The crazy dream of performing Havergal Brian’s gargantuan Gothic paid off. Now there’s a film about the journey.

Is it the work of a genius, prankster or megalomaniac?

Over the years Havergal Brian’s herculean Gothic Symphony has been dismissed – and championed – by some of the world’s great conductors. It’s not just the whopping numbers – an orchestral team of around 180, four brass bands, four soloists and four mixed choirs – that makes a performance such a mammoth and economically tough project.

It’s also rumoured to be fiendish to play, treacherous to sing and nigh on impossible without months of intensive rehearsal. A citation in the 1974 Guinness World Records as the biggest symphony ever has done nothing to help its artistic reputation, but has certainly contributed to the work’s cult status.

In 2010, the eyes of the world were trained on Brisbane as a dedicated crew set out to stage the first performance of this juggernaut outside of Britain, and only the fourth since it emerged back in 1932. Now, a documentary film about the seven-year process of getting the Gothic off the ground is screening in selected cinemas around Australia from May 24.

Any performance of the Gothic is music-making against the odds. Indeed, Brian had reason to wonder if his First Symphony would ever be heard at all – but it has lured conductors like moths to a flame. Eugene Goossens wanted to mount a performance, yet could not justify hiring a vast orchestral army during the Depression. Leonard Bernstein was another contender, until his record label intervened. Many others have toyed with the challenge, including Hamilton Harty, Serge Koussevitzky, Leopold Stokowski, Charles Groves and Neeme Järvi… Last year it was finally performed at the Proms with the intrepid conductor Martyn Brabbins at the helm. 

A lesser individual might have been crushed, but Brian claimed it didn’t matter if his works graced concert platforms or not because he already knew what they sounded like. Bravely, Sydney-born Bryan Fairfax conducted the first performance in 1961, accompanied by a massive sprawl of zealous enthusiasts. Reviews were mixed but there was enough of a splash to inspire Sir Adrian Boult to surf on Fairfax’s waves five years later at the Royal Albert Hall. Brian was 90 years old when he heard this and was awarded a standing ovation.

QPAC’s venture, part of its 25th anniversary celebration, has necessitated an adaptation of the recently renovated concert hall. Several rows of audience seating had to be removed to allow for stage extensions. It was as if the venue itself had become an element in the performance. And, it wasn’t just a local struggle. Jeremy Marchant, Committee Member of the British Havergal Brian Society (whose patron was the late Sir Charles Mackerras) improved the choral score, added a piano reduction, and corrected mistakes to ensure that the previously handwritten and at times indecipherable pages were intelligible. The Brisbane concert sold out.

The endeavour itself involved so much courage and evangelical effort that Veronica Fury was inspired to make the ABC documentary The Curse of the Gothic. Cameras tracked every baton beat, discordant note and whisper of defeat as the journey progressed. 

The driving force and catalyst behind the project was Gary Thorpe, General Manager of classical radio station 4MBS. Listening to a pirated recording fuelled a life-long enchantment with this work. For 30 years, Thorpe championed Havergal Brian’s First Symphony, persistently chivvying Queensland’s arts brokers to stage it.

“I flew to London with six other Australians to hear a performance with the conductor Olle Schmidt at the Royal Albert Hall in 1980. It’s an extraordinary piece, as well as a visual spectacle because of the sheer numbers involved. When the choir rose for the finale, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end,” he says. 

“The more you get to know the Gothic, the more you realise how much is involved. Ahead of its time, there is the most wonderful xylophone solo and superb woodwind writing. Polyphony, atonal as well tonal music is in the mix. It’s a huge, unwieldy thing that gives the nod to diverse stylistic trends. It’s almost like a concerto that encompasses the entire spectrum of musical epochs from the 16th to the 20th centuries. I think Havergal Brian’s time has come; his voice is distinctive.”

Canadian musicologist and Brian scholar Paul Rapoport believes the symphony to be extraordinarily original. He says it is “a re-imagining of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Instead of an Ode to Joy there is a 60-minute chorale-saturated last movement, an expression of the deepest despair. Setting the Te Deum as a grand secular poem is startling. Then there are marches for clarinets and percussion, a cappella and celebratory wordless singing, operatic styles, oratorio styles, old music, new music, and the cataclysmic climaxes involving the brass bands – the three most intense passages in orchestral music that I know of after The Rite of Spring.

“Brian’s highly individual style, although marked with the footprints of Elgar, Richard Strauss, Berlioz and 16th-century composers Thomas Tallis and Byrd, distances him from Beethoven’s language.” 

Havergal Brian, who died in 1972, remains a puzzling figure of a rather unfathomable notoriety. Mentioning his name among musicians produces a knowing look and a smile, but little if any knowledge. There’s even a bus company in Hove, Brighton that boasts his name. Branded “the original awkward cuss”, he was self-effacing, self-taught, otherworldly, hyper-intelligent, destructively intransigent, obsessive, private, an intellectual leg-puller and serially provocative.

From 1909-1945, as a journalist writing under the pseudonym “La Main Gauche”, Brian fired scorching attacks on the musical establishment, arguing that Britain’s classical programming diet was bland and conservative, and needed the seasoning of European contemporaries like Schoenberg, Richard Strauss or even British trailblazers such as Granville Bantock. 

