How classical music became a pseudo-event
A recent thread On An Overgrown Path that culminated in a reader's assertion that it's OK to program something that isn't perfect, received widespread support. This strand was an extension of my argument that audiences need permission to like unfamiliar music. In turn this reflected the response of "I've always felt that it is and will be strong enthusiasm that will change the world" by the much-missed Jonathan Harvey to my early advocacy of his music. But despite this, I am proposing today rather contrarily that excessive enthusiasm as well as excessive neglect can harm a composer's music.
In his 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America the historian Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term 'pseudo-event' for events that are staged specifically to attract media coverage. He asserted that pseudo-events are in reality 'synthetic news', and that manipulation to maximise media exposure reduces the spontaneity and intrinsic merit of the event. In The Image Boorstin discusses pseudo-events in the context of art; suggesting that the pursuit of accessibility has turned art into a commodity, and that pseudo-events distance audiences from the felt experience, an effect that he terms 'disembodying'. The Situationist Guy Debord took a more extreme view of this commodification in his 1967 treatise The Society of the Spectacle, proposing that "passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity" and observing that we need "to wake up the spectator who has been drugged by spectacular images". Like Marshall McLuhan's paradox that the medium is the message, Boorstin's theory of pseudo-events predates digital technologies and social media by decades. But despite this it is very relevant today; because pseudo events provide social media with its click bait lifeblood, and an infatuation with accessibility and new technologies means that virtual experiences - pseudo-events by another name - take precedence over visceral engagement.
The theory of pseudo-events can be productively applied to the topical subject of neglected composers; that is Havergal Brian in the photo above and I will use him as a case study. The Havergal Brian mythology is celebrated and has become a pseudo-event in its right. The myth tells how he was the most prolific 20th century composer, that he was the longest-living active composer, that he composed the longest symphony ever written, that when he died aged 97 in 1982 not a note of his music had been commercially recorded, and that therefore he ranks as the most neglected composer in the history of music. Some of which is true, but some false. In the foreword to the highly recommended HB: Aspects of Havergal Brian, the authority on the composer David J. Brown points out that between 1954 and 1980 there were a number of broadcast performances of Havergal Brian's music due to the advocacy of BBC producer (and distinguished composer) Robert Simpson. Moreover in the last decade of his life Brian became something of a minor celebrity - note the tell-tale champagne bottle in the header photo - and unlike many other 20th century composers, interest in his music has not diminished since his death.
Although HB: Aspects of Havergal Brian sometimes lapses into boosterism - there are chapters titled 'Brian and Mahler: four symphonies in comparison', 'Brian, Mahler, Shostakovich and Schoenberg: some idle thoughts' and Beethoven's Ninth in relation to Brian's First' - David J. Brown provides some reassuring reality checks. In the 1990s Klaus Heymann's Marco Polo label, the full price forerunner of Naxos, recorded a complete cycle of Havergal Brian's symphonies - see above - many of which are now re-issued on Naxos. Which would seem to be a laudable achievement. But in an online article on the gestation of the Marco Polo cycle David J. Brown provides an invaluable insight into the machinations that made the recordings such a fraught venture. While in his introduction to the Havergal Brian anthology he sounds a warning against classical music's current obsession with completism, concluding with the startingly honesty observation that:
It is of course clear that not all [Havergal Brian's] compositions are of the same high quality, but whose are? It might have been better to pick out the best of his works, instead of getting Marco Polo to record all 32 symphonies, with not always first-rate results.Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony provides an illuminating case study of the perils of pseudo-events. Before 2011 there had only been two performances of Brian's symphonies at the BBC Proms. So Proms director Roger Wright decided to correct that in style. Now Roger Wright was responsible almost singlehandedly for making pseudo-events a classical music fixture, including broadcasting nothing but Schubert's music for eight days in 2012. So the Havergal Brian correction came in the form of a pseudo-event par excellence: a first night performance of the 110 minute choral Gothic Symphony, backed by the BBC's mighty spin machine complete which cited the symphony's place in the Guinness Book of Records.
