The Listening Post: Havergal Brian Symphonies (2)
In the second part of our annotated list of Havergal Brian’s 33 symphonies (32 numbered), we start moving into less charted territory. All the first ten numbered symphonies, apart from number 5, are available in commercial recordings. In this group, numbers 14, 19 and 21 have only recently been re-issued and re-mastered by Klassic Haus from previously pirated and misattributed radio broadcasts on the Aries label. Number 21 (along with number 10) has also been re-issued by Klassic Haus, from the pioneering Unicorn recording made by the Lecistershire Schools Symphony Orchestra in the early 1970s.

Numbers 11 to 21 were written over nearly a decade from 1954, when the composer was between the ages of 78 and 87. They continue to explore the “late style” established in Symphonies 8-10. In particular, Symphonies 13-to 17 form a series of five highly compressed single movement works written between 1959 and 1961, begun after the 83 year-old Brian had moved to a council flat in Shoreham-on-Sea, overlooking the beach. Symphonies 18-20 return to something closer to classical forms, with three separate movements. Number 21, in four movements, is my choice from this group. It’s unusually accessible with an opening allegro in something close to sonata form, a relaxed second movement and a sparking scherzo. And the story behind the first recording is a particularly inspiring (and well documented) one.

1954 – Symphony No 11 (fp November 1959, LSO, Newstone): “The Eleventh starts where the Tenth finished, with the same three notes – in inversion – and a very serious Adagio grows from them.” (MusicWeb). This is followed by a joyous scherzo, a march and a long slow section before the finale, one of Brian’s characteristic English Dances. It’s more transparently scored than most of the symphonies, though still full and with an array of percussion. (Recordings: Dutton, Naxos).

1957 – Symphony No 12 (fp November 1959, LSO, Newstone): Brian’s shortest symphony up to this date, an extremely concise single movement, internally suggesting a four movement design with a funeral march at its heart. Inspired by the Greek Tragedy Agamemnon of Aeschylus, which Brian later set as one-act opera.. Argument proceeds by abrupt juxtapositions and intensely dramatic musical gestures (Malcolm MacDonald) (Recordings: Naxos).

1959 – Symphony No 13 in C major (fp 23 June 1976, RPO, Pope): the first of four short, single movement symphonies for large orchestra, lots of woodwind, brass and percussion all written within a 12 month period. This work opens with menacing brass and percussion, leading (between many pauses) to some particularly fierce climaxes. (Recordings: Dutton).

1959-60 – Symphony No 14 in F minor (fp Jan 1969, LSO, Downes): single movement lasting just over 20 minutes, but in four sections. Malcolm MacDonald thought this one of the weakest, and its only recording has been the BBC radio broadcast by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted Edward Downes. (Recordings: Klassic Haus).

1960 – Symphony No 15 in A major (fp 27 June 1976, RPO, Pope): single movement symphony scored for large orchestra. “This work takes another look at pompousness and circumstance and magnificence and ceremonial, and ways of undercutting these things….monumental subversion raised to a fine art”. (Malcolm MacDonald, quoted here). (Recordings: Naxos).

1960 – Symphony No 16 (fp 1 April 1973, LPO, Fredman): pastoral mood (described as “troubled Delius”). Building block, contrast and relief form, orchestrated with glittering percussion. (Recordings: Lyrita).

196o-61 – Symphony No 17 (fp 23 June 1976, RPO, Pope): after numbers 13-16, single movement works for large orchestra, written over the previous 12 months, No 17 is for a smaller orchestra (though still with two tubas and lots of percussion) and is shorter still – around 13 minutes long. “One of Brian’s most abstract and elliptical utterances: there are fleeting hints of Romantic imagery and mysterious hymnody, but in general it might be considered as a species of polyphonic fantasia in several clearly-defined sections, a kind of orchestral equivalent…to the big keyboard toccatas of Bach…’ (Malcolm MacDonald, quoted here). (Recordings: Naxos).

1961 – Symphony No 18 (fp Feb 1962, Polyphonia Orchestra, Bryan Fairfax): written (on the request of Fairfax) for smaller forces than any other Brian symphony. though percussion is still actively employed. Breaks from the one movement form of Nos 13-17, including three separate movements suggesting classical forms. This one opens with a “hard-bitten march” (sleeve notes). (Recordings: Naxos, Klassic Haus).

1961 – Symphony No 19 in E minor (fp 18 June 1976, BBC Scottish, John Canarina): another three movement “classical” work, but much lighter in mood than its predecessor, especially in the dance rhythms of the outer movements. (Recordings: Klassic Haus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra).

1962 – Symphony No 20 in C sharp minor (fp 5 Oct 1976, NPO, Vernon Handley): “Compact, thematically sophisticated, and deeply expressive – abandons Brian’s previous practice of one-movement symphonies in favour of the more classical three movements.” (Naxos sleeve notes). (Recordings: Naxos).

1963 – Symphony No 21 in E flat major (fp 14 Jan 1969, LSO, Downes). The 1973 Unicorn LP (now restored by Klassic Haus) was the first ever commercial recording of Havergal Brian’s music, by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, and was made just a few months before the composer’s death aged 96. Composer Robert Simpson advised the orchestra to tackle Nos 10 and 21 and helped with the rehearsals, and the TV arts programme Aquarius filmed the recording session. (Recordings: Klassic Haus).

Part One: A Fantastic Symphony to Symphony No 10
Part Three: Symphony No 22 to Symphony No 32