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Havergal Brian

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Havergal Brian (born William Brian in Dresden, Staffordshire, England 29 January 1876 – 28 November 1972 in Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex) was an English classical composer.
Brian is best known for his cycle of 32 symphonies (an unusually high total for a 20th-century composer), most of which were composed late in his life. By far his best known work however is his Symphony No. 1, The Gothic, which calls for some of the largest orchestral forces demanded by a conventionally structured concert work. He also composed five operas and a number of other orchestral works, as well as songs, choral music and a small amount of chamber music.
Brian enjoyed a period of popularity earlier in his career and rediscovery in the 1950s. Public performances of his music have remained rare however, and he has remained the subject of a small but enthusiastic following rather than general popularity: he has been described as a 'cult composer'. He continued to be extremely productive late into his career, composing large works even into his nineties, the majority of which remained unperformed during his lifetime.
William Brian (he adopted the name "Havergal" from a local family of hymn-writers, of whom Frances Ridley Havergal was most prominent) was born in Dresden, a suburb of Longton in Stoke-on-Trent, and was one of a very small number of composers to originate from the English working class. After attending an elementary school he had difficulty finding any congenial work, and taught himself the rudiments of music. For a time he was organist of Odd Rode Church just across the border in Cheshire. In 1895, he heard a choir rehearsing Elgar's King Olaf, attended the first performance and became a fervent enthusiast of the new music being produced by Richard Strauss and the British composers of the day. Through attending music festivals he made the lifelong friendship of his near-contemporary composer Granville Bantock (1868–1946).
In 1898, Brian married Isabel Priestley, by whom he had five children. One of his sons was named Sterndale after the English composer Sir William Sterndale Bennett. At this point (1907) a development unusual in British 20th century musical history transformed Brian's life; whether for better or for worse has never been decided. He was offered a yearly income of £500 (then a respectable lower-middle-class salary) by a local wealthy businessman, Herbert Minton Robinson, to enable him to devote all his time to composition. It seems Robinson expected Brian soon to become successful and financially independent on the strength of his compositions, and initially Brian indeed found success: his first English Suite attracted the attention of Henry J. Wood, who performed it at the London Proms in 1907. The work proved popular and Brian obtained a publisher and performances for his next few orchestral works, although this initial success was not maintained. For a while Brian worked on a number of ambitious large-scale choral and orchestral works, but felt no urgency to finish them, and began to indulge in pleasures such as expensive foods and a trip to Italy.
Arguments over the money and an affair with a young servant, Hilda Mary Hayward (1894-1980), led to the collapse of his first marriage in 1913. Brian fled to London and, although Robinson (who disapproved of the incident) continued to provide Brian with money until his own death, most of the allowance went to Brian's estranged wife after 1913. The affair with Hilda turned into a lifelong relationship: Brian and she began living together as man and wife, and after Isabel's death in 1933 they were married, by which point Hilda had already borne him another five children. No longer able to rely on Robinson's support, in London Brian began composing copiously whilst living in poverty. On the outbreak of World War I he volunteered for the Honourable Artillery Company but saw no service before he was invalided out with a hand injury. He subsequently worked at the Audit Office of the Canadian Expeditionary Force until December 1915. The family then moved to Erdington, near Birmingham, Warwickshire, until May 1919 and then spent several years in various locations in Sussex. His brief war service gave him the material for his first opera The Tigers. In the 1920s he turned to composing symphonies, though he had written more than ten before one of them was first performed in the early 1950s. Brian eventually obtained work of a musical kind, copying and arranging, and writing for the journal The British Bandsman. In 1927, he became assistant editor of the journal Musical Opinion and moved back to London.
In 1940 he retired, living firstly in London, and then in Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex. Freed from the requirement to work to make a living, he was able to devote all of his time to composition, and the bulk of his compositional output belongs to the last three decades of his life, including four of the five operas (composed between 1951 and 1957) and tweny-seven of the thirty-two symphonies (composed from 1948 onwards). Through most of the 1960s, Brian composed two or three symphonies each year.
This late flurry of activity coincided with something of a rediscovery, in part due to the efforts of Robert Simpson, himself a significant composer and BBC Music Producer, who asked Sir Adrian Boult to programme the Eighth Symphony in 1954. A number of Brian works received their public premieres during this time, including the Gothic Symphony. Written decades earlier between 1919 and 1927, was premiered in a partly amateur performance in 1961 at Westminster Central Hall, conducted by Bryan Fairfax. A fully professional performance followed in 1966 at the Royal Albert Hall, conducted by Boult. The latter performance was broadcast live, encouraging considerable interest, and by his death six years later several of his works had been performed, along with the first commercial recordings of Brian's music. For a few years after Brian's death there was a revival of interest in Brian with a number of further recordings and performances; two biographies and a three-volume study of his symphonies appeared.
Renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski heard the Sinfonia Tragica (No. 6) and let it be known that he would like to perform a Brian work. The result was the world premiere in 1973 of the 28th Symphony, in a BBC broadcast produced by Robert Simpson in Maida Vale Studio 1, and played by the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Anthony Payne in his Daily Telegraph review wrote: "It was fascinating to contemplate the uniqueness of the event – a 91-year-old conductor learning a new work by a 91-year-old composer."
Stylistically, Brian's music could broadly be desrcibed as being a late romantic idiom, exhibiting the influence of Gustav Mahler in his ambitious orchestration and progressive tonality. A Germanophile - the text of the Psalms in his fourth symphony is sung in German - Brian's main musical influences are primarily Germanic composers like Wagner, Bruckner, Strauss, Mahler and Bach, as well as Elgar. Brian’s music is fundamentally tonal rather than atonal and shows little or no influence of dodecaphony, however it is often punctuated with violent and occasionally dissonant passages.
Brian's music has several recognisable hallmarks: the liking of extreme dotted rhythms, deep brass notes, and various uncharacteristic harp, piano and percussion timbres, and other unusual orchestral sounds and textures. Also typical are moments of stillness, such as the slow harp arpeggio that is heard near the beginning and ending of the Eighth Symphony. Arguably his music's most notable characteristic however is its restlessness: rarely does one mood persist for long before it is contrasted, often abruptly, with another. Even in Brian’s slow movements, lyrical meditation does not often structure the music for long before restless thoughts intrude. Although the fragmentary nature of his music militates against classical thematic unity, he often employs structural blocks of sound, where similar rhythms and thematic material allude to previous passages (as opposed to classical statement and recapitulation). However fragmentary Brian’s music is, he maintains symphonic cohesion by long-term tonal processes (similar to Carl Nielsen's "progressive tonality"), where the music is aiming towards a key, rather than being in a home key and returning to it.
Like Bach and Bruckner, Brian was an organist, and the organ repertoire influenced his musical habits (and the organ appears in several of his symphonies). Other sources of influence are late Victorian street music, and particularly brass and military bands: although he composed little dedicated music for brass band, Brass instruments are often prominent in Brian’s orchestral music, as are marches.
Although he wrote music in a range of forms, Brian's most famous legacy is his cycle of 32 symphonies. His first canonical symphony - an earlier Fantastic Symphony was withdrawn - is the colossal Gothic Symphony, a performance of which last almost two hours and requires enormous orchestral and choral forces, was completed in 1927. Although the Gothic is by far Brian's best known work, and perhaps the work by which he has come to be defined, it is not representative of his symphonies as a whole. Few of Brian's symphonies call for larger forces than a typical 20th-century symphony orchestra(although No. 4 Das Siegeslied calls for a large choir and vocal soloists), and a typical Brian symphony lasts approximately twenty minutes in performance. Brian usually alludes to the classical four-movement structure of the symphony, even in single-movement works. His sixth symphony was composed at the age of 72, and the majority of Brian's symphonies were composed in rapid succession in the last two decades of his life, in his 80s and even into his 90s. Most were unperformed during Brian's own life, although all thirty-two have since been recorded.
As well symphonies Brian also composed several large operas in the 1950s. In 1997, Brian's 1951 opera in eight scenes The Cenci, based on the 1819 play by Percy Bysshe Shelley, was premiered in a concert performance by the Millennium Sinfonia, conducted by James Kelleher, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.
Brian's musical influence was limited by the fact that so little of his music was performed or recorded until after his death, by which time his stylistic idiom could be considered anachronistic. Nonetheless he was held in high regard by composers such as Robert Simpson and some of his contemporaries, such as Granville Bantock. His music has generally been championed by a small number of enthusiasts rather than enjoying a more general populartiy, and continues to divide opinion. To Mark Morris, writing in his Guide to Twentieth Century Composers, in the Gothic Symphony Brian achieved "one of the world's artistic masterpieces, in vision, grandeur, and in the combination of complexity and luminosity worthy to stand alongside the great cathedrals of the age that inspired it... [it] is arguably, more than any other late-Romantic work, the climax of the Romantic age.". Writing in The Spectator in 2016, Damian Thompson claimed that if Brian's thirtieth symphony were premiered today as the work of a 25-year old composer, it "might even be hailed as the triumphant reinvention of tonality".
