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.
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.
Havergal Brian (1876-1972): Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme (1907)
Brian: In Memoriam (1910)
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931): Helios Overture (1903)
Brian: Festal Dance (1908)
Unique footage of the huge Gothic Symphony at the Proms, 2011:
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 pm on WRTI HD-2. Look at an archive of all the shows here.