Havergal Brian

Saturday, December 1st, 2012, 5-6 pm on WRTI

Havergal Brian (1876-1972). Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme (1907). Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Penny. Marco Polo 223731, Tr 1-5. 11:58

Brian. In Memoriam (1910). Ireland National Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Leaper. Marco Polo 223481, Tr 1-3. 18:48

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). Helios Overture (1903). Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt. Angel 81503, Tr 2. 12:01

Brian. Festal Dance (1908). Ireland National Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Leaper. Marco Polo 223481, Tr 4-5. 6:07

Who does this sound like?

That’s the first question we ask when we hear music new to us. It’s as true with Havergal Brian’s as with anyone else’s—probably more true, since his music is so rarely heard, and consequently so often new.

If we know anything about him, it’s that his first symphony, the “Gothic,” is called the largest ever written, with brass bands, choirs, harps, drums, and organ along with a gargantuan orchestra. Our knowledge of Havergal Brian usually ends there.

But he wrote 31 other symphonies, and much more music besides. On top of that, 27 of his symphonies and four of his five operas were composed in the last 25 years of his life, and he lived to be 96. On top of that, for most of his life not one note of his music was performed.

Why not? One reason may be that, while he did have proponents early on—conductors Thomas Beecham and Henry Wood, composer Granville Bantock—he was an uncomfortable “mixer.” He was shy, and he was a rarity, an English classical composer from the working class. There may be another reason, though.

A local businessman had faith in his promise, and supported him with an annual stipend so that he could be free to compose. But that putatively holy grail for artists seems for him to have been a curse. It shielded him from the necessity of producing “useful” music (which generates income through performance). It certainly enabled him to spend years of work on the Gothic, which had virtually no chance of being performed.

But Havergal Brian is no hot-house flower. It’s a delight to discover pieces that in fact work very well, causing us to applaud the recent upsurge in his recordings. The Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme and Festal Dance are carved out of another proposed first symphony. The “Old Rhyme” is “Three Blind Mice”; the dance was originally the Dance of the Farmer’s Wife, exulting in her victory over those pesky rodents.

No one knows for sure who is being memorialized in Brian’s work In Memoriam. He denied that it was for Edward VII, and other guesses are simply that: guesses. But the work nicely illuminates a noticeable aspect of Brian’s output, which is his love for marches. Fast or slow, they’re all over his music.

So who does he sound like? Different names have been suggested—Strauss, Elgar, Sibelius, others—and all tempt in different ways. The similarity in how Carl Nielsen transforms a theme has been noted, and so a listen to his Helios Overture may offer context.

By the end of the program, though, we’ll probably agree that he does share one trait with all fine composers: Havergal Brian sounds like himself.

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now 11 years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

2 thoughts on “Havergal Brian

  1. David Kent-Watson

    Dear Kile,

    Most interesting to see you giving Havergal Brian an airing over there. Maybe he’ll get a better reception in the USA than he has here. The massively expensive Gothic has had several airings but the bulk of his symphonies remain neglected.

    I was introduced to the lack of support in England for its fringe composers by Geoffrey Heald-Smith, Musical Director of the Hull Youth Symphony Orchesta; he had encouraged a local music shop to sponsor some annual recordings in 1976. Symphonies and Concertos by Edward German, Holbrooke and Bantock etc were produced by me for LP.

    Geoffrey then approached me about recording three LPs of all Brian’s very musically accessible early orchestral works, some of which you mention. So once a year from 1979 to 1981 we made the world premiere recordings of Dr. Merryheart Comedy Overture No.1, Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme, English Suite No.1, For Valour, Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme, Festal Dance, In Memoriam, and the Two Herrick Songs, “Requiem for the Rose”, and “The Hag”.

    The HullYSO was of course not up to professional standards but as world premieres they were received with great interest and Geoffrey’s enterprise was gratefully received by the public and broadcasters.

    I had letters about releasing them on CD, so I have done so as “The Complete Early Orchestral Works” on a 2CD set CC9014CD-2.

    You may find it a handy reference so I am posting you a copy.

    Best wishes,

    David

    Reply

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