As someone whose lifelong love affair with the music of Bruckner began at a dinner party where he was described as “Bruckner- yes that’s the one! The worst composer who ever lived!” it’s no wonder I would have a certain curiosity and sympathy towards Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, which made its Proms debut last night at the BBC Proms in London.
I’d made a previous, aborted attempt to get to know the Gothic a few years ago while in the Midwest on what would prove to be one of those gigs you want to forget but can’t. I bought the Marco Polo CD while passing through Chicago, and spent the next week driving around listening to it in 5 minute chunks. It was hard to get much sense of the shape of the piece under those conditions, and I was severely put off by the desperately out of tune singing, but there were definitely some cool bits in it. Once I made my escape from a gig I should never have taken, however, I didn’t want to be reminded, and the disc sat on the shelves until a couple of weeks ago.
The Gothic came back on my radar about a year ago when I found out my wife’s orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, would be playing it at this summer’s Proms. I hadn’t figured on coming- I was expecting to be in America this week- but plans changed, and when a ticket came available at the 11th hour, I made my arrangements and headed for London.
What to make of this piece?
I don’t do reviews, but I was so struck by my reaction to the piece live that I feel I have to write about it.
In the hours since the concert, critics have been inspired to some highly creative and witty invective by the piece. Gavin Plumley called it “all gong and no dinner,” and David Nice said at The Arts Desk: “All I can say is that before I sat through nearly two long hours of continuous music last night, I proclaimed that this was exactly the sort of thing the Proms should be trying. Now I’m hanging out the garlic and spraying the air freshener to keep Brian’s other 31 symphonies at bay.”
(Whatever the critical consensus proves to be, the audience went BERSERK. Remember I don’t do reviews, but I can say that I was full of admiration for conductor, singers and players, all of whom turned in a very impressive reading of a piece by a composer who really did seem to think of “idiomatic’ as a dirty word)
And yet, this morning, I found myself drawn to listen to portions again on iPlayer. Why? What to make of this insane piece?
Well, let me tell you what I think it is not.
It is not a symphony. Well, of course, on more than one level, it is a symphony, but I’m happier calling it an anti-Symphony. Calling it a symphony might have been the greatest and shrewdest marketing decision in the history of the genre, putting it out for comparison some of the great monuments of classical music. Getting a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest symphony, supplanting Mahler 3, and the most massive, supplanting Mahler 8, is the best press you can buy. Unfortunately, while the comparison to Mahler sells tickets, it serves neither listeners nor composers well, setting up expectations that Brian never intended to meet. How funny, considering Brian was, by all accounts, one of the least gifted or interested self-promoters who ever lived.
I had tried to prep a bit with the Slovak CD, but never was able to withstand a complete, uninterrupted listen. The performance is just too rough. Last night, however, the Gothic really struck me as not just the least symphonic symphony I’d ever heard, but possibly the least symphonic piece of music in any genre I’d ever heard (including everything from Wagne’s operas to Radiohead) . It is more of an anti-symphony than Webern’s or Stravinsky’s critiques of the genre.
The whole piece seems like an essay in stasis and discontinuity. On first encounter, there is precious little development, virtually no transition, and almost no architectural sense of form- at least often not one that is articulated for the listener through any sense of direction or arrival. Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony is often cited as an example of a non-developmental symphony, but Messiaen’s approach to form and motivic development is highly structured and easily heard, it is simply that his basic approach to structure is ritualistic rather than narrative. The structure is still there, and articulated. A quick survey of writings on the piece makes clear the structure is there for much of the Brian (although it seems that even Calum MacDonald struggles to explain the structure of the Te Deum). It just seems that Brian almost wants to disguise the form, to keep the audience unsure.
Where Messiaen creates a sense of paragraph and chapter through the use of iconic interruption and repetition, Brian doesn’t really give us anything to interrupt, and most of his potentially iconic themes seem largely disposable. New ideas appear and disappear with disconcerting frequency. It is, on first encounter, about as far from Beethovenian rigour as you can get.
