Havergal Brian- The Gothic Symphony at the Proms. A few more thoughts….

This is a follow-up to an earlier post on the Proms performance of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony. You may find this post more interesting and coherent if you read that one first.



Well, one week ago, if you had told me that much of the last seven days of my life would have been dedicated to trying to get to grips with the music of Havergal Brian, I would have smiled at you with condescending bemusement. At that point I wasn’t even considering attending the performance of The Gothic, and even as Martyn Brabbins gave the downbeat last Sunday, I could never have foreseen writing such a long response to the concert that was about to follow, let alone foreseen that said response would lead to a week of such interesting discussions and discoveries. Essays have been read, biographies, critical studies and CDs of other Brian works have been ordered. Paths have branched off into explorations of previously unread War poets.

Another artist dealing with the Great War for many years afterwards: David Jones: Life-in-Death, 1929

I think that is one of the first points I want to make in this follow-up post. Love it or hate it, one has to admit that last Sunday’s concert has stimulated more discussion and debate, more outrage and admiration than any concert I can remember in a long time. Isn’t that a better result for the Proms than another safe-and-sound retread of a comfortable and corporate run-though of a piece we all know is good or great, or a premiere of a new work anyone could predict will be bad?

It is a bit of a bummer that some of the discussion has descended to name-calling (something I thank Vftp readers and commenters for avoiding).

This is probably the first time I’ve ever written about a work on this blog without having seen and studied the score. I found the experience quite off-putting. Of course critics get it wrong- I can already see many things in my original post that I got wrong or missed completely. Still, criticism’s first job is to create interest in art, and critics have a very important part to play. If they don’t take a chance and put their views on record first, the discussion stops as the audience leaves the concert hall. Negative reviews of even a masterpiece (I just saw one of the nation’s leading critics single out Mahler 8 as one of his bugbears- compassion is probably a fairer reaction to this than outrage. Think what he’s missing!), can be hugely useful in forcing advocates for the music to think more deeply and debate more sharply. So, huge props to everyone who has gotten the conversation going, whether they had positive or negative things to say about the work.

What I found interesting in the responses to my post is that there seemed to be genuine confusion about whether I was in the pro or anti-Gothic camp. It just goes to show that the more you write, the more you’ll be misunderstood! Only the searcher or agnostic can anger or encourage both the true believers and the atheists.

I did express some real doubts about aspects of Brian’s craftsmanship. On the question of form and structure, I did try to be extremely clear that I wasn’t claiming that that there was definitely none: “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.” (emphasis added). Commenter Peter Duffy offered some extremely useful and to-the-point examples  of structure and development in the Gothic. The existence of these also illustrate how  Brian clearly wants to keep the listener off-balance and does a lot to hide what rigor there is in the piece.

I called the piece non-Mahlerian and an anti-symphony. Neither was meant as a criticism, but as a way of possibly helping the listener have a clearer sense of what to expect from it. My friend James Lea rightly pointed out that “one late feature intrigues me, one that reflects upon earlier members of the genre and helps to justify the Gothic’s membership – also one that you speak of quite well – Undermining expectations, calling into question the procedures of the genre (the program notes refer to this as questioning the heroic aspect of the symphony, which gives the genre a unique and particular resonance with respect to the Great War, and demonstrates how much things had changed since Napoleon). A philosophical approach which is, in form if not substance, wait for it, quite, oh yes – Mahlerian.”

Indeed, he’s right- one could also make a case that Mahler 6 is also an anti-Symphony, even as it is in some ways his most Classical work. In either case, part of the impact of either work is the way in which it reveals how other, more traditional symphonies turn away from horrible and uncomfortable truths and unsolvable problems.