At times a hero, his working-class background was unusual and the populist press dubbed him “Mr Music” because of his unappreciated yet prolific output. Although fiercely and creatively independent, his role as a journalist kept him in touch with many of the leading musicians in the 20th century. A friend of Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Brian was considered one of the B-list of English composers, alongside Holst, Bax and Ireland. Delius and Brian were walking companions; he once travelled with Percy Grainger; interviewed Glazunov, Rachmaninov, Diaghilev, Paul Robeson and Stravinsky, and attended rehearsals of Richter, Toscanini, Beecham and Schoenberg.

The widely published Brian scholar Malcolm MacDonald says “Brian was a remarkable journalist, well informed and unafraid to go out on a limb and take on unfashionable causes like Handel’s operas, or become an advocate of Mahler’s music, which was once derided by the British press”.

It is not entirely accurate to say that Brian’s output was neglected, for he was relatively successful before the interruption of the World War I, and he has always attracted zealous devotees. The BBC’s Robert Simpson arranged for all of Brian’s symphonies to be recorded between 1954 and 1979. Early in life, Brian was talent-spotted and funded by Herbert Robinson to focus exclusively on composition. After Brian remarried, Robinson withdrew his sponsorship. Between the two world wars Brian fell into obscurity. Very few knew what he was composing, or that it stepped so far outside fashionable trends. 

Decades before Sibelius music notation software, Brian scratched a meagre subsistence copying out band parts. During bouts of poverty in the early 1920s, the Gothic remained Brian’s compulsive focus. Rapoport feels that “it was not so much that Brian was distracted from life by working on the Gothic. The reverse was the case: life, however difficult, offered Brian respite from the Gothic”.

Opinions vary as to the Gothic’s merits and demerits. Henry Wood deemed it unplayable. An irony, as Brian wrote the work after some post-concert banter in which Wood mused how worthy it would be to write a work that explored the sonic possibilities of all instruments on the orchestral spectrum. Brian’s vision includes rarities like the contrabass trombone, the pedal clarinet, basset horns and the bass oboe. The instrumental force was never about ear-blasting volume, but about colour.

Liquefied architecture is how some explain the Gothic’s language. Brian once told Simpson that cathedrals embody spiritual power and terror. As a young man he took part as a chorister in the performance of a Te Deum setting in Lichfield Cathedral during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Celebrations. The Gothic’s philosophical sweep, universal themes and six-movement structure divided into two expansive sections is likely to have been prompted by Gothic architecture. It’s been argued that the work could be the equivalent of the cruciform ground plan of a Gothic cathedral.

Alison Rogers, creative producer and chorusmaster of the QPAC Gothic admits, “when I heard various recordings, I didn’t like the piece, probably because the recordings didn’t do the work justice. Balance was an issue and the ensemble wasn’t tight. In discovering the truth of the work in rehearsal, I find it beautiful – especially in the fifth movement when the polyphonic writing splinters into many parts all moving stepwise in tones and semitones. Composers like Arvo Pärt have been credited with this approach but Brian got there first.

“A special moment is the Judex section in Part Two. It’s very meditative, and the fugal, antiphonal writing is thrilling. It pays homage to Renaissance composers and references the motet but goes beyond it. There are times of such intense grief that you see it in the choristers’ faces. I like the way he exploits the sonorities and resonance of the voices from the depth of the bass to the top of the soprano range. And yes, three modulatory, chromatic bars in the fourth movement are probably unsingable, but at every rehearsal, I warm up the choir with them. At times, there is a glimmer of congruence out of the chaos.” 

Growing up in an industrial district of Staffordshire, Brian was exposed to a centuries-old choral tradition. In a letter Brian wrote to Rapoport, he said that the polychoral and polychordal a cappella opening pages of the Judex owe much to 16th century English choral music, but are hair-raisingly original and difficult. “…in The Gothic I had a tabula rasa, for the choirs I knew [in North Staffordshire from his youth] did not know of the word ‘difficulty’”. Brian also penned five operas. One, The Tigers, is a satire on the military and requires a live elephant on stage.  

John Curro, who conducted the scratch orchestra and choir, thinks the symphonic writing is no trickier than that of a Mahler Symphony, yet volunteers that if the performance succeeds, much of the kudos belongs to Rogers: it is the choral writing that presents the most extreme challenges. “It’s not really the point whether the piece is really good or not. Society has asked for it to be brought before an audience and we’ve got to give it our best shot. It’s cumbersome and the quality will depend on how well the orchestral components gel with the choral. There are some fabulous moments. The ending is gorgeous.” 

When Brian died, an assortment of Havergal devotees founded the Havergal Brian Society and created Society’s website, which contains some 500 articles about the composer and numerous recordings, ensuring that Brian is poised on the threshold of discovery. Gary Thorpe hopes the long-awaited performance at QPAC will create a ripple effect, and others, along with Martyn Brabbins at the Proms in 2011, will follow in Queensland’s wake. “Ten of Brian’s symphonies are masterpieces. It’s best to start off with this infamous work as it really draws attention to this symphonist as someone big and out there. It’s a struggle but vitally important. The best anyone can do is to have one crack at it in a lifetime.”  

The Curse of the Gothic Symphony will screen twice daily (10.30am and 4pm) from 24th May 2012 for two weeks at Chermside Event in Brisbane, Newcastle Event in New South Wales and Manuka Event in Canberra. Tickets are $13.