On Ambition in Art

Few things bother me in art as much as naked, self-interested ambition. Artwork which is very clearly trying to its hardest to be Great and Important usually bores and wearies me. I can’t finish Jonathan Franzen novels because their prose so loudly screams, “I am trying to be a great writer”; I even have a hard time listening to Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony, because he worked on it for decades while possessed with a crippling fear of not being as good as Beethoven. The end result is a symphony which feels preoccupied, in every bar, with having cosmic significance and a sort of godlike emotional distance.

Which brings about the question: why did I like Havergal Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony? It is, after all, the longest symphony in the world, requiring a thousand performers; it begins in D minor and ends in E major. The composer quotes, on the score, a remark by Goethe’s Faust:

Wer immer strebend sich bemüht,
Den können wir erlösen.
(Whoever strives with all his might,
That man we can redeem.)

That’s an ambitious plan–and he does indeed strive with all his might, for an hour and 47 minutes. So: why did I like it?

It seems to me that the answer involves dissecting the word ambition. There is more than one kind of ambition, after all. One is the ambition to be heralded as great–to please the crowds, win the votes, to see the reviews where your name is ranked alongside Sondheim or Welles or Dickens. By all accounts, Havergal Brian was completely devoid of this trait. His talent for self-promotion was akin to Richard Wagner’s talent for modesty; when his music began to appear in concert halls as he aged into his 80s and 90s, he was as shocked as anyone else. Brian appears to have shown little or no interest in being known to be ‘great.’ If he had, his life would have been a crushing disappointment.

One more type of ambition is to fulfill your perceived destiny or mission in life. This is the person who, when young, assigns himself or herself a ‘role’ and tries to fill it. Think of America taking on the responsibility of global policeman, or Johannes Brahms being prematurely (and rather cruelly) declared the next Beethoven by critics. Brahms suffered oppressively under that weight until his mid-40s. Havergal Brian, self-taught from the age of 11 and never in the least bit popular, may not have felt this weight; if he did, it is unknown to me.

The young Johannes Brahms, before expectations of greatness forced him to achieve significant milestones in facial hair history.

Another type of ambition is to satisfy yourself–and for the true artist, this is the hardest feat of all. This, and purely this, was Havergal Brian’s aim; he wrote huge swathes of music for no other reason than to fill his own head with the sounds of imagination. He essentially wrote his Gothic Symphony for, as they say, the desk-drawer. And yet he spent eight years on the thing, and eventually demanded for it a thousand performers. This wasn’t to impose or irritate or be a thorn in stage managers’ sides: it was because it was his symphony, darn it, and nobody was ever going to play it so he was going to write it the way he darn well wanted to.

Yes, Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony is ambitious: it is gargantuan in size, kaleidoscopic in colors, totally idiosyncratic in style, impossible to approach on anything but its own terms. (As one audience member remarked, “You can’t say it’s good or it’s bad… it just is.”) But it isn’t that way to intentionally gain notoriety or lay a claim to greatness or fulfill its creator’s idea of his life-work. The Gothic Symphony is, at a creative level, about one supreme artist’s desire to use any means possible, however extravagant, to make a work which encompasses everything he wants to say and do. Nobody has to listen, really: it’s getting it off his chest that counts.

If the Gothic were a book, it would be Infinite Jest; if the Gothic were a film, it would be The Fall, or perhaps something by David Lynch or Charlie Kaufman.

There is a cross-section of ambition to examine, though. A type of ambition which can coincide with all those above is the need to say something. To get a message out to the audience is sometimes feels like an imperative. But one can feel this ambition while embodying any of the others: politicians, surely, feel a need not just to win but to make policy decisions; America has not just an ambition to police the world but to spread American values, too. There is ambition in a message’s vessel and ambition in the message itself.

The Gothic Symphony is likeable because its vessel is preposterously huge, its message multi-leveled–and its creator’s attempt to put the work before the world unimaginably indifferent. Havergal Brian was trying to communicate a lot of things in his symphony, but it pleased him simply that they were communicated; there didn’t need to be an audience. He felt, for eight years, a burning need to create this huge symphony, but felt no apparent need to ever hear it outside of his imagination.

What exactly is the Gothic trying to say? Interpretations are numerous. In the past few days, I’ve heard suggestions–man’s spirit is able to survive even the deepest gloom, human imperfection struggles to achieve divine perfection, recovery from World War I, a musical reconstruction of a Gothic cathedral, and of course that Goethe quote Brian wrote on the score: “Whoever strives with all his might, / That man we can redeem.” Certainly Havergal Brian struggled with all his might to create such an enormous work.

For me, as a would-be artist, though, the main message is presumably something the composer never intended: anyone can try to please crowds, or strive for greatness, or feel a sense of destiny. It takes real courage, discipline, strength, and daring to appoint only one judge of your life-work–and to be that judge yourself.

1876 - 1972


Filed under Art

3 responses to “On Ambition in Art

  1. Tenor2

    “If the Gothic were a book …”

    I found the Prom 4 experience, with all its splendours and miseries, not unlike reading, from cover to cover, a particularly large volume of wallpaper samples.

  2. Sorin

    Did you get around to reading Infinite Jest? I think you hadn’t read it yet back in the day when you started this blog. I am on page 162. Just some nine hundred pages left to go. Also, are you aware of this? I ran into this post while trying to get to your page. http://concertblog.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/twitter-for-musicians/

  3. Pingback: Abstract Noun Game - Page 23

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