Havergal Brian

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William Havergal Brian (born January 29, 1876 in Dresden , Staffordshire , † November 28, 1972 in Shoreham-by-Sea , Sussex ) was an English composer .

life and work

Brian earned a legendary reputation at the time of his rediscovery in the 1950s and 1960s, largely because of the number of his symphonies : 32, an unusually large number for composers after the Viennese Classic , and unbroken creativity despite the fact that he played most of his Life was almost completely forgotten. Even decades after his death, none of his works are performed frequently.

William Brian (he took the name "Havergal" from a family of hymn poets ) was one of the few composers who came from the English working class . After attending elementary school, he struggled to find a suitable job (including working in a mine ) and taught himself some musical basics. He was temporarily organist at Odd Rode Church in neighboring Cheshire . In 1895 he heard a choir rehearsal of the cantata King Olaf by Edward Elgar , was there at the premiere and became an ardent supporter of the then modern music, especially that of Richard Strauss and the contemporary English composers. By participating in music festivals , a lifelong friendship developed with the composer Granville Bantock, who was about the same age .

In 1898 Brian married Isabel Priestley, with whom he had five children. In 1907 his first English Suite caught the attention of the conductor Henry Wood , who performed it at the Proms in London . It was an instant success and Brian found both a publisher and performance opportunities for his next orchestral works. However, this phase of success did not last, which was possibly due to his shyness towards strangers and a lack of self-confidence at public events. Performance offers soon dried up again.

In the same year (1907) a local wealthy businessman, Herbert Minton Robinson, promised him an annual income of £ 500 ( a respectable salary for the lower middle class at the time), which would allow him to devote all of his time to composition . Apparently Robinson expected Brian would quickly become successful and financially independent through the persuasiveness of his compositions. However, that did not happen. Brian worked on ambitious, large-format choral and orchestral works for a while, but was in no hurry to complete them and turned to things like expensive food or a trip to Italy .

Money disputes and an affair with a young maid , Hilda Mary Hayward, resulted in a breakdown in his first marriage in 1913. Brian fled to London and although Robinson deeply disapproved of the incident, he continued to support Brian financially until his own death; however, most of the donations went to Brian's separated wife. The affair with Hilda turned into a lifelong relationship: At first they lived together in a " wild marriage ", after Isabel's death in 1933 they married (Hilda had already given him five more children).

In London, Brian began to compose abundantly again and - leading a life in very poor conditions - took up any activity with musical reference, be it as a copyist or arranger . He also wrote for The British Bandsman magazine and was co-editor of the Musical Opinion in 1927 .

Brian's service in World War I was short and grotesque (he was retired with a hand injury before a combat mission took place), but gave him material for his first opera The Tigers . He turned to symphonic music in the 1920s and had composed more than ten works of this type before one of them premiered in the early 1950s. Brian owed this to his discovery by the composer Robert Simpson , also a music producer at the BBC , who asked Sir Adrian Boult in 1954 to include the 8th Symphony in his program. From then on, Brian wrote another 22 symphonies (many of the later ones are short, one- or two-movement works), most of which were composed after his 80th birthday, as well as various other compositions.

1961 saw Brian's greatest surviving work, the 1st Symphony, the so-called Gothic , composed between 1919 and 1927, its world premiere in Westminster Central Hall , partly performed by amateurs and conducted by Bryan Fairfax . The gigantic work includes, among other things, a complete Te Deum for four solos, two large double choirs and four separate brass groups, and demands a huge orchestral apparatus that exceeds the most extreme demands of Gustav Mahler , Richard Strauss and Arnold Schönberg . 1966 saw the first purely professional performance in the Royal Albert Hall under the direction of Boult; both performances were largely operated by Simpson. The second performance was broadcast live and many people heard Brian's music for the first time that night. This aroused considerable interest and by his death six years later several of his works had their premieres . The first commercial recordings also began to appear.

In the years after Brian's death, when Simpson still had influence on the BBC, there was an increased interest in his music, which was expressed in a larger number of recordings and performances; two biographies and a three-volume study of his symphonies appeared. The reputation of his music was always limited to a circle of enthusiasts and never reached the popularity of Ralph Vaughan Williams , for example , although conductors such as Leopold Stokowski , Sir Charles Groves , Sir Charles Mackerras and Lionel Friend advocated Brian's work. Few of Brian's works have been published, which is why his music continues to be neglected; and the rarity of well-rehearsed performances or sophisticated interpretations makes it difficult to correctly assess their quality.

Brian's style makes use of a sometimes dissonant harmony , the tonality is sometimes extended to close to atonality (Brian appreciated Arnold Schönberg, Edgar Varèse or Paul Hindemith , among others ).


  • Reginald Nettel: Ordeal by Music: The Strange Experience of Havergal Brian. Oxford University Press, London and New York 1945.
  • Lewis Foreman (Ed.): Havergal Brian. A collection of essays . Triad, London 1969.
  • Reginald Nettel (with Lewis Foreman): Havergal Brian and his music . Dobson, London 1976, ISBN 0-234-77861-X .
  • Lewis Foreman: Havergal Brian and the performance of his orchestral music. A History and Sourcebook . Thames, London 1976, ISBN 0-905210-01-8 .
  • Malcolm MacDonald: The Symphonies of Havergal Brian (3 volumes, Vol. 1: Symphonies 1-12; Vol. 2: Symphonies 13-29; Vol. 3: Symphonies 30-32 and bibliography). Kahn & Averill, London 1974-1983, ISBN 0-900707-28-3 .
  • Malcolm MacDonald (Ed.): Havergal Brian on music: selections from his journalism. Toccata Press, London 1986, ISBN 0-907689-19-1 (v.1).
  • Kenneth Eastaugh: Havergal Brian - the making of a composer . Harrap, London 1976, ISBN 0-245-52748-6 .

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