaintance with his subjects. You know he could quote measure numbers if necessary, but in general he pitches his essays to the general musical reader. There is little in the way of musical type or technical terms.
Two of Brians enthusiasms - Granville Bantock and Josef Holbrooke havent lasted well. I find Bantocks music over-inflated and hot-house-humid, and I explain Brians sincere affection for it in terms of cultural history - the Edwardians attempt to break through what they felt as the stultifying Victorian proprieties, particularly in regard to sex. This comes out in a fondness for languorous orientalia and for Celtic primitivism. Holbrookes music I flat-out dislike - pretentious, over-serious, and (most deadly of all) Artistic, although I admit that his obnoxious and ultimately unstable personality could have influenced my reception of his music. Or perhaps his music simply bores me. Of course, I havent heard nearly as much as Brian of Holbrookes music, and I certainly don't know it at Brians level of detail. Apollo and the Seaman (if Holbrooke had any sense of humor at all, he would have avoided that title) gives me less real music than almost any song by Warlock and goes on for far longer.
At any rate, Brians take on British music most impresses me because the point of view is so wide. He obviously knows whats going on in the rest of Europe and has taken much of it in. Thus, we get an outlook wider than any particular faction, circle of friends, or manifesto. Toccata Press plans six volumes, with the second volume devoted to Brians writings on contemporary music on the continent. I look forward to the whole set.
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