About this Recording
8.572014 - BRIAN, H.: Symphonies Nos. 11 and 15 (Ireland RTE National Symphony, Rowe, Leaper)
English 

Havergal Brian (1876–1972)
For Valour • Doctor Merryheart • Symphonies Nos. 11 and 15

 

Havergal Brian was never a conventional composer, but the three later works on this disc, very different from one another, rank among his most unconventional approaches to symphonic form. Their common feature, however, is the way they concentrate on developing short motivic cells to create a large-scale form even when the music appears to be shaped by other dictates, such as an extra-musical programme (as in Doctor Merryheart), or free-flowing associations of mood (Symphony No. 11).

The overture For Valour, by contrast, is more obviously patterned after an orthodox idea of musical form, albeit one that he treats in his own individual way. Among Brian’s earliest surviving orchestral works, this is an ambitious one: its instrumental line-up (including triple woodwind, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, and organ) is bigger than the few previous examples known to us.

The extant manuscript full score is dated October 1906. Yet at its world première, under Henry Wood in the Queen’s Hall Proms on 8 October 1907, the programme note stated that For Valour ‘bears the date 1904’; and there is ample documentary evidence in Brian’s local newspaper, The Staffordshire Sentinel, to suggest the work indeed existed in some form by that earlier year. Brian was mentioned, in the issue of 14 October 1904, as a composer of ‘overtures’ (note the plural: yet For Valour is the only independent one we know of in this period). On 24 November 1905, the paper announced that For Valour was to have its première in Bournemouth under Sir Dan Godfrey (a performance which did not take place), and the work was briefly but recognisably described: from a reading of the score the anonymous writer suggested, not unreasonably, that Brian’s models included Wagner’s Meistersinger and Elgar’s In the South.

What seems certain is that in 1906 Brian revised For Valour, probably producing a new score, and this is the form heard in London in 1907—his second première of that year’s Promenade season. The work was next played in 1911, at Crystal Palace, under Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Thomas Beecham conducted it in Birmingham in 1912. The score was printed by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1914, and was actually on the presses at the outbreak of World War I (perhaps unsurprisingly, copies are scarce). As published, For Valour is dedicated to Brian’s friend Dr Graham Little—the extant manuscript bears no dedication, yet according to The Staffordshire Sentinel’s 1905 report, the original dedicatee was A.F. Coghill (a clergyman and benefactor of the North Staffordshire Triennial Festival, who later received the dedication of Brian’s cantata By the Waters of Babylon).

As to the work’s extra-musical origins, the programme for the 1907 Promenade Concert states that For Valour was inspired by a passage from Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps:

Adieu, dear comrade,
Your mission is fulfill’d—but I, more warlike,
Myself and this contentious soul of mine,
Still on our own campaigning bound,
Through untried roads with ambushed opponents lined,
Through many a sharp defeat and many a crisis, often baffled,
Here marching, ever marching on, a war fight out—aye here,
To fiercer, weightier battles give expression.

These lines are the second half of the poem Adieu to a Soldier; I correct the punctuation and lineation of the programme-note writer, who makes no attempt to relate them further to Brian’s overture. Inspired, like so much of Whitman, by the poet’s experiences during the American Civil War, they are perhaps in themselves sufficient correlative for the strenuous, martial nature of much of the music. (Though significantly, in bidding farewell to his soldier-companion, Whitman implies that his own ‘mission’ is a different sort of war, a soul-war or mental fight, in the Blakeian sense.) Another slant is offered by the 1905 Staffordshire Sentinel report, which makes no mention of Whitman but notes that the piece’s ‘poetic basis’ is ‘the pompousness and magnificence of war as contrasted with the more reflective pastoral life of the country’. The words ‘for valour’ are, of course, the legend on the Victoria Cross, the British armed forces’ highest award for gallantry in action; and it may well be relevant that Brian’s overture was composed in the immediate aftermath of the Boer War, a conflict that excited strong passions throughout British society, and which saw a considerable number of VCs awarded.

