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Symphony No. 1 "The Gothic" (Brian)

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The Symphony No. 1 in D minor (The Gothic) by Havergal Brian is a symphony composed between 1919 and 1927. At around one and three quarter hours, it is among the longest symphonies ever composed (with Mahler's 3rd Symphony, Sorabji's nine-hour 2nd Organ Symphony and Dimitrie Cuclin's unperformed No. 12) and, along with choral symphonies such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or Mahler's 8th Symphony, it is one of a few works attempting to use the musically gigantic to address the spiritual concerns of humanity. With a key-scheme that begins in D minor and works round eventually to a close in E major, the work is an example of progressive tonality.



The genesis of the work stems from many sources, but several may be mentioned briefly: a conversation Brian had with Henry Wood about writing a suite that would revive the older instruments which had fallen out of use in the modern symphony orchestra, such as the oboe d'amore or basset horn. This idea was repudiated by Brian's close friend Granville Bantock, but returned when Brian turned to writing symphonies after the end of the First World War. The Gothic element refers to the vision of the Gothic age (from about 1150 to 1500) as representing a huge (almost unlimited) expansion in humanity's artistic and intellectual development, but particularly manifest in the architecture of the great European cathedrals. The scale of the choral finale, which took several years to write, appears to be an attempt to evoke the scale and detail of this architecture in sound; Brian had to paste blank pages of score together to be able to write the work on gigantic sheets with 54 staves to the page. Brian also seems to have identified with the character of Faust, particularly in attempting to write such affirmative music in the post-war atmosphere when many composers had turned from pre-war giganticism, and the finale bears an apposite quote from Goethe's Faust Part Two Act V, which translates as "The man who ever strives may earn redemption". Brian dedicated the work to Richard Strauss, who in a letter of acknowledgement described it as "grossartig" (magnificent).

The work (more specifically the first three orchestral movements) was submitted in 1928 as an entry for the 1928 International Columbia Graphophone Competition in memory of Schubert and won second prize in the 'English Zone' of that contest; in the final international judging in Vienna it was one of a number of works - others were by Czesław Marek, Franz Schmidt and Charles Haubiel - that lost out to the Sixth Symphony of Kurt Atterberg. It was however published in 1932 by the Leipzig-based Cranz & Co. (in an edition beset with printing errors), as "Symphony No. 2" — the number it bore until Brian renumbered his early symphonies in 1967, eliminating the long-defunct A Fantastic Symphony of 1907 and inserting the previously-unnumbered Sinfonia Tragica of 1948 as the new No. 6. A photographically-reduced study score of the Cranz edition was published by United Music Publishers in 1976, though with little effort to correct the copious errors, and still bearing the by-now incorrect No. 2.


The orchestral forces for this symphony are commonly thought to be the largest employed in the symphonic repertoire. In practice, some small reductions can be made without discernible loss (e.g. cutting two of the orchestral trumpets and the doubling to 2nd contrabass trombone).

Part Two

The off-stage brass and timpani are organised into four "Brass Orchestras", each consisting of 2 trumpets, 2 horns, 2 tenor trombones, 2 tubas and 3 timpani (one player)


The symphony consists of six movements, organised into two parts with each part containing three movements, marked as follows:

Part One Part Two

Part one is exclusively orchestral; part two requires the full ensemble, with choral parts set to the words of the Latin religious hymn, the Te Deum. The three movements in Part One play for about forty minutes uninterrupted, and set the stage for the choir-dominated Part Two, which is over an hour in duration and contains a huge range of styles of music, daringly welded together in an attempt to solve the "finale problem" which Brian had set himself. It is written for an extremely large symphony orchestra, four additional brass orchestras, four vocal soloists, four adult choirs, and children's choir.

The work begins with a brilliant flourish given by the full orchestra (which in Part One number approximately one hundred players). The first movement appears to feature two extremely contrasted ideas in the style of sonata form, one a vigorous leaping figure in D minor, the other a suave melody first stated on solo violin in the remote key of D-flat major, though the working out of the music involves a process of ongoing development within the exposition, and avoids the expected re-capitulation by reversing the order of musical events, with the return of the first idea effectively starting the coda. The second movement begins with a stately and solemn march, almost as for a funeral cortege, which builds to a grim and powerful conclusion. The third movement starts with an ostinato in the style of Bruckner that gives way to a recurring idea based on the opening leaping figure of the first movement, initially stated on horns. After various developments culminating in a bizarre polytonal passage with a virtuoso xylophone cadenza, the theme is transformed into a climactic march which eventually throws the movement into the home key of D minor, and subsides quietly with the original statement of the music for horns followed by a harp arpeggio and a final chord of D major.

At this point the choirs and soloists strike in unaccompanied with the opening stanza of the Te Deum, followed immediately by a fanfare for the enlarged orchestra for Part Two (which is supposed to be about 150-strong, besides the extra 40 or so players comprising the four extra brass orchestras). The eclecticism of Brian's music here borrows references as diverse as mediaeval fauxbourdon, Renaissance multiple polyphony on the scale of Tallis's Spem in alium all the way through to twentieth century tone clusters, polytonality and the use of percussion and brass in a Varèse-like outburst of extreme dissonance. The text is treated episodically with sections for full orchestra and choir frequently alternating with unaccompanied passages for the choir alone. The fourth movement moves away from tonalities centered around D and establishes E as a new tonal centre, which is strenuously challenged in the following movements. The start of the fifth movement involves only the choirs in a fearsomely chromatic un-accompanied polyphonic passage, after which the soprano soloist gently sings a wordless vocalise "like an indefinite intonation". A fanfare for eight trumpets and a lengthy orchestral passage then introduces each of the four separate brass orchestras paired with one of the four corresponding choirs. A second orchestral development then culminates in a huge climax for the full forces. Thereafter the sixth and final movement continues with even more contrasted and episodic treatment of the text as the music seems to struggle to reach a conclusion. At the final words "non confundar in aeternum" the music violently flares up with two dissonant outbursts answered by the choirs, followed by a despairing orchestral coda, but the work is finally clinched with a murmuring from the choir, which finally confirms the tonality of E major.


Attempts to perform the symphony have frequently met with failure, beginning with the efforts of Hamilton Harty and Eugene Goossens in the depression-affected 1930s and enduring to the current day, usually owing to the extreme logistics of the work. The work was eventually premiered in 1961, and has been followed by a mere handful of performances, often by partly or wholly amateur forces; the 1978 performance for example was an ad hoc amateur orchestra specially assembled for the occasion, in Brian's home county of Staffordshire. The first professional performance in 1966 was enthusiastically received by the audience in the Royal Albert Hall when the composer himself, aged 90, was in attendance to take a bow at the work's conclusion; this performance was also broadcast live by the BBC.

The alto Shirley Minty sang in the 1966 and 1980 performances, and appears to be the only person who has played a prominent role in more than one performance of the work.


Symphony No. 1 "The Gothic" (Brian) Wikipedia

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