So, one week on, I’m less likely to call the piece a cantata, and still happiest to call it an anti-symphony, but of course, it is a symphony. I just felt (and feel) that prospective listeners would be well-advised to set aside any expectation that they’re going to hear something that acts at all like a Mahler or Bruckner symphony. I can also see how the off-putting start and stop nature of the structure of the work is clearly an important part of what he is trying to say. Get rid of the discontinuity, and much of the meaning would be lost. Whether it “works” or whether it makes for a satisfying listening experience is another question.

I also questioned Brian’s skill as an orchestrator, and his efficacy in writing for voices. Clearly, there are things that could have been more idiomatic, and the so-far unsolved technical demands of the choral writing has probably done a lot to keep questions about the work’s quality on the table. Until we really hear all the choral music in the piece in tune, balanced and together, I don’t think we’ll ever know if a great deal of the Te Deum works or not.

However, there are two things I’ve thought about a lot since my original post. First, it’s probably unfair to compare Brian’s skill as an orchestrator with Elgar, Strauss and Mahler, just as it is unhelpful to compare him with them stylistically. They were extremely expert performers and conductors who had a vast experience not only conducting their music but music of just about every composer who influenced them. Brian made his living as critic and writer, so he just didn’t have the laboratory in which to learn the tricks of the trade that star conductors like Mahler and Strauss did. On top of this, so little of his music got performed in the first 60 years of his life that he had very little opportunity to put his orchestral and choral writing to the test and to make changes. Whatever the flaws, frustrations and annoyances, there are moments of stunning audacity as well- the ending of the second part of the Te Deum must be some of the most brilliantly scored music ever written.

Second: Idiomatic or not, our job as performers is to solve problems. Sunday’s was the most technically assured performance to date, so all praise to everyone involved, but there is room for improvement.  Monteux needed dozens of rehearsals for the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and his classic Boston Symphony Recording, made decades later, shows that the orchestral musicians were still struggling to play the right notes in tune and together with a good sound. Now any full time orchestra can be reasonably expected to play it though without stopping at the first rehearsal, and the piece is often done on one rehearsal. I’ve done first rehearsals of Mahler 5 with amateur orchestras that sounded better than the Vienna Philharmonic did in the famous rehearsal film with Leonard Bernstein from the 1970’s. Everywhere I conduct Mahler, there will always be one wind player who bitches about his requirement that they play “schaltrichter auf” or bells-up. It sounds cool, it looks cool and it’s only unidiomatic if you are too lazy to learn to do. Everything on an instrument is awkward or impossible until you figure out how to do it.  Richard Strauss was so alarmed at how well orchestral violinists in the 1940s played his music that he said he’d wished he’d made Don Juan more difficult. The Gothic has only been played a few times (and nobody onstage had played it before)- as it gets played more, musicians will have a better sense of what and how to prepare.

Before last week’s concert, I know some people felt that Sunday night would finally give the world a chance to hear whether the piece had merit. Just as I heard some say “at last, this will sut up the Havergal Brian nuts,” I also heard hopes voiced that this would be the performance to silence all doubters.  While the BBC did everything possible to create the best possible performance, with two international recording orchestras, and 800 of the country’s best choral singers drilled under the best choir masters (my friend and colleague, chorus master Adrian Partington is as good as you’ll find) in the business, this was never going to be a definitive performance. There is still work to be done.

My guess, however, is that this week, against all odds, the Gothic became something like a standard-repertoire piece. I’m sure it won’t be another 30 years before the next performance- more like 5, at most 10. If nothing else, this concert demonstrated the urgent need, and commercial viability, for a new, really, really good recording of the piece (I expect the concert to be released, probably with some patching from the dress rehearsal, but I doubt it will be as mega-polished as it needs to be to withstand repeated listening). It also showed that it can be “box office.” Yes, it’s expensive to put on, but I doubt doing the Gothic need be much more expensive than Lorin Maazel and Lang Lang doing a Chopin Piano Concerto with a group like the New York Phil. One superstar’s fee for something like that pays for a lot of extra brass players.

Happily, there are now close to a thousand choral singers in the country who know the piece. The next time the piece is done, it should take less choral rehearsal, and will surely get to a higher standard.

