Prom 4: Havergal Brian’s Symphony No 1 “The Gothic”

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Havergal Brian (1966). Photo by Godfrey MacDomnic. National Portrait Gallery.

Prom 4:

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

OMG! The appearance of Havergal Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony is like the biblical Leviathan surfacing in Hyde Park. It’s epochal. The buses lined up behind the monster aren’t full of gawkers but the assembled forces needed to perform the work, not counting trucks loaded with 32 timpani, eight brass choirs, a horde of extra offstage trumpets, and more — much, much more. Choruses throng from all points of the compass. Somewhere at the musicians’ union a shop foreman is screaming into the phone, “Don’t tell me we’ve run out of ophicleides and sarrusophones! This is apocalypse!” Oh wait, it was Berlioz who calls for ophicleides and sarrusophones. But some wisp of his spirit hovered over Stoke-on-Trent when the very, very dotty composer, Havergal Brian, was born in 1876.

Brian’s essential gift was hypertrophism, not to be confused with genius. Outwardly he lived modestly, at times penuriously, supporting himself as a lowly music copyist and penny-farthing journalist by day. At night, however, bats came out to play in his belfry. Between 1919 and 1927 Brian conceived of a symphonic work in two parts. The first, entirely instrumental, would evoke Goethe’s Faust, serving as a warmup for the second part, a choral setting of the traditional Te Deum that would recapitulate the entire history of Western music. Together, the work, entitled the “Gothic” Symphony (even though Goethe wasn’t medieval) would call upon a thousand performers. The Mahler Eighth was dubbed “Symphony of a Thousand” by a fanciful impresario; Brian counts noses.

At the Proms we heard only the third fully professional mounting of the work in the U.K. since its inception. Four front sections of Albert Hall were blocked off for the overflow of musicians, while the choir stalls were filled to the gods — in the program note there’s a photo of Sir Adrian Boult, who befriended Brian late in life and conducted the “Gothic” in 1966, addressing a rehearsal through a megaphone. On my night, once the troops were mustered and the audience forewarned that there would be no intermission for the next two hours, the burning question was: Is this going to be any good? (As a precaution against boredom, a woman down the row from me brought a ball of steel wool and knitted a saucepan. Others had newspapers.)

Good is relative. If you know the imperial style of Granville Bantock, if you can imagine Elgar’s sweep without his genius, and if you turn up your home stereo to ear-aching volume, you’re in the ballpark. Brian’s sincerity cannot be doubted, and although self-educated, having dropped out of school at eleven, he knew harmony and counterpoint. More importantly, and touchingly, Brian adored music and surrendered to it completely. As a result, the “Gothic” isn’t (just) bloated Edwardian fustian. Much of it is actually intimate. The composer was at pains to surprise us with unexpected contrasts of loud and soft, following a bellowing pipe organ with, say, a solo soprano singing from the rafters like an angel on high. There are countless ingenious tonal colors mixed from his gargantuan palette, and I must admit that I wasn’t bored for any considerable stretch.

One would suppose, what with Boult and his megaphone, that the conductor’s job is simply to keep unholy chaos from breaking out. But the estimable Martyn Brabbins did far more; he made delicate, intelligent musical sense out of every segment of the work’s six movements. Despite the composer’s ambition to recapitulate the history of Western music, his prevailing style is late romantic British, homey and comfy under the paraphernalia of empire, so there’s no attempt at Brahmsian or Elgarian development; one striking event follows another, like boxcars strung into a very long train. Although every drum this side of the Hindu Kush was unleashed at the climax, the very last chord is given to light sopranos, softly and alone.

At the age of ninety Brian got to attend a performance of his great pachydermatous baby (in that regard he was luckier than Bruckner or Schubert), and we are told that it’s a myth to believe that all of his later symphonies are jumbos. He wrote 27 of them after he turned seventy, for a total of 32, not including his many other works. The Proms audience cheered lustily after the last note died away, and most were so enthusiastic that they missed the cloud of bats swooping overhead, shaken down by the glorious noise Brian summoned to earth.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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