Havergal Brian: Symphony no. 6 ‘Sinfonia Tragica’

performed by the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Walker, or below by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Myer Fredman

It’s not the Gothic. Yet.

William Havergal Brian was born 29 January, 1876 in Dresden, Stoke-on-Trent. Wikipedia says he “was one of a very small number of composers to originate from the English working class.” The next statement in that article is odd, though, stating that after attending elementary school “he had difficulty finding any congenial work,” so he began to teach himself music. Is that related to his being part of the working class, just needing to find a job that young? I think not, but in any case, he eventually had the chance to hear Elgar’s King Olaf, which was a huge influence on him musically, resulting in his becoming “a fervent enthusiast of the new music being produced by Richard Strauss and the British composers of the day.” He attended music festivals and concerts, through which he met another composer, one Granville Bantock, who almost made it into this series, but whom we will not discuss.

Essentially, then, Brian was self-taught. In 1907, now (at least) 30 years old, his first English Suite caught the attention of Henry Wood, a pretty important musical figure, obviously, and it was therefore performed at the Proms, giving Brian almost overnight fame, and it proved to be just about all of the 15 minutes he’d get in his lifetime. Almost.

After this sudden success, Brian found himself the composer of a piece in high demand; he had a publisher as well as performances lined up for other recent compositions, but these dissipated rather quickly. That same year, apparently, in 1907, one wealthy businessman named Herbert Minton Robinson, did something outstandingly generous. Thinking Brian to be an outstanding talent who would soon see great success, he offered the composer an annual £500 income, hoping that it would help the composer get (or stay) on his feet and have time to devote to his craft.

What more could any composer (or artist in general) want? What a blessing! Well, maybe, but maybe not. Brian spent some time working on “ambitious large-scale choral and orchestral works, but felt no urgency to finish them…” Instead, with a newfound financial comfort and stability, he “began to indulge in hitherto-undreamt-of pleasures, such as expensive foods and a trip to Italy.” Many critics and historians, then, seem to think that this was rather more a curse for someone who may not have been the most self-motivated person on earth, at least for a time.

There’s much more to say about his life, a broken marriage, his service in the war, five sons to each of his two wives, but we can get to all that, including his outrageously huge first symphony, at a later time.

I wrote about it last week, but I recently took a little project of listening to all of Havergal Brian’s symphonic output in April, all 32 symphonies, one a day (so finishing on May 2), something I rarely give myself the chance to do before picking which of a composer’s works I’ll write about. It’s interesting that Brian didn’t start writing symphonies until he was already close to (or past) 50. The frighteningly large Gothic symphony wasn’t completed until 1927 (and not performed until 1961), but it began a long string of symphonies that kept the man writing into his nineties! I discuss my thoughts on his overall output in that article about the one-a-day project, but the whole ‘give a man a fish’ vs. ‘teach a man to fish’ axiom comes to mind with supporting a composer who may want success less than you want it for him.

The sixth symphony, then, comes from  1948, after a break of nearly a decade after the fifth, in 1938, the longest hiatus between two symphonies in the composer’s career. I chose this work because the five before it were rather longer, and three of those five had vocal parts. The sixth struck me as a suddenly more mature work, which isn’t surprising since he came back to the form after a decade away, by that time already more than 70 years old.

It’s in a single movement, with a performance time between 17-19 minutes, and according to this page, and other places, was originally to be “the prelude to an abandoned opera on Synge’s Deirdre of the sorrows,” something Irish. It was first performed in January of 1966, followed in the ’70s by a few studio recordings or broadcasts, and in October of 1989, it got its first public performance, which was also the “first professional orchestral performance of any Brian work in North America.”

The work is discussed in extreme detail in this fantastic article, and I find myself quickly getting lost in the listening and following along of a very clear play-by-play. For anyone who’s interested in understanding the nuts and bolts of this piece on a very detailed level, (maybe have a few listens to the work first and then) go read Anno Schreier’s write up, translated by Alan Marshall.

My first impression (and beyond) of this work is that it’s gripping, bold, vivid, compact and concentrated, but I didn’t really understand much of what was going on. There are clear beginning, middle and final sections, but let’s just take the opening as an example of how the work feels, to me, like a slideshow, a series of individual moments one right after the other.

If you watch an old timey slideshow with the projection and the click sound made when moving to the next image on the wheel, you know that things happened between multiple images, but you might not know what or how much. To some degree or other, they’re disjointed, independent (almost literal) slices of a whole experience.

