The Many Critics of Havergal Brian
Journalists need to approach their story from an ‘angle’. Often this angle is decided upon before the story happens; I have done my fair share of reporting and can vouch for this. In previous years I have been a critic of film, theatre and concerts, events which present the opportunity to interact with one’s subject only once, to hear or see highlights only once, and which therefore demand supreme attentiveness or memory recall. Those who fall short on these traits find it tempting—as I occasionally did—to fall back upon the prefabricated story.
So it went with Havergal Brian’s Symphony No 1, the “Gothic,” after its debut at the BBC Proms on 17 July 2011. The common perception of the Gothic Symphony is essentially this: “The Guinness-certified largest symphony in the world, the Gothic is a huge, sprawling mess written by a self-taught crank who didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. Undaunted by common sense, he created music’s biggest tempest in a teapot, undoubtedly fascinating when viewed in a certain light, but in the end one man’s entertaining, frustrating, and rather mad folly.”
That is what everyone hears about the work before it begins. It is what I heard when I, having heard only one work by Havergal Brian before (a single listen of the Eighteenth Symphony on Naxos), decided to attend the Gothic Prom. It routed my expectations. It did not for the critics.
Andrew Clements of the Guardian: “there are moments of striking originality … but much more is either entirely unmemorable or simply grotesquely odd … the Gothic Symphony is no spurned masterpiece.” Clements also claims the Gothic is imitative of Franz Schmidt’s The Book with Seven Seals, which was in fact composed a decade later. To Edward Seckerson of the Independent the symphony’s second part “lurches incoherently”, “an incomprehensible, albeit sporadically thrilling, mess.” His colleague Jessica Duchen wrote on her blog that the Gothic is “the biggest of white elephants”: “We enjoy a huge anticipatory build-up ... and then it turns out that maybe there’s a good reason after all that the thing isn't performed every other weekend in Weston-super-Mare.” She admitted, however, to an ultimate agnosticism, since she heard “a bit of it” on the radio and turned it off.
Damian Thompson of the Telegraph thought the music “on the edge of genius”, but David Nice, at The Arts Desk, disagreed: “a terrible, inchoate mess….the outer movements of each of the two parts at least kept us listening for the occasional moments of celestial refinement between the thrashes, [but] the centre-pieces felt nightmarishly turgid.” Nice bizarrely criticized the Gothic’s notorious 90-second xylophone solo as too much xylophone for one symphony, called the work “music of the third rank which expresses itself poorly” and then appallingly wondered of Brian’s listeners, “is it a boost to the personal ego, a validation of self-worth, to claim a little corner no-one else really cares about?” Does Nice think it impossible to enjoy the music sincerely?
This is all rather what the composer’s fans expected, according to those to whom I’ve spoken. At the same time, it seems faintly bizarre that the critics would dismiss such a mysterious behemoth on one fairly ill-informed listen: for one to identify “influences” in fact written decades later, another to cast disdain upon unusual instrumental solos, another to gently mock the work because she switched it off the radio, and most to describe the structure with the word “mess”, smacks of ignorance. The structure of the Gothic has been often written about and some of its traits - association of main themes with certain instruments, for instance - are noticeable immediately.
I can also raise a point almost no critic brings up, except Ivan Hewett of the Telegraph: a lot of the symphony is very delicate indeed. There are more moments when only one person is playing than there are when everyone is playing (I think); the single most frequent instrumentation in the symphony’s episodes is a cappella choir. The most perceptive critics of the symphony (bloggers or ordinary listeners all: Kenneth Woods, Simon Cummings, and the post-Prom discussion group at the Good Music Guide) all mention Berlioz: for Berlioz’ Requiem is this symphony’s closest cousin, in the way in which it demands enormous amounts of performers and then uses them with shocking restraint. Some of the critics cited above would laugh to see the word “restraint” used here — and yet, if they listen closely, it’s true. One of the major frustrations about the Gothic, to a listener, is its unwillingness to use all the thousands at once.
But I stray from my main argument. This essay is not about Havergal Brian at all; it is about his critics. There are several ways of approaching the reviewer’s task. To see this, perhaps let’s use an analogy: your job is to review some kind of technological gadget. If you clamber inside the gadget, you can enjoy its fun, indeed delightful features. From outside, you can see how the gizmo works. Moreover, because your job as a critic is essentially totally undefined, your editor has left it to you which element is the focus of your review.
The balance is a difficult one and it has created multiple philosophical camps among the critical world. Some see their role as the detached, intellectual observer who coldly evaluates and stamps a work with the appropriate judgment of its merits. In many cases, this yields interesting results, especially from true authorities: professional musicologists, say, breaking down the symphonies of Brahms, or Roger Ebert doing the DVD commentary for Citizen Kane. Others, like The Arts Desk’s David Nice, may find themselves issuing summary judgment at first blush, in a sort of “I know what I heard and I didn’t like it” kind of response.
That is perfectly valid, and with a work like the “Gothic” many people will find much to dislike, but it is a different school of criticism altogether. This is what I call the “Ebert school”, after the aforementioned film writer; Roger Ebert’s stated philosophy is criticism as if he were the target audience. That is, he gives a horror film a high ranking if it is scary, a lowbrow comedy a high ranking if it is idiotic but funny, etc. And Ebertian critics lean heavily on the emotional component of the critic’s role: they are much less afraid to simply come out and say, I like this or this annoyed me. Ebert: “Two things that cannot be convincingly faked are laughter and orgasm. If a movie made you laugh, as a critic you have to be honest and report that. Not so much with orgasms.” David Nice’s language in rejecting the Gothic is not dissimilar to Ebert’s in eviscerating Transformers III, but the implicit comparison between those works should suggest to you that one critic is explaining his emotional response to a work of art better, and more appropriately, than the other.
The great fallacy of all this is that it’s impossible to do both. Great critics are those who situate their emotional response to the music in its proper place, report upon it honestly. They also find a way to balance this with some kind of assessment of the work’s merits. In other words, great critics are able to recognize that not liking something is different from thinking it’s bad. Conversely liking something is different from thinking it’s great. A lot of the people who heard the Gothic on 17 July may simply hate it, the way I found some patches dull but others impossibly compelling. There is no shame in either response. To conflate one’s initial response with the artistic success of the work, however, is a mistake.
Let’s return to our metaphorical gadget. The problem of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony is the problem of an enormous, clunky, machine. Call it an automobile. It looks like no other: too big for a car park, surely, with all sorts of bizarre external protrusions. The engine is an incomprehensible jumble of obscure parts. This is the “angle” about which the critics will write: the car is a mad monstrosity. They knew this beforehand and prepared for it to be the main story, and the ability to report on the engine’s preposterous structure gives them something to wax critical about. Such a mad machine cannot possibly work.
But why do the passengers look so pleased?
For two more essays on hearing the ‘Gothic’: http://bgreinhart.wordpress.com