About this Recording
8.572833 - BRIAN, H.: Symphonies Nos. 22, 23, 24 / English Suite No. 1 (New Russia State Symphony, A. Walker)

Havergal Brian (1876–1972)
Symphonies Nos 22, 23 and 24 • English Suite No 1


The English composer Havergal Brian had an unusually long creative career, as can be illustrated by the fact that the three symphonies on this disc were composed almost 60 years after the other work, his first English Suite. Yet though they are stylistically far apart, the same rugged individuality can be sensed in the early work just as much as the late.

Over some five decades Brian composed five orchestral suites that he designated as his English Suites Nos 1–5. English Suite No 1 was one of his first works to be performed and to bring his name before a wider public; it is cast as a vivid series of vignettes of aspects of village or country-town life in his native Staffordshire and neighbouring Shropshire. (According to a January 1907 article in The Staffordshire Sentinel, Brian first had the idea of composing the Suite while attending a country fair in Market Drayton.) Until recently it was not possible to put a precise date on the composition of this first English Suite, but examination of Havergal Brian’s contemporary correspondence with his friend the critic Ernest Newman has revealed that it was begun most probably in late December 1905, and that it was finished shortly before 19 March 1906. The second and third movements, however, are founded on a pre-existing work written some three years earlier.

In a letter of 15 January 1906 Brian announced to Newman that he was at work on the Suite, which he described as “a sort of English ‘Carnival’” (probably in reference to the Dvořák overture) that would be suitable for amateur or ‘scratch’ orchestras. He listed its six movements, and said that he had followed Newman’s advice and taken Tchaikovsky’s Caisse-Noisette (The Nutcracker) as a model. He also declared the opening March to be “a picture of No 1 Berners Street” (the address of the music publishers Novello), but asked Newman not to make this public as he hoped to offer the work to Novello when it was completed! This is a sturdy, rather four-square movement: quite appropriate as in another context Brian said it depicted a village band. Introduced by a brass and timpani fanfare, the march proper begins with a bucolic woodwind tune, which is played off against a suaver melody in clarinet and strings. The march-tune is later heard in heavy augmentation in the brass.

The second and third movements, Valse and Under the Beech Tree, draw upon an unperformed earlier work, a Pastoral Intermezzo for small orchestra entitled Pantalon and Columbine, probably composed in 1902–03; as this is lost, we do not know how much the music was modified for incorporation in the Suite. The two movements play without a break, with a brief recall of the style and tempo of the Valse in the middle of Under the Beech Tree, creating a loosely dovetailed structure. The rather severe main tune of the Valse, with its more flamboyant episodes, may directly reflect the influence of the waltz in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony. The more whimsical romantic vistas of Under the Beech Tree, with its sudden changes of texture and hints of distant revelry, are altogether more prophetic of the later Brian.

Brian said that the remarkable fourth movement, which he entitled simply Interlude, was “an attempt to convey in sound the emotion which arose while gazing from the Hanchurch hills, in Staffordshire, in the direction of the Wrekin, in Shropshire, the whole country suffused in brilliant sunlight”. He confessed to Newman that, while composing, it was only with this movement that the Suite came alive for him, and he admitted that aspects of it were “experiments”. Unlike the other movements this is a shimmering, glistening essay in sonic impressionism, a real landscape in sound. There are no real themes, only motivic scraps. Celesta and harp add flecks and splashes of colour. The music seems entirely focussed on the contemplation of nature; as if in confirmation of this there emerges a haunting central episode, featuring solo flute, and entitled Pan.

The Hymn (“not a Methodist one”, Brian said to Newman) presents a noble, hymn-like melody in the brass, contrasted with rapt solo strings. It makes a solemn prelude to the merry-making of the final movement, Carnival. Here we have all the fun of the fair, graphically depicted with confidence and daring originality, using the largest orchestra of any of the movements. If the main theme reminds us again of Tchaikovsky (the finale of his Fourth Symphony?), some of the episodes look forward to what Stravinsky would do several years later with the Shrovetide Fair in Petrushka. There are passages subtitled The Dancers, Punch and Judy (muted trumpet and piccolo), The Sleeping Beauty and The Fat Woman; Brian also throws in fragments of God Save the King and The British Grenadiers along with high jinks in the percussion. It all makes a rousing, snook-cocking conclusion to this English Suite, and already looks forward to the burlesque opera The Tigers which Brian would begin composing in about ten years’ time.

