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The Life Of Brian (The Obscure English Composer, That Is )

  If you've never heard of the English composer Havergal Brian (1876 -1972 ),you're hardly alone.  His  music is  almost never performed live , but  a fair amount has been recorded .   Yet for all his obscurity , he's a  fascinating composer  who has  been receiving  a fair amount of  attention  in recent years in the classical music world , and who has  a surprising number of admirers . 

   In England ,  the Havergal Brian society was formed  some years ago by  a number of distinguished  English composers and conductors , and has   sponsored  recordings of  some of his  32 symphonies and other works .  Brian  was born into a poor working-class English  family  in 1876 , and had to struggle for much of his life to earn a living and gain recognition as a composer . Like the  much more famous Sir Edward Elgar, he was largely self taught , but unlike Elgar, had to earn his living for most of his life in  far from lucrative non-musical jobs .  His last five symphonies  were written after  his 90th birthday !   But most of Brian's music  languished in obscurity until  after his death .

   His most famous work ,the gargantuan  "Gothic" symphony ,written between  1919 and 1927 ,  is going to receive one of its extremely rare performances this Summer at the world-famous London music festival known as "The Proms" .  You might call it the Halley's comet of classical music because of its  rarity.  Why is it so rarely performed ?  It's a  nearly two hour  choral symphony  composed  for  an  orchestra consisting of :

2 piccolos, 6 flutes,including alto flute, 6 oboes ,  including bass oboe, 2 English horns,
5 clarinets,  the small and shrill-sounding e flat clarinet, 2 basset horns ,( sort of a bass clarinet ),  2 bass clarinets , contrabass clarinet ,  3 bassons and 2 contrabassoons,
8  French horns, 8 trumpets ,with 2 doubling cornets, bass trumpet ,
3 trombones ,bass trombone, 2 baritone horns, 2 tubas,
2 sets of timpani, 2 bass drums, 3 snare drums, African long drum , 2 tambourines,
2 triangles, 6 pairs of large cymbals, gong, bird scare , thunder machine , small chains,
xylophone, glockenspiel ,  tubular bells ,  chimes ,  celeste, organ , 
20 first violins, 20 second violins ,  16 violas , 14 celos ,  12 double basses , 2  or more harps . Soprano, Alto,Tenor, and Bass vocal soloists , 4 mixed choirs , children's chorus ,
4 offstage brass bands .   Whew  !  

Any performance of this  mind-boggling work is an event.  I've heard  the only  commercial  recording of it ,which  is still  available  on the Naxos label , and it took me several hearings to digest the whole thing . But it was worth it !   This was recorded in of all  places , Bratislava ,capitol of  Slovakia ,  with the Slovak conductor  Ondrej Lenard conducting  the whole shebang  with  two !  Slovak orchestras  and  all the  choral forces .

   The symphony consists of a  purely orchestral first part ,leading without pause into  the vocal part ,  a setting of  the traditional Latin Hymn  Te Deum Laudamus (We praise thee,oh  God ). 

   There  is a pirated live  performance from London  conducted by  the eminent  English conductor  Sir Adrian Boult  (1889 -1983 )  from 1966 . 

   Other than  the Gothic symphony ,I've heard only  two other CDs of Brian's music , but would definitely like to  hear more of it .  Most of the later symphonies are  much shorter and call for  far less extravagent forces .  Brian has  some  truly passionate fans  among classcal CD collectors ,  and  how could  a  classic English eccentric like Brian not attract them ?
 

  
Posted: Apr 27 2011, 05:47 PM by the horn | with no comments
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