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ClassicsOnline Home » BRIAN, H.: Symphonies Nos. 20 and 25 (Ukraine National Symphony, Penny)
Havergal Brian was one of the most remarkable of twentieth century symphonists, whose reputation for the gargantuan (Symphony No. 1 ‘The Gothic’; Naxos 8.557418–19) has tended to overshadow the more concise nature of his later music. His Symphony No. 20 for instance, written in 1962, is compact, thematically sophisticated, and deeply expressive. Both it and No. 25 (1966) abandon Brian’s previous practice of one-movement symphonies in favour of the more classical three movements. Symphony No. 25 has beautiful melodies channelled within a wholly logical structure and is one of Brian’s most distinguished late works.
Havergal Brian (1876–1972)
Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme • Symphony No. 20 • Symphony No. 25
Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme, which Havergal Brian completed in August 1907, is one of the surviving portions of an early multi-movement work which occupied him in 1907–08, A Fantastic Symphony. This was a satirical, quasi-programmatical symphony, probably in four movements, erecting a large-scale virtuosic orchestral structure on the basis of the tune and tale of the well known nursery rhyme, Three Blind Mice. By July 1909 he had recast it into a three-movement work, Humorous Legend on Three Blind Mice. Later he dropped the central scherzo and decided to publish the first and last movements as separate works: the former became Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme and the finale became Festal Dance (Naxos 8.572020). In late 1912, preparing these pieces for publication, Brian wrote to his friend Granville Bantock that he had ‘purged the variations on “mice” of its worst crudities’. This suggests that some material was cut out of the Fantastic Variations; and a letter Brian wrote in 1909 to Herbert Thompson, music critic of the Yorkshire Post, outlines a ‘programme’ for the Variations (still at that stage the first movement of the Humorous Legend) which in at least one place is at variance with the score as now known.
The work was published in 1914, but not heard in public until 28 April 1921, when Henry Lyell-Tayler conducted what was later described as a ‘condensed version’ with the Brighton Symphony Orchestra at the West Pier, Brighton. This was so successful that it was repeated five times during the following week—and Brian, who was then living in the Brighton area, conducted some or all of these later performances himself. Two years later Sir Dan Godfrey gave the score uncut for the first time at Bournemouth, and in 1934 Sir Donald Tovey conducted it with the Reid Orchestra in Edinburgh. In his witty and appreciative programme-note (reprinted in Vol. 6 of his classic Essays in Musical Analysis), Tovey correctly identified ‘the human feminine element in the saga’ as the Farmer’s Wife—but commented that he had ‘not succeeded in identifying the Agriculturalist as an actor in this music-drama’. This is hardly surprising, as the Farmer does not figure in Brian’s scheme, any more than in the nursery rhyme. But what Tovey also failed to note, and did not even suspect, was the presence of the Policeman—for Brian revealed to Herbert Thompson that he had introduced a policeman and the farmer’s wife ‘to carry on the dramatic idea’, and this is indicated in his outline programme.
Like Festal Dance, the Fantastic Variations is in E major, with a substantial rôle for the sub-mediant, C. The bare bones of the tune of Three Blind Mice are stated at the outset in simple orchestration , and then a chuckle from solo oboe (which sounds suspiciously like a quotation from Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben) is the signal for the fun to begin. Almost all of Brian’s variation-works, as their basic strategy, subject a tune of near-banal simplicity to the most sophisticated panoply that modern harmony and orchestration can provide (In this sense Tovey was right to compare the Fantastic Variations to Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery-Rhyme.). But, whereas Brian’s only previous substantial variation-set, the Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme (1903), is organized into a formal series of separate large-scale character-variations, the Fantastic Variations are essentially symphonic: although it is possible to identify a structure of eight variations and a finale, development is continuous and contrasted material is brought into relation with the main theme. It is perhaps worth observing that this is the only early work of Brian’s to reflect an apparent influence of Sibelius. He may have imbibed this from Bantock, who was one of the Finnish master’s most enthusiastic champions in England—but on the other hand some of the most ‘Sibelian’ passages actually presage works which Sibelius had yet to write.
The statement of the theme is immediately followed by a move to C major: Brian’s 1909 programme indicated that the opening section of the work depicted the Blind Mice, and their affliction certainly seems to be a matter of considerable pathos in this opening Andante. Before long Tovey’s ‘feminine element’ puts in an alluring appearance as an expressive counter-melody on muted violas and ‘cellos, and clearly arouses the rodents’ interest, if we judge by the return to E major for the emphatic development of the phrase ‘all ran after the farmer’s wife’. But according to Brian’s programme the tables are turned and the pursuers find themselves pursued (Allegro molto ), with squeaky writing for muted trumpets and high woodwind over a grotesque augmentation of the theme in bassoons and tuba.
