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Havergal Brian

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Havergal Brian

Havergal Brian (born William Brian; 29 January 1876 – 28 November 1972) was a British classical composer.

Brian acquired a legendary status at the time of his rediscovery in the 1950s and 1960s for his many symphonies. By the end of his life he had completed thirty-two, an unusually large number for any composer since Haydn or Mozart. More remarkably, he completed fourteen of these symphonies in his eighties and seven more in his early nineties.

He is also notable for his creative persistence in the face of almost total neglect during the greater part of his long life. Even now, none of his works can be said to be performed with any frequency, but few composers who have fallen into neglect after an early period of success have continued to produce so many ambitious works so long after any chance of performance would seem to have gone for good.


William Brian (he adopted the name "Havergal" from a local family of [2] of Odd Rode Church just across the border in Cheshire. In 1895, he heard a choir rehearsing Elgar's King Olaf, attended the first performance and became a fervent enthusiast of the new music being produced by Richard Strauss and the British composers of the day. Through attending music festivals he made the lifelong friendship of his near-contemporary composer Granville Bantock (1868–1946).

In 1907 his first English Suite attracted the attention of Henry J. Wood, who performed it at the London Proms. It was an overnight success and Brian obtained a publisher and performances for his next few orchestral works. Why he never succeeded in maintaining his success is a matter for debate, but it was probably due to his shyness with strangers and lack of confidence on public occasions. Whatever it was, the offers of performance soon dried up.

In 1898, Brian married Isabel Priestley, by whom he had five children. One of his sons was named Sterndale after the English composer Sir William Sterndale Bennett. At this point (1907) a development unusual in British 20th century musical history transformed Brian's life; whether for better or for worse has never been decided. He was offered a yearly income of £500 (then a respectable lower-middle-class salary) by a local wealthy businessman, Herbert Minton Robinson, to enable him to devote all his time to composition. It seems Robinson expected Brian soon to become successful and financially independent on the strength of his compositions. This never happened. For a while Brian worked on a number of ambitious large-scale choral and orchestral works, but felt no urgency to finish them, and began to indulge in hitherto-undreamt-of pleasures, such as expensive foods and a trip to Italy.

Arguments over the money and an affair with a young servant, Hilda Mary Hayward, led to the collapse of his first marriage in 1913. Brian fled to London and, although Robinson deeply disapproved of the incident, he continued to provide Brian with money until his own death, though most of the allowance went to Brian's estranged wife. The affair with Hilda turned into a lifelong relationship: Brian and she began living together as man and wife, and after Isabel's death in 1933 they were married. Hilda had already borne him another five children. In London, Brian began composing copiously, to alleviate the fact of living in conditions of the most basic poverty. On the outbreak of World War I he volunteered for the Honourable Artillery Company but saw no service before he was invalided out with a hand injury. He subsequently worked at the Audit Office of the Canadian Expeditionary Force until December 1915. The family then moved to Erdington, near Birmingham, Warwickshire, until May 1919 and then spent several years in various locations in Sussex. Brian eventually obtained work of a musical kind, copying and arranging, and writing for the journal The British Bandsman. In 1927, he became assistant editor of the journal Musical Opinion and moved back to London. In 1940 he retired, and from then on devoted himself to composition, living firstly in London, and then in Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex.

His brief war service gave him the material for his first opera The Tigers. In the 1920s he turned to composing symphonies, though he had written more than ten before one of them was first performed in the early 1950s. This was due to his discovery by Robert Simpson, himself a significant composer and BBC Music Producer, who asked Sir Adrian Boult to programme the Eighth Symphony in 1954. From then on Brian composed another twenty-two symphonies, many of the later ones short, single or two-movement works, and several other pieces.


In 1961, Brian's largest surviving work, the Gothic Symphony, which had been written between 1919 and 1927, was first performed at Westminster Central Hall, in a partly amateur performance conducted by Bryan Fairfax, and in 1966 the first fully professional performance was given at the Royal Albert Hall conducted by Boult, both occasions largely the result of Simpson's lobbying. The latter performance was broadcast live and many people heard their first music of Brian that evening. This encouraged considerable interest, and by his death six years later several of his works had been performed and the first commercial recordings had begun to appear. For a few years after Brian's death, while Simpson still had influence at the BBC, there was a revival of interest with a number of recordings and performances; two biographies and a three-volume study of his symphonies appeared. The reputation of his music has always been restricted to enthusiasts and it has never achieved great popularity.

