Reel Significance (I): Deryck Cooke and Havergal Brian

Thanks to a donation from an anonymous benefactor, it has been possible to make digital preservation copies of the dozens of reel-to-reel tapes that were in Deryck Cooke’s possession at the end of his life, and which are held at the UL as part of the Deryck Cooke Archive.

The 1966 performance of the ‘Gothic’; item held in the Pendlebury Library of Music as CD.M.885

An essential part of the project involves the careful examination of every recorded track in the attempt to put together a definitive list of what each of the 66 reels actually contains. Already three significant items have been found relating to the composer Havergal Brian (1876-1972).

As many readers will know, Brian is a unique and fascinating figure in British musical history. Born into a working-class background in the Potteries, this largely self-taught composer not only produced the 100-minute Gothic Symphony (1919-27) whose orchestral and choral requirements are the most gargantuan ever called for, but went on to achieve a tally of 32 symphonies – composing no fewer than 21 of them after the age of 80, and the final seven after he turned 90.

DCA Reels L17 and M1 Photo: Sarah Chapman

 Of course, it comes as no surprise to find that Cooke had kept tapes relating to Brian. In his essay ‘Chorus and Symphony: Liszt, Mahler, and After’ (Chapter 14 of Choral Music: A Symposium, ed. Arthur Jacobs [Penguin, 1963; item held in the UL as M696.d.95.2/3]), Cooke discussed the Gothic (whose first, semi-professional performance in July 1961 he seems to have heard), and declared that it ‘reveals the mind of a truly visionary genius’ (p. 262). And when the time came for the work’s first professional performance – mounted by the BBC, and conducted by Adrian Boult on 30 October 1966 – Cooke produced not only the programme note, but also the introductory article ‘Havergal Brian and his Gothic Symphony’ in the Musical Times (Vol. 107, No. 1484, October 1966, pp. 859-861, 863).

Radio Times entry for the ‘orchestral concert’ containing the first performance of Brian’s Tenth Symphony, 3 November 1958

Radio Times entry for the ‘Orchestral Concert’ containing the first performance of Brian’s Tenth Symphony, 3 November 1958

And it is with Brian’s symphonic output that two of the taped items are connected – since Cooke had kept recordings of both the Symphony No. 6 ‘Sinfonia Tragica’ (?1947-8) and the Symphony No. 10 (1953-4) in performances heard on the BBC Third Programme. In each case, the performance recorded is the premiere. That of the Tragica was originally broadcast on 21 September 1966, played by the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Douglas Robinson; the Tenth was first heard on 3 November 1958, played by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Stanley Pope. (The inscription on the box describes the latter orchestra as ‘L.P.O.’, but this is erroneous: the entry in the Radio Times names the Philharmonia. [see image].)

Among Brian aficionados, these performances have long circulated in the form of copied and re-copied recordings of variable quality (versions have now found their way on to YouTube: see here and here). It is hoped that the presence of Cooke’s good-quality copies in the UL (listed as ‘M1’) will encourage students and scholars to examine these remarkable works – perhaps in tandem with the score of the Tenth Symphony. (No score of the Tragica has ever been on sale.)

Brian’s Tenth Symphony is held in the UL as M310.b.95.208

Of substantially greater importance than these two recordings, however, is a third (listed as ‘L17’) – of whose existence not even the Havergal Brian Society seems to have been aware (email communication with Jeremy Marchant, 31 March 2014). This item is described on its label as ‘Conversation with Havergal Brian at Shoreham (Bryan Fayrfax [sic] idea)’ – and provides the opportunity to hear fully 90 minutes of discussion between Havergal Brian, Deryck Cooke, the conductor and Brian champion Bryan Fairfax (1925-2014), and Brian’s second wife Hilda.

That this trip to the composer’s home in Sussex was a purely ‘personal’ expedition, rather than something done for a BBC or other institutional project, can be inferred from the fact that no broadcast or written item is known in which Cooke uses or refers to the recorded material. Students of Brian’s life and work will undoubtedly relish the chance to eavesdrop on this conversation – which shows Brian in full and lively possession of his faculties, and illuminates a few aspects of his  life that seem not to have been discussed elsewhere.

Along with many other items in the Archive, the tape is undated. Nevertheless, ‘internal evidence’ allows one to propose a narrow range of possibility with a fair degree of confidence. At one point Brian offers to show Cooke the finished score of his new Cello Concerto; later, he mentions his work on a Concerto for Orchestra that is not yet completed. Since it is known that the former work was completed on 14 April 1964, and that the sketches of the latter were finished on 5 July the same year (these dates kindly provided by Malcolm MacDonald; email communications, 11-13 March 2014), the meeting presumably took place between these two dates – with the composer in his 88th year. Further detective work will probably allow this ‘window’ to be reduced further: watch this space!



About Mark Doran

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