As my wife and I drove back from the concert (she was playing in the violins), she said something along the lines of “better Martyn Brabbins than you” and I concurred, saying that learning a score like that would take a vast amount of effort just to get to the point where you can start solving problems that may not be solvable. To be perfectly honest, after a few more listens and a bit more thought, I change my tune.  Of course I’d love to try my hand at the Gothic. I think the piece is interesting enough and possibly, even probably, important enough to be more than worth the effort. I still haven’t ordered the score yet, but I probably shall. Maybe I’ll be the next one conducting it….. Crazier things have happened (actually, I’m not sure that crazier things have happened). If I do it, I’ll put something else on the program to give it a bit of context- Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin seems the perfect foil for the first half…. Or maybe even the second half…. 

Why bother? Well, because I think I stand by what I said the piece is in my last post. It’s worth the effort because of what Brian has to say about the Great War, about the human psyche pushed to the breaking point, about the bankruptcy of Romanticism. I think the piece is funny, and that the humor has a serious point to make. I think the piece has some of the most compelling evocations of evil, banality, terror and moral outrage I’ve come across in a while.

Not all of the piece is on the same level- some of the bits that sound like a second-rate imitation of The Planets really bother me, as does some of the music that sounds more like a film soundtrack than a symphony. But, there are lots of “great” works that are not all on the same level. Nothing in the first 3 movements of the Mozart Jupiter is on the same level as the Finale. I still have serious doubts about whether the Gothic is a great work, but it has the makings of one.


Other discussion:

In addition to all the reviews and blogs I’ve tried to list on my original Brian essay, there have been some very interesting things said in comments here and elsewhere. It is probably not surprising that David Nice’s very funny and stinging critique would draw an enormous amount of debate. Here are some interesting responses from his comment thread

Daniel Mullaney: “Any similarity with Mahler or Bruckner is really purely superficial, and any comparison unhelpful. Brian’s music is far more episodic, and constantly changes its character. Not just the Gothic, but even the later symphonies have a ridiculous amount of juxtaposed material. …  It is the summing up of an age and an artistic representation of its destruction. The first three movements serve as an introduction and the fourth as a hymn of praise – almost like the glory of European culture. – the fifth and sixth progressively become more tortured and destroy the confidence of the fourth movement – the music is no longer directed at God – but becomes focussed on man and the loss of his ideals. The final five minutes is an apocalyptic statement. ”

J. Brand didn’t like it; “I attended the last performance at the Royal Albert Hall some 30 years ago and came to the same conclusion then as David has now. Mahler’s 8th is a towering masterpiece by a composer who knows how to use, and why to use, such vast forces. Brian’s is an incompetent and inflated bore.”

Dean Foster knew he would like it: “I came all the way from Arizona specifically for this performance, and I am not departing disappointed. What draws me to Brian (and not just to the Gothic) is that he never fails to surprise me… Name me another British composer whose work (here in the Judex) prefigures Ligeti.”

My friend Martin Anderson has released a number of Havergal Brian recordings on his own label, Toccata Classics, and knows Brian’s music backwards. He shares some interesting thoughts: “As a profound statement of musical humanism it has, as far as I can see, no peers. It was, I contend, the product of the four years of unforeseeable slaughter of WW1: Brian’s three orchestral movements are a commentary on and response to its militaristic bombast and chaos and the three movements which set the Te Deum text his humanist answer. Brian said that “The Te Deum thrust itself forward as the only possible text” (something like that) because he wanted systematically to undermine its praise of an all-powerful, benign godhead. His treatment of the text is full of clues, most obvously at the start of the ‘Judex’. Judges are supposed to impose order, but here the choirs enter one by one, in an expanding dissonant cluster — the very opposite of order. The final ‘Non confundar’ can be heard not as a subdued cry of despair but a realistic assertion that mankind can look only to itself: we will not be confounded.”

