Rarely have i felt the need to prepare so thoroughly before a concert as i did prior to yesterday evening’s Prom performance of Havergal Brian‘s Symphony No. 1 ‘Gothic’. Books were re-read, CDs were re-listened to, and i even re-visited the writings of John Ruskin, who wrote with such authority about the nature of Gothic. The enterprise felt similar to the preparations for a lengthy trek over difficult and taxing terrain, but such is the nature of the musical landscape of Brian’s symphony. At the outset, i suppose, one must tackle the elephant in the room. Except, of course, it’s nothing of the kind; for weeks on end, one commentator after another has been getting in an excited lather at the size of the Gothic Symphony. “Gosh, it needs over 1,000 players” they coo; “Wow, it’s the longest symphony ever written”, they gush, as though mere scale was somehow a laudable trait or even an end in itself. Brian’s not alone in suffering from such witless gigantophilia; Sorabji, too, is seemingly forever spoken of in terms of the size of his output. Even Tom Service, the BBC’s boy scout-in-residence, could hardly remain still in his seat at yesterday’s performance, positively whooping with delight at the sheer colossality of it all. Some deep breaths and chill pills are clearly called for.
And yet, while the scale of Brian’s Gothic Symphony is of course the opposite of being all-important, it’s very far from being irrelevant. The outlandishness and utter impracticality are precisely what makes the symphony deserving of the epithet ‘gothic’. When Giles Gilbert Scott set about designing that other great English Gothic edifice, Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, he knew full well that there was absolutely no need for it to be as stupendously cavernous as it is. The blatant exaggeration of its dimensions goes way beyond such a notion as mere function, instead becoming something entirely different, an integral part of its nature and character, of its architectural ‘language’, if you like. Set beside the Gothic Symphony, that building seems quite a close relation, but one could argue that an equally close parallel, dating from precisely the same period as the composition of the Gothic, is the utopian expressionist architecture that sprang up throughout Europe in the wake of the First World War. While no-one would describe the designs of Bruno Taut or Erich Mendelsohn as “gothic”, they nonetheless demonstrate a preparedness to discard the traditions and formalities of their art if their imagination felt so inclined. Brian may have been completely unaware of these developments in Europe, but his own psychological imperative for the Gothic could well have sprung from a not dissimilar outlook. Somewhere between these two, traditionalist gigantism and fancy-free expressionism, we find the mindset that may have existed within the head of Havergal Brian around 1919.
Around a century earlier, Berlioz showed (in his Grande messe des morts) that there really were times when you simply had to have four separate brass bands, 16 timpani and 10 pairs of cymbals (the last of which, it should be stressed, play together for just a single note in the entire piece). Strauss, Wagner, Mahler (late) and Schoenberg (early) clearly agreed with this sentiment, and Brian’s first symphony is essentially the last in a gradual expansion of resources to ever more monumental ends. These days, with orchestras struggling even to keep going for lack of funds, such a massive entity as the Gothic Symphony seems almost a curiosity from a rather more mental time, which perhaps, in part, accounts for the excitable reactions in response to news of its imminent performance. So yes, it’s big, there’s no denying that, and its size is awesome and exhilarating; but ultimately, it’s big for deeper and more meaningful reasons than simply to elicit gasps of amazement; its size is part and parcel of its sonic identity and expressive language.
With more than a nod to Mahler, Havergal Brian structures the symphony in two parts, each of which contains three movements. The shorter, instrumental first part, lasting around 40 minutes, is almost worthy of symphony status by itself; the much larger second part, lasting around 70 minutes, introduces the choir for a large-scale setting of one of the Church’s oldest hymns, the Te Deum.
The first movement is composed with sonata form broadly in mind, but swiftly demonstrates a curious take on it. Having established a strong, martial first subject, Brian abruptly brings the orchestra to a stop, barely a minute into the piece (something he does numerous times throughout the work). The completely contrasting second subject, almost saccharine in its sweetness, dissipates all that initial energy and, moreover, leaves the first subject a very distant memory. In short, Brian milks the second subject dry, and some minutes pass before any genuine momentum is re-established. It’s worth noticing at the outset how delicate Brian is with the number of instruments at his command, often reducing the material to small groups of players, regularly allowing solo instruments space to present an idea. The structure’s not merely lopsided, either; at the conclusion of the development, an entirely new theme is introduced (on oboe d’amore and bass oboe)—as sonata form goes, this is all playing pretty fast and loose with its guiding principles. But, as mentioned above, that’s partly the point of a ‘gothic’ symphony; John Ruskin describes this very aspect in his Nature of Gothic:
And it is one of the chief virtues of the Gothic builders that they never suffered ideas of outside symmetries and consistencies to interfere with the real use and value of what they did. If they wanted a window, they opened one; a room, they added one; a buttress, they built one; utterly regardless of any established conventionalities of external appearance, knowing (as indeed it always happened) that such daring interruptions of the formal plan would rather give additional interest to its symmetry than injure it. So that, in the best times of Gothic, a useless window would rather have been opened in an unexpected place for the sake of the surprise, than a useful one forbidden for the sake of symmetry.
