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October 10, 2013

Eccentric Symphonies from 20th Century Cult Composers (2) - Havergal Brian & Matthijs Vermeulen

We continue our survey of cult symphonies with works by the English composer Havergal Brian and Dutchman Matthijs Vermeulen.

1. Havergal Brian, Symphony No 1 in D minor "Gothic" [1919-27]
  • The English composer Havergal Brian (1876-1972) lived a very long life during which he was mostly neglected by the musical establishment. He is known for two things: the large number of symphonies he wrote, mostly at a very high age - the total count is 32, of which 21 pieces were written after his eightieth birthday; and the fact that his first symphony, "The Gothic," is one of the longest symphonies ever composed, if not the longest (at least, according to the Guinness Book of Records), clocking in at between 100 and 110 minutes of music. It is a choral symphony like Beethoven's Ninth and Mahler's Eighth and massive forces are necessary to perform it: at a minimum 750, ideally over 800. These consist of four vocal soloists, two double choruses totalling about 500 voices plus a children’s choir, four brass bands, and a super-sized Mahlerian orchestra. Of course, great time span and numerous performers do not spell intrinsic greatness - but in the case of Brian's Gothic these gargantuan dimensions were indeed necessary to express the ideas of the composer. This is all the more so as Brian was not an extravagant but rather a very concise composer. His later symphonies last only between 10 and 20 minutes, Brian only composed essence and no fillers. The symphony consists of three purely orchestral movements followed by a gigantic setting of the Te Deum and it was the vision that demanded the enormous size. Musically, too, the symphony's scope is very broad, ranging from evocations of Gregorian chant to near-atonality and tone clusters. The choral writing is extremely difficult and a hard nut to crack for even the best choirs. But except in the climaxes, this work is no juggernaut of sound. It is unexpectedly delicate, Brian uses his immense forces with artistic restraint: he has the choir often sing a capella, and there is even a 90 second xylophone solo. 
  • What was Brian's vision? "Gothic" as Brian uses the term here, points to the Gothic style in architecture, to ages in which the great cathedrals of Northern Europe were built. Brian saw these huge stone edifices as symbols of Western culture, as monuments to the struggle of the human spirit against immense odds. Such a struggle had just taken place: the Great War, which had shaken Western values by its cruel violence and unbelievable death toll. Brian, however, reaffirms the idealistic Western tradition in the vast choral movements of the symphony - the Te Deum is meant in a secular rather than religious way. On the other hand, in the orchestral movements Brian reflects on the horrors of the war. Take for example the start of the first movement which its violent timpany attack propelling the music forward, or the brutal, raw march in the second movement. But war and peace go together, there are also moments of great beauty such as the passage for solo violin near the end of the first movement. 
  • Brian attached a quotation from Goethe's Faust to the symphony, that "those who strive with all their might will be redeemed," something which also seems to refer to his own situation. How can one strive more than by writing such a huge symphony? It is incredible that Brian had the energy to write this massive symphony at age 51, after a life of almost total neglect. Havergal Brian had a working class background and was self-taught in music. As an ardent fan of contemporary English composers he attended many music festivals and so became the friend of his near-contemporary composer Granville Bantock (1868–1946). His first success as a composer came in 1907 when his First English Suite was performed at the Proms by Henry Wood. Unfortunately, also due to vicissitudes in his personal life, Brian could not maintain this success and he fell again into oblivion. He had to work as a copyist to make both ends meet and finally became assistant editor of a musical magazine, a position he would keep until his retirement age. In the 1920s he turned to composing symphonies, with great tenacity, for the first of these was only performed in the early 1950s. The Gothic Symphony saw an amateur performance in 1961 and the first professional performance followed in 1966 under Sir Adrian Boult, when Brian was already ninety years of age!
  • Brian's music is not easy on the listener, and even today many critics just don't get it. Brian offers solutions to musical problems that are different from the mainstream - something he has in common with other "eccentric" "cult" composers, who all found their own, individually new solutions. Brian uses traditional (late-Romantic) idioms in a wholly untraditional way, thereby severely undercutting the expectations of the listener. He places harmonic opulence at the side of lean polyphony, he combines types of music that are mutually inimical, he elides transitions, suddenly switching from one mood to the next. His music is often extremely violent, but that is paired with sudden patches of peaceful and soft music. In other words, he continually pulls the rug away under the feet of the listener. Such music would benefit by a long performance tradition - after all the performers have to pull all those heterogenous elements together - , but unfortunately today's so-called "top orchestras" prefer to sleepwalk through the zillionth performance of Beethoven's Fifth instead of having the courage to tackle something new.
  • Havergal Brian Society website.
  • Performance listened to: Martyn Brabbins with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Concert Orchestra on Hyperion.

