Symphony No. 1 (Havergal Brian)

From Academic Kids

Havergal Brian's Symphony No. 1 in D minor (The Gothic).

The symphony was composed between 1919 and 1927, and partly owes its notoriety to being the largest symphony ever composed (described thus by the Guinness Book of Records). Along with choral symphonies such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, or Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand, it is one of a few works attempting to use the musically gigantic to address the spiritual concerns of humanity.



The work is in two parts, each consisting of three movements, with the extra orchestral and vocal forces required for the second part, which sets to music the words of the Latin religious hymn, the Te Deum. The three movements in Part One play for about forty minutes uninterrupted, and set the stage for the choir-dominated Part Two, which is over an hour in duration and contains a huge range of styles of music, daringly welded together in an attempt to solve the "finale problem" which Brian had set himself. It is written for an extremely large symphony orchestra, four additional brass orchestras, four vocal soloists, four adult choirs, and children's choir.

  1. Allegro assai - attacca:
  2. Lento espressivo e solenne - attacca:
  3. Vivace - attacca:
  4. Te Deum laudamus. Allegro moderato
  5. Judex crederis esse venturus. Adagio molto solenne e religioso
  6. Te ergo quaesumus. Moderato e molto sostenuto


The genesis of the work stems from many sources, but several may be mentioned briefly: a conversation Brian had with Henry Wood about writing a suite that would revive the older instruments which had fallen out of use in the modern symphony orchestra, such as the oboe d'amore or basset horn. This idea was repudiated by Brian's close friend Granville Bantock, but returned when Brian turned to writing symphonies after the end of the First World War. The Gothic element refers to the vision of the Gothic age (from about 1150 to 1500) as representing a huge expansion in humanity's artistic and intellectual development, but particularly manifest in the architecture of the great European cathedrals. The scale of the choral finale, which took many years to write, appears to be an attempt to evoke the enormity and detail of this architecture in sound; Brian had to paste blank pages of score together to be able to write the work on gigantic sheets with 54 staves to the page. Brian also seems to have identified with the character of Faust, particularly in attempting to write such affirmative music in the post-war atmosphere when many composers had turned from pre-war giganticism, and the finale bears an apposite quote from Goethe's Faust Part Two Act V, which translates as "The man who ever strives may earn redemption". Brian dedicated the work to Richard Strauss.

The work was published in 1932 by the Leipzig-based Cranz & Co. (in an edition beset with printing errors), as "Symphony No. 2"—the number it bore until Brian renumbered his early symphonies in 1967, eliminating the long-defunct A Fantastic Symphony of 1907 and inserting the previously-unnumbered Sinfonia Tragica of 1948 as the new No. 6. A photographically-reduced study score of the Cranz edition was published by United Music Publishers in 1976, though with little effort to correct the copious errors, and still bearing the by-now incorrect No. 2.


The orchestral forces for the symphony are commonly thought to be the largest employed in the symphonic repertoire. The first part of the work uses an orchestra of about half the size of the full forces, given below:

Woodwind: 2 piccolos, 6 flutes (1 doubling alto flute); 6 oboes (1 doubling oboe d'amore, 1 doubling bass oboe), 2 cors anglais; 1 clarinet in E flat; 5 clarinets in B flat (1 doubling 2nd clarinet in E flat), 2 basset horns, 2 bass clarinets in B flat, contrabass (pedal) clarinet in B flat; 3 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons.

Orchestral brass: 8 horns; 8 trumpets (2 doubling cornets in E flat), bass trumpet; 3 tenor trombones, bass trombone (doubling 2nd contrabass trombone), contrabass trombone; 2 euphoniums, 2 bass tubas.

Percussion and keyboards: 2 sets of timpani; 2 bass drums; 2 (preferably 3) side drums; Indian long drum; 2 tambourines; 2 triangles; 6 pairs of large cymbals; gong; bird scare; thunder machine; small chains; xylophone; glockenspiel; chimes in E flat; tubular bells; celesta; 2 harps (preferably more ad lib.); organ.

Strings: 20 first violins, 20 second violins, 16 violas, 14 violoncellos, 12 double basses.

In addition, the 5th and 6th movements include 4 off-stage bands (supporting the 4 adult choirs), each comprising: 2 horns; 2 trumpets; 2 tenor trombones; 2 bass tubas; 1 set of timpani.

In practice, some small reductions can be made without discernible loss (e.g. cutting two of the orchestral trumpets and the doubling to 2nd contrabass trombone).

