Saturday, January 25, 2014

Havergal Brian's "Psalm of Victory" has counterparts with Zemlinsky, Bruckner, Richard Strauss (and Mahler)

The Symphony #4, in C, by Havergal Brian (1932), the “Psalm of Victory” (or “Das Siefeslied”), is a 47 minute choral “symphony”, in three interconnected and episodic movements, based loosely on Psalm 68.  While Brian (as a Brit) has admired German culture, he was already concerned about the direction the country seemed to be going, and the implications of early Nazi ideology, which was little understood at the time. 
The work seems simple at first, opening with a majestic orchestral march with diatonic harmonies, before the chorus sets in.  It will close that way, too.  The slow movement has a long passage for soprano solo.
I have a Marco Polo CD, dating to 1988, bought from Records International when I was living in Dallas, with Jana Valaskova, Sopraano, and the Brno Philharmonic Choir and the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony of Bratislava conducted by Adrian Leaper.  Many of Marco Polo’s recordings of that period were made just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The obvious comparison is to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, and there is a similar general sound, but not quite the harmonic opulence of the Mahler; yet the Brian work is as much plain post-romantic and modern; the dissonances here seem a bit random and incidental.

The CD also has the ultra compressed Symphony #12, 11 minutes, in four short sections, with a funeral atmosphere, and lots of inventive percussion.  The work ends quietly and mysteriously, leaving an open-ended question.

There are other works to compare the “Psalm of Victory” to.  One could listen to Zemlinsky’s Psalm 83 (“Keep not thy silence, O God”, composed at 29), Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) at about age 40, and the better known Psalm 13, “How long wilt thou forget me, Lord?”, much latter.  The first of these (13 min)  starts mysteriously in F and migrates to D Major for a triumphant close; the second (10 min, D) ends quietly, and the third, also D, is triumphant at the end.  For Psalm 13, I have a London Recording, with the RSO Berlin conducted by Riccardo Chailly, 1987, filling out “The Mermaid” (Jan. 19).  The Psalm 13 is melodically adventurous, with extreme register changes, and abrupt modulations, around a central tonality of D Minor. 

One could also make comparison’s to Anton Bruckner’s Te Deum, and Psalm 150, in C, the latter of which I heard at the Dallas Symphony in 1980, which is quite heaven storming, with a grandiose fugue in the middle.

Cesar Franck also set this Psalm to music, in D.

 Perhaps Richard Strauss’s “Peace Day” (“Friedenstag”, a late work, which I have on Koch with the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus included) could fit into the discussion; it has the most bombastic C Major close in history.
By the way, I’m hunting for my own copy of Havergal Brian sensational Symphony #3 on Hyperion.  It’s hard to find a few things after so many relocations.  I played it on YouTube and commented on Google+, and then Hyperion had YouTube delete it.  Seriously, I wish the record companies would sell all their recordings as MPG files (through Amazon or iTunes), that can be saved in the cloud as your “copy” (with PDF’s for program notes).  They need their revenue, but please make it convenient!

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