Musical Notes: A Peter and a Brian

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A Peter and a Brian

You may have noticed that your Musical Notes Post reporter has been somewhat quiet for the last few months. I told myself that there was nothing really worthwhile happening to write about. That of course has been a ludicrously transparent piece of self-delusion. The truth is that I haven't wanted to write, or more accurately, I haven't seen the point in writing, while we waited to learn the outcome of the BBC's 'disposal' of h2g2. If the outcome were to be unfavourable, wouldn't it simply have been wasted effort? Well now we know the excellent result, the way is clear and we can set course on our literary Heart of Gold to wherever we choose to go. At any rate Musical Notes has booked passage with a Heart of Glad.

My two topics in this issue of The Post have no particular connection. They just happen to be the first that occurred to me when I sat down last night to take up my pen again.

Peter Maxwell Davies

The Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, is fed up, and not for the first time. Although normally a placid man who just wants to live and compose quietly on his beloved Orkney Islands, he has never been a stranger to controversy. On two previous occasions this year alone, he has spoken out about, and acted upon things that exasperate him.

In January 2011 Sir Peter, now aged 77, retired from conducting, having only started doing so because he perceived that others were reluctant to take on his compositions, finding them 'too difficult'. But in announcing his retirement, Sir Peter castigated some (unnamed) conductors as being artistically lazy: 'Today too many conductors are just churning out production line performances. They are doing far too many concerts. Maybe it is to do with the money.' Although refusing to name those he regards as guilty of laziness, he was prepared to single out Sir Simon Rattle and Pierre Boulez as notable exceptions.

Only a month or so later, the object of Sir Peter's ire was muzak in restaurants. He walked out of one in Kent when the background noise of Italian tenors became too much to bear. He asked for the volume to be turned down, which it was, but it soon rose again, so he left in favour of another establishment. Bravo Sir Peter.

If that action was one that many of us could and indeed should applaud, his latest bête noire is one that is likely to bring some of us to near apoplexy: mobile phones going off during concerts. If he had his way, those guilty would be fined, a penalty I suspect many, myself included, will actually find far too lenient. Sir Peter describes the guilty as 'artistic terrorists'. He would like to see the money raised from such fines going to the Musicians' Benevolent Fund. Such is his disdain for muzak that on other occasions he has walked out of a London book store because of it, and almost left the BBC's Broadcasting House while waiting in its Reception for a meeting.

In future Sir Peter intends to concentrate solely on composition; he is currently working on a Ninth Symphony, to be completed in time for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

A related issue is the use of smartphones and similar devices to text, Tweet, e-mail and browse the internet during concerts. In the UK, use of non-handsfree mobile devices while driving a car is banned1. We do so for a reason: it is dangerous. Why? Because it distracts the driver from concentrating on driving. Not dangerous in a concert hall, agreed2, but the same distraction effect applies. Composers spend time writing and polishing the score, the musicians spend many hours in rehearsal. They deserve and have a right to expect our undivided attention in return. Anything less is insulting. Perhaps we should introduce a system whereby concert-goers have to check in their mobile devices on arrival, as they would their coats, in rather the same way that saloon bars in old Western movies required their gun-toting cowboy customers to leave them at the door before entering for a night's drinking and gambling.

One concert venue where there can be no excuse for an errant mobile phone is the Royal Albert Hall. Before all concerts broadcast from the hall, there is a public request announcement to turn off all mobiles. This announcement is introduced by the sound of a mobile phone ringtone which escalates in volume to the point at which it cannot possibly be missed by even the most hard of hearing; even with the hum of 5,000 people talking it is LOUD.

Havergal Brian

Mention of the Royal Albert Hall brings me neatly to this year's season of BBC Promenade Concerts – the Proms – which begin on Friday 15 July. For me, one night stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of being an event of major importance. On the third night, Sunday 17 July, is a very rare performance of Havergal Brian's Symphony No.1, subtitled The Gothic. This is an enormous work: over 100 minutes of music have earned it an entry in The Guinness Book of Records as the world's Longest Symphony, even by the inevitable comparison with that other gargantuan symphony, Mahler's Eighth. It requires the combined forces of the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, together with no less than nine choirs/choruses and four vocal soloists (SATB), a total of over one thousand musicians3. Although you may not be surprised to learn that this concert will be a Proms première for the symphony, it has in fact been performed at the Royal Albert Hall twice before.

Havergal Brian (1876-1972) was over 50 when he completed this symphony. Although numbered as No.1, it is actually the second he wrote. In 1967, late in his life, Brian discarded an earlier symphony written in 1907-8 and renumbered the Gothic. In the course of an exceptionally long career of some 80 years, he composed another 31 symphonies4, two of which, numbers 12 and 9, have been performed at the Proms before, in 1966 and 1976 respectively.

As I said earlier, comparison with Mahler's Eighth Symphony is inevitable. As well as the sheer scale of the work, Brian's symphony, like Mahler's, is divided into two parts. Also, like the Mahler, but in the reverse order, it draws inspiration from Goethe's Faust for the first part, and sets a Latin hymn for the second, in this instance Te Deum laudamus, whereas Mahler uses Veni, Creator Spiritus.

Written during the decade of the immediate aftermath of World War I and completed in 1927, a number of attempts in the 1930s to get the symphony performed came to nothing. It was 1961 before it received its first performance, a semi-professional one in Central Hall, Westminster under conductor Bryan Fairfax. This was followed by a fully-professional one in October 1966 at the Royal Albert Hall by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Chorus and BBC Choral Society5 conducted by Sir Adrian Boult6. A famous amateur performance in May 1978 at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent7 by the Stoke Symphony Orchestra, was followed in May 1980 by one from the London Symphony Orchestra, again at the Royal Albert Hall, under the baton of Ole Schmidt, the Danish director of the Aarhus City Orchestra. On 22 December, 2010, the first performance outside England, by the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane, Australia, brought to an end a 30-year performance hiatus.

This Proms performance will be its sixth. The concert is a complete sell-out. I have my ticket; I will be there. Catch the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 if you can. It is an experience not to be missed.

Till next time, support noohootoo and happy listening.

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1At least in theory, however this must be one of the most ignored laws in the land.2Using mobiles that is, not driving!3Mahler's so-called 'Symphony of a Thousand' actually only requires about 800 performers.4Twenty-one of which were written when Brian was over 80 years old.5Plus the City of London Choir, the Hampstead Choral Society, Emanuel School Choir and the Orpington Junior Singers.6The BBC tapes of this performance have become available on CD only recently.7Havergal Brian was born at Dresden, near Stoke-on-Trent.

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