Havergal Brian on Music
Volume Two: European and American Music in his time
Edited by Malcolm MacDonald
Hardback - 458 pages – set in 11 on 12 point Baskerville
Publisher: Toccata Press
This book is a splendid achievement in every respect. By turns informative, revelatory, challenging, entertaining and always backed by solid research and academic insight. I really could not imagine any aspect of it being done better. But this should come as no surprise. Has there ever been a composer more fortunate in his chronicler/biography than Havergal Brian with Malcolm MacDonald? There have been occasional recordings dotted over the years to allow collectors the chance to hear music by this most individual of composers but it is via MacDonald’s extensive writings that the power and individuality and indeed skill in many of these works has been made apparent. What has always impressed me with MacDonald’s writing on any of his chosen passions – and make no mistake he is clearly passionate as well as knowledgeable about his subject – is that he wears his factual and academic rigour lightly. There is never any sense that he is trying to impress on you the reader the scale of his research or intellect. Everything is revealed in the spirit of someone keen to share some of his own delight – it’s a style that is engaging and compelling.
I am so impressed by every aspect of this publication right down to the solid certainty of the actual book itself; some 458 pages printed on a lovely high quality paper in clear legible type beautifully bound. Perhaps I’m a little odd – and certainly old-fashioned - in this respect but I feel there is something especially gratifying in the tangible solidity of a substantial book like this that would be diminished were it ever to appear in a digital format. Great credit too therefore to publishers Toccata Press for undertaking this kind of project for a book that, let’s be honest, will never be heading up the Sunday Times Best Sellers list. And all the more remarkable when one considers that this is just the second volume in a projected series of six. In turn this highlights just how much journalistic writing Brian undertook. This was Brian’s bread and butter with the compositions for which he is now known being very much a hobby as such until his retirement. Which in part explains the extraordinary burst in creative energy that marked Brian’s later years.
MacDonald explains in some detail when and for which publications Brian wrote. The principal one was Musical Opinion. He was the assistant editor there from 1927–1940 and this accounts for nearly 85% of his total journalistic output. And musical opinions are very much what we get. Clearly, Brian had pretty much a free-hand to write on whatever took his fancy in the then current musical world. The fascination for the modern reader is just that – Brian’s questing and curious mind, his strongly held and often insightful views and above all the extraordinary breadth of his knowledge. Yet, much like MacDonald, Brian never seeks to impress the reader by his scholarship. Likewise, never once does he parade his own skill along the lines of “… as a composer myself…” I find this modest yet passionate style very appealing. Indeed, Brian the composer goes up in my estimation as a consequence of reading this book because it brings home to you all the more what a strikingly original thinker/composer he was. Although immersed in just about every aspect of ‘modern music’ he continued to plough his lone very individual furrow as a composer seeking neither fame nor favour.
This books works on several levels; it can be dipped into for an entertaining brief summary of a work or performance or can be read as a sequence of linked and discerning articles on a composer, performer or musical movement. Very wisely, MacDonald has collated disparate articles written over a period of some years into a subsection. So for example Part Two is subtitled Strauss and Mahler and consists of some fifteen articles written between 1907 and 1946. One of the many things this book made me pause and reflect on is just what an easy time we have as reviewers today. Not sure of a fact? – check the internet. Wondering about a piece? - buy a recording if not two for comparisons sake. Just to write about a Mahler Symphony in the 1920s was the result of a lot of laborious preparatory research. MacDonald prefaces each section with well-written insights into the context and the time of the article. So – and this is really a single example but equally applicable to any part of the book – he points out that when Brian wrote about the imminent UK premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No.8 in 1930 he was very much a prophet in the wilderness indeed in the article he writes “both composers [Bruckner and Mahler] are almost unknown in England.” Brian’s skill was to write with enthusiasm and insight; if you read this article at the time I imagine your curiosity for the work would have been well and truly pricked. This appeared in the March 1930 issue, in May Brian reviewed the concert – praising Sir Henry Wood’s conducting, and then in October wrote again an article headed The Mahler Revival in which he writes; “we feel quite sanguine of the ultimate success of the Bruckner and Mahler symphonies.” And therein lies another fascination of this book; the modern reader gains a real “I was there” insight, a kind of cultural/aesthetic time-capsule into an earlier age. This works in a number of ways, many of which I find quite salutary. These snap-shots of the past reveal