Purely on the formal level, none of Brian’s early works is more revealing of his potential as a symphonist, for For Valour is laid out as a clear, though unorthodox, sonata form, handled with confidence and élan. Admittedly there is little in it, apart from a daring virtuosity in writing for bass instruments, that seems especially personal to Havergal Brian; on the other hand, the Wagnerian, Straussian, and Elgarian echoes are just that, not all-powerful influences. Though the scoring is consistently full, heavy, and prone to complicated contrapuntal detail, it could be argued that these characteristics are somewhat in keeping with the spirit of the piece.

Brian’s later practice, in movements which refer to sonata form, was to keep the exposition brief and concentrate on development. By contrast, For Valour’s exposition is very extensive, with three subject-groups, occupying almost half the work’s length. It begins [1] with tremendous energy: the key-signature suggests C major but the music in fact starts on E (oscillation between the tonalities of C and E recurs almost obsessively in Brian’s early orchestral works). The opening theme, vaunting in mood and rather Straussian in accent, has for its salient feature a slashing four-note falling figure in dactylic rhythm. An espressivo countertheme, suggesting A minor—arrived at, even this early, with no transition, just a brief, typically Brianesque unmeasured pause—begins on oboe and horn and prominently includes a slower, chromaticised version of the falling figure, soon reiterated con passione. The opening theme returns; with a new extension it leads into a third theme which might be considered a massive augmentation of itself, and the biggest orchestral tutti so far. This is cut off for a brief transition to G, where a solo clarinet gives out the main second-subject theme, Andante tranquillo [2].

Perhaps its comparatively bucolic character stands for the ‘reflective pastoral life’. Though beginning on the orthodox dominant, it soon veers to E for a second melody and rapidly becomes more strenuous and passionate, climaxing in a third element, a sonorous Lento outburst for full wind and organ, which may be viewed as a further augmented form of the main dactylic falling figure. After a reminiscence of the first subject’s second theme in solo viola, trumpets and side-drum introduce the third subject, marcato e pomposo, sempre pesante [3], a jagged quick march for brass, strings, and percussion (incidentally the only explicitly ‘warlike’ theme in the overture), with further variation of the falling figure. This ought to be the exposition’s ‘closing group’; however, this section concludes, most unusually, with a restatement, beginning grandly in E major, of most of the second subject.

The short development section begins Allegro vivace in A minor [4] and is largely concerned with the first subject’s opening theme, broken up into constituent motifs and climaxing in a brass fanfare in triplet rhythm. The recapitulation then begins with the first subject’s second theme, tranquillo. The remainder of the subject is reprised in orthodox fashion, so the first theme duly reappears next; but Brian dispenses entirely with the second subject, so extensively treated in the exposition, and moves, via a new transition (trumpets, cymbals, and pizzicato bass), to the jagged march-music of the third subject, which now works up the excitement to a Più allegro coda [5]. Starting on E but shifting to the nominal tonic, C, this is largely concerned with emphatic four-note figures in brass and woodwind, soon reinforced by organ chords. Their effect, if not their actual substance, is of new material: ‘fiercer, weightier battles’ perhaps. A peremptory bar of fanfare brings a cavalier final cadence that collides with, rather than establishing, a stentorian C major triad six-and-a-half octaves deep.

