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Book Review

Havergal Brian on Music

On Music, Volume One: British Music

Volume One: British Music

Malcolm MacDonald, editor
London: Toccata Press. 1986. 438 pp
Also available directly from publisher.
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I suppose most people see the cultural landscape as a feudal one – a lone, high tower representing the great artist, dominating a plain inhabited by everybody else. We talk of the Age of Beethoven or perhaps of Brahms and Wagner or Haydn and Mozart and in so doing get a rather distorted view of what really went on. Britain for the longest time seemed peculiarly susceptible to the inability to hold more than one composer in its head at any one time. Elgar crowded out his contemporaries. Vaughan Williams overshadowed several interesting composers. Britten did the same, blotting out even such formidable figures as Walton and Tippett. Britain, of course, isn't alone in this. For some reason, people want to know the Absolute Best, rather than the merely wonderful.

The concept of absolute best holds almost no aesthetic attraction or interest for me. Further, I find it without any valid practical consequence. If I listen to only the Absolute Best, I wind up listening to only one work, a dismal thought. I view good composers as individuals. In my ignorance, I hold Vorisek as a fabulous composer, whose music gives me something I like that's not what any other composer's music gives me. To call one better than another is like asking me which of my family I like best.

Havergal Brian lived during one of the most vital periods of British music, the so-called British Renaissance, which scholars tend to date from Parry and Stanford. Fine composers cover the ground, and not just the big names: Delius, Ireland, Bridge, Holst, Leigh, Chagrin, Cooke, Goossens, Delius, Bax, Arnold, Alwyn, Addison, Leighton, Rubbra, Berners, Clarke, Joseph, Dyson, Sorabji, Smyth, Foulds, Scott, Maconchy, Grainger, Jacob, Frankel, Searle, Rawsthorne, Maw, Brian himself, and the list goes on. Brian heard a staggering amount of it, as well as composers from the continent. He recognized the genius of Mahler and Bruckner as soon as the early 1900s. On one side or the other of the edge of poverty all his life and with no substantial recognition of his music until near its end, he made his meager living as a musical journalist and copyist. The journalism got him free tickets to performances, and the reviews provide the proof that he went to as many as he could.

This book documents a major composer's thoughts on his contemporary countrymen. Brian writes lively, if not especially distinguished prose, and I suppose a Brian fan would get the most out of it. Even so, it conveys a sense of exciting times that should interest devotees of the British musical century in general. Malcolm MacDonald is a selfless editor, zealous even in the thankless task of checking dates and programs, since Brian relied mainly on his memory to write on events taking place decades beforehand.

Some of Brian's articles penetrate to the heart of certain works. I've not read a more insightful critique of the Vaughan Williams "Pastoral" symphony until Michael Kennedy's. The symphony remains one of Vaughan Williams' works which least accomodate the new listener. The articles on Delius make a strong, effective case for that composer, pointing out where at least some of his attraction lies. The articles on Elgar interest me mainly because of Brian's identification with the older composer as an outsider from the North trying to crack the powerful London cultural market. Yet, even here, Brian's knowledge of Elgar's music runs wide and deep, encompassing even such relatively little-known works as The Black Knight and The Apostles. The articles show Brian's profound acquaintance with his subjects. You know he could quote measure numbers if necessary, but in general he pitches his essays to the general musical reader. There is little in the way of musical type or technical terms.

Two of Brian's enthusiasms – Granville Bantock and Josef Holbrooke – haven't lasted well. I find Bantock's music over-inflated and hot-house-humid, and I explain Brian's sincere affection for it in terms of cultural history – the Edwardians' attempt to break through what they felt as the stultifying Victorian proprieties, particularly in regard to sex. This comes out in a fondness for languorous orientalia and for Celtic primitivism. Holbrooke's music I flat-out dislike – pretentious, over-serious, and (most deadly of all) Artistic, although I admit that his obnoxious and ultimately unstable personality could have influenced my reception of his music. Or perhaps his music simply bores me. Of course, I haven't heard nearly as much as Brian of Holbrooke's music, and I certainly don't know it at Brian's level of detail. Apollo and the Seaman (if Holbrooke had any sense of humor at all, he would have avoided that title) gives me less real music than almost any song by Warlock and goes on for far longer.

At any rate, Brian's take on British music most impresses me because the point of view is so wide. He obviously knows what's going on in the rest of Europe and has taken much of it in. Thus, we get an oulook wider than any particular faction, circle of friends, or manifesto. Toccata Press plans six volumes, with the second volume devoted to Brian's writings on contemporary music on the continent. I look forward to the whole set.

Copyright © 1999 by Steve Schwartz.