However, the problem is that the Gothic is a sprawling and sometimes derivative work. The symphony is certainly not without merit, but it all too easily reinforce Havergal Brian's reputation as a one man classical music freak show. If you set a composer up on a shaky pedestal he is likely to take a tumble, irrespective of his arguable genius. Which is what happened with the Gothic: with Ivan Hewett in his Telegraph review opining that the symphony is "turgidly written and lacking a coherent trajectory" and dismissing the setting of the Te Deum with these words: "Occasionally resembling Bruckner on a bad trip, it sounded more like an overblown soundtrack to a bad movie". So for a new generation of concert goers the myth of Havergal Brian as a one work composer remains intact, and the undoubted merits of his other symphonies - which are particularly accessible to devotees of the perennially popular Mahler - remain a well-kept secret. And it is not a coincidence that the reputation of John Foulds - a seriously underrated composer - suffered a similar blow when a 2008 Albert Hall performance of his unrepresentative A World Requiem by the BBC Symphony Orchestra - again masterminded by Roger Wright - was also hyped into a pseudo-event. (I am told anecdotally that Sakari Oramo, who is a great champion of Foulds' music, bravely declined to conduct that World Requiem performance because he considered - quite rightly - that the work is inherently flawed.)
Of course we should programme music that isn't perfect. But excessive enthusiasm can harm a composer's reputation; particularly when the hype takes the form of a pseudo-event showcasing a not entirely representative work. The Gothic is the first of Havergal Brian's catalogued symphonies, although there is an earlier lost symphony. What a difference it would have made to the reputations of Beethoven, Mahler and Mozart if we judged them solely on their first symphonies. As Havergal Brian matured his compositions became more succinct, better argued, and as a result more meritorious. His last symphony - No. 32 - was composed when he was 92. It lasts for just twenty minutes and is scored for much smaller forces than the Gothic, while his 'Symphonia Brevis' (No. 22) lasts for just nine minutes.
Thankfully, others have recognised that there is more to Havergal Brian than the Gothic. In 1972 Unicorn recorded Symphonies Nos. 10 and 21 in outstanding performances by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (LSSO). This was the first recording of his music to be released commercially and is still available - see below - coupled with CBS' 1974 recording of Symphony No. 22, 'Symphonia Brevis'. These were the recordings that won many - including this writer - over to the Havergal Brian cause. If you do not own the CD transfers do not be put off by the amateur status of the orchestra. At its peak the LSSO was arguably the equal of the National Youth Orchestra. This is fiendishly difficult music to play; but any minor intonation aberrations are more than compensated for by the sheer commitment of the young players. Total commitment is what Brian's music needs, and the playing of the Leicestershire youngsters makes some of the more recent recordings of his symphonies by professional orchestras sound like first read-throughs.
That is Robert Simpson with Havergal Brian on the disc cover; Simpson produced the LSSO recordings with the exception of the English Suite, and all were engineered by Angus McKenzie. In addition to my day job in the music industry I did a lot of freelance writing for Hi Fi News in the 1970s when Angus Mckenzie was a regular contributor of uncompromising pieces on the vital importance of recorded sound quality. In those days we were all evangelists of sound quality; by contrast in today's brave new MP3 world recorded sound quality scarcely gets a mention in record reviews . Angus McKenzie was a legend among tonmeisters, not only for his golden ears but also because he was probably the only blind member of the British Astronomical Association. More than forty years after they were committed to analogue tape his recordings of Havergal Brian's symphonies reproduce with a visceral impact that puts recent digital recordings in the virtual shade. This music demands totally committed playing and sonic slam, and the Leicestershire Schools Symphony recordings deliver both in bucket loads. If you are a Havergal Brian convert they should without a doubt be in your collection. If you are a Havergal Brian doubter they should without a doubt be in your collection because they will almost certainly convert you.
