Is Bigger Better: The Gothic Symphony


Holy Jesus, that’s a lot of people

At the 2011 Proms, a sleeping monster was awakened. It has been performed less than 10 times. It is the longest and largest symphony in existence. It has a large cult following: the British composer, Havergal Brian’s First Symphony “The Gothic.” Ever heard of him? Neither has really anybody else. He lives in complete obscurity, with the exception of this mythical work. Brian was remarkably prolific, composing some 30 or so symphonies, and a ton of other stuff. In that sense he can be compared to Alan Hovhaness, except that Mysterious Mountain is one of the greatest symphonies, and he wrote some other really cool stuff. He wrote music, not necessarily to be played, but instead just to write. The Gothic is that philosophy at work.

A brief overview of the work. It is cast in 6 movements and two parts, each 3 movements long. The first part is purely instrumental, the second includes the chorus. The second part uses the text of the “Te Deum.” The instrumentation is colossal. I don’t feel like listing it here, so here is the Wiki page. You really need two full orchestras and four full choirs to fill out the group. What it boils down to is that the Gothic gets far closer to 1000 than Mahler’s 8th. Just look at the above picture (though this picture of a Mahler 8 rehearsal is pretty impressive). The instrumentation is something that I would write as a joke, not a real work. What is sad though, is that Brian never fully employs the full orchestra for any extended period of time. Too bad, walls would crumble, and civilizations would fall. The work also deals with the whole idea of Faustian redemption.

The Gothic is easily compared to Mahler 8: they both are huge, they both set religious text, and deal with the above-mentioned Faustian redemption. The only difference is that they are completely different, the above similarities notwithstanding. In Mahler there is an evident structure. The Gothic doesn’t have that at all; this will be discussed later. I read somewhere that the present work is really more comparable to the Berlioz Requiem. I’ve never heard the Berlioz all the way through, but the size is big and there are big brass bands in both, so sounds good to me. Neither the Mahler, nor the Berlioz is really within comparison. Really, there is nothing comparable to the Gothic because it is so massively different, and eclectic. The above mentioned Wiki article cites numerous different styles that Brian draws from. I’ll be honest right now, I’ve never listened to the whole thing through, for the obvious reasons.

The big debate over the work is if the work is a work of genius, or a massive failure. It is one or the other, no middle ground. Some of the ideas are pretty interesting (I think the violin solo in the 1st mov. is lovely), but most of these ideas are relatively quickly passed over, moving onto another idea. The cohesion of the work is in question for me. It doesn’t have the typical symphonic unity. Even the most massive works of Shostakovich, Mahler, and Bruckner have a great deal of unity, and that is what makes them great. I find the Brian to be so endlessly interesting because of all the different ideas but, a symphony needs to be more than just a collection of ideas. I want to like it but I’m not sure I can. Some of those who say it is a work of genius say that it is a big parody of Romantic excess. If that really is the case, it is the cruelest and most overblown joke in the history of history. Close to 2 hours of sitting listening to difficult to comprehend music, all so this guy can poke fun at Romanticism. Not so funny. Havergal (Which is, by the way, one of the most absurd nicknames ever. His real name was William. I think Bill would’ve done just fine.) Brian was asked after the first performance he attended of the work what he thought. He joked saying that sitting for that long hurt his knees. Ouch.

So what is the piece? Brilliant or awful? For certain it is not brilliant by any stretch. It is, and will never be a masterpiece. But it has such a kind of cult-ish allure to it; the size and scope, and everything about it. I would really like to see a great orchestra/conductor do this work. Most of the performances have been largely amateur for the obvious reasons that it is so difficult to get that many people together. I’m not sure if a great reading of the piece would change our view toward it but I think it would be cool to hear at least. This work will never really be accepted, but we can listen with some degree of awe that someone had the balls to do something like this.

About Why must you use all the notes

So much to do, so little reason to do so much of it...
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