550533-34 bk Mahler EU The Listening Post: Havergal Brian Symphonies (1)

This is an exploration for me – I’m aware that Havergal Brian (1876-1972) has many followers who make great claims for his music – but personally, I find his compositional style hard to crack. Continuous development doesn’t give you much to latch onto, and violent juxtapositions of style within a short space of time can get tiresome. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by such a substantial body of work, and so have put this annotated list of the 33 symphonies together, culled mostly from reviews and sleeve notes, in order to help get my head around it. I’ll publish it in three parts and choose one representative movement from each part. For further information, two of the best sources are the Havergal Brian Society website and the astonishing three volumes on the symphonies by Malcolm MacDonald, extremely expensive, but available in good libraries.

As for recordings, we are getting close to having a full set available. Only seven of the 32 numbered symphonies – (that’s numbers 14, 19, 21 and 26 to 29) are as yet unavailable in mainstream commercial recordings, and there are recordings of these as well if you search around (from BBC broadcast material and amateur performances – Klassic Haus has recently been issuing re-mastered versions of some of these recordings). So – here is the annotated list covering what’s left of A Fantastic Symphony through to Number 10. The famously huge No 1 “Gothic” anchors this group, and the next three are also expansive, large works. Numbers 5 and 6 are smaller (the first of Brian’s many single movement symphonies) and more conventionally thematic. Number 7, a transitional work, is again epic, with four separate movements, but already looking towards the composer’s late style: episodic and fragmented, continuous development and rapid changes of mood. The last three (numbers 8, 9 and 10) are representative of that late style and were regarded by Brian as a trilogy – he called them “brothers”. Brian was 73 years old when he started number 8, and 78 by the time he had completed number 10 – but he still had 22 symphonies to go.

My suggested starting point from this group is the short third movement “ostinato scherzo” of Symphony No 2 with its massed horns, piano and xylophones driving forward an increasingly menacing march. There’s some impressive snarling brass in the second half, and it’s all undeniably exciting. But as layer upon layer is pasted on for the climax, including a passage where everyone joins in with unison downward scales, I do find it a bit clunky. Links to Part Two and Part Three of this list are below.

1907-8 – A Fantastic Symphony: revised through 1909, but then split into three separate works, two of which were published in 1914: Fantastic variations on an old rhyme (the original first movement), Scherzo and slow movement (unpublished, now lost), and Festal Dance (the fourth movement). The “old rhyme” is Three Blind Mice. (Recordings: Cameo, Naxos).

1919-27 – Symphony No 1 “Gothic” (fp 1961, Bryan Fairfax): the most famous of Brian’s symphonies, notorious for the huge forces required. Three orchestral movements, followed by a massive choral setting of the Te Deum. (Recordings: Hyperion, Marco Polo/Naxos and Testament).

1930-31 – Symphony No 2 in E minor (fp May 1973, Kensington Symphony Orchestra, Leslie Head): notable for the brief “battle” scherzo with its 16 horns, and for the melodic passages for the two pianos and three timpani. Striking use of the solo violin in the second movement, Andante sostinuto. Wagnerian elements in the finale. Inspired by Goethe. (Recordings: Naxos, Klassic Haus).

1931-2 – Symphony No 3 in C# minor (fp Jan 1974, New Philharmonic Orchestra, Stanley Pope): for two pianos and large orchestra. Initially conceived as a piano (or two piano) concerto (the pianos feature mostly in the first movement). His most “expansive, objective, heroic and lyrical symphony…Brian’s Eroica” (sleeve notes). (Recordings: Hyperion).

1932-3 – Symphony No 4 in C major Das Siegelied (fp July 1967, Leeds Philharmonic, Handford): “Psalm of Victory” for soprano, two choruses and very large orchestra, contemporary with the rise of Nazism in Germany, is a violent setting of a Lutheran psalm text. There are three linked movements, the second for soprano solo and orchestra. (Recordings: Naxos).

1937 – Symphony No 5 “Wine of Summer” (fp Dec 1969, Kensington Symphony Orchestra, Leslie Head): for voice and orchestra (voice not specified, though baritone or contralto implied). This single movement symphony sets words by Lord Alfred Douglas. “A luxuriant pre-Raphaelite rhapsodic orchestral setting” (Rob Barnett). (Recordings, São Paulo SO, Royal Scottish National Orchestra).

1948 – Symphony No 6 “Sinfonia tragica” (fp Jan 1966, Douglas Robinson, ROH Orchestra): single movement, 25 minute work originally intended as the prelude to an opera based on J M Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows. “Masterful and consise” says Rob Barnett. After this and the transitional seventh, he says, the symphonies. become “kaleidoscopic screes, sphinx-like, enigmatic mosaics”. (Recordings: Lyrita).

1948 – Symphony No 7 in C major (fp June 1966, RPO, Newstone): an epic four movement symphony inspired by Goethe’s writings and by the 13th century cathedral of Strasbourg. A transitional work between “the ‘bigness’ of the Gothic, Second, Third and Fourth, the approachable theme-shaping of the Fifth and Sixth, but….already beginning to succumb to the episodic trompe l’oeils and puzzles of the later shorter symphonies”. (Rob Barnett). (Recordings: EMI).

1949 – Symphony No 8 in B flat minor (fp Feb 1954, London PO, Boult): the Eighth “proceeds through a series of motivic, textural tonal and rhythmic oppositions” (Grove). Premiered on BBC radio in 1954, a performance that started off the modern day revival of interest in Brian. (Recordings: EMI, Klassic Haus).

1951 – Symphony No 9 in A minor (fp March 1958, LSO, Del Mar): harks back to the Fourth, 20 years earlier “with its hyper-Handelian grandeur, braggart brass flurries and confident march flourishes” (Rob Barnett). Relatively accessible example of Brian’s single movement works, with more of a discernible form and melodic material. (Recordings: Dutton, EMI).

1954 – Symphony No 10 in C minor (1953-54, fp Nov 1958, Stanley Pope): instrumental drama employed with offstage trumpet and a large array of percussion including thunder and wind machines. “Mighty climaxes and Brian’s quiet, atmospheric Sibelian interludes” (sleeve notes). The Aquarius documentary about the first recording of No 10 features the arresting opening right at the start. (Recordings: Dutton, Klassic Haus).

Part Two: Symphony No 10 to Symphony No 21
Part Three: Symphony No 22 to Symphony No 32