Brian himself conducted the first performance with the Leeds Municipal Orchestra on 12 January 1907. It was his first experience of orchestral conducting (“How the devil and where the devil I obtained my nerve I know not”, he wrote to Newman), but the performance went off quite successfully even though the orchestra lacked the harp and celesta that the score calls for. However, it was the London performance which took place on 12 September 1907, conducted by Henry Wood as part of the Queen’s Hall Proms, which really brought Brian (short-lived) celebrity, as well as a patron and a publisher. The press recognized him as a composer of promise and originality—a verdict which would be amply confirmed by the great number of orchestral works he composed through six subsequent decades, even though he worked largely out of the public eye.

Over the course of his career Brian composed 32 symphonies. No less than 27 of those were written between the ages of 72 and 92, and some of them seem to form coherent groups in which particular compositional issues are pursued from one symphony to the next, successive works either continuing or rebutting their predecessors. One such group is Symphonies Nos 8–10 (composed 1949–1954), three works which Brian himself referred to as ‘brothers’ and which seem to constitute a trilogy. Another apparent trilogy or triptych is formed by Symphonies Nos 22–24, all composed within a nine-month period from December 1964 to August 1965. Brian did not give any overall description for the three, but the fact that he originally intended calling Symphony No 23 Symphonia grandis, as a kind of answer to No 22, Symphonia brevis, suggests he linked the two in his mind, and the strong sense of epilogue that occupies the latter half of Symphony No 24 is so clear and sustained that it seems to mark the end not just of this one work, but of a whole symphonic phase.

All three symphonies could be viewed to some extent as studies in march-rhythms, something Brian would take up again in the first movement of Symphony No 25 (Naxos 8.572641). Here, the second movement of No 22 and the first main section of No 24 are quite clearly marches, of quite different characters (that of No 22 in 3/4 time), while both movements of No 23, more similar in basic pulse, are infused with march-rhythms while also diverting into contrasting episodes that bring in many other elements.

Symphony No 22 certainly gives the impression of starting a new chapter in Brian’s late symphonism. He seems to have composed it in short score during early December 1964 and completed the full score on 8 January 1965. According to a letter he wrote on 14 December 1964 to his friend and champion Robert Simpson at the BBC, Brian had been originally been thinking of writing a work based on Sophocles’ Antigone or Oedipus at Colonus. This, his shortest symphony, displays all his later characteristics of drastic compression, inexhaustible polyphonic invention, oblique, allusive changes of mood, and a structure of developing variation, built on the continual metamorphosis of terse germinal figures rather than the repetition of themes. (To a greater or lesser extent, this could be said of all three symphonies.) But some features remain from his earlier works—the fondness for dogged march-rhythms, the sudden snatches of singing melody, the delight in massive orchestral sounds mingled with delicate, chamber-like combinations of a few instruments. This is still demonstrably the composer of English Suite No 1: his musical imagination is simply vastly more experienced, much quicker in motion, and incomparably richer.

While it is wholly satisfying as ‘pure’ music, Symphony No 22 seems to evoke a sense of strange landscapes and rumours of war. There are two movements, but the letter to Robert Simpson mentioned above makes clear that Brian originally thought of the work as being in “a continuous movement of ten minutes run” and only later divided it into two. It begins and ends in F minor. The first movement, Maestoso e ritmico, expands from first bar to last to form a single indivisible musical organism. It is best regarded as a brief exposition—with the up-rearing figure heard at the outset the most important element—that merges into a searching, intricate, stormy development, without any formal recapitulation. The tritone interval in the rising figure works its way into every aspect of the music, and imparts a mood of continual unrest, relaxing only a little in the soaring tune at the end.

The second movement, marked Tempo di Marcia e ritmico, follows without a break. It begins as a kind of mysterious nocturnal march in 3/4 time, with some uncanny scoring and little easing of the prevailing tension. Suddenly the first movement’s opening material crashes in (this could be regarded as the first movement’s ‘missing’ recapitulation, delayed to round off the whole work) and provokes a bitter, dissonant climax. A brief, lamenting epilogue ends with minatory brass and tolling timpani, a sonic image full of tension that seems to suggest the real struggle is still to come.

Presumably begun in late February 1965—not long after the composer’s 89th birthday—the short score of Symphony No 23, on which Brian initially thought of bestowing the subtitle Symphonia grandis, was completed on 2 March. After some revision, Brian turned to the full score, which he completed on 4 April. Like Symphony No 22, this work is in two movements, though in this case they are appreciably larger than those of the previous symphony. Though it begins in the F minor regions in which No 22 ended, No 23’s controlling tonality emerges as C major, in which both its movements end. The materials of both its movements have a strong kinship to those of the second movement of No 22, though there is no literal quotation and the mood is very different.

