†Very full details and links from the Havergal Brian Society
That Brian wrote thirty-two
symphonies is reasonably well known.
Many of these were written in old age.
This is the first and
so far the only authorised recording
of this Symphony. It was a massive enterprise
from the first long-sustained flush
of Brian confidence. It crowned the
period charted from the composer's death
in 1972 to the end of the Simpson-driven
cycle of BBC broadcasts of the
symphonies in 1989.
Boult conducted the
work in 1966 and this was broadcast
on the BBC. Tape machines whirred and
by 1978 the Aries company had issued
a pirate version of that tape on LP-2601.
It was in pretty decent sound too -
certainly the best that company
ever achieved. There were some
abysmal sounding LPs from Aries - try
the Aries LP of Brian's Symphony No.
In 1980 I travelled
to London to hear The Gothic live.
Ole Schmidt conducted again at the RAH.
It was a shattering experience. Of course
there have been other performances including
some heroic but amateur efforts. However
these were not recorded.
If you must have a
historical and cultural nexus for this
work then surely it is the Great War.
The sometimes crushing violence of The
Gothic surely reflects that conflict
as well as the long litany of deaths
both among the Allies and the Germans.
I mention Germany because, like many
British composers, (Elgar and Holbrooke
are other examples among many) Brian
had a great affection for German culture.
The war created loyalty tensions in
the musical world as much as anywhere.
The notes for this
Naxos set, reduced by Keith Anderson
from the original Marco Polo issue,
are by Brian and Foulds champion, Malcolm
Macdonald. The sung Latin texts are
printed in full with parallel translations.
The work is liberally tracked so that
you can follow the structure, incident
Has there ever been
a First Symphony as ambitious in intention,
grasp and achievement as Havergal Brian's
Gothic. Of course there have
been remarkable firsts; I think of Prokofiev's
and Shostakovich's works. None of these
however have stormed the heavens or
stared unblinking at the great philosophical
and spiritual issues in the same way
as Brian's symphony. Ambition amongst
composers is the needling drive to create.
Ambition is not an unusual quality;
it is the extent to which it is matched
or excelled by mental reach and creative
grasp that distinguishes the greatest
composers. Brian had both ambition and
preternatural ability and this Symphony
is the evidence. Across its almost two
hours it neither falters nor blinks.
Great time-span does not spell intrinsic
greatness. It can spell prolixity and
garrulous meandering. Brian uses his
almost two hours because that is exactly
the time-span required to set out his
ideas and develop them at every level.
Violence and Peace
stand close to each other throughout.
Try the last section of the first movement
for the pacific voice made eloquent
in the solo violin. This is Brian's
reaching for The Lark Ascending.
You find a similar tune in the first
movement of Brianís Third Symphony (Hyperion
- Helios). For Violence we can cite
the Mars-like dynamic established
by the rapped-out timpani attack impelling
the work forward at the start of the
first movement; itís just one example.
That figure is recalled later in tr.15
CD2 where it rises to a crashingly emphatic
The layout of the Symphony
some may find disconcerting. However
it does work. The first three
movements are entirely orchestral. In
fact they work as a 'conventional' symphony
and have been played in that form (I
have a tape of Charles Groves conducting
a performance of that part of the work
in a Crystal Palace concert in 1974).
The second part is a massive setting
of the Te Deum for multiple soloists,
choirs, full orchestra and brass ensembles.
Massive effects are
only part of the picture - perhaps the
smallest. In the first part of the second
movement at 2.38 listen out for the
affecting orchestral detailing in the
left hand channel. Delicacy is one thing
but there is also the racking and scorching
pain of the workís great cortège
of death rising to a liberal cargo of
dissonance at 5.54.
You may well think
of other composers as you listen. For
example in the second movement you will
encounter a 'ticking' figure linking
with the snowy ambience of Baxís Fifth
Symphony. Gloriously glowing horns call
out above the magnificent din put up
by the rest of the orchestra in a piece
of music that seems to define heroic
on the fly.
I mentioned that you
will think of other composers. A further
example comes in the first part of the
Te Deum where the profound basso depths
of the Rachmaninov Vespers are hinted
at. This climaxes into a picture of
the seraphic hosts streaming across
the sky. Continuing this image we can
refer forward to CD2 tr. 18 where the
suggestion of conflict in the heavens
has Satan cast down but not before a
great conflict in the skies. This is
music that rattles with Hieronymus Bosch
horror and awe.
The Judex (tr.
