The key question about Havergal Brian’s Violin Concerto in C major is whether it ought to be regarded as one of the great British concertos or whether it deserves its relative obscurity.
Now, the Brian aficionado will insist that this work is a masterpiece and deserves to be taken up by any number of leading soloists and orchestras. But what is the competition? I am sure that the readers do not need to be read a lecture on the repertoire, however it is worth a few moments just listing the some key British works in this genre.
Few would argue that the leading contenders are Edward Elgar and William Walton. However, it would be unfair to disregard E.J. Moeran and Benjamin Britten. Another name to be reckoned with is Alan Rawsthorne who composed two excellent examples of the genre which have been recorded by Naxos. The little appreciated work by Fred. Delius is actually rather good. And the offerings by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Arthur Somervell should not be ignored. In recent years there is the stunning Violin Concerto by Lionel Sainsbury. Yet, it is the Elgar and the Walton concerti that really count in the concert halls and on record. I have loved these two works since I was a teenager: both of them reach for the stars and touch the moon. And they have one distinct advantage. They are exposed to the public. They are heard at concerts and on the radio: scores are available for perusal by the musically literate. There are essays available to assist with analysis. And finally, biographies and letters of these composers help us find our way through these pages.
What are we to make of Havergal Brian’s Concerto? Firstly, this is not a new work – it has been around for 70 years. However it had to wait until 1969 before receiving its first performance by Ralph Holmes and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. It is currently available on a Naxos disc which is a re-release: it was originally issued on Marco Polo over 15 years ago.
Secondly, the first performance of this piece (1969) was at a time when tonal music was at an all time low. In fact, it was likely to have been regarded as being passé by most learned critics at that time. A composer like Havergal Brian was not appreciated. The concerto, although receiving fine reviews, would not catch the eye of the cognoscenti. It would be left to the enthusiasts of Brian’s music to carry the torch. In the second decade of the 21st century we are less inclined to write-off a work because it does not conform to the latest ideas on musical composition. So the work has a good chance of being heard, enjoyed and appreciated without being condemned.
And lastly, in spite of the efforts of the Havergal Brian Society, I doubt that his name will ever rank with Walton and Elgar in the musical public’s perception.
However, after a number of hearings, I am convinced that this work will complete the triangle of key violin concertos produced in the 20th century in the United Kingdom.
But first of all it is helpful to give a brief resume of the genesis of this great concerto. I rely heavily on the excellent programme notes written by Malcolm MacDonald for the Naxos recording. Brian had composed his Fourth Symphony in 1933 and decided to embark on the composition of a large scale work -the Violin Concerto. As a child, Brian had learnt to play the violin, so it was natural that he should turn to this particular form.
The draft score was completed by June 1934 but unfortunately it was lost on a train trip from Brighton to London Victoria – his briefcase was stolen or mislaid. Typically, he set to work straight away to recover lost ground. He did not try to reconstruct the work from memory but effectively created a new work using what themes and progressions he could recall from the original. The ‘new’ work was finished in the summer of 1935 and was initially called Violin Concerto No.2. It was subtitled ‘The Heroic’ which aptly summed up the effort Brian put into creating this masterpiece. Eventually the composer dropped the No.2 and the name and it became known as Violin Concerto in C major.
It is superfluous to describe the musical progress of this work. The programme notes give a detailed analysis of each movement and the listener can peruse this at leisure. Furthermore it is difficult to try to say what the work sounds like. All sorts of allusions spring to mind. And one of my criticisms of the Brian’s music is that it can sometimes be a little too eclectic. One minute we are reminded of Elgar, then the next Schoenberg and perhaps a few bars later Shostakovich. But at the end of the day the end result is typically Havergal Brian.
The work is in three movements – two ‘allegros’ sandwich a ‘passacaglia’. On my first hearing, I felt that the work seemed unbalanced, but with further hearings it fell into place for me. The equilibrium between the soloist and the orchestra, which can ruin many a good concerto, seems just about right.
One of Havergal Brian’s fingerprints is the tensions in his use of musical language. Much of this work is quite obviously tonal – yet, suddenly he pushes towards an atonality that would have made Ligetti proud! Some of his ‘tunes’ are diatonic and nod towards folk-music but others suggest the breakdown of the key signature. Some melodies could be whistled by the proverbial ‘butcher’s boy on his bicycle’ – others would seem to defy analysis. Often Brian’s harmonies are conventional sometimes they are harsh. Yet the balance is always right. He never loses the plot.
The greatness of this Violin Concerto lies in the well-contrived tension between competing elements and styles. There is an overt simplicity about much of this music that harks back to a more pastoral age, yet some of the more complex passages owe more to Berg and Schoenberg than to English folk song. Much of this concerto is intense, probing the very heart of music and perhaps life itself. This is expressly so in the Lento. Sometimes there is a serenity that lulls the listener into a false sense of security. Occasionally the music appears naïve – there is a passage in the last movement that is almost childish. Yet the balance remains; the equilibrium is never lost. The artistic integrity is never misplaced.
The final recommendation for this work is the blatantly obvious fact that Brian has used the great romantic concertos of the past as models. Of course he knew the Elgar and the Dvorak and the Tchaikovsky. He has not copied or even parodied any of these works. What he has done is learnt the lessons of their style and their balance and created a masterpiece in his own right.
Havergal Brian’s Violin Concerto is available on NAXOS 8.557775