Saturday, 15 January 2011

Havergal Brian: Gothic Symphony

I recently reported on the performance of Havergal Brian's gargantuan Gothic Symphony in Brisbane, Australia. I noted that there is a fine recording of this work on NAXOS. The thoughts below are an attempt at developing a strategy for listening to this work.

Is there a helpful listening strategy for the longest symphony in the repertoire? Is there some way of approaching this gargantuan work that will enable us to fit it into a workable frame of reference?
Apart from operas and oratorios this is the longest piece of music I have listened to at a single sitting. I understand that many people could well give up at the end of the first couple of tracks. It is quite definitely a musical marathon.

I believe that there is a way to approach this work in a satisfying manner. Now normally I would argue that any musical work should be listened to as a unity. I have never liked excerpting favourite movements of concerti or symphonies. However I am not sure that this present work needs to be taken at one bite; I do not hesitate in thinking that the extended time commitment required is likely to put the listener off and make them more enthusiastic about making a cup of tea or coffee.

I think the correct approach to this symphony is based around the fact that this work is divided quite clearly into two sections - not related to the two CDs. Part One is inspired by the legend of Faust and Part Two has the great Christian hymn, 'Te Deum' as its raison d'être. I remember reading a review in which the author contends that if only 'part one' existed, we would have a fine example of a British Symphony that would entitle the composer to immense respect. Furthermore there is an obvious hiatus between parts. The first is for the orchestra alone, the second is a massive choral work.

A little bit of background is helpful. Havergal Brian composed the Gothic Symphony over a period of seven or eight years. He was over fifty years old when it was completed so it reflects his mature musical personality. The symphony brings together two huge, contrasting projects that had been casting around the composer’s mind for many years. The first was based on the legend of Faust and the second was a 'symphonic' vision of the Gothic Age (1150-1560) as a 'period of almost unlimited expansion of human knowledge, both secular and spiritual, both glorious and terrible.' It is as if pagan and Christian were being set in opposition.

Faust is the main character of a popular legend. He has featured in many different fictional works over the years. The story concerns the fate of a scholarly gentleman who calls up the Devil, usually called Mephistopheles, from the depths of hell. As a result of their meeting, Faust decides to sell his soul to the Devil and the contract is signed in blood. The final fate of Faust differs from story to story.
Faust became the arch-type of the Gothic man seeking after arcane knowledge and spiritual enlightenment. It is not too difficult to transfer the legend to any age; we need only think of the false gods of communism, cpaitalism and fascism that have plagued history over the last 100 years. It is easy to see Hitler or Stalin (both somewhat later than the symphony I hasten to add!) as offering illumination to a 'Faustian' population.

The second part of this work is a massive setting of the Te Deum. This is one of the great hymns of the Christian Church. Its authorship is unknown, yet patristic scholars assume that it is a conflation of two (perhaps more) earlier hymns. It is fundamentally a paean of praise to God the Father and to God the Son; Redemption and Creation. Of course this liturgical text has been set to music by a number of composers; I think of those by Bruckner, Berlioz and Dvořák as being amongst the best known.
So having looked at the fundamental thesis of the work we can see, perhaps, a way forward. My strategy is quite simple. Take each part as a separate event. The opening 'symphony' does stand alone and repays more than one hearing. The Te Deum compares favourably with the version by Berlioz as a triumph of massive musical invention and genius.
The connection between the two parts of this work can be made by understanding just one thing. Faust was not an inherently evil person - just misguided perhaps. He was in need of redemption - like all of us - be it religious or by discovery of the worth of self. It is these great themes that this work addresses.

However, when all is said and done it is important to realise that this is actually a quite a revolutionary piece of music. In fact, one of its faults could be that it is too eclectic. We move from neo-gothic plainsong themes to 'clusters' prefiguring Ligeti and other later composers. Sometimes we hear an Elgarian tune making head-way only to be displaced by something a bit more Schoenbergian. Yet in some ways it always seems to hang together; there is a unifying thread which, to be honest, is quite difficult to put ones finger on. How do we resolve this?

Perhaps one of the most helpful analogies for this symphony is that of the Gothic Cathedral (which actually is part of the intellectual concept of the work).
Imagine walking around, say, York Minster. We are faced with a plethora of images. There are artefacts from a time period of many centuries. All of them are vying for our attention. The best of the new blends in with the original Gothic fabric. However, the occasional modern feature shouts its protest against the prevailing style. Sometimes we find a hidden gem; under a misericord, perhaps; sometimes we are overwhelmed by the loftiness of the central tower or the massiveness of the buttresses. The tiny medieval wren chasing a spider in the Zouch Chapel stained glass window is juxtaposed against the 64ft organ pipes and the huge new roof bosses in the south transept.
All these things make up the cathedral and create its sense of purpose and spiritual vitality. Some things are in equilibrium and some in tension. It is like this in Brian's Gothic Symphony.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I played in an amateur performance of The Gothic in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent UK in May 1978.

It was well received and a credible report was written in "The Sunday Times" regarding this and we had the support of The Havergal Brian Society.