Be sure to check out all the comments on my previous Gothic post. Most are more interesting than the original essay.



One other point- I spoke about the lack of transition in Brian. This is something that seems to be a feature of his style. Whether one can write music of real quality without mastering the art of transition is a big question. I was struck by my friend Erik Klackner’s words on transitions in an otherwise unrelated  post on Mahler 6:

“In my opinion, the art of the transition is what makes composers composers.  Any asshole can write a nice melody.  Many assholes can write decent harmony.  Several assholes can write exciting rhythms.  But few assholes can transition between distinct musical sections in a coherent and impactful way.  Even some of the greatest composers occasionally display a lack of transitional aptitude (like the ungainly and blunt-force-trauma sequence extravaganza that Tschaikovsky employs leading to the climax in 1812).  But virtually every composer worth his salt is capable of executing a quality transition, which is why it’s worth noting when you find one that’s really magical.”

This leaves one with the question of whether Brian’s lack of transition  is actually a totally original approach to the technique and function of transition (think how different he is in this sense to Sibelius), or whether he just didn’t know what he was doing.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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16 comments on “Havergal Brian- The Gothic Symphony at the Proms. A few more thoughts….”

  1. Erik K

    I wish I would have been in attendance at the Gothic performance; I only know the work through the Naxos recording and even that is sparse knowledge. I haven’t listened to the broadcast of the Proms performance yet, but I intend to.

    Your question is, in many respects, the ultimate question for any and all forms of art. When I go to (insert name of contemporary art museum here) and look at a massive canvas with paint splashed on it, I’m told that there is an inherent artistic quality to it, even though to my untrained eye it looks like something I could do with 4 hours, a lot of whiskey, and a gift card from Hobby Lobby. But perhaps that’s the point.

    I referenced the awful transition in the 1812, but Tschaikovsky has proven that he is capable of writing a decent transition. I think it’s safe to say that he wrote that transition, unpleasant to my musical palette, on purpose. It’s the same thing when people say that Bruckner couldn’t write a symphonic allegro or Beethoven couldn’t write a good tune…based on their track records, I’m betting they could and chose not to.

    Brian’s problem, and the problem of other underexposed composers, is his lack of track record. If I were to in fact get that Hobby Lobby gift card and some Jim Beam, I could presumably make a nice abstract piece, especially since I’ll have that Jackson Pollock movie with Ed Harris on in the background. But nobody knows anything about me…which is why no matter how compelling my art piece may actually be, everyone will just call me a dipshit who stopped by Hobby Lobby after lunch at Wendy’s.

    To me, the only way we’ll ever be able to solve the riddle of Havergal Brian is by digesting the rest of his music to see what the hell he’s actually up to. There’s a Mahler reference in there somewhere.

    Your posts have been awesome reads, though. Your desire to want to appreciate and understand it is palpable and compelling. Gonna check the broadcast out this week.

  2. Evan Tucker

    I certainly appreciate your point about his being different than Elgar, Mahler and Strauss because of the practical application of performing experience. I certainly don’t think any part of this piece sounds at all like Mahler or Strauss. Elgar perhaps though only in snippets. But I have to wonder, why is an exception made for Berlioz, who was also a great conductor and had plenty of practical experience to implement for his writing?

    It also occurred to me that a different model may have been Mendelssohn’s Lobesgesang (a personal bugbear of mine, though perhaps I’m missing something, many do love it). Both have long instrumental preamble before choral music dominates the rest of both pieces: they’re both extremely episodic with no real attempt at cumulative impact, and both have lots of restraint in the implementation of huge forces. I think it would be quite significant to know whose music Brian particularly valued when he wrote the piece. But as a man who grew up in Victorian England, my own theory is that he was attempting a grand statement not unlike the oratorios of Handel, Mendelssohn and Elgar. It’s no more or less a Symphony or Oratorio than Lobesgesang.

