Havergal Brian: Working-Class Genius Composer October 07 2022

Havergal Brian was a rare phenomenon among composers; a working-class English boy in a middle-class-dominated field who grew up to be one of the most prolific composers of his generation. Brian was also unusual in that most of his work came at a time of life when most people are comfortably enjoying retirement.



Havergal Brian was born William Brian on January 27, 1876, to a working-class family in Dresden, in the Potteries district of Staffordshire, England. His father, Benjamin Brian, was a potter's turner. He always recalled his childhood as a happy one, and he had a close relationship with his parents. However, in adulthood, he became more distant from his mother as she disapproved of his "lax morals" and his estrangement from his working-class background.

Havergal Brian, circa 1900

Brian adopted the name "Havergal" in his late teens, from a family of hymn-writers, as he thought it sounded more artistic than William, or Billy as his parents called him. His earliest musical education was as a choirboy in St James' Church in Longton, and in 1887 his choir took part in part of Queen Victoria's jubilee celebrations in nearby Lichfield. This gave the young Brian an interest in large-scale musical productions and arrangements.

[IMAGE] Havergal Brian, circa 1900

After leaving school at the age of 12, he began to study music, including the organ, while working in various trades and being in demand for playing violin and cello in local orchestras and bands. As Brian had no formal education, his compositional skills were almost entirely self-taught, although one local teacher was able to teach him a thorough theoretical grounding. 



In 1896 Brian was working at a timber company, one of a succession of jobs including collier, railway office boy and joiner's apprentice. At this time, he became the organist at All Saints, a Gothic Revival church in Odd Rode in Cheshire. This coincided with his first hearing of King Olaf by Edward Elgar, which inspired him to send a sample composition to Elgar, who offered encouragement to the young would-be composer.

Young Havergal Brian was fascinated by beautiful women and made the acquaintance of many girls, enjoying what he later recalled as one of the happiest times of his life. In 1898 he settled down and married Isabel Priestley, who bore him five children during their marriage. Brian continued to support his family with the small wage he received as an organist and whatever he could earn in menial jobs, all the while continuing with his music in whatever time he could find spare.

In 1907 his lucky break arrived. Local wealthy businessman, Herbert Minton Robinson, offered him a wage to allow him to spend more time composing. Robinson expected Brian to achieve great success and thus expand his own reputation. At first, this seemed to be where the young composer was heading, with Brian's first English Suite gaining the notice of conductor Henry J. Wood, who performed it at the London Proms in 1907. However, troubled times were ahead.



Havergal Brian´s biography by Matthew-Walker

Although having initially dived into composing with his new benefactor's financial assistance, Brian began to indulge himself with trips to Italy and expensive meals. Unfortunately, this lifestyle and arguments over money led to trouble with Brian's marriage. Finally, in 1913, his affair with a young servant, Hilda Mary Hayward, ended the marriage, and Brian fled to London with Hilda, with whom he was to spend the rest of his life.

[IMAGE] Biography "Havergal Brian: Reminiscences and Observations" by Robert Matthew-Walker

Robinson was not pleased with this scandal or the lack of success that Brian was achieving but continued to pay his allowance, although most of this money was now going to Isabel and their children. Brian and Isabel were never legally divorced, so it was not until after death in 1933 that he could marry Hilda, who had by then given him five more children.

Sadly these younger children did not become aware of their half-siblings from his first marriage until soon after the composer died in 1972. Brian had always been poor at personal relationships and did not consider that he had any need to inform his younger children of their older siblings' existence. He never spoke to Isabel after their estrangement and only communicated with his older children by letter.



Brian began to compose prolifically upon his move to London, although the couple was living in relative poverty. When war broke out in 1914, he volunteered for the Honourable Artillery Company but never saw service before a hand injury resulted in his being invalided out of the service. After this, Brian found a role at the Audit Office of the Canadian Expeditionary Force until December 1915. During this time, he found inspiration for his first opera, The Tigers.

In 1916 Brian found his home in Erdington, near Birmingham, where he lived with his young family until 1919.



Havergal Brian signed program

After leaving Erdington in 1919, Brian and his family spent several years in various locations in Sussex while the composer continued to struggle in supporting his musical career. However, Brian eventually found work in the musical arena, copying and arranging and writing for the journal The British Bandsman. Then, in 1927, he was offered a role as assistant editor of the journal Musical Opinion and moved back to London.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Program for the professional premiere of Havergal Brian's Symphony #2 "Gothic"  by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on October 30th, 1966.

