Havergal Brian

English Born 29 Jan 1876 Died 28 Nov 1972

William Havergal Brian was born in 1876 in Dresden, Staffordshire.  He was a largely self-taught composer, and his ambition led to success in the period before World War I, when some of his orchestral works were conducted by Henry Wood and Thomas Beecham.  From 1922 -1940 Brian was a critic and assistant editor for the magazine 'Musical Opinion', but his compositions from this time attracted little attention.  It wasn't until the BBC began broadcasting his works in 1954 that he gained wider recognition.  He ended a decade of particularly rich composition with his 32nd Symphony in 1968, and died four years later, at age 96.

Brian's body of work included operas, major choral and orchestral pieces, and several songs.  His music before WWI showed a satirical sense of humour - for instance in the Comedy Overture Doctor Merryheart (1911 - 12) - which was unusual at that time.  But it also had a serious demeanour, as heard in the tone poem In Memoriam (1910), and the choral By the Waters of Babylon (1905).  In later years, his style became more intense and serious, and he acquired an unfortunate reputation as a composer of overblown pieces with his most famous work, Symphony No 1, The Gothic (1919-27).  Inspired by Gothic architecture, incorporating varied elements from the history of western music, it is possibly the largest symphony ever written.  It is estimated to require at least one thousand musicians to make up the orchestra, brass bands and choirs.  His exploration of form, harmony and linear structure in later symphonies, as well as in operas such as Turnadot (1949-51), The Cenci (1951-52), and Faust (1955-56) show creative curiousity, and his style of developing variations and allusions can be described as a kind of musical stream-of-consciousness.

Brian did not see many of his works performed in his lifetime.  There are plenty which have not yet been published, and there are several which have never even been performed.  There is a lot of interest in changing this, and the Grateful Dead's Rex Foundation is one organisation currently supporting the recording of a cycle of symphonies.

Related composers: Simpson, Elgar, Schonberg

Show more