1 CD2) features yet more extraordinary
writing. The wheeling choral passage
is like Holst's Hymn of Jesus -
itself one of the most extraordinary
works in all musical history.
Tr. 2 CD2 has a brutal
lumbering march with the sound of raw
fanfares and brass bands rolling and
echoing around the great space of the
Slovak Concert Hall. Once again however
Brian leaves us in awe with the Mother
Goose iridescent delicacy and joyful
glitter of the women's voices and silvery
tinkling percussion (tr. 10 CD2). The
mood then switches in tr. 13 to a jaunty,
slightly Mahlerian, march for nine clarinets.
This is perhaps an echo of the open
air values of the hiking movement of
the 1920s and 1930s. That very march
is carried over into a wordless vocalising
that, in its spirited cheeriness, seems
to look back to the columns of troops
singing patriotic if irreverent songs
as they went up to the Front. At other
times it might link with pictures of
children hiking through the Alps (tr.
The work finds quiet
though not placid consummation in words
intoned with deep reverence: 'Non confundar
in aeternam'. The singing is rich and
resonant in bass definition. Not that
Alexander Sveshnikov and the USSR choir
would not have made even more of a dream-team
As a recording it is
amongst Gunter Appenheimer's best and
of course it was captured in the exemplary
grand acoustic of Bratislava's world-standard
concert hall. I have already commented
on this extraordinary hall when reviewing
the Alexander Moyzes series of twelve
symphonies, also on Marco Polo.
Enthused by The
Gothic and want to know where to
go next? There is nothing like The
Gothic but the Second Symphony (on
Marco Polo) and the Third (Hyperion,
Helios) are similarly grand though much
shorter. We await a recording of the
Fifth The Wine of Summer for
baritone and orchestra (superb almost
expressionistic work - think Zemlinsky
and Delius). The Sixth is compact but
outstanding - possibly the next best
Brian symphony but it is still consigned
to vinyl perdition on a Lyrita LP (c/w
No 16) LPO/Myer Fredman. A case of Prokofiev
6 meets Bax. The other Marco Polos are
listed below and are all well worth
exploring. However you need to be aware
that Brianís language became more elliptical
and gnomic as time went on. There are
no miniature Gothics although
Symphony No. 22 lasting just over eleven
minutes is extremely impressive. The
EMI Classics double album of Brian symphonies
7, 8 and 9 is well worth having and
is also a good place to go stepping
off from The Gothic.
Brianís Gothic is a
massive asseveration of confidence by
someone who stood as an outsider to
the musical establishment unblessed
with private resources or a public school
education let alone a formal musical
training. It is a work of staggering
scale and substance.
John France has
also listened to this recording
Is there a helpful
listening strategy for the longest symphony
in the repertoire? Is there some way
of approaching this gargantuan work
that will enable us to fit it into a
workable frame of reference?
Apart from operas and
oratorios this is the longest piece
of music I have listened to at a single
sitting. I understand that many people
could well give up at the end of the
first couple of tracks. It is quite
definitely a musical marathon.
I believe that there
is a way to approach this work in a
satisfying manner. Now normally I would
argue that any musical work should be
listened to as a unity. I have never
liked excerpting favourite movements
of concerti or symphonies. However I
am not sure that this present work needs
to be taken at one bite; I do not hesitate
in thinking that the extended time commitment
required is likely to put the listener
off and make them more enthusiastic
about making a cup of tea or coffee.
I think the correct
approach to this symphony is based around
the fact that this work is divided quite
clearly into two sections - not related
to the two CDs. Part One is inspired
by the legend of Faust and Part Two
has the great Christian hymn, 'Te Deum'
as its raison d'être. I remember
reading a review in which the author
contends that if only 'part one' existed,
we would have a fine example of a British
Symphony that would entitle the composer
to immense respect. Furthermore there
is an obvious hiatus between parts.
The first is for the orchestra alone,
the second is a massive choral work.
A little bit of background
is helpful. Havergal Brian composed
the Gothic Symphony over a period
of seven or eight years. He was over
fifty years old when it was completed
so it reflects his mature musical personality.
The symphony brings together two huge,
contrasting projects that had been casting
around the composerís mind for many
years. The first was based on the legend
of Faust and the second was a 'symphonic'
vision of the Gothic Age (1150-1560)
as a 'period of almost unlimited expansion
of human knowledge, both secular and
spiritual, both glorious and terrible.'
It is as if pagan and Christian were
being set in opposition.
