Life & Liberty: A Platter That Matters


Havergal Brian had a strange career, if that's what it was. He was born in Dresden, Staffordshire, U.K., in 1876—the height of the Romantic era, the year Brahms completed his first symphony, the year Siegfried was first performed. At the age of 20, Brian decided to dedicate himself to writing music. Virtually self-taught, he began to compose. In the early years of this century he had a brief success in the conventional musical world. This soon evaporated. He didn't care. He continued to compose.

In 1919 he began his Gothic Symphony; it's a Brobdingnagian work, lasting 90 minutes and employing enormous orchestral and choral forces. Although he finished the work in 1927, it was first performed in 1961. He wrote more symphonies, and some operas and other works. Interest in his music was absolutely nil. He didn't care. He finished his Ninth Symphony at the age of 75. In 1956, at 80, he finished a Faust opera. Then he really got going.

He wrote 21 symphonies after he was 80. His last, no. 32, was written in 1968, four years before his death at 96. Toward the end his symphonies became compact, concentrated. He could speak volumes in 10 or 15 minutes of music. He claimed to be composing anti-Romantically in those works, but in fact he never severed his spirit or his musical language from the Romantic century in which he spent his youth. He even said that the people who would understand his music were all dead. He lived to see some of his music performed, to see his obscurity abating. He didn't care.

Most humans seem to care as little as Brian did whether or not his music is performed. But some listeners, having heard his music, can't imagine life without it. To such devotees, Brian's music exerts a hold that is as irresistible as a force of nature, because that is what it is. It is the human spirit made audible. Doubters—and the curious—can test this assertion for themselves by listening to a recording made some 10 years ago and recently reissued (on HMV Greensleeve ED 29 0869 1, available from Records International, P.O. Box 1140, Goleta, CA 93116). Sir Charles Groves conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in Brian's symphonies nos. 8 and 9.

Symphony no. 8 (1940) is a problematic work. It is a single movement of indeterminate shape, one of the composer's most severe works. It presents an extreme example of Brian's tendency toward incorrigible, curmudgeonly rudeness. The music marches and roars and thunders and groans. It fights holy battles and unholy ones. Brian's heroic counterpoint seems to be an aural representation of Nietzschean willfulness. To fans of the composer it is caviar. But novices will be puzzled.

There are compensations. This symphony contains some of Brian's most beautiful lyrical outpourings. Groves's performance, which some Brianites dislike for being too Romantic, for softening the hard edges, is for that very reason better suited to initiates. Harmonically, Brian's music is not difficult—it lies somewhere between that of Richard Strauss and that of Paul Hindemith. This harmonic coherence is in fact one source of Brian's enormous strength—the reason why he convinces even in the midst of the Eighth Symphony's titanic and tortured and ultimately tragic struggle.

The three-movement Ninth Symphony (1951) is an extreme contrast to the Eighth. (Brian loved extreme contrasts.) Especially as conducted here by Groves it is, I believe, one of the most convincing exhibits in the Havergal Brian case. The Eighth is mysterious, enigmatic, perplexing. The Ninth is more clear-cut.

Not that it is instantly gratifying. The first movement consists of still more gnarled, cantankerous, violently polyphonic music, but it is cast in a more reassuring mold—it is, in fact, a traditional first-movement sonata form. The second movement is another example of the radiant lyrical mode that Brian sometimes indulged in—but it has grouchy outbursts, too. He couldn't remain calm for long, especially in his old age. The last movement is pure joy, one of the most exultant finales since Beethoven. It reels on to a massive, blasphemous, drunken coda, an Olympian coda that seems to move the earth. It's music to think by.

Kyle Rothweiler is a freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana, and is currently writing a book on modern music.