Damian Thompson Damian Thompson

Unsung hero | 12 May 2016

If Havergal Brian’s Symphony No 30 were premiered today as the work of a photogenic 25-year-old, preferably female or gay, it would cause a sensation

One of the greatest choral symphonies of the 20th century, entitled Das Siegeslied (Psalm of Victory), has been heard only three times since it was composed in 1933. The last performance took place in Bratislava in 1997.

The text is a German translation of words from Psalm 68: ‘…as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God’. One critic has described Das Siegeslied as ‘a shattering, armour-plated juggernaut of a symphony’, whose huge orchestra marches in a frenzy across ‘voice parts conceived wholly in terms of the harsh consonants and barking vowels of German’.

Yet there is also captivating beauty: the lapping of harps and muted horns; a serene interlude for a capella choir. Add to this crafty variations on Luther’s ‘Ein feste Burg’ and one has to wonder: why has Das Siegeslied never been performed in Dresden, where the composer was born in 1876? The simple answer is that nothing gets performed in Dresden — Dresden, Staffordshire, that is. It was a village in the Potteries when Havergal Brian was growing up there and is now an unlovely district of Stoke-on-Trent.

Das Siegeslied was Brian’s fourth symphony; there were another 28 to come, 21 written after the age of 80. His discarded Requiem dates from 1895; his Symphony No. 32 from 1968, four years before his death at 96. To put it another way, he was composing at the same time as both Brahms and Elton John.

Havergal Brian was England’s first working-class composer, beginning his career as an apprentice joiner. He was also a musical prodigy with a passion for social climbing. As a young man he ingratiated himself with Elgar, who tired of him, and Sir Granville Bantock, composer of lush cod-Celtic scores, who liked the cheeky Brian but despaired of his wife-beating, heavy drinking and sponging.

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