Havergal Brian (born William Brian, 1876–1972) was an extremely prolific British classical composer. 

His First Symphony (out of 32), written between 1919 and 1927 and known as the “Gothic” symphony, is to this day his most famous work. It needs to be said though that a lot of his music has never been performed, mostly due to the scale of the works.

This first symphony was, in fact, the second: in 1967 Brian renumbered his symphonies eliminating the Fantastic Symphony of 1907. 

Attracted and inspired by Richard Strauss (to whom the piece is dedicated), influenced by Mahler’s titanic visions, Brian’s works require massive forces: the First Symphony calls for 190 orchestra players, an adult choir of 500, a children choir of 100 and 4 soloists. Almost 800 musicians, one of the largest orchestral force for a concert piece.

Clocking at 1 hour and 40 minutes, the symphony is divided in two parts:

First part
I – Allegro assai
II – Lento espressivo e solemne (attacca)
III – Vivace (attacca)

Second part
IV – Te Deum laudamus. Allegro moderato sempre marcato e con brio
V – Judex crederis esse venturus. Adagio solenne e religioso
VI – Te ergo quaesumus. Moderato e molto sostenuto

Here is a performance of it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra led by Sir Adrian Boult.

For the real music buffs, here’s a version with the score.

The Gothic element of the symphony refers to the vision of the Gothic age (from about 1150 to 1500): a giant expansion in artistic and intellectual development, evident especially in the architecture of the monumental cathedrals built in this period of time. The massive choral ending the symphony evokes the grandeur and details of those buildings.

The Havergal Brian Society has plenty of material on this fascinating yet still rather obscure composer.


Cover image by Dean Moriarty

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