Hullo, this is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s script was researched and written by Mike Burrows.
Havergal Brian (1876-1972), was an extraordinary figure in 20th Century British music. The son of a carpenter and born in Staffordshire, he was largely self-taught and started out on his career with some encouragement from Edward Elgar. He was fairly successful until the First World War and thereafter had to content himself with a reputation in music-journalism and friendship with composers such as Granville Bantock. His regard for and deep knowledge of German culture did not help him in his search for a hearing. His Second Symphony quoted from Wagner’s Ring. The Fourth Symphony of 1933 was unfortunately entitled Das Siegeslied, the Seventh had a programme connected with Goethe. He was successful in earning his living with music-criticism, but didn’t give up on his music. He had begun in an expansive Straussian idiom, capable of creating stupefyingly huge structures – his partly choral 1st Symphony (actually his 2nd), The Gothic, incorporating a 76-minute setting of the Te Deum, has had a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest symphony ever composed, and his opera, The Tigers, is on the Wagnerian scale. His first four symphonies were Mahlerian in scale; indeed, his taste for full sonority led to his using huge orchestras. He composed a vast setting of Shelley’s epic, Prometheus Unbound. Spool forward in his long life to 1964-5, and we find him working within a quite
different set of dimensions.
The Symphonia Brevis, No 22, one of a triptych of related symphonies written that year, is comprised of two movements and plays for just over 9 minutes. What vitiated Brian’s large-scale music life-long was his inability to write memorable tunes to fill the space demanded – and his powers of invention otherwise could not make up for this with clear, long paragraphs of development. It is useless to compare him with Mahler, who was a melodist and one of the great contrapuntists of his generation. Brian’s music is deliberate base coin as regards themes; his counterpoint can be almost Ivesian in its congestedness. Equally, he was no Sibelius, capable of hitting on tiny phrases and turning them into beautifully-scored miracles of dynamic and lyrical imagination. There is a defiant whiff of the Black Country brass-band about his orchestration, with added abrupt pauses and contrasts – some being in a vein of whimsical humour - that will not entertain the listener who knows what he likes or who needs to know where he is being taken; lazy and advanced mind alike may be reduced to asking, “Are we nearly there, yet?”. Even when it is short, to listen to an intervals-based Brian symphony can be a long haul for either party, though wonderful for those who listen and hear as he permutates, rethinks, hazards solutions.
The Symphonia Brevis’ two movements are: Maestoso e ritmico and Tempo di Marcia e ritmico. It may have been written with Greek tragedy in mind. Possibly also the anxiety of threatened nuclear war, something that blighted life at the time. The trademark Brian features are there; big but terse, bluntly inconclusive tuttis; stuttering rhythms; jagged textures; wailing sub-lyrical unisons from the violins; a frequently canonic weave built on intervals, in this case, repeatedly the tritone; switches of mood; insistent brass and percussion, including xylophone; weird moments of abstracted song from soloists; march-rhythms, a fierce struggle for direction. Tonality wavers and remains bedevilled until the final bars. The hiatuses and quiet moments are uncanny even for Brian… The opening material returns crushingly near the level close. The epic intentions of Romanticism confront an age at once alienated and alienating and inimical to struggle. The piece ends in a major scalic figure embracing the perfect fourth.
There is no sense of resolution, only of gritty resolve, perhaps, So: Watch This Space.
Tracks 1 and 2: Symphony No 22, Symphonia Brevis, Brian
Havergal Brian’s creativity was amazing in its resilient industry – he was composing into his 92th year and produced 27 symphonies in his old age, beginning at the age of 72 – and it must be remembered that he had carried almost no authority with him since his middle age. The trajectory had always been downward after the first signs of success, the isolation deepening as his friends had died out.
His last home was a council-house in Shoreham-on-Sea. He died in the belief that his music was being performed, recorded, spoken- and written-about; he had lived and worked long enough to become a curiosity and, indeed, one to be appreciated by the connoisseur. Tragically, he lost his highly attentive daughter, Elfrida, shortly before his own death – stricken,he dedicated his never-performed Second Symphony, with its modified quotation of the funeral march from Gotterdammerung, to her memory…
Another British composer who received less than his due in his lifetime was Robin Milford (1903-59). In his case, there was not the bitter self-belief of a Havergal Brian to maintain his pride. His career was, on the surface, more successful for longer, but when reverses came, he despaired. His friends Gerald Finzi and Vaughan Williams did what they could to encourage him; both had a high opinion of his work. The greatest tragedy for him was the death of his son Barnaby at the age of 5; but the loss of his two champions in 1956 and 1958, worsening health and inexorable eclipse as a composer are thought to have been what caused him to take his own life.
His piece for violin and orchestra, The Darkling Thrush was an early work, dating from 1929, while he was still working on piano-rolls for the Aeolian Company. Based on the New Year poem by Thomas Hardy – Hardy’s poetry was an enthusiasm that Milford shared with Finzi – it is a fantasy of great beauty, modal, with slight Elizabethan or folktune characteristics and some chromaticism in the harmony. Not very flattering comparisons have been made with Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, as though the piece were no more than a servile imitation – which would be bizarre, when one takes into account that the lark on a Summer afternoon sounds most remarkably unlike a thrush under Winter dusk. What seems not to have been noticed is that the passacaglia finale of Vaughan Williams’ 5th Symphony of 1943 contains an aspiring theme that sounds like an obvious echo of subsidiary material in The Darkling Thrush.
