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Brian, Havergal (1876-1972)

Havergal Brian

born: 29 January 1876
died: 28 November 1972
country: United Kingdom

The son of pottery workers (the eldest survivor of seven children, of whom four died in infancy), Havergal Brian was born in Dresden, Staffordshire, now part of Stoke-on-Trent. A child chorister, he left school at the age of eleven but gained a thorough tuition in harmony and counterpoint. He had been christened William Brian, but adopted the name Havergal, after the Victorian hymn-collector W H Havergal, in his early twenties when seeking to make a career as a church organist. As a composer Brian was essentially self-taught, his early influences being the great Midlands choral festivals and brass bands, the Hallé Orchestra under Hans Richter, the splendour of Handel, Beethoven, Berlioz and Richard Strauss, and the new British music of Edward Elgar. The young Brian was one of Elgar’s earliest champions in the Midlands, and Elgar in his turn was encouraging about Brian’s first works. During the 1900s Brian gained recognition as a promising figure among the new generation of British composers, began a lifelong friendship with Granville Bantock, was acclaimed for orchestral works performed by Henry Wood at the Queen’s Hall Proms, and gained the temporary patronage of a wealthy Staffordshire pottery magnate.

These early successes were evaporating by 1913, when Brian moved to London after the collapse of his first marriage. During World War I, after a brief spell of soldiering, he was employed listing the effects of Canadian troops killed in France; the experience helped trigger his burlesque anti-war opera The Tigers (1916–18). Supporting a growing second family by hack-work, music-copying and journalism, he followed this with The Gothic (1919–27), but by the late 1920s he was largely a ‘forgotten composer’. Nevertheless he was very active as a critic and advocate of new music throughout the inter-war period, especially as deputy editor of Musical Opinion, while he continued to compose large-scale works without immediate hope of performance. After World War II (during which he worked as a clerk for the Ministry of Supply) Brian experienced an unprecedented ‘Indian summer’ of creativity, composing four operas and no fewer than twenty-seven symphonies (out of a lifetime total of thirty-two) after the age of seventy. In 1958 he moved from Harrow to Shoreham, Sussex, where he died as a result of a fall at the age of ninety-six.

In addition to symphonies and operas Brian wrote other orchestral works, concertos, choral music, some piano pieces and many songs. Starting in the 1950s, when he was befriended by the BBC producer Robert Simpson, interest in Brian’s music revived. His music has always been difficult to characterize: he developed from the stylistic basis of the late Romantics, but a pronounced streak of scepticism led him to question their heroic assumptions and to counterbalance their harmonic opulence with a muscular, ‘objective’ polyphony and ironic juxtapositions of contrasted and mutually subversive kinds of music, continually undercutting the listener’s expectations. Contrary to legend, few of his works are for outsize forces or are unusually long; but their use of apparently traditional idioms in a profoundly untraditional way makes them more challenging—even disconcerting—on first hearing than those of his British contemporaries.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2011

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