    Also, in spite of intensely disliking the piece (both times I listened), I realize that, as you astutely pointed out, the fact that we’re all still thinking about it might have some indication of a far greater quality than an outright dismissal like mine would have warranted. Personally, I’d eagerly look forward to reading about you putting on this piece and any other thoughts you have on it.



  3. David Nice

    Kenneth, your reflections and explorations post-Proms are staggering and admirable. Would that everyone had your even-handedness and courtesy (probably I don’t either, but at least I try not to resort to individual name-calling). You’re right about the Scylla of a predictably slickly-done classic – though one of the great things about the Proms for me is that I go to what looks like a conventional programme and have my ears opened to things I never knew about Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler, etc – and the Charybdis of a new work which is doomed from the minute the commission fell into the composer’s lap (though again that’s no reason to stop trying).

    And I agree – the last couple of minutes really do take off in a most extraordinary way. That alone would encourage me to listen to later Brian symphonies, for all the easy laughs I got out of the garlic comment.

    As for that BBC Music Mag list of great works critics don’t want to hear, it was just once or twice funny but otherwise just a string of pitiable blind spots…

  4. Johan Herrenberg

    I applaud you, Kenneth, for trying to judge Brian fairly. There must be something in the music that is compelling enough to make someone revisit a piece and do so much thinking about it. I also am very pleased by David Nice’s presence here. I had my problems with his review, but his comment is very gracious and commendable. I hope that we get to the situation where Brian is at least considered capable of being able to write some interesting pages of music. The latest performance of The Gothic might well have been the tipping-point Brian lovers have been waiting for (and some of them – working towards).

  5. Sir Ted Fairyspear

    Kenneth Woods:

    “Last Sunday’s concert has stimulated more discussion and debate, more outrage and admiration than any concert I can remember in a long time. Isn’t that a better result for the Proms than another safe-and-sound retread of a comfortable and corporate run-though of a piece we all know is good or great, or a premiere of a new work anyone could predict will be bad?”

    “I think the piece has some of the most compelling evocations of evil, banality, terror and moral outrage I’ve come across in a while.”

    I couldn’t agree more with both of these statements.

    “I think the piece is funny, and that the humor has a serious point to make.”

    Again, I totally agree. The clarinet march with its accompanying “la-la’s” has baffled many critics, but I see it as a piece of black humour – (maybe) the “Pals’ Battallions” going off to the front, singing merrily as they march – what a spiffing adventure they’re going to have……

    I think it’s significant that the march enters after the words “O Lord, save thy people”. Keep our lads safe, Lord, keep ’em safe….

    David Nice:

    “The last couple of minutes really do take off in a most extraordinary way. That alone would encourage me to listen to later Brian symphonies, for all the easy laughs I got out of the garlic comment.”

    It’s good to know that you were sufficiently affected by some of the work’s crackpot magic to want to hear more of Brian’s symphonic output. And most of this is VERY different from the “Gothic” in terms of size and duration.

    My recommendation would be the Lyrita CD of Brian’s 6th and 16th Symphonies (the former one of his most approachable; the latter one of his finest.) Also the recent CD of Brabbins conducting the 10th and 30th (No. 10 being another peak in the composer’s his output).

    These are brief (around 20 minutes), incident-packed pieces, with nothing of the “Gothic’s” excesses to provide a distraction from their musical argument. They might surprise you.

  6. Peter

    Ken, congratulations on this further exploration of your own responses to a piece of music. We are so used to instant judgement and the assumption that received wisdom is always right. It takes courage to ditch all of that and to search yourself for a deeper reaction and nuanced level of understanding.

    We have to judge with the ears of the times and the naive aspects of the piece would not have sounded so corny back then as they do now. A bit of la, la, la – ing would have had a folksy ring to it. (Delius used the device too – I think – no doubt others too.) This is how ordinary people might well have sung, before the era of pop music. We also have to imagine the mindset of people who had grown up with the fine ideals of Empire and stalwart religious faith. Their hopes were completely shattered by the Great War. They didn’t have our cynicism and wanted to resist falling into it, although they must have felt sorely tempted. The War turned a lot of budding hopeful heroes in to hapless victims, and it brought to an end the idea that war was something glorious, heroic and morally purposeful. At best, war became a grim, necessary sacrifice – at worst an act of mindless futility. That is how we see war today, but not how it was generally seen in 1914.