The scenario is of New Year’s Eve (1900), at twilight – darkling – and a thrush singing persistently in a tree, the poet asking himself what it can know of the future, what it is telling him. From the opening bars, this fantasy or tone-poem draws in the listener, its not quite stillness bleak and yet strangely warming in its fineness of scoring, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon prominent over strings. The flute begins the piece and will prove important later. Agitation declares itself; impassionedness enters, the strings and brass in canonic texture, with some baroque infilling. The climax of the introduction falls away on bassoon – for the solo violin to sing over lovely muted strings whose harmonies follow the plaintive-sounding yet also strangely blithe soloist. As greatly birdsong-like, the flute leads into a new episode or variation, a striding, confident theme. vouchsafed and decorated by the violin, imitated by flute and others. The measure turns to a lolloping dance whose mixed harmony suggests the Milford-modified influence of Warlock or Delius – not of Vaughan Williams. Ecstasy is reached in a scalic fragment on trumpets and affecting outburst based on the birdsong and affirmative striding theme - the music of the violin slowly dies away to return to the music of the opening. The dying fall is ended by a surprisingly loud chord from flute and low-voiced strings. A beautiful, fascinating New Year piece, its qualities making it worthy to stand comparison with any example of British pastoral music on its own terms. As to The Lark Ascending, has it occurred to any commentator that the violin-part may represent the poet’s response to hearing the cold tones of a thrush, here portrayed by flute? Hardy was a country violinist who inherited a large collection of folk- and hymn-tunes from his father, and the style of his verse is derived partly from country songs and ballads. Is it Hardy’s instrument that imitates, humanizes, extends, rhapsodizes, improvises folkish-style music based on, the song of the bird?
Track 3: The Darkling Thrush, Milford
In 1964, at the age of 82, Gian-Francesco Malipiero completed the last of his 8 string quartets. Born in 1882, he had lived through a period of colossal social, political and cultural change, two World Wars and two epochs of near-civil war. Living in the age of “white-hot technology”, he had been born into a world in which much of the environment of the 1960s would have been unimaginable or the subject of futuristic novels in the style of Jules Verne.
It is said that his home, a real bolt-hole in the countryside of Venetia, was given over to tamed wildlife, and that he composed with an owl sitting on his shoulder.
Of the 1880s generation, he was possibly his country’s greatest original talent since Verdi. He had no truck with opera unless as devised by himself, and was prolific in the fields of orchestral music, symphonic and concertante works, chamber music, choral pieces as well as writing several operas of compulsive strangeness. He was an Italian; sought inspiration in Italian folk, baroque and early music, including Gregorian chant as well as in the new works of his international contemporaries. He believed in instinct, not conventional musical logic; his structures were self-made, built up from panels of contrast. He was capable of confronting chant or the music of pifferari with polytonality or musique mechanique, the jump-cuts of an almost filmic technique more imaginative and vivid in constituents than the ellipses of Havergal Brian. He was most emphatically a Picasso who could draw.
The Eighth String Quartet “Per Elizabetta” (Elizabeth Coolidge, the music-patroness), is the most abstract of all; like Havergal Brian’s late works showing no let-up in close-thinking on the basic intervals of music. He revels in the sound of music for strings, in bowings, fingerings, harmonics, pizzicato; the spatial and contrapuntal arrangement of four players, two violins, a viola and cello, each contributing to a tense coming-together of four voices. At times, the quiet held notes and scutterings resemble nothing so much as the sound of silence in which one hears the functions and intense vibration of one’s own life as one awaits…what? Malipiero was as unafraid of twelve-note music as of any other idiom, and had valuable things to say.
His instinct here includes “coincidence” soundings-together but also more formal fugato. All ends neither loudly nor softly in three distinct notes, a purely musical answer, it seems, to the opening notes of the piece: but, of course, there is no such as pure music – music is not heard without emotion. If the quartet is valedictory, it is neither sentimental nor at peace. Malipiero lived until 1973, busy almost until the last.
Track 4: String Quartet No 8, Malipiero
A Prelude and Fugue for string trio by Gerald Finzi, now. This work was written in 1938 for one of his teachers, the composer and expert contrapuntist, R O Morris. A quiet and intent prelude, elegiac in tone, imitational, canonic and solemn as is Finzi’s wont. The sound is of the finest, deeper tones suddenly breaking in only to fade into regretful sighs – the subject of the fugue is centred on the notes of the deeper tones; brightness entering with a slight variation that brings greater rhythmical variety, a freer movement in the parts and richer expression. At the stretto, the bass thuds and the higher parts have an edge eventually made exquisite, Quakerishly joyful, before the peremptory close.
(Owing to time constraints we omitted the Prelude)
Track 5: Prelude and Fugue For String Trio, Finzi
To end our programme, here is a song by Jean Sibelius, arranged by him for orchestra, the stirring Processional, Op113, No 6. This came from his sombre and beautiful Masonic Ritual Music, written for the opening of Suomi Lodge Number One in 1927. Much of this work is in the magical style of his music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Processional originally set a hymn called Salem – Onward, Ye Brethren. The arrangement dates from 1938, some years into “the silence of Jarvenpaa”, his retirement. The Age of Anxiety struck Europe some time before it did the US. Sibelius dreaded war and uncivilization, and it is possible to see in this music a prayer for the certainty of a preserved peace.
The serene melody meets with crisis more mutedly than in Sibelius’ earlier works – Spring Song, his Opus 16, for example – but coasts over it in nobility.
There was a pronounced streak of vulnerable childlikeness in Sibelius, evidenced most clearly in the clear-eyed optimism of the communal hymn-tunes that he bequeathed us.
This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s script was researched and written by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and will tune in again soon. Goodbye!
Track 6: Processional, Op113, No 6, Sibelius