Prom 4 – Christopher Gunning, who sang in the very first performance, revisits Havergal Brian’s ‘Gothic’ Symphony

Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 1 in D minor, ‘The Gothic’ : Susan Gritton (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Peter Auty (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass), CBSO Youth Chorus, Eltham College Boys’ Choir, Southend Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs, Bach Choir, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Brighton Festival Chorus, Côr Caerdydd, Huddersfield Choral Society, London Symphony Chorus, BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, 17.7.2011 (CG)

Anyone approaching the ‘Gothic’ Symphony, whether as a performer or listener, is apt to feel somewhat daunted as well as excited. There are two main reasons; firstly, it is reputedly the largest symphony ever composed, both in terms of length and the number of performers required, and secondly it was composed by a man whose music remains largely unknown. So, if it’s not popular, does it mean there’s something seriously wrong with it? Try suggesting that to the band of indefatigable enthusiasts working under the banner of the Havergal Brian Society, which has tirelessly sought to promote Brian’s music! The very first thing anyone should do in a quest for greater knowledge is call up their website. It’s a treasure trove of information and their efforts are obviously gaining in effect; tonight’s performance was sold out on the first day of booking. The ‘Gothic’ has become a cult piece, probably as much talked about as any British symphony, yet only performed once in a blue moon.

My own relationship with the ‘Gothic’ began in 1961, when yours truly was a spotty seventeen year old singing in the choir of Hendon Grammar School, which took part in the very first performance at the Central Hall Westminster, conducted by Brian Fairfax. What do I remember of that? After fifty years, not a huge amount, other than that it was a hell of a racket and that the small grey composer wandered about nonchalantly during rehearsals; was he really the person who composed such fantastically bombastic music? He had waited an awfully long time for this, for it was completed in 1927 after eight years of painstaking work. By the time of this first performance he had composed another fifteen symphonies, and there were another seventeen to come – thirty-two in all, and that’s without a host of other orchestral works, half a dozen operas, three concertos, and a fair number of choral, vocal and instrumental works, some of which are sadly lost. In other words, Brian was super-prolific. And curiously, he didn’t seem to be quite as despondent as others that his music remained largely unperformed. For him, the glory was mainly in the industry of creation; beside that, all else mattered less. What a truly romantic notion of the artist.

And yet, to paint Brian as a recluse who disdained the world outside would be wholly unfair and inaccurate. Brian was not a composer writing way-out music that nobody could hope to understand in his own lifetime – far from it. His music is accessible, though beware – that doesn’t mean it’s simple, let alone trite. He was a man anxious to communicate, while of necessity doing things in very much his own way. His copious writings for journals, especially Musical Opinion, of which he became assistant editor, indicate that he very much wished to take his part in the musical life of his nation. He was friendly with a great many musical luminaries of the day, including Elgar, Granville Bantock, Henry Wood and Thomas Beecham, but because his compositions would never provide him with a real income, he was forced to work as a musical copyist and journalist and took various menial jobs unconnected with music. His own work, then, had to be done largely at night. It’s a pretty shocking story, and one which the British musical establishment should take to heart. It’s all very well to congratulate the BBC on tonight’s ‘Gothic’ (and I do) but when he died at 96 in 1972 most of his music was still unperformed and there were no recordings at all. Had it not been for his friend at the BBC, fellow symphonist Robert Simpson, one might say his music would be even less-known; Brian’s music was not popular with others in charge at the BBC, but Simpson was able to use his influence to gain some performances.

Tonight, at the Royal Albert Hall, anyone passing would have known that something unusual was happening. Outside, there was a long queue stretching towards the Royal College of Music of ladies and gentlemen in black – the choir! Apparently there were some eight hundred of them. There was another queue of children. And many more musicians than usual were sauntering up to the artist’s entrance. Once inside the building, there were more crowds milling about – I don’t suppose the hall has ever been busier. And what a thrill it was to see the choir assembling inside, filling all the available space to the left and right of the organ pipes. The massive orchestra was crammed onto the concert platform, only just fitting, and then the four brass groups were stationed in the stalls seats to left and right, as well as the two choirs of children. The sense of expectation was quite incredible.