Others have been more critical, however. Reviewing the 2011 performance of the Gothic Symphony at the BBC Proms (Brian's first ever appearance at the Proms), David Nice of The Arts Desk described it as a "terrible, inchoate mess" and "Big, long, and very short on great ideas"; writing in The Guardian Andrew Clements described it as featuring "moments of striking originality, particularly the sparer, more spectral ideas, but much more is either entirely unmemorable or simply grotesquely odd, and often hopelessly over-scored. Ideas come and go; for a work that lasts nearly two hours, the music is surprisingly short-winded."
These lists follow the Havergal Brian Society's Extant Works (ordered by type):
The first commercial recording of Havergal Brian's music was made by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra in 1972, when Symphonies Nos. 10 and 21, conducted by James Loughran and Eric Pinkett respectively, were recorded at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester. The producer was Robert Simpson. The LP was released by Unicorn Records in 1973. A special edition of the television programme Aquarius called The Unknown Warrior gave considerable coverage to the recording session and a camera crew joined members of the orchestra during a visit they made to the composer's home in Shoreham.
During the 1970s a number of unofficial releases of Brian symphonies were made. These generally were of BBC recordings, and the recordings were released under fictitious names. Several have now had official releasees.
In 1979, Cameo Classics embarked on a project to record all of Brian's orchestral music in collaboration with the Havergal Brian Society. It started with the English Suite No. 1, Doctor Merryheart, and Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme. In 1980 came the second LP containing In Memoriam, For Valour, and Festal Dance. The project was completed in 1981 with the recordings of Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme, and Two Herrick Songs, Requiem for the Rose and The Hag. The recordings were produced by David Kent-Watson with the Hull Youth Orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Heald-Smith. For the recording of Brian's complete piano music, Cameo Classics employed digital technology. Peter Hill's performances on a Bösendorfer Imperial at the Northern College of Music earned high praise from John Ogdon in his review for Tempo.
More of Brian's works have been published since the 1980s and '90s, and the scarcity of well-rehearsed performances or mature interpretations that had previously made the quality of his music difficult to assess has been partially corrected through the series of professional recordings of many of Brian's symphonies that have been issued by the Marco Polo record label on CD. Many of the original recordings on various labels are being reissued, and by the end of 2018 all of Brian's symphonies had at least one official recording, although not necessarily in print.
In August 2010, the Dutton CD label issued three works taken from 1959 BBC broadcasts: the Comedy Overture Doctor Merryheart and 11th Symphony (with Harry Newstone conducting the London Symphony Orchestra) and the 9th Symphony (Norman del Mar and the LSO). This release followed on from Testament's reissue of the live recording of the 1966 Boult performance in the Royal Albert Hall of Brian's Gothic Symphony. In the 2011 Proms concert season the symphony was conducted by Martyn Brabbins in the Royal Albert Hall; the performance is now available on a commercial recording.
In July 2012, a documentary film, "The Curse of the Gothic Symphony" was released in Australian cinemas. Directed by Randall Wood, it is a dramatised documentary of the trials and tribulations of staging Brian's Gothic Symphony in Brisbane, Queensland. Filmed over five years, the enormous task of gathering 200 musicians and 400 choristers came to fruition in 2010 in a triumphal performance and standing ovation in Brisbane's Performing Arts centre.
Here is a partial list of known recordings for Havergal Brian's symphonies; many are out of print, others have never been released commercially; some have been released in bootleg format or exist in BBC archives:
&=out of print LP &&=released on a pirated LP with apocryphal attributions to Horst Werner(conductor)/ Hamburg Philharmonic &&&= released in a (pirated) LP box-set with (presumed) apocryphal attributions to John Freedman (conductor)/ Edinburgh Youth Symphony Orchestras &&&&=recording from original BBC broadcast exists, not commercially released &&&&&=recording from BBC radio 3 exists, not commercially released; a pirated LP (Aries LP-1607) with apocryphal attributions to Horst Werner (conductor)/ Hamburg Philharmonic is reported and refers to this Stokowski performance d=cd was made, but is now deleted from catalogue e=recording is in the public domain and is available from the Havergal Brian Society webpage Both the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra recordings have been remastered and rereleased. Many of the BBC recordings are freely available for download with registration.
The Unknown Warrior A documentary featuring the LSSO recording session of symphonies Nos. 10 and 21 and an informal interview with the composer
Rehearsal of Symphony No.10 by the LSSO reunion orchestra in 1998