Compared to the predominantly nocturnal No 22, this seems much more a symphony of the cold light of day; and while the march-music in No 22 is a ghostly, atmospheric phenomenon, No 23 begins in outright martial mood. However, though warlike imagery does make an occasional appearance, the battle is more of a Blakeian ‘mental fight’, expressed through the continual metamorphosis of purely musical ideas and the wrestlings of taut contrapuntal lines. Into all this clamorous and fully-scored orchestral activity, however, Brian sets unexpected windows of lyricism, where the interest is centred on just a few instruments.

The first movement’s angry, strongly rhythmic Moderato introduction is dominated by horns and percussion, and sweeps swiftly into the main Allegro con anima tempo. Melodic shapes, though emphasized by massive scoring and percussion, are fluid, restless, continually remaking themselves as the movement forges onward. The first entry of the harp, however, brings a complete change of mood and texture, with various solo instruments held in a delicate tranquillo mood and rainbow colouring. This is no mere contrasting episode, however, but a subtle development of the materials already presented so forcefully. Hints of the returning march-tread begin to invade this island of calm, and eventually we return to the Allegro con anima tempo for an increasingly hectic span that is partly recapitulation, partly further development of the opening materials. It drives to an emphatic climax, followed by a quiet, almost matter-of-fact final cadence in C major.

The second movement then begins in C minor: an earnest and dark-hued utterance guided by a firmly moving bass line which contains what is probably the most important thematic element, to be heard countless times in different contexts. Though strife and struggle are the keynote of this movement also, there are nevertheless moments of relaxation, most notably a beautiful episode for two solo violins and muted strings. The strenuous, fully-scored ideas rise to a massive Largamente climax, after which the strings intone a grave and noble melody, quite unlike the taut, abrupt motifs which so much of the music has been working with. From here ensues a slow ascent, gaining in confidence all the while, to the symphony’s C major coda: the concluding fanfare-figures in trumpets, timpani and side-drums seem about to storm into a finale of triumphant rejoicing before it is suddenly cut short.

Brian seems to have reserved the ‘triumphant rejoicing’ for the last member of this symphonic group, Symphony No 24, which certainly opens with something of the sense of a victory-parade. This work was composed in short score during the second half of May 1965; when the full score was finished is not known, but it was certainly before 13 August, when Robert Simpson received it (in fact, two autograph copies of the score, in line with Brian’s usual practice) at the BBC. While Symphony No 22 is all about compression, No 24 is concerned with expansion and relaxation, and its materials often seem to be opened-out and diatonicized variants of motifs from the first movement of Symphony No 22.

Unlike the two previous, two-movement symphonies, No 24—actually the longest symphony of the three—has only one movement, but that movement divides into three sections: the outer two on a large scale, the central one much shorter. These three sections are themselves connected by two brief links. Brian actually designated No 24 a ‘Symphony in D major’ on its title-page, but though that is the tonal centre of the first two sections, the final section is more concerned with keys a semitone above and below D, beginning in E flat and concluding in D flat major. The first span (Allegro) is a brilliant fast march that conveys a real sense of elation and swift movement: not a formal ternary structure, but a process of continuous development, carried along in a strong 4-in-a-bar rhythm by ‘marching’ crotchet patterns (especially in the heavy brass) and admitting plenty of martial and ceremonial musical imagery. The mood, though, is on the whole much more positive than in the two previous symphonies. Though the textures, as always with Brian, are highly contrapuntal, they are less involved. The music breathes and flexes its muscles, and the bar-to-bar metamorphosis of motifs often displays a delightful sense of wit and fantasy.

A kind of recitative for the cellos links to a short, playful scherzo (Allegro) led off by solo bassoon: lightly and deftly scored, with infectious high spirits and a dance-like momentum. After this a fanfare for brass and percussion (Maestoso e marcato molto) proves to be the prelude to a valedictory Adagio—the only true ‘slow movement’ in these three symphonies—whose broad expressive sweep and wealth of singing melody constitute a moving epilogue to all the intense contrapuntal effort that went before. Lyrical expansion is at a premium here, as the music explores to the full a definite sense of fulfilment. Some darker areas are uncovered, but all is contained and assimilated within the prevailing benedictory mood. The coda, beginning quietly with a rising figure that is reminiscent of the opening of Symphony No 22, builds up to a final sense of heroic affirmation.

Malcolm MacDonald

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