Our neglect of this great working-class British composer is a disgrace

If Havergal Brian’s Symphony No 30 were premiered today as the work of a photogenic 25-year-old, preferably female or gay, it would cause a sensation

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

One of the greatest choral symphonies of the 20th century, entitled Das Siegeslied (Psalm of Victory), has been heard only three times since it was composed in 1933. The last performance took place in Bratislava in 1997.

The text is a German translation of words from Psalm 68: ‘…as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God’. One critic has described Das Siegeslied as ‘a shattering, armour-plated juggernaut of a symphony’, whose huge orchestra marches in a frenzy across ‘voice parts conceived wholly in terms of the harsh consonants and barking vowels of German’.

Yet there is also captivating beauty: the lapping of harps and muted horns; a serene interlude for a capella choir. Add to this crafty variations on Luther’s ‘Ein feste Burg’ and one has to wonder: why has Das Siegeslied never been performed in Dresden, where the composer was born in 1876? The simple answer is that nothing gets performed in Dresden — Dresden, Staffordshire, that is. It was a village in the Potteries when Havergal Brian was growing up there and is now an unlovely district of Stoke-on-Trent.

Das Siegeslied was Brian’s fourth symphony; there were another 28 to come, 21 written after the age of 80. His discarded Requiem dates from 1895; his Symphony No. 32 from 1968, four years before his death at 96. To put it another way, he was composing at the same time as both Brahms and Elton John.

Havergal Brian was England’s first working-class composer, beginning his career as an apprentice joiner. He was also a musical prodigy with a passion for social climbing. As a young man he ingratiated himself with Elgar, who tired of him, and Sir Granville Bantock, composer of lush cod-Celtic scores, who liked the cheeky Brian but despaired of his wife-beating, heavy drinking and sponging.

Although some of his early, jolly music was played at the Proms, Brian spent his middle decades in obscurity. He was querulous and paranoid, and only Bantock managed to locate his sense of humour. In a letter to him, Brian recalled a highlight of their friendship: ‘We were having a grilled fowl at supper, and the sedate [tenor] John Coates sitting there, and you farted quietly — Coates didn’t know what he was smelling and shouted to a waiter to know if he could smell burnt candle.’

Brian is best known for his gigantic two-hour Symphony No. 1, the Gothic, of which Mark Morris in his Guide to 20th-Century Composers writes: ‘Not Handel at his most joyful, Berlioz at his most grand, Mahler at his most visionary, or Messiaen at his most ecstatic, has approached this effect of overwhelming praise.’ Given that it calls for around 800 performers, including six timpanists on 22 drums, perhaps it’s not surprising that the composer had to wait until he was 90 to hear it conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Morris, writing some years before a stunning Gothic at the 2011 Proms, thought the symphony’s neglect was a ‘disgrace’.

I’d say the real disgrace is the neglect of the other 31, and his never-staged burlesque opera The Tigers. Many professional critics talk of Brian as if he were a musicalMcGonagall — a naive autodidact whose later symphonies are just doodles. They especially disdain the middle-class ‘stalwarts’ of the Havergal Brian Society, whom they accuse of making silly claims for his work.

This is such nonsense. First, the society’s members admit that the output of one of the most prolific symphonists since Haydn is uneven. But then so was Haydn’s. Admittedly, equating Haydn and Brian would be silly — so how about a more realistic comparison? The late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was not consistently inspired: he trod a fine line between ‘evocative’ sounds and aural wallpaper, radicalism and (in the case of his opera Taverner) screamingly boring dissonance.

Maxwell Davies’s string quartets are admired for their taut construction. But they are not as densely argued as Brian’s Symphony No. 30, in which, to quote the Brian scholar Malcolm MacDonald, ‘an hour’s worth of passionate, urgent ideas are ruthlessly lopped and squeezed into 16 minutes’. Only on repeated listening do Brian’s jerky snatches of melody, boom-and-bust dynamics and disorientating changes of key begin to reveal their logic.

But how often is the work listened to even once? It has featured in just one public concert, at the Alexandra Palace in 1976; only since 2011 has the symphony been available on CD, in a splendid reading by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins on Dutton. Its pared-back harmonies remind me a bit of late Beethoven.

If the Symphony No. 30 were premièred today as the work of a photogenic 25-year-old, preferably female or gay, it would cause a sensation. It might even be hailed as the triumphant reinvention of tonality after countless failed experiments in minimalism, pastiche and crossover.

But, in reality, it was written by a 91-year-old pensioner in a block of flats in Shoreham-by-Sea — a cantankerous old chap who, when in a suspicious mood, was quite capable of accusing his neighbour of poisoning his tobacco. Brian was ‘difficult’ all his adult life — and, even more deadly from the point of view of the British musical establishment, never escaped the suburbs.

What a contrast with the boyishly handsome, left-liberal, island-dwelling ‘Max’, who campaigned against uranium mining and was so incensed by cuts to arts funding that he threatened to return his knighthood (but mysteriously never got round to it). Maxwell Davies was an ingenious composer but his supreme talent was networking. Brian never mastered that art and, as a result, some of the finest symphonies ever written in these islands were brushed away like dandruff before they were even recorded.

