Havergal Brian

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William "Havergal" Brian (29 January 1876 – 28 November 1972), was a British classical composer.

Brian acquired a legendary status at the time of his rediscovery in the 1950s and 1960s for the 32 symphonies he had managed to write, an unusually large number for any composer since Haydn or Mozart, and of which eight were completed after the age of 90.

He is also notable for his creative persistence in the face of almost total neglect during the greater part of his long life. Even now, none of his works can be said to be performed with any frequency, but few composers who have fallen into neglect after an early period of success have continued to produce so many serious and ambitious works so long after any chance of performance would seem to have been gone for good.

Contents

Biography

William Brian (he adopted the name "Havergal" from a local family of hymn-writers) was born in Dresden, a district of Stoke-on-Trent, and was one of a very small number of composers to originate from the English working class. After attending an elementary school he had difficulty finding any congenial work, and taught himself the rudiments of music. For a time he was organist of Odd Rode Church just across the border in Cheshire. In 1895, he heard a choir rehearsing Elgar's King Olaf, attended the first performance and became a fervent enthusiast of the new music being produced by Richard Strauss and the British composers of the day. Through attending music festivals he made the lifelong friendship of his near-contemporary composer Granville Bantock (1868–1946).

In 1907 his first English Suite attracted the attention of Henry Wood, who performed it at the London Proms. It was an overnight success and Brian obtained a publisher and performances for his next few orchestral works. Why he never succeeded in maintaining his success is a matter for debate, but it was probably due to his shyness with strangers and lack of confidence on public occasions. Whatever it was, the offers of performance soon dried up.

In 1898, Brian married Isabel Priestley, by whom he had five children. One of his sons was named Sterndale after the English composer Sir William Sterndale Bennett. At this point (1907) a development unusual in British 20th century musical history transformed Brian's life; whether for better or for worse has never been decided. He was offered a yearly income of £500 (then a respectable lower-middle-class salary) by a local wealthy businessman, Herbert Minton Robinson, to enable him to devote all his time to composition. It seems Robinson expected Brian soon to become successful and financially independent on the strength of his compositions. This never happened. For a while Brian worked on a number of ambitious large-scale choral and orchestral works, but felt no urgency to finish them, and began to indulge in hitherto-undreamt-of pleasures, such as expensive foods and a trip to Italy.

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