E and C are also prominent tonalities in Doctor Merryheart; this time E is the tonic to be regained in the nick of time, but the organisation has little to do with sonata form, though scale and intention are again symphonic, despite the work’s unassuming designation as a ‘comedy overture’. Doctor Merryheart is a culminating work of the first (Staffordshire) period of Havergal Brian’s career. Written at Trentham, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1912, it is an ‘overture’ only insofar as its generally extrovert tone makes it an ideal, if somewhat elaborate, concert-opener. Structurally it is a sophisticated set of variations—Brian’s third essay in this form, following his Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme (1903) and Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme (1907)—and his most ‘symphonic’ in that the structure allows an element of recapitulation. His favourite game with variations was to put a theme of disarming simplicity through extravagant orchestral paces. We see this in Merryheart, except there is no single theme but rather a constellation of short thematic elements; but now the strategy has a kind of programmatic basis, the basic motifs standing for a hero and the variations for his (imagined) adventures. Thus Brian’s ‘overture’ is also a tone-poem in variation form, patently inspired by the tone-poems of Richard Strauss. Brian’s lifelong admiration for Strauss was at its most ardent at this period: but the real ‘comedy’ of Merryheart proceeds from the way Brian parodies his Straussian models—notably some sequences from Ein Heldenleben and, most pertinently, Don Quixote: that symphonic poem cast as ‘Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character’, in which the comic element is already dangerously pronounced.

Brian retained a great affection for Doctor Merryheart, which was one of the few works to achieve modest performance success during his lifetime. It had its première in Birmingham in January, 1913, conducted by Julius Harrison, as part of the concluding concert of the second Musical League Festival. Shortly afterwards the full score was published (though Brian’s intended dedication to his friend Granville Bantock was omitted by oversight), and Henry Wood introduced the work at the Queen’s Hall Promenade concerts later the same year. Between the wars it seems to have received a performance in Hamburg (documentation of which is lacking), was conducted for the BBC by Sir Dan Godfrey and Clarence Raybould, and even in the United States by Bernard Herrmann. Occasional performances and broadcasts have followed since the mid-1950s.

The character of Doctor Merryheart, and the programmatic basis set out in a prefatory note on the published score, seem to be Brian’s own invention. (One early reviewer hints that the writer Gerald Cumberland was involved, but I know of no supporting evidence.) The note explains that Doctor Merryheart was so called because of ‘his geniality and perpetual smiles’. He was an astronomer, who ‘advanced the strange theory, in happy persuasive manner, that the sun, moon, earth and “all that therein is” are part of a vast diatonic scale, having its tonic in the centre of the Milky Way [...] Merryheart was of the opinion that we were on the eve of the discovery of the music of the universe, and it would be found in the diatonic scale. It was difficult to believe that he wished to be taken seriously [...] He always carried with him an illustrated edition of Daudet’s delicious satire Tartarin of Tarascon and knew it so well that he came to look on Tartarin as a real hero. If his days and evenings were spent in such whimsies, his nights were serious ones. He was a great dreamer. In his dreams he was prone to loud mutterings, and was known to exclaim “I must shoot that lion”. He suffered from nightmares, and various ghosts would pass before him. He always awoke in a state of great excitement.’

This piece of whimsy explains nothing, of course; but it does hint at two relevant features of the work. Merryheart’s burlesque of Pythagorean mysticism is to be heard in his plain and forthright thematic complex, spun largely out of ascending and descending portions of the diatonic major scale. And although Daudet’s Tartarin (a minor Quixote, constantly getting into scrapes through his naïve boastfulness) only shoots a tame lion in his absurd expedition to Algeria, his imagination, like Merryheart’s, is incorrigibly romantic: though Merryheart’s dreams prove more Wagnerian than French. It is worth remarking that Brian himself was interested in dreams (which feature, with ghosts, to much more serious effect in his opera, The Tigers), so in his ‘overture’ he was satirising himself.

Merryheart’s ‘theme’, as already mentioned, is in fact a cluster of related motifs, mostly bits of scale, which at once pass in array [6]: at the very outset a repeated trilled flourish plus descending scale, in the upper registers, is presented simultaneously with a slower ascending-scale figure in the bass. Next comes a robust folk-songish rising-falling motif, then an abrupt fanfare-like figure in woodwind and trumpets (easily identifiable by its rhythm and touch of chromaticism), and finally a more grandiose idea in rather Brahmsian triplet motion—which leads, however, straight back to the opening flourish and the whole complex is repeated in more elaborate form and even fuller scoring. In the ensuing seven variations and finale Brian makes use of all these elements, in different combinations and transformations. Even the trill of the first theme becomes an independent element, and much play is made between diatonic and chromatic forms of scale. The handling of the (standard-size) orchestra is highly virtuosic, clearly the work of a composer eager to emulate the achievements of his two heroes: Elgar and Strauss. The variations have bilingual titles which enable us to follow ‘events’ as they unfold, though the programme remains tenuous and the music is perfectly capable of being enjoyed on its own terms.

