Brian acquired a legendary status at the time of his rediscovery in the 1950s and 1960s for the number of symphonies he had managed to write - 32 (an unusually large number for any composer since Haydn or Mozart), of which eight were completed after the age of 90.
He is also notable for his creative persistence in the face of almost total neglect during the greater part of his long life. Even now none of his works can be said to be performed with any frequency, but few composers who have fallen into neglect after an early period of success have continued to produce so many serious and ambitious works so long after any chance of performance would seem to have gone for good.
In 1907 his first English Suite attracted the attention of Henry Wood who performed it at the London Proms. It was an overnight success and Brian obtained a publisher and performances for his next few orchestral works. Why he never succeeded in maintaining his success is a matter for debate, but it was probably due to his shyness with strangers and lack of confidence on public occasions. Whatever it was, the offers of performance soon dried up.
Brian had married, in 1898, Isabel Priestley, by whom he had five children, and he was continually hard up. At this point (1907) a development unusual in British 20th century musical history transformed Brian's life, for better or for worse has never been decided. He was offered a yearly income of £500 (then a respectable lower-middle-class salary) by a local wealthy businessman, Herbert Minton Robinson, to enable him to devote all his time to composition. It seems Robinson expected Brian soon to become successful and financially independent on the strength of his compositions. This never happened. For a while Brian worked on a number of ambitious large-scale choral and orchestral works, but felt no urgency to finish them, and began to indulge in hitherto-undreamt-of pleasures, such as expensive foods and a trip to Italy.
Arguments over the money and an affair with a young servant, Hilda Mary Hayward, led to the collapse of his first marriage in 1913. Brian fled to London and although Robinson deeply disapproved of the incident he continued to provide Brian with money until his own death, though most of the allowance went to Brian's estranged wife. The affair with Hilda turned into a lifelong relationship: Brian and she began living together as man and wife, and after Isabel's death in 1933 they were married. Hilda had already borne him another five children. In London Brian began composing copiously, to alleviate the fact of living in conditions of the most basic poverty. On the outbreak of World War I he volunteered for the Honourable Artillery Company but saw no service before he was invalided out with a hand injury. He subsequently worked at the Audit Office of the Canadian Forces Contingent until December 1915. The family then moved to Birmingham until May 1919 and then spent several years in various locations in Sussex. Brian eventually obtained work of a musical kind, copying and arranging, and writing for the journal The British Bandsman. In 1927 he became assistant editor of the journal Musical Opinion and moved back to London.
Nothing was a success for Brian; even his war service was short and farcical, and gave him the material for his first opera The Tigers. In the 1920s he at last turned to symphonies, though he had written more than ten before one of them was first performed in the early 1950s. This was due to his discovery by Robert Simpson, himself a significant composer and BBC Music Producer, who asked Sir Adrian Boult to programme the Eighth Symphony in 1954. From then on Brian composed another twenty-two symphonies, many of the later ones short, single or two-movement works, and several other pieces.
The Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra made the very first commercial recording of Havergal Brian’s music. Symphonies Nos. 10 and 21, conducted by James Loughran and Eric Pinkett respectively, were recorded at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester in 1972. The producer was Robert Simpson and the LP was released by Unicorn Records to great critical acclaim in 1973. A special edition of the television programme Aquarius called The Unknown Warrior gave considerable coverage to the recording session and a camera crew also joined members of the orchestra during a visit they made to the composer’s home in Shoreham (see video links below). Following the success of the Unicorn issue, a second Brian album was recorded by the LSSO in 1974 at Hove Town Hall and Leicester De Montfort Hall with the conducting being shared by Laszlo Heltay and Eric Pinkett. This CBS release included the 22nd Symphony, Brian’s setting of the 23rd Psalm (which clearly belongs to the mainstream British choral tradition of Vaughan Williams and Parry). and the English Suite Rustic Scenes, which contain some highly original music.
In 1979, Cameo Classics embarked on a project to record all of Brian's orchestral music in collaboration with the Havergal Brian Society. It started with the English Suite No. 1, Doctor Merryheart, and Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme. In 1980 came the second LP containing In Memoriam, For Valour, and Festal Dance. The project was completed in 1981 with the recordings of Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme, and Two Herrick Songs, Requiem for the Rose and The Hag. The recordings were produced by David Kent-Watson with the Hull Youth Orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Heald-Smith. For the recording of Brian's complete piano music, Cameo Classics went digital. Peter Hill's outstanding performances on a Bösendorfer Imperial at the Northern College of Music earned high praise from John Ogdon in his review for Tempo.
Only one of the great international virtuoso conductors showed any interest in Brian's music. Leopold Stokowski heard the Sinfonia Tragica and let it be known that he'd like to perform a Brian work. The upshot was the world premiere in 1973 of the 28th Symphony, in a BBC broadcast produced by Robert Simpson in Maida Vale Studio 1, and played by the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Anthony Payne in his Daily Telegraph review wrote: "It was fascinating to contemplate the uniqueness of the event - a 91-year-old conductor learning a new work by a 91-year-old composer."
Brian’s music owes a lot to Wagner, Bruckner, Elgar, Richard Strauss, Mahler and Bach. Like Bach and Bruckner, Brian was an organist, and the organ repertoire influenced his musical habits (and the organ appears in several of his symphonies). Other sources of influence are brass and military bands (Brian’s music is always very brassy and his music never strays far from the march, either slow and solemn, or fast and violent), and late Victorian street music. Brian’s music often includes a violin solo, like Vaughan Williams’ music, but whereas with Vaughan Williams the solo violin writing is long, sustained and eloquent and usually sets the lyric seal to the music, with Brian the violin solos are often poignant and brief and swept aside by the turbulent currents of the music.