Only one of the great international virtuoso conductors showed any interest in Brian's music. Leopold Stokowski heard the Sinfonia Tragica and let it be known that he would like to perform a Brian work. The upshot was the world premiere in 1973 of the 28th Symphony, in a BBC broadcast produced by Robert Simpson in Maida Vale Studio 1, and played by the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Anthony Payne in his Daily Telegraph review wrote: "It was fascinating to contemplate the uniqueness of the event – a 91-year-old conductor learning a new work by a 91-year-old composer."

Brian's music owes a lot to Vaughan Williams's music, but whereas with Vaughan Williams the solo violin writing is long, sustained and eloquent and usually sets the lyric seal to the music, with Brian the violin solos are often poignant and brief and swept aside by the turbulent currents of the music.

However, as with the music of Robert Simpson, Brian's great champion, in certain passages the music does suddenly verge on the pastoral.

The only music that Brian's could reasonably be mistaken for is some of the work of Arnold Bax, particularly Bax's violent early symphonies (1 and 2). However, while Bax's music sounds on first hearing more eloquent and connected, and more lyrical, some assert that Brian's music has a greater flow and, despite its apparent fragmentary structure, a greater symphonic cohesion.

Brian's music has several recognisable hallmarks: the liking of extreme dotted rhythms, deep brass notes, and various uncharacteristic harp, piano and percussion timbres, and other sounds (and textures) than no-one else has conjured from the orchestra. Also typical are moments of stillness, such as the slow harp arpeggio that is heard near the beginning and ending of the Eighth Symphony. But its most notable characteristics is its restlessness: rarely does one mood persist for long before it is contrasted, often abruptly, with another. Even in Brian’s slow movements, lyrical meditation does not often structure the music for long before restless thoughts intrude. Brian’s music is basically always tonal though capable of a great sense of violence. Sometimes, for example at the end of the 3rd Symphony, Brian seems to be celebrating violence and the brute power of the music, but on repeated listening his music seems wiser than this – Brian seems to be enjoying making us think his music worships brutality, although its composer does not. This is his comment on the world of the 1930s, racing towards world war.

However fragmentary Brian’s music is, it is never directionless; he maintains strong symphonic cohesion by long-term tonal processes (similar to Carl Nielsen's "progressive tonality", where the music is aiming towards a key, rather than being in a home key and returning to it). Although the fragmentary nature of his music militates against classical thematic unity, he often employs structural blocks of sound, where similar rhythms and thematic material allude to previous passages (as opposed to classical statement and recapitulation).

Brian’s symphonies start off with the colossal Gothic Symphony, and most of the early ones are large scale. He usually alludes to the classical four-movement structure of the symphony, even in single-movement works. As he progressed through his life his symphonies become shorter and more compact, and often sound Haydnesque, though the orchestra they employ is usually still large. The Gothic Symphony lasts for nearly two hours, the last symphony of all, No. 32, barely twenty minutes, and yet it is no less substantial. This symphony is an extremely compressed contrapuntal unfolding of ideas that owes as much to Bach as to Romanticism, and includes the classical four movements – the finale is reminiscent of the last movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 41.

In 1997, Brian's 1951 opera in eight scenes The Cenci, based on the 1819 play by Percy Bysshe Shelley, was premiered in a concert performance by the Millennium Sinfonia, conducted by James Kelleher, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.[3]


The first commercial recording of Havergal Brian's music was made by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra in 1972, when Symphonies Nos. 10 and 21, conducted by James Loughran and Eric Pinkett respectively, were recorded at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester. The producer was Robert Simpson. The LP was released by Unicorn Records in 1973. A special edition of the television programme Aquarius called The Unknown Warrior gave considerable coverage to the recording session and a camera crew joined members of the orchestra during a visit they made to the composer's home in Shoreham.