And what would Beethoven have made of this? It is known that Beethoven had serious doubts about whether he had unleashed something dangerous with his creation of the new hybrid genre of the choral symphony. Just as Mahler’s efforts in the genre would surely have left Beethoven feeling vindicated, had he heard them, so too, Brian’s Gothic would probably have struck Beethoven as his worst nightmares made real.
It would have been more honest to call the piece a Cantata with a great orchestral introduction, but we have what we have.
Another thing it is not is Mahlerian.
[I could be completely wrong about this. Calum MacDonald, who is the expert on Brian, says of the piece: "The work's basic stylistic premises, as set out in the purely orchestral movements of Part One, are a demonstration of artistic continuity, a logical development from the achievements of Wagner, Bruckner, Strauss, Elgar, Mahler and early Schoenberg”]
It was to Mahler that I heard the piece compared most often in the last couple of weeks- bigger than Mahler, longer than Mahler, a lot like Mahler, but without the tunes. I just don’t hear it. That’s not to say Brian wasn’t influenced by Mahler (and Strauss, to whom the piece was dedicated), it’s just that whatever a Mahler symphony sets out to do, what ever a Mahler symphony does, is, feels like, the Gothic is the opposite. Again, it’s more like an anti-Mahler symphony.
Where Mahler’s music has a tremendous sense of individual voice, Brian’s is an exercise in musical multiple personality disorder. Schnittke has nothing on Brian in the arena of polystyistic mishmash. Where Mahler thinks in terms of arrival and culmination, of dialogue, rhetoric and song, Brian thinks in terms of interruption, negation, stasis and outburst. Mahler sets words with matchless care- Brian admitted while writing the piece that he didn’t know what much of the Latin meant, but it hardly matters. Most of the choral writing just sounds like long-winded amorphous melismas, and when one giant movement is a setting of a single line of text (“Judex crederis esse venturus” or “‘we believe you will come to be our judge”) , the words are, whether by design or necessity, deconstructed to the point that they really are just fodder for the creation of pure choral sound. Yes, Brian’s use of hypercomplex vocal counterpoint over vast orchestral forces possibly reminds us of Mahler 8, but Mahler 8 is one of the most tautly motivically unified pieces in the literature. The Gothic is not. At least it doesn’t, on first encounter, sound like it is.
If I had to invoke another composer for comparison and reference in understanding my reactions the Gothic, Mahler would be about 10,000th on my list. Top of the list?
It was famously said of Berlioz that he was a composer of genius but no talent.
Whether Brian’s music rises to anything like genius is something I’ll need to invest a great deal more time to in order to form an opinion. However, there is certainly a jarring contrast in his music between large stretches that seem either incompetent or simply insane and ones which are profoundly effective, sometimes moving and often disturbing.
If there is one work I would say is in many ways similar to the Gothic, it is the Berlioz Requiem. I was struck enough by the similarities (gargantuan scale, use of off-stage forces, static approach to musical time, etc) that I did a little bit of research on the Brian Society website, and it seems I’m not the only one to notice the parallels (they are not hard to spot). I sure it was more of a model than any of the Mahler symphonies.
At the end of the performance, my friend sat next to me remarked that Brian uses the enormous forces he’s demanded with restraint and understatement bordering on the perverse. How strange to assemble the largest performing forces in history for a symphony without a single climax (there are outbursts, but no climaxes). Every time the listener gets the sense that this is the moment when something really is going to bust loose, Brian abruptly stops. Again and again, I found myself looking longingly at those off stage bands (who played absolutely amazingly all night- dealing with those kinds of spatial challenges are a nightmare for players and conductors, so props to Martyn Brabbins and the players for making that aspect of the piece look easy), wishing they would play something. Brian’s use of the auxiliary bands seems calculated to frustrate and annoy. Again, what could be less symphonic?
In a way, I often experience a similar feeling in the Berlioz Requiem, and to a lesser extent, the Te Deum, which is an even more obvious point of comparison. The best bits are so exciting, but a lot of the piece seems, intentionally, introverted, dreary and static.
Was Havergal Brian critiquing, even deconstructing the Romantic symphony? Was he conscious of undermining our expectations, or was he just a batty and misanthropic amateur with delusions of grandeur? Both? Neither? Somewhere in between?