However, as with the music of Robert Simpson, Brian’s great champion, in certain passages the music does suddenly verge on the pastoral, to the listener’s great surprise.
The only music that Brian’s could reasonably be mistaken for is some of the work of Arnold Bax, particularly Bax’s violent early symphonies (1 and 2). However, while Bax’s music sounds on first hearing more eloquent and connected, and more lyrical, Brian’s music has a greater flow and, despite is apparent fragmentariness, a greater symphonic cohesion.
Brian’s music has several recognisable hallmarks: the liking of extreme dotted rhythms, deep brass notes, and various weird harp, piano and percussion timbres, and other sounds (and textures) than no-one else has conjured from the orchestra. But its most notable characteristics is its restlessness: rarely does one mood persist for long before it is contrasted, often abruptly, with another. Even in Brian’s slow movements, lyrical meditation does not often structure the music for long before restless thoughts intrude. Brian’s music is basically always tonal, but because of this it can be very violent, much more so than aleatory, atonal avant-garde music. Sometimes, for example at the end of the 3rd Symphony, Brian seems to be celebrating violence and the brute power of the music, but on repeated listening his music seems wiser than this — instead Brian seems to be enjoying making us think his music worships brutality. It is his comment on the world of the 1930s, racing towards world war.
However fragmentary Brian’s music is, it is never directionless; he maintains strong symphonic cohesion by long-term tonal processes (similar to Carl Nielsen’s ‘progressive tonality’, where the music is aiming towards a key, rather than being in a home key and returning to it). Although the fragmentariness of his music militates against classical thematic unity, he often employs structural blocks of sound, where similar rhythms and thematic material allude to previous passages (as opposed to classical statement and recapitulation).
Brian’s symphonies start off with the colossal Gothic Symphony, and most of the early ones are large scale. He usually alludes to the classical four-movement structure of the symphony, even in single-movement works. As he progressed through his life his symphonies become shorter and more compact, and often sound Haydnesque, though the orchestra they employ is usually still large. The Gothic Symphony lasts an hour and a half, the last symphony of all, No. 32, barely twenty minutes, and yet it is no less substantial. This symphony is an extremely compressed contrapuntal unfolding of ideas that owes as much to Bach as to Romanticism, and includes the classical four movements — the finale has all the glory and ease of movement of the last movement of Mozart’s Symphony 41.
(CD unless indicated)
|Symphony No. 1, "Gothic"||Soloists/Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, Ondrej Lenard||Marco Polo/Naxos||Available|
|Symphony No. 2||Moscow Symphony Orchestra, Tony Rowe||Marco Polo/Naxos||Available|
|Symphony No. 2||Dresden Symphony Orchestra, Ernest Weir||Aires (LP)||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 3||BBC Symphony Orchestra, Lionel Friend||Hyperion||Available|
|Symphony No. 3||Lisbon Conservatory Orchestra, Peter Michaels||Aires (LP)||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 4, "Das Siegeslied"||Soloists/CSR Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava), Adrian Leaper||Marco Polo/Naxos||Available|
|Symphony No. 4||Edinburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Sir Allistair MacKenzie||Aires (LP)||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 5, "The Wind of Summer"||São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Francisco Teatro||Aries (LP)||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 6, "Sinfonia tragica"||London Philharmonic Orchestra, Myer Fredman||Lyrita||Available|
|Symphony No. 7||Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras||EMI Classics||Available|
|Symphony No. 8||Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Charles Groves||EMI Classics||Available|
|Symphony No. 8||Wales Symphony Orchestra, Colin Wilson||Aries (LP)||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 9||Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Charles Groves||EMI Classics||Available|
|Symphony No. 9||Wales Symphony Orchestra, Colin Wilson||Aries (LP)||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 10||Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, James Loughran||Unicorn-Kanchana||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 11||National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Adrian Leaper||Marco Polo||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 12||CSR Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava), Adrian Leaper||Marco Polo/Naxos||Available|
|Symphony No. 12||Wales Symphony Orchestra, Colin Wilson||Aries (LP)||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 13||Not commercially released|
|Symphony No. 14||Wales Symphony Orchestra, Colin Wilson||Aries (LP)||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 15||National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Tony Rowe||Marco Polo||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 16||London Philharmonic Orchestra, Myer Fredman||Lyrita||Available|
|Symphony No. 17||National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Adrian Leaper||Marco Polo||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 18||BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Lionel Friend||Marco Polo/Naxos||Available|
|Symphony No. 19||Not commercially released|
|Symphony No. 20||Ukraine State Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Penny||Marco Polo||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 21||Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, Eric Pinkett||Unicorn-Kanchana||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 22, "Symphonia brevis"||Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, Laszlo Heltay||CBS (LP)||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 23||Wales Symphony Orchestra, Colin Wilson||Aries (LP)||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 24||Not commercially released|
|Symphony No. 25||Ukraine State Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Penny||Marco Polo||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 25||São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Francisco Teatro||Aries (LP)||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 26||Not commercially released|
|Symphony No. 27||Not commercially released|
|Symphony No. 28||The Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Horst Werner||Aries (LP)||Unavailable|
|Symphony No. 29||Not commercially released|
|Symphony No. 30||Not commercially released|
|Symphony No. 31||Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras||EMI Classics||Available|
|Symphony No. 32||National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Adrian Leaper||Marco Polo||Unavailable|
A short video of the LSSO from De Montfort Hall, Leicester, 1972.
Rehearsal of Symphony No.10 by the LSSO reunion orchestra in 1998
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