By contorting the conventions of sonata form, Havergal Brian is simply demonstrating one of the most fundamental principles of ‘gothic’.
The symphony turns away from brilliance in the second movement, which begins funereally, in irregular metre. The music gradually builds, becoming increasingly forceful, even aggressive, but the sense of this being a processional is ever present. Around halfway through, an excited episode begins in hopping woodwinds and pizzicato strings; the basses and brass join in, and the whole is briefly reminiscent of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. Nonetheless, despite all that will come later, this movement features some of the symphony’s most stately and moving material. At its grandest moments, where the principal theme is writ increasingly large, the melancholy is all enveloping (a melancholy that will prove significant as the symphony progresses), an immense chorale commemorating some incomprehensible loss. Understandably, the music returns whence it began, the opening tuba motif returning to guide the movement through its soft, spent conclusion, finishing with a lonely bass clarinet at the nadir of its range.
Beginning the third movement with a distant, driving pulse on the timpani brings the symphony’s opening notes to mind—and, once again, Brian no sooner establishes momentum than ruthlessly pulls the rug from under it. For a while, the instruments mooch around in the periphery, before the tubas launch an abrupt fortissimo passage that burns out after half a minute. What follows is brilliantly bizarre: a drum suggests a strange regular rhythm, ignored by the harps which focus on a leaping octave idea, while the tubas—in a passage worthy of Berlioz—descend chromatically through their pedal notes: B-flat – A – G-sharp – G. The rather wistful main theme keeps recurring, and a few minutes later, having been played twice, is answered by a deep ostinato in rough, heavy crotchets by the basses and contrabassoons. The latter half of the movement is among the most brazenly weird orchestral music you’re ever likely to encounter. Out of nowhere, development begins, the orchestra seeming to fragment into a myriad shards, each picking up and running with bits of material from earlier, or, just as likely, snippets we’ve not yet heard. The closing minutes, fixed above a relentless, lolloping pulse, are a nerve-wracking dithyramb; the descending pedal notes return, while the xylophone seems determined to play itself to death. In now familiar fashion, Brian pulls the plug, and Part One of the Gothic Symphony closes with a quietness and delicacy that’s almost a bit unnerving considering all that was happening just minutes earlier.
If the previous three movements prove to be a difficult and convoluted triptych, they are as nothing to the complexities Brian will put forth in Part Two, which begins immediately (Brian intended there to be no breaks between any of the movements) with the choir singing the opening lines of the Te Deum. The voices continue unaccompanied for a couple of minutes, yielding to the four soloists momentarily. Horn calls initiate the orchestra’s return, dominated by fortissimo repeated notes, and leading to the first great tutti statement: “Te æternum Patrem omnis terra veneratur”. Melody assumes incredible importance as the movement progresses, but Brian chooses to embed them all into what is surely one of the most complex bits of polyphony ever composed. Malcolm MacDonald has described this episode better than i could, “[It] is not to say there are no recognisable tunes: there are scores of them. But they often appear no more than once; are not developed in any way; and at best have merely ‘local’ significance. They are the passing manifestations of a free-wheeling, untrammelled, and inexhaustibly fertile process of invention” (The Symphonies of Havergal Brian, p. 44). For a full five minutes this dense texture is maintained, before a brief slab of fanfare heralds another unaccompanied passage, lengthy, soft and searching (“Patrem immensæ majestatis”). The return of the orchestra leads through some of the movement’s most convoluted textures, becoming clarified in the repeated note motif that introduces a massive triadic yell of “Tu Rex Gloriæ Christe”. Again, the choir takes control, and while the music oscillates between dynamic extremes, some of the quieter moments are powerfully telling, such as the quiet, downward-tending melismas at “non horruisti Virginis uterum”, and the final word, “Patris”, causing the large tutti instantly to reduce to a more reverential tone, ending the movement.
A mere four words occupy the fifth movement: “Judex crederis esse venturus” (‘we believe you will come to be our judge’), beginning in an expanding series of rich, shining clusters for the opening word. Interpolated by high writing for the solo soprano, this develops into a web of melodic invention that defies all attempts to extricate individual lines. Brian now gives the choir a lengthy rest; a brass fanfare builds, halts for a horn solo, before a huge, rather laborious orchestral episode dominated by the brass; after a few minutes of this comes one of the symphony’s most momentous passages. In another tip of the hat to Berlioz, Brian has an additional four brass bands distinct from the main orchestra. One by one, together with one of the choruses, these now explore the entire four-word phrase, each rendition unique from the others; they’re separated by rather grand lengthy strands of melody in the strings. Buoyed up by such bold statements, the orchestra embarks on a slow but steady crescendo towards a series of large surges; rudely curtailed, it begins again, this time with the full force of the singers on board, culminating in a dizzying, devastatingly loud tutti (the orchestra actually drowning out the organ!), the apocalypse hinted at in the text seeming rather close at hand, the closing notes made yet more frightening by the presence of a rattling bird-scare.
