BRIAN: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 12 (Adrian Leaper/ Brno Philharmonic Choir/ Echo Mixed Choir/ Jana Valaskova/ Murray Khouri/ Slovak National Opera Chorus/ Slovak Philharmonic Chorus/ Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Youth Echo Choir) (Naxos: 8.570308)
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Havergal Brian (1876-1972)
Symphony No. 4 'Das Siegeslied' • Symphony No. 12
Havergal Brian (1876-1972) was not a religious man in any conventional sense, but he was deeply stirred by the poetry of certain texts from the Judaeo-Christian traditions, which seemed to him to express archetypal truths about the human condition. Thus, for instance, the Te Deum, which he set as Part 2 of his First Symphony, The Gothic (recorded on Naxos 8.557418-19), and thus, too, certain of the Psalms of David.
A favourite was Psalm 68, "Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered". This had also been a favourite with Oliver Cromwell, who ordered his troops to sing it before the Battle of Dunbar in the English Civil War. Cromwell, the great Puritan soldier, was one of Brian's early heroes, which may account for his own fondness for the Psalm. As early as 1907, Brian essayed a choral-orchestral setting of it under the title Let God Arise, but nothing of that work has survived (if indeed it was more than sketched). However, in 1932-33 he returned to the Psalm text, this time in the German version of Martin Luther ("Es stehe Gott auf"), and made it the basis of his monumental Fourth Symphony for double chorus, soprano solo, and very large orchestra – Brian's only choral symphony apart from The Gothic. He gave it the German title Das Siegeslied: The Psalm of Victory.
This Psalm is no simple paean of praise. The text exults at the thought of the violent doom which awaits the unrighteous, and at the chosen of the Lord dipping their feet in their enemies' blood. It is a sacred song of war, as Brian's music makes only too graphically explicit. Why did he compose Das Siegeslied when he did, and why did he set the Psalm-text in German?
One reason, clearly, must be that the Fourth Symphony belongs to the brief period when Brian's music had unexpectedly been taken up by the Hamburg-based publishers Cranz & Co. 1932 was the year that Cranz published the full score of The Gothic, and interested Fritz Busch to the extent of planning a production of Brian's opera The Tigers in Dresden. Brian would certainly have had hopes of securing further performances of his works in Germany, and he presumably believed that a setting of a German text would be of considerable advantage in that process. However it also seems likely that he felt he had something to say to Germany, at a fateful juncture in that nation's history.
Brian was not only a lifelong admirer of the German musical culture exemplified by Schütz, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Wagner, and Strauss, but also of German literature and thought: above all the works of Goethe, whose Faust was a prime inspiration behind The Gothic. (Much later, in 1955-6, Brian was to turn Goethe's drama into an opera, in German.) Considering that he owed an immense amount to German art, Brian subscribed to German newspapers to keep abreast of German cultural events. He was thus intensely aware of the rise of Nazism, and of its coarse nationalistic distortion of Germany's creative heritage. Hitler's assumption of power, the burning of the Reichstag, and the Führer's order to "break the Jewish stranglehold on Western music" all occurred while Brian was composing Das Siegeslied. The grim, barbaric splendour and mail-clad violence of his Symphony, with its peculiarly pitiless text glorifying "Macht und Kraft" (might and power), strongly suggests that he saw, in apocalyptic terms, the direction in which the German Volk was being herded. In some respects Brian's idiom in Das Siegeslied establishes an unexpected kinship of expression with Alexander von Zemlinsky's near-contemporary (in fact, slightly later) setting of Psalm 13; but Brian's is much the vaster and more complex undertaking. His music unleashes the darkest of Old Testament passions, disturbingly conjoined with Lutheran German, and what Thomas Mann called the "blood-boltered barbarism" of the modern totalitarian state. Against this, in humane contrast, Brian places episodes of simple piety, pastoral serenity, and (in the slow movement) an almost metaphysical vision of peace and war in Heaven. But the baleful sounds of a nation on the march (or at a political rally) eventually overwhelm all else.
Brian's Fourth Symphony seems, therefore, to create a multiple perspective between three levels of meaning. First and overtly it is a formal celebratory setting of a victory psalm, an equivalent (in full twentieth-century manner) to Handel's Dettingen Te Deum or Brahms' Triumphlied. But, second, the music is of such wildness, of such violent expressive contrast, disruptive chromaticism and dissonance, that it predicates the apocalyptic denunciation of state militarism which I have outlined above. And third, it is furthermore an invocation, a Cromwellian call to fight the good fight: the enemies who must be scattered are precisely those dark forces whose goose-stepping marches the music evokes so vividly.
To realise this complex vision, Brian - in addition to his vocal forces of large double chorus and soprano - deploys an orchestra of massive dimensions, including many of the unusual woodwind that had featured in The Gothic (alto flute, two oboi d'amore, bass oboe, bassett-horns, pedal clarinet, etc.), with a large contingent of brass and percussion and an extensive rôle for the organ. He also approaches symphonic form in his most fluid and flexible manner. Das Siegeslied, cast in three movements which play without a break, might almost be considered a huge ternary form, two brazen and martial movements enclosing a slow and contemplative one. The first two of these movements are themselves quite clearly tripartite in design, their central sections distinguished from the outer ones by tempo, texture, dynamics, and musical character. Though less easy to discern, the finale too falls into a broad three-part form. Each of the movements has themes proper to itself, though there are also Leitmotivic entities which recur from movement to movement; and the return of the Symphony's initial march-rhythm in its final bars closes a vast circle of continuous, allusive development and metamorphosis.
The Symphony begins Maestoso [Track 1] in a blaze of pomp and splendour: a thunderous C major march in neo-Baroque style, reminiscent of some Handelian coronation anthem. But with the very first entry of the choruses, in tortuous chromatic polyphony , this ideal of simple rejoicing is completely overturned. Throughout the first portion of the movement moods of awe, urgency and violence alternate with brief, varied reminiscences of the optimistic opening march, eventually building to a ferocious climax. There follows a central Lento section  for the choirs alone, "Du gabst, Gott, einen gnädigen Regen" (Thou, O God, did send a plentiful rain), beginning in simple serenity but becoming steadily more chromaticized and Angst-ridden. The final part of the movement then strikes in,  Allegro vivo ma deciso, "Der Herr gab das Wort" (The Lord gave the word), painting in sound a scene which seems to be of pursuit and carnage after a great battle. The most violent and rhythmically compulsive music so far, it sweeps along in fury only to reach a drastically abrupt conclusion as the voices hail the division of the spoils.