18 July 2011

Gothic Symphony

I was shocked to realise the other day how much I learnt from The Guinness Book of Records when I was a child. Back then, it was a "must have" Christmas present, and when eventually I was given one (I think it was the 1968 edition) I read it avidly. What an appalling way to learn of the Holocaust, Stalin's purges and the Cultural Revolution: man's inhumanity to man as world records.

It also told me of Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony, the world's biggest piece of music - mainly, I think, because of the forces it requires, but perhaps also in sheer number of "dots", or of bars ... As soon as I knew it existed, I wanted to hear it, and last night at the Proms I did. I had already heard it, thanks to what I am coming to think of as the modern curse of CD technology - it's too easy to hear music these days, too quotedien (ha! presumptious - moi?), although using the Gothic as aural wallpaper is even by my standards eccentric ... How much better to hear it straight through, live, with nothing else to think about. No multitasking required.

It had been performed a couple of times by the time I learnt of its existence - so the composer did get to hear it before he died at the ripe old age of 96. There have been a couple of performances of the first, orchestral, part since, which overcame the problem of finding 700 or so singers to make up the three choruses needed, and I think you could also get away without the four off-stage brass bands, so all you need is an orchestra of just short of 200 people. Brian (the "Havergal" was an addition he made: his forename William hardly ever seems to be mentioned) was not content just to write the biggest piece of music in the world, using forces Mahler would have considered large: he also decided to include every type of woodwind known to humankind, so the 200 will have to include contrabass clarinet, obe d'amore, basset horn and other exotica. Hard to find the instruments, let alone the players, I suspect.

And as for the players, Brian bowled a few googlies there too. He included what seems to be regarded as the most difficult xylophone solo ever written, and (perhaps on account of his being a self-taught composer) made the horn-playing tricky, unlike Strauss who understood the mechanics of the instrument (this from Ian Fisher, one of the 17 horn players involved in last night's performance, at the Pre-Prom Talk). I snapped an illicit photo before the conductor Martyn Brabbins came out to lead his army, and it hardly does justice to the size of the gathering: several choirs are lost in the gloom.
Seats reportedly sold out in 2 hours, though curiously there were many spaces down below, in the expensive parts of the hall. That reflects the attraction of what someone I know referred to as a "freak show", as well as the sheer rarity of an event like this, but more than either of those factors it reflects the fact that so many seats were unavailable to paying concertgoers and the Arena was reduced in size too - with the water feature taken out as well. Only a few hundred Prommers downstairs: we were on the Balcony, my favourite location for promming (literally: it's possible to stroll round most of the circumference of the hall when one grows tired of standing still).

Brian started writing this first symphony (it has been called immature, although he was already 33, and certainly he seems to have learned later that brevity can be a virtue) in 1919, only nine years after the first performance of Mahler's 8th (which wasn't performed in the UK until 1930). Mahler used Faust as the basis, or a basis, of his work, and so did Brian, so it strikes me that the formula for the Gothic might be expressed as Mahler 8 plus World War 1. Certainly the war influenced Brian's work - and working, as he did, as a clerk dealing with the effects of Canadian casualties must have been awful, if nothing like as bad as a combat role.

So what of the music? Well, 40 years of anticipation could have spelt disaster. I went to the Royal Albert Hall fully expecting to be disappointed, and I wasn't. The music was constantly engaging: there was always something happening. As my companion pointed out, nothing to whistle on the way home, except perhaps that jaunty march from near the end - scored, naturally, for nine clarinets. The score was inventive and very listenable, as well as having a lot of profound things to say, and there was never a dull moment. The clamaxes towards the end were fabulous - as was the quiet ending. An arduous evening - about equal in time to a half-marathon, and no less tiring than one run at that pace (when I'm fit, at least).

At the end of the Pre-Prom Talk we were told that one listening might not be enough, and we'd probably have to come back to the next performance, in about 30 years. Thankfully, I can now listen to a recording - even "listen again" to R3, which might be worth trying. Which makes me think: what motivates a composer to write something virtually impossible for many reasons to put on? Brian can't have had much realistic expectation of hearing it in his lifetime, and he certainly didn't have a chance to revise the score when he heard it played. So it was a purely paper exercise to him, essentially a private matter for which he might not even have imagined there would ever be an audience. Nowadays, one might imagine him sitting down to write his way into the record books, but it seems clear (going by the programme notes) that the flame of creativity, of inspiration, burned bright. Not just a freak show but a fantastic piece of work by a man who had taught himself to use the tools of composition and therefore produced a less polished end product than others - but one that perhaps demands greater admiration for the way in which those drawbacks were overcome.

Naturally, reactions to the concert have been mixed - Ivan Hewitt in the Daily Telegraph very positive, though a review of a length not at all commensurate with the piece ... Edward Seckerson in The Independent likewise ... David Nice of The Arts Desk (the what?) not. Come to think of it, none of those pieces really amount to criticism, they are merely reports of the Event (I think it merits a capital) with some impressions. And an interesting piece on Salon des Oubliés which I will mention because I want to work out how trackback operates ...

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