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.
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.
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.