In an outstanding recording for EMI - now deleted - Sir Charles Mackerras, who championed Brian, wisely coupled the Seventh Symphony - one of Brian's most accessible works - with the 13 minute Symphony No. 31. In 1966 when pseudo-events had not yet become a major driving force, that supremely intelligent conductor Norman Del Mar coupled the first ever Proms performance of a Havergal Brian symphony - the 12th which coincidentally lasts for 12 minutes - with a Beethoven piano concerto, a Gordon Crosse premiere, and Brahms' Fourth Symphony - see programme below. To enhance a composer's reputation the right amount of enthusiasm is needed, and slipping a concise Havergal Brian symphony in with two mainstream classics is the right way to do it. All of which leads me to suggest, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, that a pseudo-event could be created around Havergal Brian's 9 minute 10 second 'Symphonia Brevis' by hyping it as the world's shortest symphony. But is it? Please could erudite readers enlighten us as to what is the shortest symphony by an established composer.
This case study has dwelt at gothic length on the impact that pseudo-events can have on the reputation of neglected composers. But these negative impact are if anything even greater for established composers, and nowhere is this more true than in the 'synthetic news' of a composer anniversary. The exposure a composer receives should depend on one thing only, the merit of her/his music. But the gross overexposure generated by anniversaries distorts the crucial balance between exposure and merit. Schubert was undoubtedly a genius; but the BBC Radio 3 pseudo-event created by Roger Wright for the composer's numerically meaningless 215th anniversary in 2012, which involved broadcasting nothing but Schubert's music for more than a week, resulted in the station's audience plunging by 15%. Roger Wright's successor at Radio 3 Alan Davey has taken pseudo-events to new and dangerous heights by joining in 2015 with Universal Classics and the charity offshoot of a major drug corporation to promote Max Richter's Sleep. This frenzied and quickly forgotten attempt to boost audience ratings and record sales was vigorously spun by the BBC Media Centre as "the longest single continuous piece of music ever broadcast live on the BBC" in yet another example of never mind the quality, feel the length,
It can be argued that misguided commercial imperatives are turning the whole of classical music into a pseudo-event, and that as Daniel J. Boorstin postulated, the resulting distancing of the audience from the felt experience explains classical music's failure to engage both with existing and new audiences. Robert Simpson's pleading for Havergal Brian's music skillfully combined enthusiasm with balance, and his views on the advocacy process are relevant not only to neglected composers, but to the whole of classical music. So I will close with this extract from his contribution to HB: Aspects of Havergal Brian:
You can exhibit fifth-rate painters without too much waste, but time which music must illuminate, cannot be wasted, and only a small proportion of music is worthwhile; in this field we are the more compelled to discriminate. There is a danger in thinking that if a composer is neglected he is something special! Even so, we must find out - both advocacy and rejection should come with knowledge, not hearsay, and it is in any case the duty of a public body like the BBC to give the listener, without obvious limits, the chance to judge for himself; most listeners can't read scores and their only means of judging is through the ear. And it's the listeners right to ask for it and to receive a sensible, fair reason for non-compliance.Sources include:
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel J. Boorstin
HB: Aspects of Havergal Brian edited by Jürgen Schaarwächter (Out of print)
The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord
Havergal Brian The Gothic Symphony: Martyn Brabbins conducting BBC National Orchestra of Wales and BBC Concert Orchestra (Live recording of 2011 BBC prom) Hyperion
Havergal Brian Symphony No 3: Lionel Friend conducting BBC Symphony Orchestra Hyperion
Havergal Brian Symphonies Nos. 7,8, 9 & 31 and The Tinker's Wedding: Sir Charles Mackerras conducting Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra EMI (Deleted)
Havergal Brian Symphonies 10, 21 & 22 Psalm 23, English Suite No. 5: Leicestershire Schools Youth Orchestra, various conductors Heritage
That copyright minefield YouTube contains many Havergal Brian symphonies. Better to search for CDs listed above - the deleted Mackerras/Groves can still be found - but, if you must, sample Sir Charles' account of Symphony No. 31 on YouTube here.
Header photo source Sydney Morning Herald. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.