Variation 1—Whimsies and Sunshadows (Grillen und Sonnenschatten) [7], capriciously intercuts lively but delicately-scored music (beginning on solo flute, which in several variations seems associated with the character of Merryheart) with a slower and more sententious religioso element, principally in the brass. This latter element eventually dislodges the music from the home key of E major. Most of the variations tend to end with anticipations of the next one, and here a brief transition on C leads into the D major of Smiles and Storms (Lächeln und Stürme).

This [8] is a debonair 6/8 Scherzo, all top hat and twirling cane, but assailed by the fanfare-figure and some kaleidoscopically elaborate invention. A sudden onset of profound calm leads back to E major and a ravishing Andante variation [9] entitled Dreams: Asleep in the Arms of Venus (Träume: Schlummernd in den Armen der Venus). Here the complex, sensuous orchestral texture, the melodic elements tenderly entwined and recumbent on a bank of muted, divided strings, the harmony warm yet innocent of over-ripe chromaticism, combine to create one of the most frankly romantic episodes in Brian’s entire oeuvre. But it comes to a mysterious pause, and a more agitated transition, featuring a cadenza-like flute solo, leads to G minor and dreams of a different kind.

Variation 4 is Merryheart as a chivalrous knight chases Bluebeard (Als ritterlicher Kämpe verfolgt Merryheart den Blaubart) [10]. Bluebeard’s rôle in the tale is anyone’s guess. This is a Molto vivace whose 3/4 gallop is jolted out of the saddle by interpolated bars of 4/4. Soon a stern E minor version of Merryheart’s fanfare appears and the rest of the variation is an Allegro maestoso passage of arms with a brief accelerando to a decisive climax. After which the music subsides into the depths where [11] Merryheart fights a dragon (Merryheart kämpft mit dem Drache). Does Brian’s tempo-marking of Allegro comodo for this variation contain, as John Grimshaw has suggested, a pun?—a commodious tempo with reference to that fearsome lizard, the Komodo Dragon? In fact Merryheart seems to avoid fighting: pizzicato strings, harp and muted brass tiptoe in the shadows while the dragon, recognizably a spawn of Fafner, grumbles around in F minor in the bass, and eventually appears to go to sleep. This is evidently justification enough for Variation 6, Merryheart leads a procession of heroes (Merryheart führt einem Zug Helden) [12], a solemn C major march in Brian’s noblest vein, closely related to the music of his near-contemporary symphonic poem In Memoriam (for release on Naxos 8.572461). It builds to a sumptuous climax, only to lead back to E major and straight into [13] Merryheart awakes (Merryheart ist wach). This seventh ‘variation’ is in fact a recapitulation of the original thematic complex, though in much lighter scoring than at its first appearance (the flute again taking the lead) until the Brahmsian triplet idea brings about the restatement, which is as full in its orchestration as before and breaks off at precisely the same place. This time, however, there is an unexpected switch to C major for The Dance of Merryheart (Merryhearts Tanz) [14], a freeform finale begun by piccolo and snare-drum, evoking the cheerful sound of pipe and tabor. Every element is passed in review in bustling merriment and orchestral bravura, the proceedings sticking obstinately to the ‘wrong’ (and ‘heroic’) key of C major until the very end, when Brian eventually pulls us up short, pitching Merryheart unceremoniously into his tonic E major in the final bar.