many facts and ideas that challenge our ideas of modern-day supremacy or at least superiority. It made me re-evaluate my own preconceptions about some music and certainly some performers. As a single example of several in the book; for anyone growing up in the 1970s Sir Adrian Boult would be perceived as the doyen of British music – with some Brahms and other standard Germanic ‘rep’ thrown in. A recurring thread in Brian’s articles is just how many premieres of big challenging contemporary works Boult led for the BBC – Mahler’s Symphony No.9 on February 7th 1934, Mahler Symphony No.3 29th November 1947 (better late than never!) or Berg’s Wozzeck March 14th 1934 to name but a pretty arbitrary three. All these works and performances get high praise from Brian – as a feat of learning just six weeks apart with many other concerts in between as well it makes you realise all over again just what a fine all-round musician Boult was. But Boult’s reputation has survived the decades. Another fascinating aspect of this book is the light it shines into dusty forgotten corners of music. So from 1907 we read a review of César Géloso’s piano concerto (not very good apparently) or an article titled Emanuel Moór: Musician and Inventor from1931. According to MacDonald this latter person was “famously prolific as a composer, revered by Casals, Ysaye, Cortot, Tovey, and cursed, according to Casals with ‘an extraordinary capacity for offending people and making enemies’”. Doesn’t that alone make you absolutely desperate to hear some of his music? Aside from the seven violin sonatas, a Mass and Stabat Mater and over 500 songs he invented a double keyboard piano which Bechstein then built – and Tovey praised - AND redesigned the proportions of the violin, viola and cello a complete set of which were subsequently made for the strings of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra! MacDonald helps in this treasure trove of delights by providing at every turn illuminating and informative footnotes which elaborate on references or names that lack familiarity for modern day readers. Another absolutely right choice was that these footnotes occur on the page to which they relate. I must admit to finding footnotes that are collected together at the end of a book far less ‘user friendly.’
Rare though it is, part of the pleasure is disagreeing with Brian! So considered and insightful is the vast bulk of what he writes that when he has an opinion that is contrary to one’s own it is almost more interesting than when his beady musical eye is bang on the mark. I’m surprised that the Janácek Sinfonietta did not make a more favourable impact on its 1928 premiere (a Henry Wood first performance this time) given Brian’s compositional penchant for theatrical brass and primal rhythms. Instead he writes rather huffily: “..it lacks conviction and exultation”. What does span the decades forcefully is the sheer literary quality of much of Brain’s writing. He never resorts to technical terminology or verbosity. All I can liken it to is being in the company of a ferociously well-informed enthusiast, you can imagine him as tremendous company over a good meal. The breadth of music and musicians and composers covered in this volume alone is quite extraordinary – Hindemith, Bartók, Stravinsky, Busoni, Dukas, Debussy and Schoenberg are just a few of those written about in a way that indicates depth of knowledge way beyond the remit of a magazine article. In most cases he has seen these composers perform or conduct – or indeed interviewed them – at first-hand which again gives his writings an immediacy that lifts them off historical pedestals and makes them vibrantly alive. Given the sheer volume, certain articles read better than others, certain topics make Brian’s juices flow more enthusiastically than others and he is at his best when not trying to be amusing. My only relative disappointment was with the final section on The New World which is far more generalised and non-specific and verges on the dismissive. Curious how he focuses on the ‘old-fashioned’ Sousa at a time when America was bursting with creative musical talents.
As mentioned before this is just one major volume in a rolling series. Volume 1 dealt with British music and composers. I would warmly recommend that book to any readers for duplicating all the merits of this one but with the extra sense of being really at the grass-roots of a nation’s music-making. Volume 1 used a dramatic picture of the Crystal Palace going up in flames as this current one shows the Reichstag in Berlin burning in 1933. I for one enjoy that kind of attention to detail which typifies this book. MacDonald has chosen not to illustrate the text with any additional photographs or examples other than those that appeared in the original articles. There would be copyright issues and additional costs involved but so vibrant are the pen portraits Brian produced that it might have been interesting to juxtapose them against actual photographs of the time. But this is minor carping in the face of something where everything else is very right. At around £45.00 this is not a cheap book but that is a price which I feel fairly reflects its quality - this deserves to be read by anyone with more than a passing interest in modern music in Britain in the first half of the last century. My respect for Havergal Brian the all-round man of music goes from strength to strength and my admiration for Malcolm MacDonald and the thoroughness and diligence and elegance of his editorial work knows no bounds. A triumph.