In the 1920s, Brian began writing symphonies, although he struggled to get them performed, and he had written ten before the first was performed in 1950. Then, in 1940, he retired, which led to Brian's great artistic blooming. Freed from having to work, the composer's productivity increased hugely, and the last three decades of his life were to be his most prolific.

During this period, he wrote four of his five operas and 27 of his 32 operas—during the 1960s (in his 70s and 80s), he was writing an average of 2-3 symphonies each year.



Although Brian was writing vast amounts of music, much of which was high quality, he struggled to get anything performed. It is hard to avoid considering that his music might have achieved wider recognition had he been born into a wealthier family.

Havergal Brian in his 40s

Later on, he did begin to receive some recognition. This was partly because of the efforts of Robert Simpson, a music producer at the BBC and himself a well-known composer. In 1954, Simpson asked Sir Adrian Boult to program Brian's Eighth Symphony.

[IMAGE] Havergal Brian in his 40s

Many of Brian's other works received their public premieres at this time, including in 1961 his Gothic Symphony, which had been written decades earlier between 1919 and 1927. This was a partly amateur performance, conducted by Bryan Fairfax, a conductor known for championing lesser-known or neglected works. This was followed in 1966 by an entirely professional performance at the Royal Albert Hall, which Boult also conducted.

The 1966 performance was broadcast live on the BBC and helped to spark more interest in the now-elderly composer. By the time of his death in 1972, there had been several more performances, and the first commercial recordings were made of Brian's work. However, none of the commercial recordings were released during his lifetime, and he died without hearing many of his greatest works being performed.



Like many people who are highly intelligent or extremely talented in their field, Havergal Brian was notoriously difficult to get along with. A phrase often used of him by those who knew him was "awkward cuss," and he was indeed very socially and physically awkward. At times he almost seemed to sabotage his own success and at times became almost paranoid about the reasons for his not being more successful than he was, considering himself the victim of "scandalous neglect.".

To go along with this, his music was often not the most accessible. He used complex tonal arrangements, demanding rhythmic complexities and dense orchestral textures. To music enthusiasts, his work was breathtaking; to general audiences, hard to digest.

His familial relationships also attest to his awkwardness; it's hard to imagine not telling your children that have older siblings from an earlier marriage. In his middle years, he had little tolerance for children at all, considering them to be a distraction to his work, although he plainly loved them deeply. However, he did mellow in later years, enjoying the sound of children plating as he composed.



In November of 1972, Havergal Brian was frail, although continuing to compose at the age of 96. He was impatient with his frailty and considered getting old as a major inconvenience. 1972 had not been a good year for him; in March, his favorite daughter had succumbed to cancer, and, in August, his closest friend had suffered a serious illness. On November 17, he suffered a fall and was admitted to the Southlands Hospital in Sussex, where he died eleven days later.

Havergal Brian song CD album

Havergal Brian songbook CD album

At the time of his death, Brian's work was already undergoing something of a revival, and this continued. Over the following few years, two biographies were published and a three-volume study of his symphonies. Further commercial recordings also followed as well as more live performances. Soon after Brian's death, the famous conductor Leopold Stokowski heard his Sinfonia Tragica (No. 6) and announced that he wanted to perform some of Brian's work. Soon after this, in 1973, Stokowski led the world premiere performance of Brian's 28th Symphony. This performance was broadcast from the BBC's Maida Vale studios and played by the New Philharmonia Orchestra.

Nearly half a century after Havergal Brian's death, he remains somewhat obscure to most. However, he still has his fervent admirers, and The Havergal Brian Society still keeps his legacy alive.

In July 2012, a dramatized documentary about a staging of Brian's Gothic Symphony in Brisbane, Queensland, was released. "The Curse of the Gothic Symphony" was directed by Randall Wood and was filmed over a five-year period. The mammoth project involving the gathering of 200 musicians and 400 choristers shown in the documentary came to a glorious conclusion in 2010 with a memorable performance in Brisbane's Performing Arts Centre which closed with a standing ovation.



Professional Premiere Symphony 2 "Gothic" Program Signed by H. Brian

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