This year, for various reasons, I decided not to do the press thing at the Proms. I’ve enjoyed writing formal reviews and probably will again, but for now am taking a break. So, no notes taken or facts researched – just some thoughts and observations as they occur.
Prom 4: Havergal Brian Symphony No. 1 ‘The Gothic’
Before the concert, a friend of a friend opined that people in the audience were in two camps: those that had been waiting decades to hear this piece, and those that had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. I disagree. The BBC has done an excellent publicity job, and tickets sold out the day they went on sale, I imagine with many punters in a similar frame of mine to me, i.e. ‘Havergal Brian? Name rings a bell; don’t know a note of his music though. What’s that – it’s the heaviest-scored, longest, loudest symphony ever written ever ever? Sounds fun – count me in.’
Some of my acquaintance say I’m fussy about music, but it doesn’t seem that way to me. I hear a violin and go ‘Oo, violin! Violins are great!’, I hear a french horn and go ‘Oo, horn! Horns are great!’, and so on. (Of course, there are exceptions: I hear a triangle or glockenspiel and think ‘Stupid bloody noise tingtingting ow making my ears ring shut up!’) So, Mr Brian seemingly liked the sound of all the instruments in the orchestra, and included as many of them as possible, in all the different sizes. Plus a Victorian thunder machine, which appeared to be a rotating washing machine drum filled with rocks. I was misinformed that the scoring included a bass flute and was disappointed to find that it didn’t (although bass oboe and contrabass clarinet were included, which seems very unfair); however, unreliable sources on the internet inform me that bass flutes were first constructed in the 1920s, so he might not have been aware of their existence. You might think that it makes little difference to anything when among an orchestra of 200-odd, but it might well have done, as several of the quieter moments of the work were scored in a way that brought out the alto flute lines quite clearly. The 8-strong flute section were very effectively used, sometimes in more traditional solo or duet lines (played expressively and with superb ensemble), sometimes Mahler-style section playing, and at one point in an odd reversal of classical scoring, with a solo violin line accompanied by a choir of flutes.
As regular readers may know, apart from my own instrument, I’m also particularly fond of bass clarinets, all the double reeds, and tubas (as long as they’re not doing Comedy Tuba Cliche, i.e. playing stuff that sounds like it should be soundtracking a jolly slapstick skit involving rotund people falling over). The bass clarinets had some very nice solo action that could easily have been from a Wagner scene, and the oboe section all sounded gorgeous, with a particularly lovely section for cor anglais duet. Fortunately, in addition to adding much welly to the loud bits, the 2 tubas and 2 euphoniums (?) were featured not as comedy, but in a lovely slowly-building Wagnerian (again) structure of Rhein-like open 5ths. I mentioned above that I hate glockenspiels; I have no such issue with xylophones, although for some reason I do tend to find their sound intrinsically funny. Not the case here, as this concert featured the most jaw-droppingly amazing xylophone playing I have ever heard, in a blurry-armed part which I would think requires insane levels of rhythmic precision and coordination. The timp part was pretty full-on too, but at least there were 6 of them banging away (6 timpanists, that is, each with 4 timpani – spread variously around the stage area for some pleasing antiphonal effects).
I feel a little bad about not having anything specific to pick out from the hundreds of voices in the multiple choirs participating (particularly as I had friends singing). They made a great warm, rounded sound and showed very impressive accuracy of timing considering the huge numbers involved, and the complicated Spem in Alium (but more chromatic) part-writing in some sections. Some of the choral sections were very traditional and quite hymn-like, whereas others were reminiscent of Ligeti. Some of the unaccompanied sections were very long, and I heard a rumour that the pitch (unsurprisingly) drooped a couple of times, although it wasn’t enough for listeners without absolute-pitch to notice. I also heard a rumour that the soprano, Susan Gritton (at that point high up in the rafters) noticed the tuning issue and cleverly put it back on track during her solo sections. If that’s true, brilliantly handled!
This being the first performance of the Gothic Symphony since the
60s 80s, much of the comment on it has been as if it were a premiere. Those I’ve heard and read so far seem to generally agree on the fact that (a) it was an extremely impressive performance, with a great deal of credit going to conductor Brabbins for holding together and shaping such huge forces, and (b) the work itself is erratic and uneven in style and compositional structure, and that this was problematic for listeners. I can see why this might be the case for some, but wasn’t for me.
Firstly, the overall structure of the symphony, which I’m told was intended as an auditory depiction of a gothic cathedral, huge, imposing, featuring odd bits of decorative carving and grotesquely humorous gargoyles, part celestial and part militaristic. Well, yes. There were bits with different moods which might have been written by composers 100 years apart in different countries jammed against eachother without any attempt at smooth transition. But does one necessarily always want smooth transitions? Sudden swerves in an unexpected direction are exciting. These differently-textured slabs of music were not arranged neatly in an obvious pattern, but more like crazy paving, with large and small units mixed, some perhaps ‘too’ large or ‘too’ small. My companion commented that it was a wonderful moment when the organ first kicked in, full throttle (which it was), and a shame it was gone again so soon – but that as a leave-em-wanting-more tactic, it worked. In my opinion, there are some people who dislike surprises and are more comfortable knowing what’s going to happen next (in the case of orchestral music, either because they know the work or can make a fair estimate based on knowledge of the composer and/or genre) and there are some who actively like surprises and the sensation of having no idea what’s coming (and when you play or listen to a lot of orchestral music, that sensation becomes harder to come by). When listening to something that clearly isn’t following ‘the rules’, the brain can’t whirr away making its predictions in the background to try and fill up the empty space of the unheard future, and I find that quite liberating.
Another compositional aspect is the level of complexity of texture and/or polyphony of music. Or in other words, there’s a Lot Going On At Once. While I enjoy a beautiful melody, emotive harmonic change, or neatly-fitting counterpoint as much as anyone, I realised that sometimes I crave complexity. Because I’m naturally highly analytical, a part of my brain goes around pattern-spotting and problem-solving quite of its own accord, and while this – contrary to the belief of some – does not make music any less enjoyable, sometimes it can be good to give it a break. One route to this is (as above) through unpredictable macro-structures, but another, more instantaneous, way is to overload with music which has so many instruments or parts doing so many different things (yet each of them making sense), that it’s impossible to process them all at once. Of course, different listeners are overloaded by different levels of complexity: for one person, four instruments playing triadic harmonies in similar rhythms is quite enough for comfort; another person may be totally confused by bitonality or hemiola-heavy rhythms; others can hold 8-part double-fugue structures in their heads with ease. And while I find this loss of comprehensive grip an uplifting mental sensation which is almost trance-like, some people hate it.
Lastly, there’s the volume aspect. Anyone can amplify their instrument(s) through a big stack of speakers and make a deafening noise – the decibels aren’t the issue – but a hugely loud noise which is all from acoustic instruments, which fills the majority of the audible frequency spectrum, and which has the multi-layered complexity of timbres that comes from a symphony orchestra, is something very special. Douglas Adams described the effect of his fictional cocktail the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster as “like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick”. The climactic bits of the Gothic Symphony, even from the very back row, felt like drinking a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, while on a rollercoaster, in a hurricane.
I loved it.