In 1979, Cameo Classics embarked on a project to record all of Brian's orchestral music in collaboration with the Havergal Brian Society. It started with the English Suite No. 1, Doctor Merryheart, and Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme. In 1980 came the second LP containing In Memoriam, For Valour, and Festal Dance. The project was completed in 1981 with the recordings of Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme, and Two Herrick Songs, Requiem for the Rose and The Hag. The recordings were produced by David Kent-Watson with the Hull Youth Orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Heald-Smith. For the recording of Brian's complete piano music, Cameo Classics employed digital technology. Peter Hill's performances on a Bösendorfer Imperial at the Northern College of Music earned high praise from John Ogdon in his review for Tempo.

More of Brian's works have been published since the 1980s and '90s, and the scarcity of well-rehearsed performances or mature interpretations that had previously made the quality of his music difficult to assess has been partially corrected through the series of professional recordings of many of Brian's symphonies that have been issued by the Marco Polo record label on CD. Many of the original recordings on various labels are being reissued, and as at 2015 only Symphonies Nos. 14 and 26 have yet to receive an official release on any format.

In August 2010, the Dutton CD label issued three works taken from 1959 BBC broadcasts: the Comedy Overture Doctor Merryheart and 11th Symphony (with Harry Newstone conducting the London Symphony Orchestra) and the 9th Symphony (Norman del Mar and the LSO). This release followed on from Testament's reissue of the live recording of the 1966 Boult performance in the Royal Albert Hall of Brian's Gothic Symphony. In the 2011 Proms concert season the symphony was conducted by Martyn Brabbins in the Royal Albert Hall; the performance is now available on a commercial recording.

In July 2012, a documentary film, "The Curse of the Gothic Symphony" was released in Australian cinemas. Directed by Randall Wood, it is a dramatised documentary of the trials and tribulations of staging Brian's Gothic Symphony in Brisbane, Queensland. Filmed over five years, the enormous task of gathering 200 musicians and 400 choristers came to fruition in 2010 in a triumphal performance and standing ovation in Brisbane's Performing Arts centre.

Recordings of the symphonies

Here is a partial list of known recordings for Havergal Brian's symphonies; many are out of print, others have never been released commercially; some have been released in bootleg format or exist in BBC archives:
No. Key/name Conductor Orchestra Recording Date CD version
No. 1 D minor, "The Gothic" Ondrej Lenárd Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra 1989 Yes
Adrian Boult BBCSO 1966 Yes
Martyn Brabbins BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Concert Orchestra 2010 Yes
No. 2 E minor Anthony Rowe Moscow Symphony Orchestra 2007 Yes
No. 3 C-sharp minor Lionel Friend BBCSO 1999 Yes
No. 4 "Das Siegeslied" (Psalm of Victory) Adrian Leaper Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra 2007 Yes
No. 5 "The Wine of Summer" Francisco Teatro São Paulo SO&[4] unk.
Martyn Brabbins Royal Scottish National Orchestra 2015 Yes
No. 6 "Sinfonia Tragica" Myer Fredman London Philharmonic Orchestra 2008 Yes
No. 7 C major Charles Mackerras Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra 1978 Yes
No. 8 B-flat minor Charles Groves RLPO 1978 Yes
Rudolf Schwarz BBCSO 1958 Web(e)
No. 9 A minor Norman Del Mar LSO 1959 Yes
Charles Groves RLPO 1978 Yes
Colin Wilson Wales SO&[5] unk
No. 10 C minor Stanley Pope Philharmonia Orchestra 1958 Web(e)
Martyn Brabbins Royal Scottish National Orchestra 2010 Yes
James Loughran Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra 1973 Yes
No. 11 untitled Harry Newstone LSO 1959 Yes
Adrian Leaper National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland 1993 Yes
No. 12 untitled Adrian Leaper CSR Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava) 1992 Yes
Colin Wilson Wales SO&[5] unk.
Harry Newstone LSO 1959 Web (e)
No. 13 C major Martyn Brabbins RSNO& 2012
No. 14 F minor Edward Downes LSO& 1969
Colin Wilson Wales SO& unk.
Anthony Rowe National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland 1997 Yes
No. 15 untitled Anthony Rowe RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra 1997 Yes
No. 16 untitled Myer Fredman London Philharmonic Orchestra 1973 Yes
No. 17 untitled Adrian Leaper National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland 1992 Yes
No. 18 untitled Lionel Friend BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra 1993 Yes
Colin Wilson Wales SO& unk.
No. 19 E minor Colin Wilson Wales SO& unk.
John Canarina BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra& 1976
Martyn Brabbins Royal Scottish National Orchestra 2015 Yes
No. 20 C-sharp minor Andrew Penny National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine 1994 Yes
No. 21 E-flat Eric Pinkett Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra 1973 Yes
No. 22 "Symphonia Brevis" Colin Wilson Wales SO& unk.
Laszlo Heltay Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra & 1974 Yes (d)
No. 23 untitled Colin Wilson Wales SO&[5] unk.
No. 24 D major Myer Fredman LPO && 1975
No. 25 A minor Andrew Penny NSO Ukraine 1994 Yes
Francisco Teatro São Paulo SO& unk.
No. 26 untitled Vernon Handley New Philharmonia Orchestra &&& 1976
No. 27 C minor Charles Mackerras Philharmonia Orchestra&&&& 1979
Martyn Brabbins Royal Scottish National Orchestra 2015 Yes
No. 28 C minor Leopold Stokowski New Philharmonia Orchestra &&&&& 1973
No. 29 E-flat Nicholas Smith North Staffordshire Symphony Orchestra&&&& 1976
Myer Fredman Philharmonia Orchestra&&&& 1979
No. 30 B-flat minor Martyn Brabbins RSNO 2010 Yes
No. 31 untitled Charles Mackerras RLPO 1987 Yes
No. 32 untitled Adrian Leaper National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland 1992 Yes