This, the first of two ‘chase’ sequences, is comparatively short-lived, for it is interrupted by pompous and magniloquent E major fanfares which (if we follow Brian’s programme) announce the Entry of the Policeman. This initiates a new section (Con moto e espressione ), where this new character ‘makes Love to Farmer’s Wife (all Caruso)’. The ‘feminine element’ melody reappears now in E, in an extended and increasingly passionate romantic interlude. The tune soon acquires a florid quintuplet turn (perhaps this was what reminded Brian of the celebrated Italian tenor), and he proceeds to develop this figure in close imitation, spurring the full orchestra to ever greater heights of ardour.
Suddenly  horns and side-drum strike in, and the chase is abruptly resumed in C major, Allegro vivace. There are affinities here with Sibelius’s wintry, saga-style allegros, but as the music develops Brian maintains a headlong momentum while splitting up the orchestration in mosaic fashion, intercutting groups of instruments in a way he was to refine in his mature symphonies. Finally the Nemesis of capture intervenes: the Allegro collides with a massive Largamente augmentation of the Three Blind Mice figure on full orchestra (Brian even adds an ad lib organ part, not used in this recording), starting on E flat and moving bodily back into E for a wrathful climax. Out of this, trombones, tuba, and side-drum precipitate the catastrophe: a diminished-seventh chord on C sharp, with a downward-slashing descent in woodwind and strings, covering almost the full register of the orchestra in a single bar.
According to a programme-note for the 1923 Bournemouth performances, this violent gesture represents ‘the penalty of execution’—it is unclear whether the mice are losing their tails or their heads. In his 1909 programme Brian had also mentioned a ‘march to the scaffold’ of which there is now no sign. Instead  tremolo basses and soft timpani strokes lead to the solemn finale, the nursery-rhyme tune appearing for the last time in the manner of a regretful chorale before the resplendent final bars, which start in C major but punctually find their way back to E before the double-bar.
55 years separate the Fantastic Variations from Brian’s 20th Symphony. This work seems to have been begun in January or February 1962, although Brian laid it aside for a while in April to write his overture The Jolly Miller (Naxos 8.557775). Like the overture, the symphony, completed at the end of May, is dedicated to his daughter Elfreda and her husband, who had been staying with the composer and his wife for several months at their home in Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex. For a while Brian felt he might have written his last work: ‘Considering the diversity of Bach’s Church Cantatas’, he wrote to Robert Simpson towards the end of the year, ‘twenty symphonies is a long way behind—but not a bad number’.
Indeed, though twelve more symphonies actually remained to be written up to 1968, No. 20 would not have been an inappropriate final work. It is the last of a group of three symphonies which Brian had begun the previous year with No. 18 (also on Naxos 8.557775), all of which are in three movements and display a decidedly more ‘classical’ sense of form and motion than the six one-movement symphonies that had preceded them. No. 20, as befits the last member of this group, is the most expansive and fully developed, even though its developmental processes, especially in the first movement, are decidedly more fluid and allusive than the resemblance to orthodox sonata architecture might lead us to expect. It is also for the largest orchestra of the three (triple woodwind plus E-flat clarinet, full brass including tenor as well as bass tuba, harp, a large percussion section including bells, and strings); and though it lacks neither drama nor profundity, its athletic vigour and serene grandeur are very different from the angry and abrasive moods of No. 18.
A short but immediately impressive slow introduction  establishes the main key as C sharp minor and leads directly to the main Allegro agitato first movement, which is laid out on a plan loosely resembling sonata-form. The muscular, energetic principal subject, with its generally ascending motion, is almost immediately played off against a smoother, more expressive ‘second subject’ foil, but this plays a comparatively small role in the proceedings: animated and somewhat spiky development of the main subject proceeds throughout the ‘expository’ opening, before the formal development section arrives. This  begins mysteriously, with still, long-held chords and a stealthy, stalking motion in the bass instruments. A lyrical Lento section, with a brief violin solo, intervenes, only to be interrupted  by vigorous, highly allusive development of the first theme which does duty for a formal recapitulation. It leads to another meditative slow episode, begun by solo horn. Out of this the opening phrases of the ‘second subject’ appear on woodwind in calm augmentation, and then distant, evocative horn-calls  build up an accelerating fanfare that propels us into a coda where the opening subject is very freely developed, into a jubilant fast march. A sudden majestic Allargando finishes off by alluding to the movement’s introduction and wrenching the tonality back to C sharp (now major).
The expansive and lyrical slow movement ranks among the finest of Brian’s later years. Fundamentally it consists of three large spans, all concerned with an initial theme  first heard on cellos, its rests punctuated by timpani and pizzicato basses. This gives rise to an extended paragraph of flowing polyphony, renewed mid-way by the reappearance of the main theme on the brass with trumpet counterpoint. A bridge passage , beginning with violin and flute solos against low bass sonorities and continuing on strings only, brings round a development of the original polyphonic complex , beginning on solo horn. The pace increases and the ardour takes on a sense of pain and effort, but calm is soon restored and then the third span begins with a musing clarinet solo . Here the main theme is less obviously present except by allusion, until after a dramatic accelerando it reappears in the bass instruments to form a peaceful slow coda.
