Classical 101 by Request…Havergal Brian?

Havergal Brian (1876-1972) Worth knowing better.Stay tuned!(Photo: BBC)
Havergal Brian (1876-1972) Worth knowing better.Stay tuned!(Photo: BBC)

Classical 101 by Request begins Friday September 7 at 1 p.m. and continues on Friday afternoons, playing the music you want to hear. Requests have been coming in since mid-summer. It’s great to get a glimpse of our listeners tastes out there. Initial requests have been surprising, and very encouraging:

Ravel Mother Goose; Shostakovich Symphony 5; Brahms Piano concerto 2 with Richter; Poulenc Rapsodie negre; Arvo Part Te deum. Samplings of a very eclectic listenership. I hope you and your friends will speak up and let me play your favorites.

No request intrigues me more than for the Gothic Symphony by Havergal Brian. I first heard that name thirty years ago, when selling records at Barnes and Noble in New York. More than one person-albeit not many-would come in wanting recordings of his symphonies. One gentlemen simply said, “Show me where all the Havergal Brian recordings are.” Well yes, we did have a section for him, dwarfed by Brahms and Buxtehude.



Havergal Brian (1876-1972) was an Englishman, self-taught in music. He was attracted to the music of Holst, Elgar and Richard Strauss-the first two moving definitely away from the British ‘twee’ school of the nymphs and shepherds cavorting on the greeny grass. Brian was supported for many years by a wealthy patron, allowing him to work in peace and write what he bloody well wanted and the box office be damned. In his spare time he fathered ten children, five each with a legal wife and long time girlfriend. There was also an affinity for wine and song.

I’m not sure if Mr. Bucks did Brian any good in the long run. His music, including 32 symphonies, never attracted a following during his lifetime. He is today admired by many who want to put their fingers into the eye of the classical music establishment. People who like to disenchant the critics. Yes, he had a champion in Sir Henry Wood just after WWI, and yes, Sir Adrian Boult did a lot to popularize Brian’ s Gothic. And many of his symphonies have recordings, the latest made just a few years ago. I see no reason for this trend NOT to continue. If there’s ever a coming of age for a composer, it’s having your own Society. Brahms, Verdi, Holst and Mozart have theirs and now, so does Brian (

There are tone clusters, lots of brass, percussion, masses of sound and not a lot of subtlety. Havergal Brian made joyful noises for nearly one hundred years, and is now being reassessed and rediscovered. I am thrilled to have listeners who want to hear more of his music. Starting September 7, join me Friday afternoons for a lot of great surprises, courtesy not of me, but of you.

  • Dimitry

    Admired, I think, not so much by those who want to “put their fingers into the eye of the classical music establishment” as by those who are coming to realise that these craggy, neglected and admittedly hard-to-understand works amply repay much repeated listening and ultimately prove to be compellingly satisfying to a very high degree.  Brian’s textures are often very dense and highly chromatic, but modern recordings clarify this to a wonderful extent.  Hyperion’s recording of “The Gothic” is as fine in this respect as one could expect to hear of a work involving close on 1000 players.  The best introduction to Brian’s symphonies is probably still the very fine Symphony 6 on the Lyrita label.  Try also the recent Dutton issue of Symphonies 10 & 30 (Dutton are soon also issue Symphony 13) and the superb Toccata Classics disc of music from the operas.  Brian is slowly emerging as one of the most individual English composers of the twentieth century and the spate of new recordings can only accelerate the re-evaluation.