The music of the symphony

The work begins with a brilliant flourish given by the full orchestra (which in Part One number approximately one hundred players). The first movement appears to feature two extremely contrasted ideas in the style of sonata form, one a vigorous leaping figure in D minor, the other a suave melody first stated on solo violin in the remote key of D flat major, though the working out of the music involves a process of ongoing development within the exposition, and avoids the expected re-capitulation by reversing the order of musical events, with the return of the first idea effectively starting the coda. The second movement begins with a stately and solemn march, almost as for a funeral cortege, which builds to a grim and powerful conclusion. The third movement starts with an ostinato in the style of Bruckner that gives way to a recurring idea based on the opening leaping figure of the first movement, initially stated on French horns. After various developments culminating in a bizarre polytonal passage with a virtuoso xylophone cadenza, the theme is transformed into a climactic march which eventually throws the movement into the home key of D minor, and subsides quietly with the original statement of the music for horns followed by a harp arpeggio and a final chord of D major.

At this point the choirs and soloists strike in unaccompanied with the opening stanza of the Te Deum, followed immediately by a fanfare for the enlarged orchestra for Part Two (which is supposed to be about 150‐strong, besides the extra 40 or so players comprising the four extra brass orchestras). The eclecticism of Brian’s music here borrows references as diverse as mediaeval fauxbordon, Renaissance multiple polyphony on the scale of Tallis’s Spem in alium all the way through to twentieth‐century tone clusters, polytonality and the use of percussion and brass in a Varèse‐like outburst of extreme dissonance. The text is treated episodically with sections for full orchestra and choir frequently alternating with unaccompanied passages for the choir alone. The fourth movement moves away from tonalities centered around D and establishes E as a new tonal centre, which is strenuously challenged in the following movements. The start of the fifth movement involves only the choirs in a fearsomely chromatic un-accompanied polyphonic passage, after which the soprano soloist gently sings a wordless vocalise "like an indefinite intonation". A fanfare for eight trumpets and a lengthy orchestral passage then introduces each of the four separate brass orchestras paired with one of the four corresponding choirs. A second orchestral development then culminates in a huge climax for the full forces. Thereafter the sixth and final movement continues with even more contrasted and episodic treatment of the text as the music seems to struggle to reach a conclusion. At the final words "non confundar in aeternum" the music violently flares up with two dissonant outbursts answered by the choirs, followed by a despairing orchestral coda, but the work is finally clinched with a murmuring from the choir, which finally confirms the tonality of E major.

Performances and reception

Attempts to perform the symphony have frequently met with failure, beginning with the efforts of Hamilton Harty and Eugene Goossens in the depression-affected 1930s and enduring to the current day, usually owing to the extreme logistics of the work. The work was eventually premiéred in 1961, and has been followed by a mere handful of performances, often by partly or wholly amateur forces; the 1978 performance for example was an ad hoc amateur orchestra specially assembled for the occasion, in Brian's home county of Staffordshire. The first professional performance in 1966 was enthusiastically received by the audience in the Royal Albert Hall when the composer himself was in attendance to take a bow at the work's conclusion; this performance was also broadcast live by the BBC.

24 June 1961, Central Hall, Westminster, Polyphonia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bryan Fairfax

30 October 1966, Royal Albert Hall, London, BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult

10 October 1976 [Part I only], Royal Albert Hall, London, New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Groves

(The three orchestral movements of the symphony comprising Part One may be played separately without the choral finale. In 1928 Brian submitted this shorter form of the work in the Schubert Centenary Composition competition, where it was awarded second place in the English division.)

21 May 1978, Victoria Hall, Hanley, Staffordshire, the Stoke Gothic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Trevor Stokes

25 May 1980, Royal Albert Hall, London, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ole Schmidt

15 September 1984 [Part I only], St Olave's School, Kent, ad hoc orchestra conducted by Marc Fitzgerald

In 1989 the Marco Polo recording company commissioned the first commercial recording of the symphony, which was recorded in two blocks of sessions from 29-31 March (Part One) and 16-22 October (Part Two) at the Concert Hall of Slovak Radio (Bratislava). This involved two orchestras, the CSR Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava) and the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Ondrej Lenárd. The recording was mainly well-received by critics, and achieved the greatest sales of any recording released under the Marco Polo label.

As the symphony is an extremely difficult work to assess in only a single hearing, critical comment following the performances has often been barbed, or made sometimes trivial comparisons with the works of other composers to try to assimilate its features.

External links

The Havergal Brian Society ( have a number of essays and further detail ( on the symphony.

The commercial recording by the Marco Polo ( company has been re-released in the UK on the "bargain" Naxos ( label; samples from the recording and sleeve notes are available.


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