Some of the choral writing is cruelly difficult. Other parts are just bad- horribly set and difficult in ways that make no sense (that is to say that the difficulties make no sense because they could have been avoided). There were surely options, with the huge forces he had in mind, to distribute the chords and ideas in a way that would have been far more likely to be in tune and together. Is Brian taking Beethoven’s apparent disdain for what is comfortable and natural for the human voice to an almost comical point of exaggeration with a genuine element of sadism in play? Is he reaching for the edge of what massed human voices can achieve? Or did he just need composition lessons?
I remember in my very first class on modern art, our teacher spent quite a lot of time explaining how important it was the Picasso could “really draw.” She said that the fact that his later aesthic was a choice, and that he could have painted or drawn in any style, informs our understanding of him as being completely in command of what he was trying to say as an artist. What he said wasn’t limited by his ability to say it.
20th c. music and the modernist movement is full of difficult questions about which composers could draw and how well, and ultimately whether it matters. The old line about Berlioz (genius but no talent), is, at best, a ridiculous over-simplification, but there’s no question in my mind that he could possibly have “drawn” with the fluency of a Mendelssohn or a Picasso. At the dawn of the 20th c., Schoenberg was a deeply serious musician who did all he could to ground himself in the Germanic heritage of Beethoven and Brahms of which he was so proud. Could Schoenberg “really draw?” Yes, of course he could (of course, he was also a great painter!), but not with the ease, with the mind boggling effortlessness and fluidity of Gustav Mahler or Richard Strauss. For all his genius, Schoenberg couldn’t play in that league. Did this lack of fluency in part drive him towards finding a new language, a space apart from his hero, where he could create without suffering comparison (not least from his own withering self-examination)? How did it affect him when Alban Berg showed that he really, really could draw, in Schoenberg’s idiom, with a fluency the master couldn’t muster?
In the end, in spite of my attempts to be grown up and listen critically throughout last night, my original estimation from the car stereo several years back came back to me with heightened intensity: there are some cool bits!
But, it’s almost two hours of music with virtually no sense of direction or payoff. Not symphonic.
I started this assessment by trying to articulate what the piece isn’t- not symphonic, not Mahlerian, not what you would expect from such gigantic forces.
I hesitate to try to describe what it is- there are seriously smart people out there who have spent years exploring what Brian’s music is. Go and read Calum MacDonald, as I now shall. All I can offer is first impressions, which come with them the huge caveat that I don’t know the piece well at all.
A lot of the piece is funny, but it is hard to tell if it is witty. The “la-la-la’s” and the jaunty 11-clarinet unison theme are absurd by any measure. In those moments, it’s pretty clear that Brian is in on the joke, but whether it is an angry joke, a dry joke or an insane one is hard to tell. Other moments I was close to laughing out loud, such as some of the ridiculously over-the-top silent-movie-spooky-castle music, replete with mega cliché’d organ writing, it’s harder to tell. Is it parody? Had he run out of ideas, or just had a really bad one? Did Danny Elfman know this piece when he scored Batman? Haydn’s music is funny in large part because he knows the minds of his listeners far better than they do. Brian seems about as alienated from his listeners as one can get.
I think the most useful point made in the excellent programme notes had to do with the piece’s connection to World War I. For me, the most effective music, and some of the music that feels most honest (I know that is a very, very subjective judgement) in the piece is genuinely terrifying. There are moments when you feel like this really is a man who has looked, or is looking, right into the abyss. It’s probably for those moments than I was tempted to give this crazy piece a second thought after the concert ended, when most sensible critics were already coming up with synonyms for “rubbish.” I think it is a War piece.
It certainly seems like it is an angry piece. It must be, in some ways, the least generous piece of music I’ve heard a long time. It’s not that it’s two-hours of music with no tunes, it’s that the tunes are either trite to the point of parody, or, when genuinely captivating, quickly, well, violated. The piece’s stubborn refusal to engage with or to reward the audience, or to deliver the kind of thrills the giant forces promise strikes me as very anti-social. It is also part of what fascinates me about the work.
