A Month (or more) of Havergal Brian

I did it again.

Maybe you remember the Month of Myaskovsky back in February. This is the same thing. I used the hashtag #hbriansym on Twitter with 140-character statements about each symphony that were generally the opposite of insightful.

I’ll probably repeat myself in this article as to why I decided to take on little projects like this, but there are some composers whose output is, well, a little bit unwieldy. It isn’t as intimidating to know that Chopin wrote dozens of mazurkas, but for Myaskovsky to have written 27 symphonies, not a few of them full-length 40-60 minute works, is quite a lot no matter how you look at it.

For Myaskovsky, there are a few of those starting points, the pieces that those who are even aware of Myaskovsky might know are considered to be his more famous works: the sixth, tenth, thirteenth, 27th, whatever. But what about all those in between?

Well, the same problem plagues Havergal Brian, but perhaps to a greater degree. Myaskovsky had the benefit of being in the music scene, having associates and friends in the biz, people like Prokofiev. Myaskovsky came from a long tradition of Russian music. Even if he went on to do radically different things for a time, he still had familiar, relatively relatable beginnings.

Havergal Brian did not, really. I decided to listen to his works in April to coincide with the English Symphony Series that we started last month, and one of his symphonies will be featured in that series.

To keep continuity, I’ll discuss his background and upbringing in the article about that symphony, since it will be his first appearance on the blog, but suffice it to say for now, he was basically self-taught. So for a self-taught composer, that’s pretty impressive. But it means he was kind of…. out on the sidelines. He had no pedigree or musical heritage, no connections with colleges, composers or musicians.

That’s likely an oversimplification, but it’s true relative to the rest of the English music world, who all seem to have studied with C.V. Stanford or John Ireland. Brian did make an acquaintance with Granville Bantock, but he wasn’t exactly an influential personage either.

There were, however, two big things to put Havergal Brian’s name at least more on the map. The first was an English Suite, his first of a few, that got the attention of Henry Wood and was therefore performed at the Proms. He then found himself with a publisher and an agenda of performances of that and some of his other more recent pieces.

The other thing that landed in his lap, and lasted, for better or worse, longer than the performances of his works, which quickly disappeared, was a wealthy businessman who offered him £500 annually to support him in his compositional efforts, thinking Brian would soon find himself a stable, successful composer if he could focus on his craft. Instead, Brian worked on some huge pieces, didn’t finish a lot of other stuff and spent part of that income on fancy meals and vacations. Critics argue why it was that the music of Havergal Brian never became successful, but most agree that part of it had to do with his shyness and lack of motivation to promote himself (maybe?).

But so much of that is for another time. As you may have noticed from the tweets, if you bothered to go look at them, I didn’t have anything terribly insightful to say about the works, but listening to one each day and learning a little bit about it, like what year it was composed, and when in relation to the other works, and how long it took to be performed, tells you something factual (if not a bit trivial) about the trajectory of a composer’s output.

So besides his big break with Henry Wood and his ‘give a man a fish’ salary from a wealthy supporter, the reality was that many of his works, including his enormous first symphony, waited decades after completion for a first performance. But his kind of appearing from nowhere, not out of some respected musical lineage, means for better or worse that his music kind of literally does come from nowhere, and thus, at least for me, is harder to relate to.

We can take his outstandingly gargantuan first symphony as a starting point, as we should. It is, for me, at this point, the most outstanding, remarkable work of his output, at nearly two hours, and hundreds of performers, a truly monstrous orchestra, offstage brass bands (yes plural) and timpani, huge choirs…. it borders on absurd, but listening to it, one can only be in awe.

After that, however, things get smaller. How could they not? Five of his first three symphonies have vocal parts, either for chorus or solo voices, and these earliest are the longest works, some of them at an hour or thereabouts, but obviously nowhere near the length of the Gothic.

More than a decade after composing his fifth symphony, he picks back up with his sixth, at this time more than 70 years old, and swiftly, within the next two decades, writes more than two dozen symphonies, the longest of them being the seventh, at 40+ minutes, all the others remaining under a half hour, some even under a quarter of an hour.

So then, what’s the impression, the takeaway? Well, it’s a lot of music, and in most cases, they’re not in the typical three- or four-movement forms, even if they have separate sections. First, I’ll say I am far from having any insight into these works. The bulk of my info came from the Havergal Brian Society, which has wonderful resources on the composer’s works.

