Discovering Havergal Brian, a Symphonist Forgotten

I love libraries. They are treasure troves of mystery and wonder. While walking through the Denver Library today, looking for a score for Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, I stubbled across a book entitled The Symphonies of Havergal Brian (Volume One Symphonies 1 to 12) by Malcolm MacDonald ISBN 0-8008-7527-3 (1973). Having never heard of Havergal Brian before, I was intrigued. So I opened up the front cover and read a bit about Mr Brian. It seems he wrote 32 symphonies during his life (1876-1972) and yet is relatively unknown.

Wow, 32 symphonies! Shostakovich (one of my heros) was considered a great symphonist and he only wrote 15 - but then again, he is remembered. Numerous other composers never got past nine as if that was the magic number and to attempt anything more was to demand too much of the muses. So, who was the unknown composer and why are there two books covering his symphonies and yet no real discussion of him in music history classes?

Well, the second part of this question is easier to answer than the first. Music History is a linear progression, a line attempting to show where we are by where we have come. Only those composers who have affected the line are mentioned. A few other composers (of note) are thrown in to give some relevance as to why the line flows the way it does (or at least the line the instructors have chosen to present). Unfortunately, there are far too many composers out there who are "seminal", whose works simply just didn't change the way we think about music, but affected future composers and how they write.

Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps was written in 1912-3 and practically caused a riot at its first performance because of its primal rhythms and radical poly-tonality. The music is amazing and definitely had an effect on composers of the day and for years to come. Holst' The Planets was written between 1914 and 1916. It didn't cause any unrest when it premiered, but then the Great War had been raging for 4 years already so a peaceful concert was probably just what the public wanted. The music, with its intense rhythms and polytonality, still has a major influence on film composers today (Hans Zimmer was accused of plagiarism for use of the Mars theme in the film "Gladiator" (2000)). Both Holst and Stravinsky were famous in their lifetime and had an effect on future composers. So, justifiably, both are studied in Music History.

The introduction to the book on Havergal Brian gives a myriad of reasons as to why he is relatively unknown. Part of it is due to his lack of self promotion and not having friends in the industry who would do the promotion for him. What little fame he did have prior to World War I, fell off after the war, replaced by more "English" Composers of Vaughan-Williams and Holst. Brian's first symphony, "The Gothic" is immense in length and orchestration (the Naxos recording I listened to came in at just over 114 mins performed by both the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra). Not all his symphonies are so demanding, but certainly this one was a bit much for just one orchestra. Although the piece was written between 1919 and 1927, it was not until 1961 that it was finally performed.

I was impressed with the work. Although, Mr Brian was fifty-one by the time he finished his first symphony, it is a solid work, an excellent first symphony as symphonies go. When looking at Mozart or Haydn, their first symphonies are rather juvenile in comparison to their later works. Shostakovich and Prokofiev suffer the same. Even Beethoven’s first symphony isn’t as solid a work as his late symphonies. Perhaps that is because Mr Brian had already matured as a composer; he had already lived some and was able to put that in his music.

I have not yet read the entire book, nor listened to more of his symphonies (although I will – thanks to Naxos, we have recordings of many of them, something Mr Brian was not fortunate enough to have before passing), what I have read suggests this first was just a scratch of the surface. Most of his symphonies (the last 20) were written after the age of 80. And he wasn’t content with just rehashing his style. He continued to grow as a composer, exploring new styles and techniques. I don’t suspect getting to know Havergal Brian is going to be a quick or easy task, but I do think it will be very rewarding.

Another comment Mr MacDonald makes about Havergal Brian’s music is the lack of influence it had on contemporary composers. Because much of his music was unknown during his lifetime, he didn’t have the chance to influence younger composers. The book was an attempt to get the word out about his music. Hopefully this blog will help a bit too. With that, hopefully other composers, like myself, who are still studying, learning, exploring, can find something in his music to take away and build on.


Note: My first symphony was finished when I was 46, so I consider myself to have matured before tackling such a monumental work. I was told my piece was overly long (just under 55 mins), although both Mahler and Rachmaninoff wrote symphonies considerably longer (as did Brian, obviously). Numerous contemporary composers have composed symphonies, most coming in around 30 mins (with some shorter than 20).

I don’t want to suggest that a symphony needs to be a colossal work. Getting an orchestra to perform a new work is difficult enough. Asking them to take an entire half of their program for one piece (that isn’t a big name like Brahms or Beethoven) is asking a lot. However, there is something about these large works, these pieces of music that take a while to develop and even longer to digest. They are great pieces of music (well, maybe not mine… not yet, anyway). It doesn’t mean it has to be long to be great – but… we are doing a disservice to our audiences by not challenging them with works like this.

I should also reiterate, not all of Havergal Brian's symphonies are this long. Most of his others fall in the 20-30 minute category. Still, there is something about a large work that goes beyond what a 30 minute work can do.

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