A rapid timpani figure  sparks off the finale, which is a highly inventive rondo. Its main subject is stated at once in the lively Allegro tempo, but when a Lento tempo intervenes for the first episode  it is the same tune we hear, equally at home at the much slower speed. The episode develops its own material as it proceeds, taking on the character of a kind of slow waltz, with an expressive violin solo . Trumpet fanfares bring back the Allegro tempo , with vigorous and fiery development in compound time before the rondo-theme (fast version) briefly makes its reappearance on trombones . Restoration of the 6/4 metre now brings back the theme in an intervening moderate tempo, with further gentler development in strings and woodwind before  a fast coda begins over a variant of the opening timpani figure and rapidly rises to a triumphant climax.
Symphony No. 25, which Brian began at Shoreham in the late autumn of 1965 and completed on 10 January 1966—just nineteen days before his 90th birthday—has many external similarities to No. 20. Again there are three movements, the outer ones referring to classical sonata and rondo shape; the finale even begins over a timpani ostinato (though there are two timpanists this time). But the character of this later symphony is very different: harder and more martial in the first movement, leaner in the slow. This has something to do with key-feeling: the work is described on the title-page as being ‘in A minor’. Like the comparably dark No. 18 (also essentially in A minor, though not so designated) it initiates a second group of classically-shaped symphonies, Nos. 25–29, in which the odd-numbered works allude more closely to sonata architecture and proportion, while the even-numbered (Nos. 26 and 28) are freer and more exploratory in form. The first movement, after a chilly chord of A minor on wind instruments  and an important reiterated four-note motto in the bass, leaps into life with a wiry, agile, risoluto first theme, scored initially for violas only against a heavy, sinister undertow of bass instruments, but this soon grows through the orchestra with force and determination. A contrasting idea, hardly more than a smoothly ascending scale, initiates a gentler ‘second-subject’ area; the opening four-note motto briefly interrupts but the ascending scale idea continues to offer lyric expansion until the motto returns again  to initiate an eventful development. Basically this proceeds in three waves, subjecting the first theme to increasingly fierce and martial transformation; the first two of these subside into contrasting interludes of calm. Thus the first wave happens upon a new, elegantly lyrical tune  for oboe with flute and harp accompaniment. The martial struggle around the first subject is then intensified, but this time issues in sinister reiterations of a three-note figure , first in low and then in high registers.
The third wave resumes the aggressively contrapuntal development, which this time carries straight into the recapitulation, signalled by the return of the four-note motto . This at first resembles a more massively-scored version of the exposition, but the ascending-scale ‘second subject’ has virtually disappeared. Instead fragments of it are subordinated to a mysterious episode  of nagging triplet rhythms. Out of this the lyrical tune from the development unexpectedly emerges in full flower, in E flat, against a chiming accompaniment of timpani, harp, and percussion. A brief but grandiose coda  steers the music back to the home A.
The lyricism of the central Andante cantabile, largely in and around E minor, is elegiac in nature, with more than a hint of bleakness. The expressive opening violin melody  is eventually to make several returns, like a rondo subject, but at first the music explores other areas, influenced by a short snatch of march-like music in dactylic rhythm (two semiquavers plus quaver). A poignant new idea, first heard on solo oboe , becomes a focus for further restless wanderings. The dactylic rhythm, always present in small motifs, gives rise to brief fanfare-figures, and a climax that subsides before it is fully formed. The opening theme now returns on cellos , and is tenderly but sadly developed in the strings. A more defined march-music  takes over; a solo violin introduces another appearance of the opening theme, now on solo flute. Violin, then strings, work up to another brief climax; then woodwind subside to the final return of the main theme  initiating a brief but impressive coda in which some measure of serenity seems to be achieved.
The comparatively short finale is a scampering, scherzo-like rondo, touched off by ostinatos in bassoons and two sets of timpani, the main theme in solo clarinet. This rondo subject is reshaped at each appearance, while the episodes are more lyrical. First comes a cross-rhythm development of the opening theme itself, before the timpani return in more recognizable rondo shape. Then a Lento episode brings a quiet hint of folk-song  with a tender interlude for oboe and divided cellos. A little woodwind cadenza leads back to the rondo music , but not for long. At the same tempo , we hear a different and irreverent snatch of folk-song from a bassoon; this carries straight into the final appearance of the rondo music in a superbly unbuttoned coda.
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BRIAN, H.: Symphonies Nos. 20 and 25 (Ukraine Nati...