Faust is the main character
of a popular legend. He has featured
in many different fictional works over
the years. The story concerns the fate
of a scholarly gentleman who calls up
the Devil, usually called Mephistopheles,
from the depths of hell. As a result
of their meeting, Faust decides to sell
his soul to the Devil and the contract
is signed in blood. The final fate of
Faust differs from story to story.
Faust became the arch-type
of the Gothic man seeking after arcane
knowledge and spiritual enlightenment.
It is not too difficult to transfer
the legend to any age; we need only
think of the false gods of communism,
cpaitalism and fascism that have plagued
history over the last 100 years. It
is easy to see Hitler or Stalin (both
somewhat later than the symphony I hasten
to add!) as offering illumination to
a 'Faustian' population.
The second part of
this work is a massive setting of the
Te Deum. This is one of the great hymns
of the Christian Church. Its authorship
is unknown, yet patristic scholars assume
that it is a conflation of two (perhaps
more) earlier hymns. It is fundamentally
a paean of praise to God the Father
and to God the Son; Redemption and Creation.
Of course this liturgical text has been
set to music by a number of composers;
I think of those by Bruckner, Berlioz
as being amongst the best known.
So having looked at
the fundamental thesis of the work we
can see, perhaps, a way forward. My
strategy is quite simple. Take each
part as a separate event. The opening
'symphony' does stand alone and repays
more than one hearing. The Te Deum compares
favourably with the version by Berlioz
as a triumph of massive musical invention
The connection between
the two parts of this work can be made
by understanding just one thing. Faust
was not an inherently evil person -
just misguided perhaps. He was in need
of redemption - like all of us - be
it religious or by discovery of the
worth of self. It is these great themes
that this work addresses.
However, when all is
said and done it is important to realise
that this is actually a quite a revolutionary
piece of music. In fact, one of its
faults could be that it is too eclectic.
We move from neo-gothic plainsong themes
to 'clusters' prefiguring Ligeti and
other later composers. Sometimes we
hear an Elgarian tune making head-way
only to be displaced by something a
bit more Schoenbergian. Yet in some
ways it always seems to hang together;
there is a unifying thread which, to
be honest, is quite difficult to put
ones finger on. How do we resolve this?
Perhaps one of the
most helpful analogies for this symphony
is that of the Gothic Cathedral (which
actually is part of the intellectual
concept of the work).
Imagine walking around,
say, York Minster. We are faced with
a plethora of images. There are artefacts
from a time period of many centuries.
All of them are vying for our attention.
The best of the new blends in with the
original Gothic fabric. However, the
occasional modern feature shouts its
protest against the prevailing style.
Sometimes we find a hidden gem; under
a misericord, perhaps; sometimes we
are overwhelmed by the loftiness of
the central tower or the massiveness
of the buttresses. The tiny medieval
wren chasing a spider in the Zouch Chapel
stained glass window is juxtaposed against
the 64ft organ pipes and the huge new
roof bosses in the south transept.
All these things make
up the cathedral and create its sense
of purpose and spiritual vitality. Some
things are in equilibrium and some in
tension. It is like this in Brian's
I do not intend to consider the biography of
Havergal Brian in this review: the web pages devoted to his life
and works present this in great and fascinating detail.
†Very full details and links from the Havergal Brian Society
There is little need
to elaborate on the detailed description
of the work given in the programme notes
by the redoubtable Malcolm McDonald.
He is the acknowledged expert on Brian's
symphonies and deserves close study.
Neither will I elaborate
on all the superlatives of this work;
length, number of performers, size of
the brass section etc. It is surely
not profitable for a work to be listened
to primarily for those reasons.
Some reviewers have
criticised the quality of the massed
forces of performers detailed above.
Some have commented on problems of balance
and detail. However, at the end of the
day this is a fine performance of a
work that is truly massive. It is not
well known, so rehearsals and performance
must have been extremely demanding.
I did not notice any
'drop-offs' or glitches. The sound quality
is good, the programme notes superb.
There is an enthusiasm bubbling behind
the performance. All I do is thank God,
literally, that we actually have a recording
of this work in the 'can' - and that
it is available for only £9.99p.
HAVERGAL BRIAN ON MARCO POLO
Violin Concerto and Sym 18 - 8.223479
Symphony No. 2 - 8.223790
Symphony No. 11, 15 - 8.223588
Symphony No. 17, 32 -8.223481
Symphony No. 20, 25 - 8.223731