    Finally, the Gothic is a huge, Olympian piece of music, and like all gigantic undertakings, we are left with the question – do the rewards justify the effort, does the outcome match the ambition? That question is undoubtedly easier to answer if there is a performing tradition, so that all the effort is not made in one go. Then the lack of a performing tradition is more or less guaranteed by the scale and difficulty of the work, so that any performance feels like a mustering of forces to make an assault on the impossible.

    My metaphor is deliberately chosen, for the whole work is like a battle in which unprecedented forces must take part – a struggle towards realisation that is not unlike the Great War itself, and which leaves us with a similar question about whether the struggle has been worthwhile. Brian seems to take the war as a metaphor for his own inner struggle between a transcendent view of life and the cynicism he wants to resist. Here Goethe’s Faust must have been influential. He sells out to Mephistopheles in his moment of deepest depression and negativity. How ironical that Goethe belonged to the culture of the supposed enemy!

    You can look at the work in conventional terms and see its flaws as evidence of creative weaknesses and gaffes of technique and judgement or you can interpret them as an attempt to express a cosmic struggle for meaning against the threat of despair. The comparison with David Jones is apt, because his In Parenthesis has a similar breadth and vision (more a novel than a poem) and, in its final pages, there is a sad glimmer of redemption when the Queen of the Woods bestows garlands to the fallen heroes whose individual humanity is at last treasured amidst the futile loss of life. Jones also references Welsh and ancient Greek myth to give grandeur and universality to his work. It strikes me that Brian uses the Te Deum in the same way – trying to place the sacrifice of the ordinary man in some kind of cosmic context.

    Our reaction to the work tells us about our own ability to make that contextualisation between the human and the cosmic, the ordinary and the sublime, which seems a very Mahlerian pre-occupation.


  7. Kenneth Woods

    @David Nice

    Dear David

    Many, many thanks for your comment. It’s great to hear from you, and I truly appreciate the kind words.

    Your comment about hearing mainstream works by major composers with fresh ears at the Proms is very, very apt. If there is one thing a piece like the Gothic does for other music, it is that it makes us realize just how much craftsmanship and judgement we take for granted from the Beethoven’s and Brahms’s. One should never take the staggering depth of detail, clarity of vision, integration of ideas, or beauty of execution of a Brahms symphony for granted- he paid a high price in terms of years of misery, loneliness and personal sacrifice to achieve that level of mastery.

    I really did think the garlic line was about the funniest thing I can remember reading in a review. People need to lighten up!

    I suppose the BBC Mag piece you mention (I think this means I’m now busted) just comes back to the point above. One can only be blase about Puccini and Mahler if you live in an environment of true musical gluttony. Listening with humility and a desire to understand what you’re hearing rewards the listener most of all!

    Thanks again


  8. Kenneth Woods

    @Sir Ted Fairyspear

    Hi Ted

    Welcome and many thanks for the comment. I know a lot of us are checking out other Brian works this week! I think your rationale/description of the clarinet unison and the la la la’s is about spot on. I hear a lot of dark humor in that passage, especially the way it is framed.

    Thanks for reading

  9. Kenneth Woods

    @Evan Tucker

    Hi Evan

    Thanks for the comment. I’m sure Brian would have preferred dislike to ambivalence. And I certainly would rather hear straight-from-the-hlp honest reactions than platitudes…

    Keep up the great blogging

  10. Kenneth Woods


    Brilliant stuff, as always, Peter. Thanks for putting it all so well. I’ve just gotten my copy of In Parenthesis. Wish me luck!

