William Havergal Brian’s Symphony No 1, the “Gothic,” is the largest music ever written. True, it’s not as long as Wagner’s operas, or John Cage’s 639-year-long organ piece “As Slow as Possible” in which tones are held using weights, but the Gothic Symphony is hard to argue against. It lasts very nearly two hours with nary a significant pause and no intermission. The performers are as follows: two complete symphony orchestras, a host of exotic instruments like the pedal clarinet, bass oboe, basset horn, oboe d’amore, bass trumpet, contrabass trombone, two each of tubas and euphoniums, 24 percussion players including six timpanists, two tambourines, a “thunder machine” and a “bird scare,” an organ, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, six adult choirs, three children’s choirs (near the end of the symphony the voices will sing 32 different parts at once), and four brass bands stashed away in different areas around and outside the concert hall, each with their own set of drums.
The Gothic Symphony has been performed, in full, six times. It has been recorded for CD just once, in 1989 by the Slovak Philharmonic and Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestras, who were hampered by the fact that some of the instruments required didn’t actually exist in Slovakia.
The most recent performance of the Gothic was on 17 July, 2011, before a sold-out crowd at Royal Albert Hall, London. Over one thousand performers were there. So was I.
I came expecting at best a loudly transcendent experience and at worst the ability to tell people I’d seen the world’s largest symphony. But–good lord–it was the concert of a lifetime.
The Gothic Symphony begins with a sort of thirteen-minute overture to warm the orchestra up; it starts with a theme that sounds rather unhappily like Mahler-meets-Jaws but then slides into a gorgeous melody for solo violin. And that’s when my expectations started to recalibrate themselves: this monster music is capable of extraordinary tenderness, sensitivity, even fragility. There were moments so still, so haunting, that I was afraid if I swallowed the BBC Radio microphones would hear it.
The second movement is a particularly moving funeral march, but not a dirge; it sort of bustles and screams and flails about in pain before a despairing transition to the third movement, vivace, which despite the marking took its time getting interesting.
Then, nine minutes in, all hell broke loose. And by “all hell,” I mean the xylophone. Havergal Brian inserts a 90-second-long xylophone solo, an absolutely MAD solo which begins with an interesting little tune, trades the spotlight with a couple other instruments, and then takes one extremely fast, trippy riff and repeats it over and over and over, while the entire rest of the orchestra sadistically eggs it on, a bit like an exhausted dancer trying to move faster and faster as the audience demands more. I had a clear view of the xylophonist and my eyes nearly popped out of my head in amazement. Click here to listen to the solo as played at the Prom. [The xylophonist is Chris Stock, principal percussionist to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. My thanks to commenter Ferme84 for letting me know!] Then the orchestra cuts back in–a harrowing climax is reached–the lights go up–at the point of greatest crisis, the organ acts as a giant gear-shifter plunging the music into a terrifying new key–the hundreds of singers stand on cue–there is a pause of maybe a second, and then everyone begins to sing. The experience is pure magic.
Like Beethoven’s Ninth, Brian’s “Gothic” has a choral finale; however, this being the world’s biggest symphony, the choral finale is as long as all of Beethoven’s Ninth. Possibly the most astonishing part is the fifteen-minute long section devoted to “Judex crederis esse venturus”, just four words repeated over and over by everybody as the choir divides into smaller and smaller sections. In a way it was like watching tennis: singers across the hall from each other echoed lines as if in reply, and new appearances of “Judex” kept popping up everywhere, until a surprise clutch of trumpets revealed themselves up at the highest point of the Royal Albert Hall gallery, the four brass bands and percussion roared to life in the hall itself, and for the first time in my life music physically surrounded me. All this roared to an unspeakably glorious conclusion, drummers pounding away on three sides, trumpets and trombones blasting into both ear canals, all the eccentric percussion instruments (thunder machine, bird scare!) in action, one of the choir members near me singing so hard it looked like his teeth would fall out, every performer in the hall landing on the final chord all at once. As it all echoed into silence I turned and noticed a young man standing near me: his eyes wide as cupcakes, his mouth hanging open in a gigantic disbelieving grin. Up on stage, the mezzo-soprano Christine Rice felt the same way: an enormous uncontrollable smile tore across her face and she looked down, hand raised in vain to hide her teeth, unable to contain herself. We were all thinking the same thing: I can’t believe I heard that. I can’t believe this music exists.
And that wasn’t even the finale; there was over a half-hour to go. In it Havergal Brian brilliantly resurrected all the prior themes from the symphony: the Jaws tune, the xylophone solo, and others, and it suddenly became clear just how brilliant the structure had been. He assigns each motive its own instrument–one of the major ones is a rhythm for dueling timpanists–so that, in the finale, all can appear in congress as part of a mad explosion of sound. Not that mad explosions are the norm; there must be a solid twenty minutes of a cappella singing in the symphony, all of it achingly beautiful and some of it nearly medieval in its simplicity of harmony. So it is fitting that, after a final peroration of ferocious raw power from all the orchestra and extra brass, suddenly the music should give way to–what is this?–a quiet ending, the choir by themselves now, up in the clouds somewhere, with the final words (“…in aeternam”) fading off so heavenly into the dark.
The audience was stunned, and many of the performers too. Conductor Martyn Brabbins silently asked for, and got, a half-minute of absolute quiet before the floodgates of applause finally broke. And floodgates they were: there was a deafening roar, foot-stomping, a flamboyantly gay man shouting “Marvelous!”, and yes, there were two slow-claps. The choir all applauded Brabbins, who very modestly turned and applauded the audience.
There are a great many levels of astonishment and excitement to register here, too many to really write about. The technical proficiency of the performance: the cymbal guy dropped one on the floor for an amusing crash, and the strings were pretty scrappy at the very beginning, but for most of the work I kept thinking, “shouldn’t this be sloppier? shouldn’t there be more mistakes?” Xylophonist Chris Stock: he ought to be given some sort of award for Best Proms Musician 2011. The absolute control of Martyn Brabbins: that only one conductor is needed is beyond me, but his style, which has been described as “anti-maestro,” didn’t just keep the ensemble together, it also presented the music in an extremely positive light.
The music itself: is the Gothic perfect? No. There are some dull stretches, and a few moments where I grew slightly impatient with the intrusion of new material bogging down the works; it probably doesn’t need to be 1 hour 47 minutes long (as it was Sunday night). But the grandness of the design–the unshakeable determination of the music to get from the starting point to the end–and the numerous passages, loud and quiet, of eye-popping white-hot inspiration–there are emotions and experiences and thrills here which cannot be heard or had anywhere else. I spent most of the symphony smiling in disbelief. The man next to me spent some of it in tears. It’s that kind of music.
So I came to the Gothic Symphony expecting to hear a lot of loudness, a lot of madness, and maybe a glint of genius. There was indeed loudness, and the symphony’s creator may indeed have been off his rocker. But it was excitingly easy to hear the other thing, too.