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  • Hamish Redux

    Haydn wins. But, being broad-minded, I’ll investigate Brian 30.

    • None of the above

      Hamish, good to bump into you again. Damo’s right – the 30th, and perhaps even more I would say the 16th, are works of the highest genius, comfortably bearing comparison with the very best music of the period (both of them 1960s.) The musical vocabulary is superficially familiar but the grammar, so to speak, is quite alien, and requires repeated hearings before it manifests its own strong internal logic. As to a comparison with Haydn, I’d say that’s a pointless exercise. Apples and pears.


  • Chris L

    I feel you’re damning poor old Max (with whose own great final symphonic statement, incidentally, I’m sure Brian would have been in utter sympathy) with faint praise! And I speak as a fully paid-up member of the aforementioned Havergal Brian Society, who is therefore delighted in all other respects that this article has been written at all…

  • None of the above

    While I wouldn’t disagree with Morris’s assessment of the Gothic Symphony, I do get frustrated at the extent to which (even among Brian’s admirers) this work – ambitious in every possible way, wildly visionary, very disparate (and uneven), and bordering on the unperformable – is treated as though it were the one and only, or at least the archetypal, Brian work. It is certainly the key to understanding his subsequent musical journey – and nothing which predates it and the more-or-less contemporary “The Tigers” is of anything like the same calibre – but his later works (the best of them, anyway) are far more structurally coherent, musically astute, and practically manageable; informed by the same inquiring intelligence while (in stark contrast to the sprawling canvas of the Gothic) displaying an almost Webern-like concision of musical argument.

    It was the Myer Fredman recording of Symphonies 6 and 16 which first enthralled me as a teenager, and I’ve never since then had the slightest doubt that HB is the neglected English master of the 20th century par excellence.

    • Chris L

      Indeed; I would go as far as to say that the Gothic isn’t even STYLISTICALLY typical – even in his 40s and 50s, Brian was still assimilating the influences of Berlioz, Strauss, et al., and had yet to settle down into a “sound” that was unequivocally his own. And, as with you, it wasn’t the work that got its hooks into me first – it was the 10th (LSSO recording) that did that, and my own personal favourites among the symphonies are the run of four from that one back to no.7.

  • None of the above

    Small textual correction: the quotation in paragraph 2 should read “… the harsh consonants and barking vowels of German”.

  • Herman_U_Tick

    I had a binge listen after I read this piece.
    HB is like a lot of ‘minor’ composers: quite a lot of the music sounds OK, everything is done by the book, everything is in the right place, but in the end I couldn’t find even one really memorable
    haunting under-my-skin getting work.

    My fave piece just now is ‘Sunburst’ by Stefania de Kennessy.

  • Pinza

    Sorry, but I found this article left a nasty taste in my mouth. Even disregarding the snide side-swipes at Max, the tabloid presentation of Brian’s life and work is crude and superficial. This kind of thing gets trotted out at intervals, about a composer who has had numerous chances, and muffed them all. Mr Thompson fails to see that good PR (i.e. communications) lies at the heart of any successful composing career. It applies to a composer’s art as well as their life; and this ability – simply – to tap into the zeitgeist, at some level, is what separates off a Monteverdi, Mozart, Beethoven or Tippett from their contemporaries: the “buzz” was there in their lives as much as in their music. Brian remained doggedly isolated from society as well as the musical establishment, a kind of musical Miller of Dee who wrote to please himself. He cared for nobody … and that’s why nobody much cares for him.

    • Mr Grumpy

      So listening to the music everyone’s talking about matters more than whether it’s actually any good? That’s honest, if nothing else. Not a huge amount of “buzz” about J S Bach’s biography, churning out settings of dismal religious doggerel in a provincial town while never succeeding in his attempts to ingratiate himself with the Dresden court.

      • Pinza

        Getting people talking about it, is a part of good art. You can’t separate the PR from the aesthetics. We remember Monteverdi because he was a more professional self-promoter than his contemporaries, and that enhances his music too. I confess, that your heavy irony about Bach rather reflects my own feelings about his dismally repetitive cantatas! But seriously, if you want to see exactly how consciousness of the need to wow an audience interacts with great art, read young Mozart’s letters to Dad when he was writing his Paris Symphony. Only by doing the former (and getting all Paris talking about him) could he produce the later. Brian’s problem was that he ignored communication with everyone except an audience of one – himself. The result was that he never really got to grips with orchestration, symphonic thinking or melodic development – just three of the reasons his music is so difficult to grasp or follow.

        • Mr Grumpy

          Well, yes, his (lack of) communication skills could have affected the development of his musical skills, though that’s a different point from the one you seemed to be making in your first post. At the end of the day either the music is good or it isn’t. I’m still trying to make up my mind about HB, and no doubt that reflects the weaknesses you’ve identified; he seems to fascinate and frustrate simultaneously. As for Bach’s cantatas, if you think dismal texts equate to dismal music we must agree to differ. There’s an enormous amount of fun to be had from the way he subverts and sends up those texts.

        • JJD

          Good feedback will help any artist. That’s true, but trivial. The claim you appear to be making is a larger one, and a false one. Of course you can “separate PR from the aesthetics”. Just one counterexample will suffice, from literature as it happens: Franz Kafka. ‘Nuff said.