Over forty years later, questions of motivic development are to the fore once again in Symphony No. 11. Preceded by the grim and closely-argued trilogy of Symphonies Nos. 8–10, Brian’s 11th is clearly a work of relaxation, wholly unconventional in structure, idea following idea with what at first appears an artless spontaneity. The spirit of the divertimento seems to inform it: yet the sustained exploitation of basic motivic cells is as resourceful as in its grittier predecessors, while the ideas themselves are of genuinely symphonic stature—above all the opening movement, which enthusiasts for Brian’s music have long admired as one of his most beautiful inspirations. He composed Symphony No. 11 in 1954, just at the time when his music was beginning to attract the attention of the BBC through the efforts first of Eric Warr and then of Robert Simpson. Symphony No. 11 received a studio runthrough by the BBC Scottish Orchestra as early as 1956, and this was followed by its official first performance and broadcast three years later by the London Symphony Orchestra under Harry Newstone. Despite its lasting effect on the memory of listeners, the work was not played again until the making of the present disc.

On Symphony No. 11’s title page, Brian defined its basis as two musical ‘mottos’—a diatonic phrase and its answer. This basic form of the ‘mottos’ is heard for the first time in the horns at the opening of the second movement; but shorn of the octave leap they are present from the very beginning of the Adagio first movement [15], and they determine the shape of many larger thematic ideas throughout the symphony, often being found in retrograde or inversion.

The Adagio is one of Brian’s most profound inspirations: a slow, seamless web of elegiac polyphony, with none of his habitual sudden changes of direction. In this calm, fixed stare upon a mystery, phrase answers and dovetails with phrase, the whole movement growing organically from its opening bar and articulated primarily by the ebb and flow of tensions within the harmony. The even-crotchet motion is undisturbed until the closing moments: nothing essentially disturbs the contemplative mood, though there are two short-lived dynamic peaks—the first, with a Brucknerian cymbal-crash, is followed by a lyrical violin solo—before the movement evanesces upon a repeated F on the flutes.

As the second movement follows without a break [16] this becomes a quick jogging rhythm for flutes, harps and percussion (a faint reminiscence, which Brian said was intentional, of the opening of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony), and forms a background to a long cheerful tune on four horns, beginning with the basic form of the ‘mottoes’. If the first movement is one of Brian’s most unified and sustained in mood, the second is one of his most diverse and capricious, with a profusion of contrasted ideas (most of them relating in different ways to the ‘mottos’), persistently derailed by interruptions and changes of direction. Writing before the 1959 broadcast Robert Simpson noted the music’s tendency to slip from action into contemplation, ‘so relaxed that it appears to fall from time to time into a brown study’. In a sense it is a scherzo that becomes a slow movement: an idea which Brian had already used for the third movement of his Seventh Symphony (though there the division into two halves is much more clear-cut). Yet there is so much incident along the way that the central movement of No. 11 really creates its own form, one not to be judged by outside criteria. It cannot be hurried, and the various ideas must be savoured for themselves.

Thus the developments of the horn tune which ensue are interrupted by slower-tempo episodes, and themselves are progressively transformed into material of quite different character. Presently the music takes on a distinctly archaic (and perhaps ironic) minuet-like air [17], which leads to a highly expressive Adagio section and then a series of mock-sententious exchanges between woodwind and strings. The jocular scherzo character reasserts itself [18], only to lapse once more into the ‘minuet’ vein (with different, less ‘old-fashioned’ material). More lyrical ideas blossom on the horns, and the final section of the movement [19] is a warm and sustained Andante espressivo teneramente, beginning with an augmentation of the first ‘motto’ and recalling something of the mood of the first movement—though it is the horn theme and its consequences which are being radiantly metamorphosed here. An extended coda, more lightly scored but with celesta joining the harps, contentedly alludes to the minuet character, and the movement ebbs almost to a stop. The original jogging rhythm has become a slow ringing of sleigh bells; the ‘mottos’ quietly have the last word in cellos and basses.