And at times, the piece seems to tip over from anger into genuine madness. Brian himself hinted that work on the piece pushed him psychologically to his breaking point: “such happenings must drive others off their mental balance. I have always felt that I, being the only person interested in my work, would discover a solution to all the mysteries about it” It is an insane piece.
It really is amazing that such a vast work can manage to so completely avoid any sense of rhetoric or development. The tunes, such as they are, are mostly set in a modal style that seems to make them sound rather shapeless. Is this intentional? Again and again, it struck me that there was hardly a proper musical phrase, with a preparation that includes a generative thought, a beginning, a direction, a high point and a release in the entire work.
The beginning of the final chorus in Mahler 8, “ Alles Verganliche ist nur ein Gleichnis” is always a bittersweet moment for the listener, because the realization when this beautiful music begins is that it is beginning to end. Mahler makes the piece want to stretch into eterinity.
As the performance neared its conclusion last night, Brian’s extremely long last movement inspired thoughts more along the line of begging for mercy (a feeling which I’m sure you, dear readers, are feeling increasingly familiar with as you reach a similar point in this essay). Each time the full forces are used, seemingly for shorter and shorter outbursts each time, there is more of a sense of outrage- “bastard, is that all he’s going to do with all those wonderful brass players!?!?!?”
Through the piece, I’d found myself again and again trying to get to grips with the basic question- did Brian know what he was doing? Is all this discontinuity and negation intentional, or did he just not know how to string a musical sentence together? I was pretty sure he couldn’t “really draw,” but could he draw at all? Was he someone who ended up writing musical nonsense poetry because he was an angry social critic who didn’t give a damn whether anyone enjoyed a note of his music, or was he just a crazy amateur without the most basic grounding in the musical equivalents of grammar, spelling and punctuation?
Then, on the symphony’s final page, Brian did the one thing that made me decide to sit down and write this post. He wrote one genuinely beautiful and completely moving, logical and loving phrase for the cellos.
(It also begs the question of whether and how he knew anything about the opening of Mahler’s 10th Symphony)
And it was this phrase that reminded me of the symphony’s motto from Faust: “Whoever strives with all his might/ Him can we redeem” Is this single, astoundingly beautiful melody, redemption? Did Brian know what he was up to the whole time, or was he just an unhinged crank? It’s good to remind ourselves, also, that there is more than a fine line between crackpot and genius- every shade of talent from mediocrity to master lies between. Even if he was a master, who created this infuriating and bizarre work with complete command and self-knowledge, do we have to like it? It is surely about as perverse a piece as you’ll ever hear.
I guess the fact that I’ve just written about it at such length is an indication that, whatever my doubts (and I’m far from persuaded that all the piece’s frustrations are there on purpose), there is something in this music worth thinking about. Now that there is at last a listenable recording, I’m sure I’ll return to it a few more times. If nothing else, the musical history of the 20th c. has shown us again and again the dangers of giving would-be social critics too much rope to hang themselves with. Just because someone has a point, it does not always follow that the point needs to be made for 2 hours with 1000 musicians. From Brian, with all his echoes of Holst and Vaughan Williams to the Stockhausen Helicopter Quartet is not a great leap of mindset- at the end of the day, do we really want music to piss us off? Maybe we do. I can’t say. It’s got me thinking, and that’s good.
But I’m going to take David Nice’s advice and keep the garlic handy just in case I’m wrong.
Post scripts and notes:
Many people have commented on the astounding playing of the completely bonkers xylophone solo at the end of Part I without crediting the musician who played it. His name is Chris Stock, the BBC Nat’l Orch of Wales principal percussionist. Chris is also a fine photographer who has done a fair number of the headshots of me floating around out there, as well as snapping many of BBC NOW’s affiliated and guest conductors, musicians and soloists.
Other comments are at:
Jessica Duchen’s thoughts here. ”The White Elephant is a familiar story. We unearth a ‘forgotten masterpiece’, a work of vast ambition and grand scale and (often) British significance that’s disappeared because of a) The Nazis, b) William Glock, c) Pierre Boulez, d) Schoenberg, e) Margaret Thatcher (delete as you think applicable). It is going to change our lives and our view of musical history. There is usually an astonishing tale behind it. We enjoy a huge anticipatory build-up… and then it turns out that maybe there’s a good reason after all that the thing isn’t performed every other weekend in Weston-super-Mare.”