    Of course, the question with gigantic works is whether the musical content only works when amped up by all those players and singers. The Ring and Tristan have been very successfully reduced for orchestras of 15 players, with amazing results. The existing chamber versions of Mahler work wonderfully. I actually think hearing the Eighth done by string octet would be a revelation for the work’s doubters. The counterpoint in Part I is so interesting, and stands up amazingly well to being heard slowly and quietly. I love the Bernstein Mass, but it is more of pastiche in a lot of ways. Likewise, the Berlioz Requiem needs the noise, in my limited experience of the piece.

    Many thanks again!

  11. David Nice

    Well, this is all much more congenial and enlightening than the spat over on The Arts Desk (lesson: do not feed the trolls. One of them has apparently repeatedl asked the chairpeople, as it were, to remove the review…) I especially liked Evan Tucker’s reference to Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang – I was reminded of that halfway through the Prom performance, and thought how Mendelssohn’s orchestral imagination is remarkable, and then he goes all conventional with the choruses and vocal soloists. Nothing so clear cut happens in the Gothic, which seems to me to plummet most in the middle movements of each section when it stops arresting the listener with its ‘polystylisms’ – I still think that here a certain threadbareness of musical thought and theme expresses itself. But how to prove that?

  12. Kenneth Woods

    Hi David

    We’re generally lucky with trolls here- I don’t want to jinx anything, but only a few have ever showed up here. I ascribe this to the fact that nobody really takes my opinions very seriously or thinks they really matter in the cosmic scheme.

    Lobgesang is one of those pieces that left to its own devices tends to fall flat, but there is some vintage Mendelssohn in there. I’ve never done it, but would love to see if there is some magic pathway through the work that would make it all hang together and work.

    Thanks again!


  13. Peter

    @Kenneth Woods
    Thanks Ken. The question of effort and reward seems to plague the late-Romantics – and presumably (at risk of opening a can of worms) motivated the well-meaning amendments to the Bruckner symphonies in many cases. The so-called wise take the view that a little less will mean a little more. It might have been applied more fruitfully to many works other than those by Bruckner.

    I think your test of…how would it sound in a chamber version – is a good one. If the inflated rhetoric is all there is, it won’t sound so good for a string quartet.

    At a recent hearing of the Berlioz Requiem, the off-stage bands didn’t seem together, but the chaos was part of it, and the gesture of apocalypse seemed the greater for it. The sense of strain and pushing the boundary is part of the work’s concept. When you hear the Rite of Spring played very slickly, almost beautifully these days, you feel we are missing something of the original derring-do and edginess which Stravinsky intended.

    I wonder if Brian’s ambition was driven by the feeling that he thought it unlikely he would ever hear the work performed. Practical considerations come into play when you want the work to be heard – which explains all those chamber versions of big works from 1920’s Vienna. It was one way to perform ambitious works without incurring the expense, but also perhaps an interesting way to get inside the music.

    Perhaps I have inadvertently answered David Nice’s question as to how to prove the threadbareness of the musical thought one way or another in the middle movements of the Gothic – acknowledging Ken’s point too – play it on the piano or reduce the forces to chamber scale and then see if it holds the attention.


  14. Sir Ted Fairyspear

    Thanks, Ken, for your welcome. We seem to be reading from the same hymn-sheet regarding the “Gothic”. A huge, all-encompassing piece, it seems to borrow as much from the Edwardian music-hall as it does from mediaeval polyphony.

    It will take several more performances of high quality before this (?anti-) Symphony’s true stature can be assessed.

    I must say it’s pleasant to see good-mannered, constructive discussion of Brian’s behemoth on these pages. All too often the piece polarises people and slanging matches ensue.

    In my opinion, it’s time to give Brian’s other symphonies a fair crack of the whip now that the slopes of the “Gothic” have been scaled. They are of varying quality but a handful (especially those I recommended in my earlier post) are impressive pieces indeed. And most of them are very short!

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