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William Havergal Brian

William Havergal Brian

(1876 - 1972)

(b. Dresden, Staffsordshire (England), 1876)
(d. Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex (England); 1972)

English composer of the generation that followed Charles Villiers Stanford, Edward Elgar, Charles H.H. Parry, etc (in other words: roughly contemporary with Ralph Vaughan Williams, Granville Bantock, Donald Tovey, Frank Bridge and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; older than Arthur Bliss, William Walton, etc).

Largely self-taught, Brian (William was his birth name; Havergal adopted in 1899) was best known as a composer in the period immediately prior to the Great War (WWI), when his short orchestral pieces were performed by Beecham, Wood, etc… after the war, few of his works were performed. Worked as a critic (later assistant editor) for the magazine "Musical Opinion" from 1922-40, where he championed the music of Schoenberg amongst others… despite this (and the advocacy of musical knights such as Bantock and Tovey), his own music remained in eclipse.

Interest in the music of Brian was revived in the last years of his life through the efforts of the young Robert Simpson (then a producer with the BBC) amongst others; with performances of the "Gothic" Symphony and recordings of his symphonies by Myer Fredman, Charles Groves and Charles Mackerras. The Hong Kong-based Marco Polo label have been recording a cycle of the Brian symphonies with the assistance of the Havergal Brian Society (see below) and the Grateful Dead's Rex Foundation… at the present time, it isn't clear whether this cycle will be affected by the death of Jerry Garcia and the subsequent disbanding of the "Dead".

Brian is now best known (almost notorious) for his "Gothic" Symphony (Symphony No. 1; 1919-27), generally regarded as the largest symphony ever written. Noone seems to be absolutely certain the exact forces required to perform the work, although the minimum number of musicians required is generally considered to be more than a thousand (around 200 players in the orchestra itself; plus 4 brass bands and 4 large mixed choirs). For all this heavy artillery, the "Gothic" is an amazingly lithe creation, a virtuoso musical journey in six movements from the darkness (of war?) into light (the subtitle refers to the Gothic period of art and architecture, not Bram Stokeresque horror).

(Anyone who has seen the documentary "The Grateful and the Dead" on the Rex Foundation will have seen some amazing home video footage of conductor Ondrej Lenard surrounded by what looks like half of Bratislava as he leads them through the great choral finale of the "Gothic" Symphony. At least two assistant conductors are clearly visible. Absolutely incredible…)

Composed 32 symphonies in all and five operas (27 symphonies and four operas after his 72nd birthday); as well as a number of major choral works and songs. One of the problems faced by modern performances of Brian's music is the distinctly erratic history of publication - indeed, the full score of a work considered by Brian as one of his most important (the massive "Prometheus Unbound" for chorus and orchestra [1937-44]), has been lost (hard as that might be to believe). Other works exist in manuscript only… the production of definitive scores has become one of the most important tasks of the Havergal Brian Society (see below).

As a composer, Brian could be maddeningly uneven: out-and-out masterpieces like the "Gothic" Symphony and the Violin Concerto rub shoulders with seriously problematic works like "Das Siegeslied" (Symphony No. 4). It's probably worth noting that many of Brian's mature works were not performed during his lifetime (indeed, a large number still haven't been publicly performed)… this may not be a fashionable opinion; but I can't help feeling that in the case of Brian, so much writing "for the closet" may have weakened what was clearly a formidable musical talent. Brian's later symphonies in particular tend to be short, craggy utterances, which make few compromises to audience expectations… certainly worth a listen; but definitely an acquired taste.

Some people have likened his work to that of another musical maverick: the Swedish composer (Gustaf) Allan Pettersson. It's easy to see why… but this is one of those comparisons that can be as subtly deceptive as they are obviously useful.

Because of the erratic recording history of Brian's music, people not unreasonably assume that most of his work is on the scale of middle period works such as the "Gothic" or "Das Siegesleid" symphonies (or Petterson's massive, single movement symphonies)… in fact, much of Brian's output (and almost all of his late work) is in multiple movement format with a duration of less than thirty minutes. The comparison between the two composers tends to be more relevant in Brian's earlier works, before retirement from music criticism permitted him to return to full-time composition. While there are obvious similarities between the soundworlds of Brian and Pettersson, the scale of the two composers can be very different indeed. ~ Robert Clements

More information on Brian can be obtained from the Havergal Brian Society:

The Honorary Secretary
Havergal Brian Society
5 Eastbury Rd
Watford WD1 4PT

Recommended Recordings


Naxos 8.557418/19
Symphony #1 "Gothic"/Naxos 8.557418/19 (old Marco Polo 8.223280/1)
Eva Jenisová (soprano), Dagmar Pecková (alto), Vladimir Doležal (tenor), Peter Mikulás (bass), Slovak State Opera Chorus, Slovak Folk Ensemble Chorus, Lucnica Chorus, Bratislava City Choir, Bratislava Radio Children's Chorus, Youth Echo Choir, Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus, Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra Bratislava/Ondrej Lenárd

Symphony #3/Hyperion CDH55029
Andrew Ball & Julian Jacobsen (pianos), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Lionel Friend

Symphonies #7-9, Tinker's Wedding & Comedy Overture/EMI British Composers 575782-2
EMI 75782
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Mackerras & Charles Groves

Symphony #18, Violin Concerto & Comedy Overture/Naxos 8.557775 (old Marco Polo 8.223479)
Marat Bisengaliev (violin), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Lionel Friend