Brian’s output consists of a large body of orchestral music including overtures, suites, tone-poems, concertos, and 32 symphonies; five operas; a few large-scale choral and orchestral works; a great many part-songs, both accompanied and a capella; a similar number of solo songs; a small quantity of solo piano music; and a few works in other genres - though several pieces, major ones included, are missing.
Only a few of his most important works have been published, notably by Cranz & Co in the 1930s, in the 1970s by Musica Viva, and currently by United Music Publishers; some even now have never been performed, and many have yet to be heard in public.
Like that of many composers, Brian’s oeuvre can be divided very approximately into a number of creative periods, in his case three. The first lasted from just before the turn of the century to the first years of World War One. Much of Brian’s music from this time is lost, but that which has survived is, generally speaking, characterised by two parallel, contrasting, and often cross-fertilising modes of expression. The first a grotesque, sometimes satirical, vein of humour, as in the English Suite no1 (1903-04) and the Comedy Overture Doctor Merryheart (1911-12); the other a mood of grand seriousness, in works like the orchestral tone poem In Memoriam (1910) and the choral By the Waters of Babylon (1905) and The Vision of Cleopatra (1907).
Between these early works and the post-war compositions of his maturity stands the opera The Tigers (1916-19, orchestrated 1928-29). Drawing upon much from his earlier burlesque vein, its action satirises war, patriotism, soldiering, and many other targets in contemporary English society, in a manner unknown in ‘serious’ music of its time. But a darker dreamworld repeatedly breaks through the nonsensical surface, and the powerful, elegiac, sometimes nightmarish music of the opera’s substantial ballet sequences foreshadows much that was to come in later years. A lthough humour never entirely left Brian’s music, its manifestation was far less overt from now on. After writing some of his most searchingly expressive songs and part-songs (genres he virtually renounced forthwith), he returned with a new depth and intensity to his vein of grandeur and seriousness.
The work in which he first gave full reign to this became his most famous and notorious - Symphony No 1, The Gothic (1919-27), one of the longest symphonies ever composed, and the work commonly regarded as being written for larger forces than any other known composition. It eventually gave him his greatest public triumph at its first professional performance in 1966, but was most responsible for the damaging and undeserved reputation he acquired as an eccentric composer of huge and unperformable works.
The Gothic is a creation of great seriousness of purpose, in which the inspiration of Gothic architecture, expressed through the Latin text of the Te Deum, combines with many elements from the whole history of Western music from medieval plainsong to the twentieth century to form a vast and immensely varied musical fresco.
The Gothic was a crucial work of Brian’s career. Four more symphonies and a violin concerto - major works by any standards - followed in the 1930s, and his ‘second period’ drew to a close with the composition between 1937 and 1944 of Prometheus Unbound - a setting for many soloists, chorus and orchestra of the uncut text of the first two acts of Shelley’s verse-drama. Its full score, however, is the most serious casualty amongst Brian’s lost manuscripts . He seems to have regarded Prometheus as his masterpiece and the climax of his life’s work, but he experienced a renewed onset of creativity in 1948 after four years’ quiescence.
An early fruit of this ‘third period’, the one-movement Symphony No 8, represented by far his most radical approach to symphonic form so far. His style, grown to maturity through many years of private exploration, was now vastly different from that of any other surviving members of his generation.
In the 24 symphonies which followed No 8 and which, with his four late operas (Turandot (1949-51), The Cenci (1951-52), Faust (1955-56), and Agamemnon (1957)), were by far the most important products of his ‘third period’, he continued his uniquely wide-ranging exploration of the possibilities of the form, in harmony, linear structure, and orchestration.
In common, however, with most genuinely creative artists, this approach seems to have been the natural form of expression for his creative personality, and not a self-conscious imposition. Though he often worked with vestiges of traditional structures, his symphonic language is most often rooted in a highly allusive kind of metamorphosis through developing variation which amounts almost to a musical ‘stream of consciousness’.
The products of this language are amazingly diverse in their procedures and atmosphere, and they display a trend to ever-greater concentration of though as well as an almost unparalleled capacity for self-renewal at the most fundamental creative levels. The music of Brian’s 80s and 90s, therefore, far from being a nostalgic swan-song or an old man’s trifling, in fact forms in some ways the most forward-looking, original and satisfying body of music in his entire output.
(contribution by Jeremy Marchant <jeremymarchant.com>)
William Havergal Brian was born on 29 January 1876 into a working-class Potteries family in Dresden, Staffordshire. He gained his first musical experience in church choirs and after leaving school at the age of 12 he was in some demand as a church organist. He learned the violin and cello, and played in local bands and orchestras. A local teacher gave him a thorough theoretical grounding, but he was virtually self-taught in composition. Nevertheless he rapidly acquired an invincible desire to be a composer and in the first decade of the twentieth century began to make a name for himself.
Some of his music was admired by Elgar, works of his were performed by conductors such as Henry Wood and Thomas Beecham, and for a number of years he and his family were supported by a wealthy Staffordshire businessman so that Brian would be free to compose.
All this came to an abrupt end, however, just before the outbreak of World War 1, when various personal crises forced him to leave his home and family. In London he failed to consolidate such musical reputation as he had gained, and for many years he supported a growing second family with a series of menial jobs, often in some poverty. By the late 1920s Brian gained an assistant editorship on the journal Musical Opinion, through which he gained a clearer understanding of and greater sympathy with the latest continental developments than almost any other British composer. The musical establishment however - with the exception of his close friend Sir Granville Bantock - passed him by and his own growing body of mature work remained almost entirely unknown and unperformed.
This although Richard Strauss (to whom the Gothic Symphony is dedicated) took him seriously, and despite Sir Donald Tovey being moved to write in 1934 that ‘even for the recognition of his smaller works he is being made to wait... far longer than is good for any country whose musical reputation is worth praying for’.
With the death of Bantock in 1946, Brian lost his last advocate for performances of his music until the early 1950s, when his work came to the attention to a young BBC music producer named Robert Simpson, himself destined to become one of Britain’s foremost symphonists.
Starting with Brian’s eighth symphony in 1954 (the first time that Brian, already 78, heard any of his symphonies), Simpson gradually brought about over the next quarter of a century a growing number of performances, mostly in radio broadcasts, which began to initiate a recognition of Brian’s achievement.
The composer moved from London to Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex, in 1958, where he embarked upon a final, immensely rich, ten-year Indian Summer of composition which included no fewer than 20 symphonies. He finally ceased original creative work in October 1968 with the completion of his 32nd Symphony, but for the remaining four years of his life he retained full mental vigour and it always seemed possible that he might return to composition.
His death came on 28 November 1972 as the result of a fall, two months short of his 97th birthday. Though he knew that the BBC was committed to broadcasting in due course all of his symphonies, not a note of his music was commercially issued on record during his lifetime, and he died without having heard many of his finest works.
(contribution by Jeremy Marchant <jeremymarchant.com>)