A little over two hours into the work, it’s a little daunting to contemplate that the sixth and final movement—the longest, lasting over half an hour—still lies ahead. It opens simply enough, with a tenor aria (“Te ergo quæsumus”), supported by a quorum from the orchestra. As the tenor’s line becomes increasingly fraught and chromatic, the orchestra finally overwhelms him, the brass letting rip in a full-blooded fanfarish exclamation. Calm is restored, the tenor resumes, this time leading to a new section in much faster tempo, and the return of the choir. Brian pulls things back again, this time for the soprano soloist, surrounded on all sides by plucked strings and cascading woodwinds. The choir assumes control, and leads the material to the movement’s first big climax, Brian reaching for his trusty xylophone to hammer the point home. The orchestra retreats for a few minutes, the male voices providing the focus, culminating in the impassioned plea, “Salvum fac populum tuum” (‘O Lord, save thy people’). The texture lightens afterward, waxing briefly, but quieting to a delightfully tonally ambiguous rendering of “Per singulos dies benedicimus te” in the upper voices. Then comes probably the most shockingly oblique shift in mood in the entire work: over a steady pulse, a jolly march-like tune is begun by the clarinets. Over many minutes, this march subsumes everyone, leading to a series of militaristic climaxes (cue the xylophone), the choir’s angular melody becoming increasingly outlandish. The clarinet melody returns to quash the mood, transitioning to an emotive aria for the bass solo (“Dignare, Domine”), heavily reinforced by the strings. Interrupted by a grand brass phrase that could almost have been lifted from the last movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the bass continues to the point where the upper voices begin a beautiful new idea at “In te, Domine speravi” (‘O Lord, in thee have I trusted’), words that foretell that the end is in sight. An exquisite double fugue ensues, Brian slowly, irrevocably pushing the material in an increasingly melancholic direction; this is heard emphatically as the strings take over from the voices. The final phrase, “non confundar in aeternum” (‘Never let me be confounded’) is at first projected as loudly and forcefully as possible, all drums blazing, brass everywhere, but in the present context, sounds deliberately forced, its confidence shaky. Two final, desperate surges can’t alter the reality of things; this symphony is going to end in a decidedly uncertain place; the heartfelt but ultimately downcast melody from, first, the cellos (a magical moment) and later a solo oboe tells a truer story. The choir’s final, unaccompanied phrase ends on an emphatically major triad, suggesting that, despite such fragility, hope remains.
i have little doubt that, for so many reasons, there will be those who find Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony to be perhaps the greatest compositional folly ever committed to paper. Its unwieldy structures, the stop-start mannerisms, the chopping and changing between disparate stylistic ideas, the gluttonous need for 1,000+ performers—all of these, and more, could be cited as evidence for a composer in search of a voice, or, at least, in search of a language. But i think that would be to misunderstand many things, not least of which Brian’s undeniable originality of thought, his interpretation of what ‘gothic’ really means, the historical context in which he was composing, both within England and the wider world. Whatever else you might say about it, the Gothic Symphony is conclusive, indefatigable, triumphant proof that there is very, very much more to early 20th century English music than the endless parade of oratorios trotted out by our nation’s keen but ultimately narrow-minded collection of choral societies.
The BBC deserves kudos upon kudos for going to the ridiculous lengths it must have required to stage the Gothic. Martyn Brabbins really ought to receive a medal for managing to martial over 1,000 performers, and while the choirs occasionally proved to be the most noticeable let-down (hearing 800+ singers go flat is rather glaring), it would be churlish to describe their achievement in such challenging music as anything but a success. But the greatest success of all must go to the anonymous engineers who managed to get the balance so incredibly right in the broadcast. This is by the far the clearest rendition of the Gothic Symphony ever heard; the Naxos recording—previously the benchmark for the work—has finally met its match.
It perhaps goes without saying that Havergal Brian still had much to learn when he composed this symphony. It was, after all, merely the first in no fewer than 32 that the composer would write through the rest of his life. It is, undoubtedly, flawed, but i think that need take nothing away from its worth and indeed its rank as a masterpiece of the symphonic form. In this regard, perhaps the final word is best left to John Ruskin:
It seems a fantastic paradox, but it is nevertheless a most important truth, that no architecture can be truly noble which is not imperfect. […] accurately speaking, no good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of misunderstanding of the ends of art.
Havergal Brian – Symphony No. 1 ‘Gothic’
**audio links removed – this recording is now available as a commercial CD, here **
Prior to the concert, Sarah Walker presented an edition of Proms Plus exploring the Gothic Symphony, including excerpts from the CD and passages played by soloists from the orchestra; it’s a useful introduction to the work for those unfamiliar with it.
In a rather nice coincidence with my own thoughts, following the broadcast, the continuity announcer relates some passages of John Ruskin from the very book i’ve quoted above. It makes for an interesting post-concert reflection.