Salon des oubliés: Havergal Brian's Gothic, a true symphony of a thousand, gets rare live performance today
That, oversimplified, is the story of English composer Havergal Brian, who died, aged 96, in 1972. (Click on the link for everything you may want to know.) He left behind stacks and stacks of music -- including 32 symphonies -- that not many people could get excited about. An old guard of influential Englsh musical figures, including Proms founder Sir Henry Wood and conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, did their best to champion Brian's work.
Today, the Proms give us a very rare opportunity to hear his most notorious creation: Symphony No. 1, called the Gothic. Brian spent eight years crafting this two-hour behemoth, which calls for a huge main orchestra, organ, four offstage brass bands, a children's choir and an Edwardian choral society-size adult choir and, as you can imagine, a gargantuan stage.
Thank goodness for Royal Albert Hall.
Today's Proms performance, with live streaming audio, features more than 1,000 performers, according to the BBC. After the live stream, the concert will remain available for listening for seven days.
You can find all the details of the concert here.
Havergal completed the work in 1927. It was published in 1932 as his Symphony no. 2, then renumbered by Brian three decades later. Apparently, it made it in to the Guiness Book of World Records as the longest symphony. It didn't have its premiere until 1961.
It's difficult to describe the style of Brian's writing in this symphony; it's so eclectic that it echoes a little bit of everything inside its massive sprawl. It's like a big sonic tapestry where the creator keeps changing the colour and thickness of the yarn, while reinterpreting the design, as the loom chugs along.
That sounds awful, but it isn't, really. It simply demands a different kind of listening. I've imagined myself as a passenger on a long train ride, with the Gothic Symphony a grand succession of unfolding panoramas that come and go as I sit back in wonder.
Here is the first of three sections of a messily exuberant setting of the Te Deum that make up the work's second half. This is from a 1989 Slovak Philharmonic recording -- the first official recording (there was a bootleg LP of a live concert floating around before that):
In a jollier vein, here is a Comic Overture ispired by J.M. Synge's 1909 play, The Tinker's Wedding. The music dates from 1948. The performance is by the late, great Sir Charles Mackerras and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic:
To close, Roger Vigoles accompanying baritone Brian Rayner Cook in Brian's overwrought, 1910 setting of Robert Herrick's poem, "Why Dost Thou Wound and Break My Heart:"