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ClassicsOnline Home » BRIAN: Symphonies Nos. 20 and 25
Excellent and entertaining symphonies
Havergal Brian (1876-1972) is famous for having written 32 Symphonies, the majority written after his 70th birthday. This would be merely a footnote in musical history were it not for the fact that these 32 symphonies are all of a very high standard and all are well worth listening to.
Brian began writing symphonies in the 1920s and his Gothic Symphony (No.1) is the largest symphony ever written (for length and forces employed). His symphonies after this, however, quickly grew shorter, and the symphonies he was writing on the 1960s (of which Nos 20 and 25 are examples) are quite short and even haydnesque.
Brian’s music, like Haydn’s, is lively, inventive and full of humour, with unexpected twists and turns, and surprising contrasts and new directions which shed a different light on the music that has gone before. Both of these symphonies are in three movement fast-slow-fast format and both are excellent examples of Brian’s symphonic writing.
The disc also includes ‘Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme’ (‘Three Blind Mice’), a very entertaining piece of Brian’s early music.
The disc comes from the Marco Polo series of Brian symphonies which issued five or six discs in the early 1990s. Later some of these were reissued on the Naxos label and Naxos is issuing new discs of Brian’s music. This series should, we hope, include all of Brian’s symphonies in the end.
Listen and enjoy!more....
Brian (1876 -1972)
Variations on an Old Rhyme
Nos. 20 and 25
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 (Marco Polo 8.223481). fu 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.
was published in 1914, but not heard in public until28th Apri11921, 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 Boumemouth, 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.
Dance, the Fantastic Variations is in E major, with a substantial role for the submediant,
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 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 Dohnanyi'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!
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.
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 imtation, spurring the
full orchestra to ever greater heights of ardour.
 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-7th 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.
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.
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 (Marco Polo
8.223479). 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'.
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
Marco Polo 8.223479), 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).
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.
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
[17), 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
No. 25, which Brian began at Shoreham in the late autumn of 1965 and completed
on 10th 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.
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 moto 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 [23), first in low and then in high registers.
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.
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.
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 folksong , 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 folksong from a bassoon; this carries straight into the final
appearance of the rondo music in a superbly unbuttoned coda.
Last Albums Viewed
BRIAN: Symphonies Nos. 20 and 25