Havergal Brian

Symphony no. 1 'Gothic'

  Havergal Brian was a British composer, and when writing of his life or his works, you find yourself having to use superlatives. For example, he was born in 1876, began composing in the 1880s, and was still doing it in 1968! By the age of seventy, Brian had written some six symphonies, but then, despite being almost totally neglected, he then experienced a creative surge, and went on to write a further 26!

Havergal Brian The Gothic Symphony is the first, and was written between 1919 and 1927. It is a six-movement work calling for truly monstrous resources. The last three movements consist of a setting of the 'Te Deum'. The symphony has actually made the pages of the Guinness Book of Records, calling, as it does, for something like a thousand performers. The orchestra contains complete families of instruments, and you will find such things as bass oboes and pedal trombones along with curiosities like thunder machines.

Brian has described the privations he underwent while writing it. At the time he was earning a pittance copying music, and the hours were long. He would do this all day, and then at night turn to the 'Gothic'. At the time he was living in semi-starvation, and the result of this was that he would often experience hallucinations. Being a hard-headed Northerner, when Brian would look up to see the figure of Bach sitting opposite him, he would realise it was a hallucination, and not take any notice.

The symphony has, so far as I know, only been performed a handful of times, and one of those occasions was in Sheffield Town Hall where, apparently, most of the room was taken up by performers, leaving very little space for the audience. Anecdotal material abounds. I was told that in the rehearsals for the performance some years ago in the Royal Albert Hall, that the choirs (every choral society in London including children's choirs!) were numbered. It is said that in the dress rehearsal choir D2 missed their cue, and apparently didn't sing a note in the entire work. Nobody noticed, apparently.

I was at the Albert Hall performance, and can testify that the effect was overwhelming. The symphony does not rely on noise; there is a lot of subtle instrumentation, but rarely at a classical concert does one experience levels of volume that might be produced by a loud heavy metal band!

The music is wonderful - stylistically varied, romantic, dense, imaginative and emotional. Despite the difficulties of obtaining a performance, one wonders why this symphony in particular, and Brian's music in general, is not far more popular. I believe he is one of the very greatest of British composers, and it is perhaps the individuality of his music which leads to the neglect.

This extract comes from the fifth movement, the Judex . It is a long crescendo at the end of the movement, and in performance you keeping thinking the music can't get any higher or louder - and it keeps doing so! Unfortunately because of the volume it reaches, even with compression this extract had to be recorded at a very low level. Ideally this music should be heard on a good hi-fi with the volume turned right up.

The recording is on Marco Polo, part of what was to have been a complete cycle of the symphonies. The credits are too long to give here (two orchestras, for a start!), but the performance is conducted by Ondrej Lenard, and the number is 8.223280-281



Judex, from the Symphony no. 1 'Gothic' by Havergal BrianPlay the sample Back to music pageBack to the music page Back to home pageBack to the home page