Going Gothic

17 July 2011
Royal Albert Hall, London

An once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a performance of Havergal Brian’s massive, monumental Gothic Symphony. 

One of the star attractions of this year’s Proms classical music festival at the Royal Albert Hall was the little-known English composer Havergal Brian’s epic Gothic Symphony, a gargantuin piece of writing calling for 1,000 on-stage musicians, an expanded orchestra, 4 brass bands, two children’s choruses plus a double chorus, a thundering organ, a thunder machine, and a conductor with a helluva lot of chutzpah. A Proms-addicted friend was sensible enough to get in quick on the first day of public booking – which is just as well, as the performance of the Gothic sold out in less than 9 hours. (Not bad for a music hall that fits 4,000 people plus a few hundred more day-ticketed Prommers standing in the centre oval). I’d never heard of Brian or the Gothic Symphony before the Proms, but he appears to have a small but dedicated cult following. Judging from the ecstatic performance we saw tonight, he’s well overdue for rediscovery and a major revival.

Brian’s colourful, counter-cultural life itself seems worthy of an opera, or at least a couple of episodes of Eastenders. The English love embracing maverick heroes who push uncomfortably against the tide, whether it’s King Canute, Lord Byron, William Blake or Worzel Gummidge, and Brian embodies characteristics of all of these fine crazy fellows. Born to working class origins in Stoke-on-Trent in 1876 – an upbringing that would’ve otherwise consigned him to factory work – he taught himself music, became a church organist, and eventually a composer, attracting the attention of Henry Wood (the founder of the Proms) who staged the first professional performance of his work. Somehow he landed a £500 a year stipend from a wealthy businessman, intended to allow him to write professionally full time and eventually become financially independent. This didn’t happen, apparently due to Brian’s erratic working habits, his liking of fine food and trips to Italy, and his being something of a racoon with women: after having five children with his wife, he shagged his serving maid, set up house with her and proceeded to have another five children with her. Somehow amid all the champagne and shagging, he created an enormous body of work, including 32 symphonies, putting him on a par with Mozart and Haydn in terms of productivity.

What’s even more extraordinary about Brian’s career is that, for most of it, he was virtually unknown and unplayed, only achieving a measure of success much later in his life, when his work was rediscovered by a younger generation of musicians. The Gothic Symphony, written between 1919 and 1927, was such a collossal work and required such huge resources from an orchestra, that Brian didn’t hear it performed professionally until a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966, the year of his 90th birthday. To date, the Gothic has had only 6 performances worldwide (2 of which have been recorded), and in promotional interviews, conductor Martyn Brabbins said he hoped that this year’s Proms performance could become the definitive performance.

What does appear clear is that Brian was extraordinarily, unshakeably convinced of his own talent, and driven by the need to express himself musically and keep writing, despite the lack of any widespread interest in his work for most of his life. As a story alone of artistic determination and persistent work in the face of indifference, his is a truly inspiring story.

And fortunately, the work is as extraordinary as the life it was filtered through. A massively ambitious, impressively epic piece of writing, it feels like it has enough ideas and themes to be spread among five symphonies rather than one, which makes it hugely exciting, as well as a bit chaotic and shapeless. Brian borrows from a shapeshifting array of musical themes, from Straussian and Wagnerian 19th century romanticism, to a hint of jazz, the crisp energy of military marching bands counterposed against the stillness and grace of medieval organ and choral music. Brian’s inspirations were many and varied: it’s supposedly a homage to the glories of Gothic architecture, as well as being a mini-requiem mass to the World War I dead, a tone poem about the new industrial forces of the 20th century, and a love letter to all the women he ever loved. In his lovely, perceptive review of the performance, Telegraph critic Ivan Hewett wrote:

The unstoppable flow of ideas was engrossing, even if it was hard to see how they hung together. The piece felt like a cabinet of aural curiosities, some of which seemed tarnished or out-of-focus or plain ordinary, some of which were amazingly vivid and touched with a strange magic.

His vision, although sometimes incoherent and unwieldy, is never anything less than epic: the massive sounds created by the outsized orchestra (around 600 musicians) and the chorus of 400 singers, the mighty swell of the orchestra string section, the military staccato of the brass bands, and the craziness of a hyper-active percussion section – oh, and with the organ and a thunder machine thrown in – creates a literally giant sound that feels as huge and majestic as the spires of a Gothic cathedral, and threatened to blow the roof off the Royal Albert Hall. Amid a lot of mighty noise, Brian also found space for moments of silence and quiet beauty, including a plangent violin solo that weaves in and out of the first movement.

Amid the startling variety and energy (and occasional loveliness) of the music, there’s the enormous fun of seeing the logistics of a 1,000-strong human circus marshalling its collective force to pull the thing off. Such is the explosive force and energy of the music that once it got started, it felt like a runaway train, with the conductor running a mass exercise in crowd control to keep the thing on course before it turned into pandemonium. Apart from an unfortunate moment where an over-eager trumpetist dropped his mute, making a brief but shatteringly loud noise, it mostly went off without a hitch or without anyone losing an eye. But oh, it was madness. While Brian may have been inspired by Gothic cathedrals, architecturally he seems more attuned to Mad King Ludwig who built insanely elaborate palaces all over Germany and staging his own home-made versions of Wagnerian opera. The performance was something of a coup for the Proms, who seem to be the only music festival with the resources or the eccentricity to mount a performance this logistically difficult. (The rehearsal process itself was gargantuin, with dress rehearsals having to take place in Birmingham Town Hall and Alexandra Palace – the only venues big enough to hold the entire contingent).

I left the Gothic feeling uplifted and inspired, by the grandness of Brian’s ambition, for his apparent lack of self-limitation in what he considered to be possible as a composer, and for the steadfastness of his self-belief as an artist. A mighty wolf whistle to all involved (and thanks again to Gary for the ticket).

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