First, a Murdoch-style apology. I’m very sorry for dangling the prospect of a regular blog like a disembowelled shrew over your eaglet mouths, only to cut short and stop writing due to both work and play having gone mental. Things calm down this week, so a couple of simmering blog-pans will be cranked up to a full boil. (Note: I’m making up for my absence by showering you with cloying metaphors; be thankful).
Before that, I thought some of you might be interested in my thoughts on last night’s Prom, a performance of Havergal Brian’s much-neglected Symphony Number 1, the Gothic. As a member of the London Symphony Chorus, I was lucky enough to take part in this ‘once-in-a-generation’ event. It was an opportunity for us all to ask the question: is the establishment’s neglect of the Gothic due to a lack of musical quality, or a lack of administrative ambition?
From where I was stood (back row of the Upper East Choir), and from where I’ve been sat in rehearsal rooms for the past month or so, that’s not an easy question to answer. The rehearsal process was laborious, frustrating, and exhausting. Choral singers are trained through an ability to recognise musical patterns, cadences and modulations, and their voices instinctively fall to those ingrained codes. This remains the case with even with the most difficult advanced tonality. With Brian, there was nothing on the page, nor in the ‘air’, that allowed the choruses to rely on instinct. The writing is so bizarre that even the perfect sight-readers amongst us were struggling.
Through choral rehearsals, we strive towards achieving clarity of sound. When you feel that clarity taking hold (normally just before the conductor’s piano rehearsal) it’s a wonderful feeling, particularly with challenging or atonal work. With the Gothic, even when we were pitch-perfect, the choral texture is so mushy and lumpy that rather than striving towards clarity, we were striving towards a kind of fortissimo soup. The same was true when we joined the other choirs in Birmingham for a massive group rehearsal, and once again in Alexandra Palace for the first tutti. With each step towards the concert, the soup got lumpier and louder, but apparently ‘better’.
All this aside, I do think that the Gothic has merit. The sight of 800 singers standing in unison to the might of the Royal Albert Hall organ must have been thrilling. Music is so much more than notes on a page: it is people and place. The spectacle is of merit in itself, and all involved in the logistics should be applauded, not least Maestro Brabbins.
There is some very bad writing, however. Pitching 200 voices, singing in the middle of their register, against a large brass band playing at cross rhythms to the choir is never going to work. The pink panther clarinet solo and subsequent la la la-ing is daft. And call me a conservative, but Tudor-eque double reed interjections should never follow deeply unsettling chromaticism.
But then we come to the Coda. In setting non confundar in aeternum (let me never be confounded) Brian unleashes hell, quite literally – some of the most horrifying noises I’ve ever heard, and one of the most profound statements of post-WW1 turmoil put to paper. Timpani explode from each corner of the hall with remarkable rhythmic complexity as trombones try in vain to cut through the chaos with short phrases of jollity. Painful homophonic shouts from the chorus try and bring about order, but their attempt at some kind of harmonic unity or optimism is utterly futile as each chord becomes progressively more disturbed.
Once quiet descends, stunningly well-played cello and oboe melodies brought the piece to a close with a quiet and contemplative chorus, accepting of what has gone before. It’s in these final passages that the Gothic makes sense – it’s a work totally overwhelmed by the traumas of the First World War. WW1 was a marker in history that shone an ugly light on the potential for humanity to suffer. In his Gothic, Brian is looking back at that history, celebrating it, teasing it, and altering our perceptions of it through the horrors he and his contemporaries had just experienced. It’s very much like TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) in that regard, from which these lines are taken:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
Don’t try and compare the Gothic to the 19th century choral masterworks, because it won’t stand up. It’s isn’t a 1920s Symphony of a Thousand, not least because it is a musical representation of horrors quite beyond the comprehension of Mahler. And whilst it may not be as refined as TS Eliot, or as disturbing as Ezra Pound, it has many more natural companion pieces in poetry canon, than in the musical one.