The Horn

Contact Me

Receive Email Updates

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
Add to Bloglines Add to Add to digg Add to Facebook Add to Google Bookmarks Add to Newsvine Add to reddit Add to Stumble Upon Add to Shoutwire Add to Squidoo Add to Technorati Add to Yahoo My Web