Andrew Clements at the Guardian ”Bruckner is an obvious model; there are occasional glimpses of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, and most of all of Franz Schmidt’s The Book with Seven Seals, but Brian’s music lacks their consistency and personality.”
A longer response from 5 against 4 ( a blog that was new to me) here ”Rarely have i felt the need to prepare so thoroughly before a concert as i did prior to yesterday evening’s Prom performance of Havergal Brian‘s Symphony No. 1 ‘Gothic’ • Books were re-read, CDs were re-listened to, & i even re-visited the writings of John Ruskin, who wrote with such authority about the nature of Gothic ”
Damian Thompson gets to the point ”“This is some of the most extraordinary music I’ve ever heard at a Prom.” But for most of the time, the symphony produced the unsettling experience of music poised on the edge of genius – almost a masterpiece.”
Ivan Hewett at the Telegraph ”But other things push through the music’s fabric. There’s a brutal military strain, evoking memories of the First World War.”
Edward Seckerson at the Independent ”So how did the work stack up (an apposite phrase) in performance? Well, there is logic and coherence in the three purely orchestral movements, the first of them a grim juxtaposition of brutality and vain hope as a solo violin profers songful release from the killing fields.”
BBC NOW violist Laura Sinnerton on the Radio 3 website ” Much as I have complained during this week (in between mouthfuls of cake) about how difficult it was, and how, at times, I just didn’t ‘get’ the music, this has been an amazing experience. ”
Thomas in the Park hits one nail on the head: “It’s isn’t a 1920s Symphony of a Thousand, not least because it is a musical representation of horrors quite beyond the comprehension of Mahler.”
Entartete Musik ” Its sheer scale is enough to thrill, but knocking on two hours and without the orchestral or philosophical clarity of Brian’s heroes (such as Scriabin, Mahler and Schoenberg), the Gothic outstays its welcome. ”
At ClassicalSource, a detailed review from Richard Whitehouse, who, unlike me and most other commentators talking about the piece today, obviously knows the score fairly well. ”As flawed masterpieces go, no other risks so much in staking out the listener’s awareness of its greatness.”
Financial Times ”For long stretches, Brian’s thick and homogenous choral writing threatens to suffocate the audience in the biggest marshmallow of sound that has ever been cooked up, but there are spectacular moments, too. The four brass bands raise hell with the unholy din they create and the massed choirs soar in glorious affirmation. It is just a shame Brian’s skills did not extend to the pithy musical idea.”
Evan Tucker didn’t like it: ”Never have so many gone to so much effort for so little reward. ”
Sound Mind: “It’s difficult to describe the style of Brian’s writing in this symphony; it’s so eclectic that it echoes a little bit of everything inside its massive sprawl. It’s like a big sonic tapestry where the creator keeps changing the colour and thickness of the yarn, while reinterpreting the design, as the loom chugs along.That sounds awful, but it isn’t, really. It simply demands a different kind of listening. I’ve imagined myself as a passenger on a long train ride, with the Gothic Symphony a grand succession of unfolding panoramas that come and go as I sit back in wonder.”
London Evening Standard ”Written in the years immediately after the First World War, the Gothic was Brian’s response to its faith-shattering traumas. Its first three movements were inspired by Part 1 of Goethe’s Faust, while the latter three harness the aspirational quality of the Faustian quest to a Christian text, the Te Deum, calling forth extravagant paeans of praise. Faith is unsettled by wartime experience, however, and a jaunty march for nine clarinets in the last movement presages an ambivalent ending.”
Composer Robert Hugill: ”But I keep coming back to the single worry; what was it all for?”
Classical Iconoclast ”If ever there was a performance that could make Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony work, Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Proms (Prom 4) pulled off the most amazing performance imaginable. This was total, extravagant theatre, an event to be remembered for decades to come. “And we were there!” someone said reverentially. “Pity about the music”.”
