Monday, 7 September 2009

Life of Brian

Havergal Brian was an exceptionally prolific composer, but had to wait almost seventy years for the first recording of his music. Working from the late Victorian age onwards into the 1970’s (!), Brian wrote 32 symphonies, as well as numerous operas, concertos, songs and choral works but it was not until the last few years of his long life that he began to receive critical and public acknowledgement, and he died just as his music was being pressed to vinyl for the first time.

One of the few working class British composers, Brian lived most of his life in poverty, a situation not helped by his proclivity for fathering children: he had five with his first wife, then ran off with their maid and had another five children with her. Rather shy (not in all regards, obviously), he was ill at ease with promoting himself and his work and, as a result, his music was more or less ignored for many years, and many of his best compositions were never performed before an audience. Often derided as an amateur by contemporary critics (not the only thing he had in common with that other ‘great unknown’ William Blake), Brian had a penchant for strident brass instrumentation, offbeat rhythms and unusual instruments and his music is characterised by its sheer brio, jumping from place to place at a dizzying pace, full of ideas and enthusiasm, as well as reflective passages of great beauty.

The loosening up of the Establishment and a growing interest in more challenging musical forms in the late fifties and sixties led to a gradual emergence of Brian’s music, and it began to be programmed and performed on a more regular basis. In 1966, Adrian Boult conducted Brian’s long and slightly bonkers ‘Gothic’ symphony and the performance was broadcast live on the BBC. In 1972, at the age of 96, Brian was finally honoured with a first recording of two of his more accessible symphonies, ironically this was performed by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, most of whom were at least 80 years younger than the composer.

Still writing until the end (he wrote 8 symphonies in the last five years of his life) Brian died peacefully before the Schools Symphony Orchestra LP was released but now, 37 years after his death, relatively few of his numerous compositions remain unrecorded. Like the aforementioned William Blake, Havergal Brian is a classic example of a very British artist: modest, dogged, idiosyncratic, ambitious, impervious to indifference, brilliant, nutty as a fruitcake.

Two short extracts from his massive catalogue of work. The first is the lovely opening Adagio from his 11th Symphony, the second an extract from his slightly odd 3rd Symphony in C Sharp minor.

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