This dreamy mood is swept away by the short finale [20], which after an introductory fanfare from brass and percussion turns out to be an ebullient march in E major—the opposite end of the spectrum from the B flat/F regions in which the Symphony began. Before long, however, the march makes way for a grazioso country dance [21] which serves as a central episode in Brian’s rare pastoral vein, and adds to the mood of relaxation explored in so many ways by this thoroughly unorthodox symphony. The march returns [22] almost verbatim, but is shortened: brass fanfares spur the music to an expansive coda, in which the last recognizable allusion to the ‘mottos’ appears on trumpets and trombones before the symphony ends in a triumphant blaze of E major.

A similarly triumphal note is sounded at the very opening of Brian’s Symphony No. 15, composed between February and April of 1960. Like the Symphony No. 11 this is among its composer’s most relaxed and extrovert symphonic creations (which is not to call either of them ‘light’); but whereas Symphony No. 11 began in deep meditation, No. 15 opens with pageantry and ceremonial. In a letter Brian called it ‘a work of power and tenderness’ with a ‘jocund dance’ for finale. Its major-mode diatonicism, the optimistic magnificence of address from which Brian extracts both humour and grandeur, marks this symphony as a distant descendant of Doctor Merryheart, and makes it unique among the group of five one-movement symphonies, Nos. 13 to 17, which he composed between October 1959, and January 1961.

Like all this group except Symphony No. 17, it employs a very large orchestra (including quadruple woodwind, six horns, four trumpets, four trombones, euphonium, tuba, celesta, two harps, and a big percussion section); and like the other odd-numbered symphonies its overall design suggests three movements have been subsumed into a single balanced sequence. (Symphony No. 14 has a four-part shape, and Symphony No. 16 an altogether more complex multi-sectional form.) Within the whole group, however, only Symphony No. 15 lacks a slow introduction. Instead a Maestoso e marcato processional sounds forth immediately [23] without any preliminaries.

This grand, rather Handelian theme, especially the opening figure with its festal dotted rhythms, dominates the work like a motto. To a degree unusual in Brian’s symphonies, the music is centred on this single entity, especially during the first section: yet he handles it with tremendous resourcefulness, continuously changing its harmonisation and modifying its character and context. It is heard in many forms throughout the first part of the symphony, which has something of the character of a victory-parade. Altogether this music has much in common with the comically overloaded ceremonial with which Brian depicts the Chinese imperial court in his opera Turandot, yet the hubris and over-inflation of the triumphal mood, with its massively full orchestration, is continually being undercut and gently mocked by contrasts of texture and sudden reductions of scoring to only a few instruments. Occasionally a more reflective, even serious atmosphere seems to establish itself—for instance at [24], with an anxious melody over an ostinato in harp and timpani, or [25], with new material over a nagging, restless bass rhythm—but always we return to the martial parade until, after the biggest tutti of all, a mysterious transition for harps, celesta, pitched percussion, and solo woodwind leads to the symphony’s second main span.

This does duty for a slow movement. Beginning Cantabile e espressivo molto [26], the flowing, lyrical melody announced by clarinet is closely related to the opening material and the music is soon invaded by reminiscences, admittedly less bumptious, of the first-section parade, including an expressive horn solo with flute and glockenspiel counterpoints. Brass introduce [27] a solemn return of the symphony’s opening theme, richly harmonised, and there are further instrumental solos before the cantabile theme returns. Glockenspiel and muted horns now lead to the final ‘jocund dance’, Allegro con brio.

The main theme [28] is a simplified variant of the opening processional, but fitted to 6/4 time, its clipped dactylic rhythm substituting for the dotted rhythm of the processional theme. This subject is played off against various smoother, more waltz-like ideas in a grandiose display of high spirits, massive tutti textures again alternating capriciously with lightly-scored ensemble writing, while the timpani have a prominent rôle both rhythmically and melodically. Finally a version of the processional theme itself returns as a concluding fanfare, and the symphony ends in the resplendent A major with which it began.


Malcolm Macdonald


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