2. Matthijs Vermeulen, Symphony No. 6 "Les Minutes Heureuses" [1956-58]
  • The Dutch composer Matthijs Vermeulen (1888-1967) had - like Havergal Brian - a working class background. Born in the southern part of the Netherlands, he initially wanted to become a priest, but when he heard the 16th c. polyphonic masters in his seminary, he discovered that his true calling was music. In Amsterdam, he received for two years free lessons from conservatory director Daniël de Lange, but due to financial constraints, he never followed a formal musical education. In 1909 he started working as a musical journalist, standing out for his clear style and advocacy of contemporary composers like Debussy, Mahler and the Dutchman Diepenbrock. As a journalist, he soon became a musical authority. In 1914 he completed his First Symphony but as he had a difficult relationship with the Dutch musical establishment in the person of Willem Mengelberg (in his newspaper reviews, Vermeulen criticised Dutch concert life as too much German-oriented, Vermeulen pleaded for a more French orientation), he could not get it performed (until 50 years later, when it was programmed by Bernard Haitink). As he saw no perspective in The Netherlands, in 1921 he moved with his family to France, but also there his music could not find its way into the concert hall. From 1926 to 1940 he worked as the French correspondent for a Dutch colonial newspaper from Indonesia, writing on every possible topic except music. Finally, in 1939 his Third Symphony was performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Eduard van Beinum, inspiring Vermeulen to write two more symphonies during the dark war years. These years also brought heavy personal loss (his son was killed by the Germans). In 1946 Vermeulen returned to The Netherlands where he again became active as musical journalist (he was the best musical journalist Holland has ever known, but of course, that constant journalism also was a waste of his talent). He now continued composing his small but fine oeuvre, where symphonies stand in the central position. Vermeulen wrote a total of seven. Besides that he wrote chamber music: two cello sonatas, a violin sonata and several songs. His difficult music never became popular and his audience remained limited to a small cult following.
  • Vermeulen's musical style, besides being atonal and contrapuntal, was in the first place based on the technique of polymelodicism, the simultaneous combination of several melodic lines. Frequently Vermeulen spins long melismas into continuous melodies, in a free rhythm of flowing lines. Vermeulen saw this multi-voiced, polymelodic way of composition in a political light: for him it was the true expression of freedom, all individuals being able to freely express and develop themselves, without infringing upon the freedom of others to do the same. Vermeulen's music is filled with vitality and power, often leading to an obsessive, march-like propulsion. 
  • The Sixth Symphony carries the subtitle "Les Minutes Heureuses," after a poem by Baudelaire, "I know the art of evoking happy minutes." On top of that, the symphony has been composed on the notes la do re, or L'adore, "the adored one." Adoration is the basis of being human and also of music. The arc the music follows is both a crescendo and a spiral. The three movements are played without interruption. The calm first movement ends with an apotheosis of la-do-re in the brass. The second movement is an Andante amoroso with a beautiful melody in the cor anglais, interspersed with brass and percussion fanfares. The last movement is fast and is propulsed upwards towards a big climax. 
  • Vermeulen website, also in English.
  • Recording listened to: Residentie Orchestra The Hague conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky on Chandos (with symphonies 2 & 7)
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