And so it started; immediately apparent was that this was to be a wholly confident and authoritative performance. Rumour already had it that Martyn Brabbins actually loves the work, and throughout the next couple of hours there wasn’t a beat out of place. He guided his army of musicians faultlessly with no excessive showiness – just damn fine conducting, which, given the nature of the beast, was no mean feat. There’s everything in this symphony; Part One, encompassing the first three movements, is purely orchestral and Faustian, while Part Two is a choral Te Deum in three parts. Thus, the ‘Gothic’ shares a feature of Beethoven’s Ninth – the choral music is reserved for the end, although with Brian we are in far grander mode.

The first movement plunges you straight into Brian’s world, and a mighty strange one it is too. In a broad sonata form, it is notable for its fluidity as various contrasting ideas rub shoulders with one another, rather abruptly at times, but with some simply wonderful orchestral colours and details. Until you are used to Brian’s world, you notice the influences (Richard Strauss, certainly, Vaughan Williams a little, and so on) but after a while you realise that Brian had absorbed just about everything available to him and created his very own chocolate box, using all his means to create enormously dramatic effects. For instance, there’s a truly extraordinary moment at the end of the first movement when the full might of the organ suddenly bursts in for the first time; it’s absolutely earth-shattering!

With the second movement, we’re in sterner territory with some severe counterpoint and fluctuating tonalities, all in 5/4 time. Some of it reminded me of Shostakovich. It leads directly into the third movement, with some of the most frankly bizarre music of the whole piece. A lot of it is positively warlike, and there’s a completely off-the-wall episode featuring the xylophone and accompanying orchestral shrieks, which is unlike any other passage I know in music. Towards the end of the movement, on came the soloists for Part Two of the symphony; simultaneously the choir stood and the lights went up – it was a stupendously theatrical moment, and soon we were fully engaged in the Te Deum.

Although the forces are huge, it shouldn’t be imagined that Brian’s ‘Gothic’ is monumental throughout; in fact he often uses colours sparingly. The first movement of the Te Deum is about praise; there’s glorious music here, and the four soloists and four choirs filled the Albert Hall with beautiful sounds; the music wheels around and around becoming ever more triumphant. It is with the second movement of the Te Deum when Brian pulls off an absolute master-stroke with the four choirs combining to create a strange and most beautiful bitonal effect; meanwhile the solo soprano (a radiant Susan Gritton) sings the whole text, and then the choirs launch into another extraordinary passage of biting dissonances, followed by fanfares for the orchestra and the four bands, and the movement churns away to a massive climax with the full forces proclaiming E major.

The last movement, the longest, contains some of the most contrasting music – sometimes gently lyrical with an expressive tenor solo (Peter Auty in fine form), sometimes dance-like, sometimes marching, sometimes plain dramatic, and sometimes highly contrapuntal. Alastair Miles sang his bass solo superbly well, and then Brian treated us to yet more of his extraordinary master-strokes towards the end of the movement and the symphony; six timpanists bashing away with all the brass players blowing furiously – it’s hair-raising! But then there’s a quietly passionate solo line for the cellos and finally the music settles into E major. It’s a GREAT ending: ‘Non confundar in aeternum’ (‘let me never be confounded’.)

I have already indicated that the performance was quite superb – quite probably the best so far, although I have yet to hear the recent performance given in Australia. Boult’s reading of it, in 1967, (now available on CD – review) apparently contains errors in the score. Ole Schmidt performed a corrected version in 1980, and there is a recording by Lenard with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra which has been generally well received (review). What a great pity it is that the BBC did not televise tonight’s concert! It would have made a fascinating DVD, and the controllers need a rap over the knuckles for missing a golden opportunity. One can hope that in the fullness of time they will issue a CD.

Critics have expressed varying opinions of the work; reading between the lines, some have found it completely baffling, while others have found it absurdly over the top, and some consider it a work of genius. What do I think? I think it’s remarkable, often beautiful and sometimes glorious, and always, especially in a live performance like this, completely riveting. If I have a worry, it’s that Brian’s own basic material may not quite have the sheer weight that a work of these dimensions demands to give real continuity of thought. But I will listen again to this performance (it’s available online for the next seven days) and get to know it better.

In general, then, a very successful evening with only one cause for serious regret; that William Havergal Brian was not present to hear it and receive the ovation which followed.

Christopher Gunning