Havergal Brian, Symphony no. 1 “The Gothic”

Of the many 1926 compositions I didn't have time to cover in the podcasts (see "More Compositions from 1926"), the most formidable was Havergal Brian's Symphony no. 1 in D minor, "The Gothic."

The link above is to the best recording of the piece to date: a live performance at the BBC Proms in 2011. Conductor Martyn Brabbins leads the huge performance forces: two full orchestras that include bass oboes, bass trumpets, a 17 part percussion section, 2 harps, a virtuoso xylophone solo in the third movement, cornets and euphoniums, two full symphonic choirs, a children's chorus, four offstage brass bands, 8 offstage trumpet players, an SATB quartet of vocal soloists, and an organ. It amounts to more than 800 performers on- and offstage. It takes around an hour and forty-five minutes to perform. Brian told a friend that the shape, the concept of the symphony came to him all at once in a surge of inspiration, but it took him about eight years to write it out. He did most of that writing at night, after he came home from the day jobs he worked to support his family, and he did so with no expectation of ever hearing the piece performed — he completed the score in 1926, but it was 1961 before before he heard it played. And the Gothic was the only the first of 32 symphonies he would compose through the course of his career. A prolific composer was he, to say the least.

The architecture of the music, its formal construction, is not easy to understand at first. Those who admire it tend to be well familiar with Brian's style, devotees who give his pieces multiple listenings (that, or they're simply better able to understand complex music at first hearing than I am). They're also usually British, and eager to embrace the music of one of their countrymen; where they brought up the Brabbins performance on their stereos, I was probably listening to something by Copland or Hanson, instead. Much of Brian's Symphony no. 1 is dense, complex counterpoint that doesn't leave you with tunes to hum to yourself. Without those big, Romantic melodies it's harder to remember a piece, and memory, after all, is music's canvas. Brian's harmonic language is Post-Romantic, like that of Strauss, Mahler, and early Schoenberg, taking functional tonality up to and beyond its capacity to convey a sense of tonality at all. Furthermore, Brian was not much interested in establishing relationships between his major themes and musical ideas by linking them with transitional passages. Instead, a contrasting idea follows suddenly after the idea that preceded it, to suprising or disorienting effect.

Still, Havergal Brian's Symphony no. 1 in D minor, "The Gothic" has earned a reputation as one of the best overlooked pieces in the repertoire, alongside works such as Suk's Asrael Symphony and Rott's Symphony in E Minor. Richard Stauss read through the score and declared it "magnificent," and Deryck Cooke said that it "reveals the mind of a truly visionary genius." Click the link to the CD at Amazon, above, and read the customer reviews; you'll see just how much those who are well acquainted with the piece love it. It features spectacular brass writing, and it leaves you with much to ruminate over, philosophically: Part One presents an instrumental depiction of Goethe's Faust, and Part Two a setting for choirs and orchestras of the Te Deum.

This is a work worth getting to know.

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