Havergal Brian: Epic.


I am ready to offer my two cents on the Havergal Brian Gothic Symphony. I realize I am incredibly late to the party, considering the ballyhooed performance under Martyn Brabbins was almost 50 Proms ago; I wasn’t ready then, but no worries. No one has written extensively about the performance and the music. Certainly not this, or this, or this, or this) . Stay tuned for my upcoming feature on one Jerusalem rabbi who claims to be the son of God and the legion of followers he seems to be developing. THIS IS EXCLUSIVE SHIT, I THINK!

Now then, the title of this blog post contains one of my favorite words (hint: you’re not going to believe this, but it isn’t Havergal). I use the word epic all the time to describe everything from the song “Goodbye Train” by Big Sugar to Thai food to noteworthy sexual encounters. But according to my friend Webster, epic is actually defined as “heroic; majestic; impressively great” and “of unusually great size or extent.” And it is by that definition that I ascribe the word to Havergal Brian and his gargantuan 1st Symphony.

Since I’ve been in the habit of making bullet-pointed lists of late, I might as well go back to the well again for a few observations about the Gothic:

  • From the perspective of a recording 5600 miles and a month and a half away, I did not get the sense of musical frustration that many commentators have noted; there weren’t many points of great release, but there were at least a few spots where the music really exploded
  • Whether or not Brian has anything truly original to say, he did an impressive job amalgamating a soundworld all his own. Perhaps in the 1920’s, when it was composed, or in the 1960’s, when it was premiered, its lack of blazing originality would have been something to pick on. But in 2011, music is nothing but amalgamation, a mashup of three or four elements from history packaged together. We haven’t come up with a new style in 30 years. I’m certainly not saying that Havergal Brian knew this day was coming, but if ever there was a giant symphonic orgy for our times, it might as well be this.
  • I was very impressed by his orchestration abilities, which reminded me a bit of his good friend Granville Bantock. The brass writing in particular was superb, and there was a surprising clarity in some of the big sections.
  • I still can’t decide if the choral writing is the best, most adventurous writing of all-time or the worst amateur bullshit I’ve ever heard. I’m not sure there’s a middle ground.
  • For all its faults, it was a journey, and that can be satisfying in its own way. I find Gurrelieder to be similarly overblown in spots, but I never feel like I wasted my time at the end of it. Brian was able to create an experience, of that I have no doubt.

Many efforts have been made to try and find a mainstream work that bears a resemblance to Brian’s massive creation. Mahler’s Symphony no. 8 is the most common answer, although Ken Woods’ likening it to the Berlioz Requiem is a much better one. However, there’s an even better answer, in my opinion: Lawrence of Arabia.

If we accept a few basic premises behind these two works of art, we can see the similarities. First, they deal with tremendously interesting subjects (the Gothic as an elaborate introduction and setting of the Te Deum, Lawrence of Arabia as the story of the famous British soldier who led forces in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks). Second, they are entirely too God damn long (Brian’s Symphony checks in at an hour and 48 minutes in the recent Proms performance, Lawrence of Arabia lasts an excruciating 216 minutes). Third, each work has one annoying flaw that sticks out above all others to kind of drive you nuts (the almost impossible intonation demands in the choral writing in the symphony, Peter O’Toole’s accent that sounds like a snooty Project Runway contestant). Fourth, and most importantly, the best elements are the ones that don’t involve the primary forces (the orchestral writing is vastly more engaging than the Te Deum setting in Gothic, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, and Omar Fucking Sharif in LofA).

The irony of Brian’s symphony is not lost on me; a work of maddening complexity that moves from D minor to E major and constantly undercuts itself ending with chorus intoning the words  “non confundar in aeternum” (“let me never be confounded”) is like rain on your wedding day, or a no smoking sign on your cigarette break, maybe even a free ride when you’ve already paid. This is the problem with the great unknown, though: we don’t know if the joke is on us or not. Was Havergal Brian a great composer who got lost in the shuffle of the 20th century? Or was he the most audacious hack of all-time?

I don’t really know. For a composer who so rarely got the positive feedback of a performance, he has a staggering output, and it’s a credit to his will that he kept writing in the face of rejection. So what if his most famous work is best known for its place in the Guinness Book of World Records? I’m reminded of the words of Captain Jack Sparrow when told by Norrington that he was, without doubt, the worst pirate he’d ever heard of: “But you have heard of me.” If nothing else, the Gothic Symphony gets his name out there, and maybe gets somebody to check out some other symphonies of his. That’s not so bad, either.


5 thoughts on “Havergal Brian: Epic.

  1. The ‘Gothic’ is a fascinating piece. It holds my attention, which is the real test, all stylistic and “originality” issues aside. It seems like Brian put all of his stuff into this one piece. There are many more symphonies by the guy, but they only sporadically offer the same amount of fizz. Most of the others (and I haven’t heard them all), tend to have very striking opening material and closing material, but sag interminably in “the middle.” I’d agree that the piece is much closer to Berlioz’ ‘Requiem’ than Mahler 8. The ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ notion is intriguing, and probably correct, though I haven’t seen it in forever. I disagree on one point, however: I think it’s been twenty years since we had a new style.

  2. I agree about it holding it my attention. I never wavered much at all from being focused on it, and that is indeed a testament to its quality.

  3. Thank you for your refreshing view of The Gothic. I love ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, but would never have linked it with Brian’s First. It is a striking leap, but intriguing. Looking at the source of the film: T.E. Lawrence was ‘made’ by the First World War (but in Arabia). So was Brian. I appreciate the fact you listened to the piece with an unbiased ear. As for Brian’s other symphonies, I know them all, but they take more time to digest. There are some masterly creations among them (5, 6, 8, 10, 16, 27, 30…). The Gothic is a real blockbuster, though, that sweeps you along.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Johan. I have every intention of trying out some of Brian’s other orchestral music, if for no other reason than my positive impression of his orchestration skills. I have officially written your list on a sticky note and will begin my quest shortly. Thanks again for stopping by and for the recommends!

  5. Pingback: 20 thoughts on the Top 20 conductors « Everything But The Music

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