Monday 19 March 2012

Havergal who?

There is a plaque on the wall of a modest terraced council house in Moulsecoomb, Brighton, Sussex that reads ‘composer William Havergal Brian (1876-1972) lived and composed the Gothic Symphony here 1922-1927.’

In many ways this humble dwelling sums up Havergal Brian’s life of artistic endeavour and obscurity. Born in the Staffordshire potteries, Brian came from humble origins but, with financial support from Herbert Minton the wealthy director of the Minton china firm, by 1907 with the London debut of his English Suite, he was on the threshold of great success. The press praised him ‘…such a remarkable success is rarely, indeed, achieved by an English composer who is almost unknown in the Metropolis…’

Yet by the time of the First World War his reputation had diminished, his first marriage had collapsed and he had left the Midlands for London. His perceived treatment of his first wife did little to endear him to his friends such as Minton and Bantock. After remarrying he kept the existence of his first family a secret from the children of his second marriage until his death.

Despite working for Musical Opinion for a number of years and taking hack work his financial circumstances were always poor. Even as a music critic Brian’s work wasn’t without its problems. Writing in the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel in 1909 he criticised a performance of works by Gounod and more specifically the singing of two local ladies. The Chief music critic threatened to shoot Brian on sight if he showed his face in the office and a postcard was sent to Brian addressed to ‘Haver Gall Brian’ with a graph on the back indicating in no uncertain terms the comparative merits of a certain Miss Nuttall’s singing against the musical talent of Brian.

Yet despite all the setbacks Brian, with his determined and, in many ways, obsessive attitude wrote thirty two symphonies, five operas, over thirty miscellaneous orchestral works, two concertos, works for voices and orchestra and a number of piano works.

For more information take a look at The Havergal Brian Society's website,

His most famous work is, of course, the colossal Gothic Symphony (No.1) scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists, children’s choir, two double choirs, and huge orchestra and written between 1919-27.

The Gothic was originally numbered two as Brian had, in 1907–08, composed a work which he called A Fantastic Symphony. He destroyed half of it, keeping just two movements as independent works, and it was only in 1966 that Brian re-numbered his early symphonies so that it became ‘Symphony No 1’.

Attempts were made to arrange a performance in the 1930 without success and it wasn’t until 24 June 1961 in Central Hall, Westminster, that a semi-professional performance conducted by Bryan Fairfax was given. Brian met the composer Robert Simpson (1921-1997) by chance in 1951.

Simpson’s support for Brian led to a performance of the Gothic Symphony on 30 October 1966, at the Royal Albert Hall, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. This led to a renewed interest in the music of Havergal Brian.

By 1975 Lyrita had recorded symphonies number 6 and 16. Later EMI recorded symphonies number 7, 8, 9 and 31 (apparently no longer available but copies obtainable via Amazon ). In 1988 Hyperion recorded symphony number 3 . It was Marco Polo (Naxos) that began a concerted attempt to record all of the symphonies starting with the Gothic in 1989. Since then they have recorded ten more of the symphonies, together with the violin concerto and other orchestral works.

Toccata Classics have also recorded a CD of songs and the legend for violin and piano and two volumes of orchestral works .

Disappointingly Naxos have released no more recordings but happily Dutton  have issued symphonies number 10 and 30 as well as a recording of the cello concerto. Hopefully this is the start of a new attempt to record all of the symphonies not yet available. With the Lyrita, EMI and Hyperion recordings this means that twenty of the thirty two symphonies have been recorded so far.

During the 2011 proms the Gothic Symphony was performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Martyn Brabbins. The Daily Telegraph reported that ‘…the symphony produced the unsettling experience of music poised on the edge of genius – almost a masterpiece…’. This performance has since been released by Hyperion

So what of the latest release by Dutton?

Dutton Epoch
CDLX 7267

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is conducted by Martyn Brabbins in an issue that includes, not only Symphonies 10 and 30, but also the Concerto for Orchestra and English Suite No.3.

In many ways this CD is a good way to get to know Brian’s music. The 16 minute Symphony No. 10 in C minor has all the usual Brian fingerprints, strong rhythms, brass and percussion and sudden changes of mood. Completed in 1954, when the composer was 78 years of age, this single movement work calls for a large orchestra that includes triple woodwind, large brass section, two harps and a large percussion section including a thunder machine. Most of the material is developed from the opening march theme and progresses through moments of storm and fury as well as moments of quiet lyricism.

Symphony No. 30 in Bb minor, completed in 1967, is in two movements played without a break. Again a short work at just over 15 minutes, it starts with an expansive theme that is short lived before moving through a myriad of moods including some fiercely fragmented climaxes before ending in a triumphant dissonance. Again the orchestra has a large percussion section.

The Concerto for Orchestra could almost be another symphony though the deployment of instrumental forces makes the title of the work apt with a duet for flute and oboe and later a duet for violin and cello. The orchestra used is smaller than either of the two symphonies included here. In this work there are less abrupt changes of mood and, after a glorious lento coda, the work ends with full orchestra.

The final work on this disc is the English Suite No.3. The five movements have titles such as ‘Ancient Village’, ‘Postillions’ and ‘Merry Peasant’ but this is not a pastoral work in the usual sense. Brian wrote this work whilst living in Brighton just prior to his move to nearby Moulsecoomb. Brian stated that this work was inspired by the Sussex countryside around him. The Third English Suite has been said to be something of a parody of pastoral themes but I tend to hear it as the countryside and its people filtered through the strange and distinctive prism of Brian’s musical language.

This is an important release of English music that should be better known. Certainly collectors of Brian’s music will need no encouragement but I would also recommend this CD to those who do not know his music. The recording made in the Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow is first rate. I really hope that Dutton continue with more releases of Havergal Brian’s music.

In my next blog I want to move to music for two pianos and piano duo as well as the curious incident of the Nokia ring tone.

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