Overall, there were some works that intrigued me, others I found the opposite of interesting, but there’s really very little to be gained from a first pass at a piece of music, especially something that departs from the symphonic tradition the way Brian does. In scanning analyses of these works, there are discussions of his harmonic structures, the relation of material across sections, development of that material, or key areas, etc. I love all that stuff, but there’s no way I can hear it on the first (or twelfth) listen. So my first impression is that there is likely lot here to discover and research and potentially even enjoy, some of it immensely, I’m sure. But my questions when it’s all said and done, are below, and they are the ones I would like to answer in a more in-depth study of Brian’s music, if I can ever justify making that a priority:

  1. What was his motivation behind composing the number of symphonies that he did? Number three below addresses this in greater detail, but…
    • He wrote so many symphonies. Did he have some attachment to the form, or was it just a label that got carried away?
    • Who were his inspirations, besides hearing works like Elgar’s King Olaf and the music of Strauss? Was he working toward something?
  2. Is there a trajectory of any kind? The man wrote 32 symphonies, the first coming after he was 50 years old, and wrote the vast majority of those after 70. A classically trained composer with a conservatory background and all the rest would have been given direction and instruction. Some famous composers didn’t even live to be 50, and yet it’s then that Brian takes on his first, writing copious amounts of music in his old age. So then… how did his musical style change or develop? Was there some kind of evolution or refining of a specific sound? His works get shorter, for sure, and in some ways sound more taut and transparent, even if they are still scored for large orchestras, but, especially in the late symphonies, I get the sense that there isn’t as much continuity among them. So what was his goal?
  3. How much of it was just experimentation? This is the last big question, and perhaps offensive to Brian scholars, but an output like Brian’s, with its volume and chronology, does lead one to wonder if he was just throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. That’s maybe the most negative way that that could be expressed, but what was he accomplishing? Maybe I’m revealing my ignorance of the underlying genius in his works, and I’m sure there’s plenty to appreciate about at least some of these pieces, but… still. From a strictly marketing or organizational perspective, taking some of the single-movement (or even just shorter) symphonies and rebranding them as suites or symphonic poems would reduce that intimidating number of 32 symphonies and maybe give better expectations of some of the works. That’s not me saying I know better; I don’t. But after having listened to all of these works, I have more questions than answers.

The only thing I will say overall is that aside from the first symphony, which is a behemoth masterpiece, in my opinion, the most interesting works are the smaller, more transparent, laconic works, and that seems, if anything, to be the trajectory I asked about above. At the very least, he was able to pare his larger works down to what may be their most essential constituents, and that is a compelling reason to give them more airtime.

In contrast and contemporary with that, though, is Brian’s fecundity at that time. While he wrote smaller, more succinct works, he also wrote a ton more of them. If he’d had an employer like Haydn had, a reason to write a new symphony or something at the king’s whim, that’d be one thing, or to commemorate an event, a friend, a death, a coronation, then I’d understand it more, but it is primarily what gives the impression that some of it had to be just experimentation, trial and error, in much the same approach as I took to (very) amateur photography.

I’m mildly colorblind, and never studied any kind of composition or technique, but with digital photography, even more than ten years ago, I could take a pocket point’n’shoot and go snapping photos around interesting buildings or areas, dozens upon dozens of photos, without worrying about wasting film, and delete the vast majority of them once I got home. I’m not accusing Brian of the same thing compositionally, but until I can spend more time with each of the two dozen latest symphonies, I really don’t know any better.

Phew. That’s it for now. 32 symphonies in 32 days, and I’m taking May off. I do have another composer lined up for June, but thankfully he only has twenty or so. After that, I’m not sure. It was hard enough to get around to gathering recordings of all of Brian’s symphonies. Doing the same with Alan Hovhaness, which I have thought about here and there, seems now even more daunting and would take more than twice as long, if I could even gather recordings of all of his.

So… I can’t even give highlights, except for maybe give a listen to some of the longer late symphonies (after no. 6). Or just pick one at random.

A note here on a few other prolific composers who also happen to be some of the most highly regarded in history. Haydn wrote more than a hundred symphonies and Mozart almost half that, but I’d argue that their circumstances were vastly different than Brian.

Haydn, for one, had a job as a composer, and the earliest few dozen of his works, to my understanding, may not have ever been intended for publication. He wrote them for his employer, or rather his employer’s events, and it was only after some great deal of success that he wrote symphonies with the intention to publish them and have them performed in the concert hall. Or something.

Mozart wrote his first symphony at the age of eight, and (perhaps apocryphal) because he couldn’t play the piano since he would wake his father, recovering from an illness. So instead he wrote a symphony. Is it remarkable? No, but what are eight year olds these days accomplishing? About half of Mozart’s symphonic output was finished before he was even 20 years old, and the it’s usually only a few from 25 on that are the most performed. That aside, he wrote 27 piano concertos, even more violin sonatas, etc. My point is to say that of Mozart’s 41 numbered (and another handful of perhaps spurious or unnumbered) symphonies, a small handful are the ones considered to be the most famous examples, but he shows talent and genius and creativity in all of them. Brian’s career is a very different one.

I include those perhaps incorrect statements just to say that I’m not throwing shade at a composer just because he wrote 32 symphonies and that some must as a result be flops. There’s more to it than that. Phew. Did you even make it this far? Send me an email if you did.


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