&=out of print LP
&&=released on a pirated LP with apocryphal attributions to Horst Werner(conductor)/ Hamburg Philharmonic[6][7]
&&&= released in a (likely pirated) LP box-set with (presumed) apocryphal attributions to John Freedman (conductor)/ Edinburgh Youth Symphony Orchestras[6][7]
&&&&=recording from original BBC broadcast exists, not commercially released[8]
&&&&&=recording from BBC radio 3 exists, not commercially released; a pirated LP (Aries LP-1607) with apocryphal attributions to Horst Werner (conductor)/ Hamburg Philharmonic is reported[9] and refers to this Stokowski performance [7]
d=cd was made, but is now deleted from catalogue
e=recording is in the public domain and is available from the Havergal Brian Society webpage[10]
Both the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra recordings have been remastered and rereleased.[11]
Many of the BBC recordings are freely available for download with registration.[12]


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  • Eastaugh, Kenneth. Havergal Brian, the making of a composer. London: Harrap. c 1976. ISBN 0-245-52748-6
  • MacDonald, Malcolm. The Symphonies of Havergal Brian (Discussion in 3 volumes—volume 1: Symphonies 1–12; volume 2: Symphonies 13–29; volume 3: Symphonies 30–32, Survey, and Summing-up.) London: Kahn & Averill, 1974–1983. ISBN 0-900707-28-3.
  • MacDonald, Malcolm, ed. Havergal Brian on music: selections from his journalism. London: Toccata Press, c 1986. ISBN 0-907689-19-1 (v.1).
  • Nettel, Reginald. Ordeal by Music: The Strange Experience of Havergal Brian. London and New York: Oxford University Press. c 1945.
  • Nettel, Reginald (also Foreman, Lewis). Havergal Brian and his music. London: Dobson. c 1976. ISBN 0-234-77861-X.
  • Matthew-Walker, Robert. "Havergal Brian: Reminiscences and Observations". DGR Books 1995. ISBN 1-898343-04-7.

External links

  • Havergal Brian Society website
  • Brian and the LSSO Information and short audio extracts from the LSSO 1970s recordings.
  • Havergal Brian myspace


The Unknown Warrior A documentary featuring the LSSO recording session of symphonies Nos. 10 and 21 and an informal interview with the composer

Rehearsal of Symphony No.10 by the LSSO reunion orchestra in 1998

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