Peter Groves says: “Nowadays, one might imagine him sitting down to write his way into the record books, but it seems clear (going by the programme notes) that the flame of creativity, of inspiration, burned bright. Not just a freak show but a fantastic piece of work by a man who had taught himself to use the tools of composition and therefore produced a less polished end product than others – but one that perhaps demands greater admiration for the way in which those drawbacks were overcome.”
Brian Rheinhart really liked it: “I came expecting at best a loudly transcendent experience and at worst the ability to tell people I’d seen the world’s largest symphony. But–good lord–it was the concert of a lifetime.”
OperaToday has quite a long post, very balanced: “This performance of Brian’s “Gothic” symphony was hugely enjoyable because it worked remarkably well as theatre. Brian himself may not have anticipated the concept of sonic architecture quite in the way that others — including Stockhausen, whom Brabbins also conducts well — but the BBC Proms and the Royal Albert Hall can work wonders. ”
A follow-up from Classical Iconoclast: ”. Maybe amateur and uncrafted has appeal, but you do wonder why music so fervently promoted is otherwise known only through poor performances and on deleted recordings. Maybe that’s part of the cachet. Brian is part of the grand British Eccentric Tradition. But there is so much else waiting to be discovered that one hopes attention will move to music with innate musical value. Please also see this analysis, from someone with experience of turning paper into music.”
Lisa Hirsch is just getting started, but offering good advice: “Okay, so I was not in London on Sunday. But the reviews and comments on Havergal Brian’s gigantic Symphony No. 1 are out there on the net, and I have been reading with interest and amusement. Start with Kenneth Woods, who has fascinating comments and links to other commentators and reviewers.”
Alex Ross has been reading Vftp, too: ”Kenneth Woods (“incompetent … insane … moving … disturbing”).” Is Alex quoting me, or describing me? You be the judge (Given that not everyone gets my humor, let me just be clear- he’s quoting me)
Peter Graham-Woolf at Musical Pointers here and here: Part 2, a three movement Te Deum, is a huge edifice suggesting a grand Gothic Cathedral, eventually reaching a ‘racked and agonized but not-quite-despairing conclusion‘ which ultimately leaves us with ‘a mysterious radiance that abides as a light in the night‘
2 piccolos (1 also flute), 3 flutes (1 also alto flute), 2 oboes, oboe d’amore, cor anglais, bass oboe, Eb clarinet, 2 Bb clarinets, basset horn, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, Eb cornet, 4 trumpets in F, bass trumpet, 3 tenor trombones, 2 tubas, 2 sets (min 3 drums) timpani, 2 harps, organ, celesta, min 8 percussion: glockenspiel, xylophone, 2 bass drums, 3 side drums, tambourine, pair cymbals, tam-tam, triangle; strings [say 18.104.22.168.8]
Part two :
Soprano, alto, tenor, bass soloists, large children’s choir, 2 large mixed double choruses [in practice 4 large SATB choirs]
orchestra: 2 piccolos (1 also flute), 6 flutes (1 also alto flute), 6 oboes (1 also oboe d’amore, 1 also bass oboe), 2 cors anglais, 2 Eb clarinets (1 also Bb clarinet), 4 Bbclarinets, 2 basset horns, 2 bass clarinets, contrabass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons, 8 horns, 2 Eb cornets, 4 trumpets in F, bass trumpet, 3 tenor trombones, bass trombone, contrabass trombone, 2 euphoniums, 2 tubas, 2 sets (min 3 [in practice 4] drums) timpani, 2 harps, organ, celesta, min 18 percussion: glockenspiel, xylophone, 2 bass drums, 3 side drums, long drum, 2 tambourines, 6 pairs cymbals, tam-tam, thunder machine [not thunder sheet], tubular bells, chimes, chains, 2 triangles, birdscare; strings (22.214.171.124.12)
4 off stage groups: each containing 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 tenor trombones, set (min 3 drums) of timpani
(in summary: 32 wind, 24 on stage brass, 24 off stage brass, 6 timpanists, 18 percussion, 4 keyboards and harps, 82 strings – total orchestra c190 players, plus adult choir of min 500 [assumes largely professionals], children’s choir of 100, 4 soloists = c800)