The opening of Brian’s sixth symphony seems much that way, with disparate elements conflicting for attention, and then stopping, only to introduce something else. Schreier mentions in her article the obvious opening cello theme, a driving kind of persistent sound, immediately accented with fluttery sounds from flute and glockenspiel. Cellos stop suddenly under a timpani roll, and a tuba line rumbles in. This kind of incidental-music-type drama makes more sense when we know the work had its origins in an opera, but we’ll see how Brian manages to wrap it all together in a symphonic package.

Wait until you hear harp glissandos, and more flute, with timpani. This feels yet again like another start to the work, and then maybe suddenly what should actually be the focus, after some pausing and restarting, a fanfare, herald-like trumpet solo. That aside, we can see that we’re revolving around this idea that the cellos introduced, a pulse of sorts that keeps the music churning, like a magnetic stirrer in a chemical reaction. We might not see anything yet, but it will produce something.

Even if things seem a bit disjointed or sudden, there’s undeniably a kind of propulsive energy to the work so far, even if we don’t quite know to where we are being propelled. There’s a stiller moment with pizzicato and tam tam, and harp. This is undeniably stage-like music in its drama and vividness.

Schreier cites other folks in saying that the second section of the work begins with an English horn melody, and it’s a figure we will hear more than just once. I could go on about the elements of this piece and how Schreier says they’re connected or presented, what they are, dissecting this kind of living organism into its individual parts, but there are a few things I’d rather emphasize.

For one, listen to how the elements that seemed at the beginning to be disparate and unrelated reappear and give at least some continuity to the work. Even throughout the slow section, aside from that motif (the one we hear over and over again) that the English horn introduced, with some really beautiful, tender writing, we don’t really lose the connection to the opening(s).

There’s an interesting passage with bassoon and winds at the end of this broader slow section. Do you hear the little glitters from piccolo that we heard in the beginning? It’s as if this is all one big magic trick of tying together these disparate elements, revealing how they’re related. But that’s not what it is.

Wait for a moment of such poetic perfection, a simple, single pluck from strings, preceded by a harp figure. It’s just one little exhalation, but it is for me a punctuation, a mark in the work where things suddenly change, first with timpani and then side drum.

This passage is undoubtedly the most tumultuous, but it has glimpses of triumph, of celebration, and perhaps is the most completely gripping passage of the entire work, as finales often are. The effect, though, at least for me, is because it’s obvious things are coming to a conclusion, that we’re reaching the end, but what end? I find myself trying to formulate an opinion, decide on what this conclusion is besides fascinatingly interesting. At moments it feels almost like Shostakovich’s ironic, black-humored ‘celebratory’ music, but at others is genuinely triumphant-sounding. We hear echoes of that figure from the English horn, some of that trumpet proclamation earlier, and timpani. After all, the work is subtitled ‘tragic’, so… the work’s gradual halt at the end does seem suitable.

In short, though, despite my kind of halfhearted attempt to give an explanation of this work,  it’s a captivating, engaging listen. I had some trouble appreciating much of Brian’s approach to the symphonic form. After having written 32 of them, one thinks he would be very familiar with them.

But actually, perhaps it’s more realistic to think that he ended up forming a rather different approach to the form, and that, I think, is the most valuable takeaway from Schreier’s discussion on this work. Of Brian’s ‘development’ of material, in contrast wiht, say, the very German approach to what development is, Schreier says:

Now this [development] does not come about (at least not to any major extent) through motivic or thematic development, but more in the fashion of a growing and unfolding plant-life, something which conjures up associations with landscapes and may be viewed as typical of the English symphony (as begun by Vaughan Williams and nowadays taken up notably by Peter Maxwell Davies).

Well isn’t that all just fascinating? Again, you can analyze and over-analyze, listen and re-listen, or you can enjoy, and once you have digested the music, come back and maybe find some answers to a few of the questions you might have. Schreier concludes thusly:

None of this alters the fact that the melody in the middle of the symphony appears as an anomalous block between ungentle disparate elements. It immediately gives up the connection it has established, and because there is scarcely any mediation between it and the disparate elements, the ultimately negative outcome of the battle cannot simply overcome the significance of the melody.

If we relate this to our initial view of the natural concept underlying this melody, then perhaps this indicates an eternal value hidden in nature.

That’s all probably a little bit too much analysis for my taste, but I think it’s a good example of how both ways of appreciating the symphony (or any deserving work) can be rewarding, but how it’s also a bit subjective, ultimately.

What do you hear?

Well, for one, you’ll be hearing two more symphonies that date from (or around) 1948. It seems it was a very good year for symphonies, so do stay tuned, and thank you for listening and reading.



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