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Havergal Brian
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Havergal Brian

William (Havergal) Brian (January 29, 1876 - November 28, 1972), was a British composer.

He acquired a legendary status at the time of his rediscovery in the 1950s and 1960s for the number of symphonies he had managed to write (thirty-two, an unusually large number for any composer since Beethoven), and for his creative persistence in the face of almost total neglect during the greater part of his long life. Even now none of his works can be said to be performed with any frequency, but few composers who have fallen into neglect after an early period of success have continued to produce so many serious and ambitious works so long after any chance of performance would seem to have gone for good.

William Brian (he adopted the name "Havergal" from a local family of hymn-writers) was born in Dresden, a district of Stoke-on-Trent, and was one of a very small number of serious-music composers to originate from the English working class. After attending an elementary school he had difficulty finding any congenial work, and taught himself the rudiments of music. For a time he was organist of Odd Rode Church just across the border in Cheshire. In 1895 he heard a choir rehearsing Elgar's King Olaf, attended the first performance and became a fervent enthusiast of the new music being produced by Richard Strauss and the British composers of the day. Through attending music festivals he made the lifelong friendship of his near-contemporary composer Granville Bantock (1868 - 1946).

In 1907 his first English Suite attracted the attention of Henry Wood who performed it at the London Proms. It was an overnight success and Brian obtained a publisher and performances for his next few orchestral works. Why he never succeeded in maintaining his success is a matter for debate, but it was probably due to his shyness with strangers and lack of confidence on public occasions. Whatever it was, the offers of performance soon dried up.

At this point a development unusual in British 20th century musical history transformed Brian's life, for better or for worse has never been decided. He was offered a yearly income of 500 (then a respectable lower-middle-class salary) by a local wealthy businessman, Herbert Minton Robinson, to enable him to devote all his time to composition. It seems Robinson expected Brian soon to become successful and financially independent on the strength of his compositions. This never happened. For a while Brian worked on a number of ambitious large-scale choral and orchestral works, but felt no urgency to finish them, and began to indulge in hitherto-undreamt-of pleasures, such as expensive foods and a trip to Italy.

Arguments over the money and an affair with a young servant led to the collapse of his marriage. Brian fled to London and although Robinson deeply disapproved of the incident he continued to provide Brian with money until his own death, though most of the allowance went to Brian's estranged wife. The affair became a lifelong relationship. Gradually Brian began composing again, and, living in conditions of the most basic poverty, eventually obtained work of a musical kind, copying and arranging, and writing for the journal Musical Opinion.

Nothing was a success for Brian; even his war service was short and farcical, and gave him the material for his first opera The Tigers. In the 1920s he at last turned to symphonies, though he had written more than ten before one of them was first performed in the early 1950s. This was due to his discovery by Robert Simpson, a composer and BBC Music Producer, who asked Sir Adrian Boult to programme the Eighth Symphony in 1954. From then on Brian composed another twenty-two symphonies, many of the later ones short, single or two-movement works, and several other pieces.

In 1961 Brian's largest surviving work, the Gothic Symphony, which had been written between 1919 and 1927, was first performed at Central Hall, Westminster, in a partly amateur performance conducted by Bryan Fairfax, and in 1966 the first fully-professional performance was given at the Royal Albert Hall conducted by Boult, both occasions largely the result of Simpson's lobbying. The latter performance was broadcast live and many people heard their first music of Brian that evening. This encouraged considerable interest, and by his death six years later several of his works had been performed and the first commercial recordings had begun to appear. For a few years after Brian's death, while Simpson still had influence at the BBC, there was a revival of interest with a number of recordings and performances; two biographies and a three-volume study of his symphonies appeared, though always with an element of special effort. The reputation of his music has always been restricted to enthusiasts and has never achieved the popularity of, for example, Vaughan Williams. Few of Brian's works have been published, making it likely that his music will continue to be neglected, and the scarcity of well-rehearsed performances or mature interpretations make its quality difficult to assess.

External link

Havergal Brian Society website