Music: Gothic Grandeur — The Triumph of Havergal Brian

He earned his place in the record books, did Havergal Brian. The first British composer from the working class. Creator of the biggest symphony ever written. In his day, the most prolific symphonist since Haydn—writing 21 of his 32 numbered symphonies after his 80th birthday. But Brian (1876-1972) was an outsider during his own lifetime, and concert planners seem determined to keep it that way this next century. The loss is ours: Brian’s music is gutsy, craggy, utterly unique in its sound world—and a testament to the power of the human spirit to overcome daunting odds.

This unlikely story begins in the English “Potteries” around Stoke-on-Trent, south of Manchester, on January 29, 1876, with the birth of William Brian (he found “Havergal” in an organ tutor and took a fancy to the name). He studied violin, cello, and organ as a boy and sang in local choirs but at twelve was forced to leave school to earn his living. He played the organ when time allowed, but his interests sometimes clashed: At 15, he was given the sack from a carpenter’s yard for writing music on the planks. That tough adolescence must have hardened his skin—just as well, because life as an adult was going to be no less hard.

The British provinces at the end of the 19th century had a proud tradition of music-making, particularly in choral singing, and it wasn’t long before Brian was trying his hand at pieces for local performance. Most of those early works are lost. One of the earliest, a 1904 setting of Psalm XXIII—also lost but reconstructed by Brian in 1945— reveals the influence of Edward Elgar (who, indeed, admired it).

It should also have announced that a new, individual voice had emerged in British music: The score shows several of the fingerprints of the mature Brian, not least a fondness for march rhythms and a tendency to juxtapose strongly contrasted material. It’s tough, confident, and reveals that Brian, even at the outset, could think on a large scale. But the piece wasn’t even performed until 1973, a year after its composer’s death at the age of 96.

Quite how large a scale would not become clear for another two decades. In 1907 he had enjoyed success at the Promenade Concerts in London with his noble, Elgarian overture, For Valour, and with the first of what would turn out to be five English Suites. But once again, nothing happened. So, based in the southeast of England from 1913, Brian supported himself and his growing family with music-journalism while, soaking up the influences of Elgar, Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg, and other contemporaries, he flexed his composer’s muscles in a series of choral and orchestral works.

Though his career steadfastly refused to take off, Brian doggedly continued writing. He signed up at the outset of World War I, and though a hand injury meant he never saw active service, he was put to work logging the effects of men killed in action—an activity which changed him profoundly. The first result was a large-scale satirical opera, The Tigers, which in its send-up of military pomposity is almost Monty Python ante diem. The next was rather deeper and more ambitious than anyone had ever contemplated.

As early as 1906 Brian had begun to turn the idea of a symphony over in his mind. A year later, Henry Wood casually suggested to him the idea of an orchestral work employing many of the instruments that had fallen from favor: the oboe d’amore, bassett-horn, and so on. The two strands of thought began to gel in his mind, and between 1919 and 1922 he sketched out what was to become his Symphony No. 1, The Gothic, completing it in 1927.

The Gothic had an obvious model in Beethoven’s Ninth: It has three opening orchestral movements and a choral finale. But the size of Brian’s “finale” dwarfs Beethoven’s. It is nothing less than a full-scale, three-movement setting of the Te Deum—it “pushed itself forward as the only possible finale,” the composer later commented. And what a setting. As well as requiring an orchestra some 200 strong, Brian calls for two double choruses and a children’s chorus, each of the four adult choruses with its own brass band and set of timpani.

Part I of The Gothic opens with a powerful orchestral gesture suggesting that we have arrived in medias res, in an Allegro assai that whirls the listener through an extraordinary variety of textures and moods. Malcolm MacDonald, the Scottish musicologist who knows Brian’s music like no other, describes the opening of the slow movement, marked Lento espressivo e solenne, as being “like a cortege approaching through the shadows of an immense, vaulted cathedral nave”; it’s riven with Brian’s favorite march-rhythms. And the kaleidoscopic Vivace third movement is a tour de force of orchestral writing, as if a thousand gargoyles were holding a Sabbath among the cathedral’s crenellations.

MacDonald describes Part II as “a fantastic synthesis, at many levels, of different ages of music” and points to its echoes of such past masters as Palestrina, Byrd, Gabrieli, and Gesualdo; yet, he continues, “The music owes little directly to any of these influences; in sum it is a profoundly original creative achievement.” It’s also a profoundly moving one. It’s a spectacle, too, of course: The only time I have encountered the work live—in May 1980, in London’s Royal Albert Hall the very sight of such massive choral and orchestral forces took my breath away before a note was sounded.

So many voices—in polyphony of such evolving complexity that one wonders how Brian can even have imagined it—produce a physical thrill of a sort no other music I know can rival. Perhaps the most extraordinary moment of all comes toward the end, as the listener is swept up in a maelstrom of elemental power. The six timpanists (18 drums!), and then two bass-drummers, begin to batter out a polyrhythmic tattoo that you have to hear to believe. “Non confundar in aeternum,” cry the choruses (“Let me never be confounded”). The orchestra responds with a huge, surging fanfare. The choruses repeat their prayer, not in any triumphal affirmation, but in a pianissimo imprecation—and the work is over.

With its requirements of up to 800 performers, and almost two hours in duration, it’s hardly surprising that The Gothic is not encountered live very often. Brian himself first heard it only in 1961, in a largely amateur account. The first professional performance came, thanks to Brian’s champion, Robert Simpson, in 1966, when Sir Adrian Boult conducted it at the Albert Hall. (When Simpson told Brian he should go and take a bow before the tumultuous applause of the 5,000 people who had come to hear it, he said simply: “It doesn’t half get you behind the knees, all this sitting about.”) A second amateur performance came in 1978, when Brian’s own Potteries paid him homage. And the third professional performance occurred when the label Marco Polo recorded The Gothic in Bratislava in 1989 at the outset of a complete survey of Brian’s orchestral music on CD, now one-third complete. And that’s it.

So it has never been done in North America. Yet this is one of the towering achievements of all music. Eugene Goossens tried to put it on in the 1930s in Cincinnati, but the Depression put an end to those ambitions. In 70 years there has hardly been a ripple of interest. But surely it’s time that America heard this staggering masterpiece, this triumph of the human will.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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