As you'll have noticed if you have even half an eye on music in London, yesterday the Proms put on the first professional UK performance in 31 years of Havergal Brian's 'Gothic' Symphony. Everyone's been in a ferment about this. More than 1000 performers were involved; the RAH sold out promptly. There've been previews aplenty... and now the reviews are coming through.
I listened to a bit of it on Radio 3 - but I didn't buy into it. I didn't stay the course. What I heard was just enough to confirm my reasons for not going: I've had it with white elephants. And this is the biggest white elephant of the lot. Besides, as Andrew Clements says "Bruckner is an obvious model...", I'm not surprised if it wasn't quite my tasse de thé.
The White Elephant is a familiar story. We unearth a 'forgotten masterpiece', a work of vast ambition and grand scale and (often) British significance that's disappeared because of a) The Nazis, b) William Glock, c) Pierre Boulez, d) Schoenberg, e) Margaret Thatcher (delete as you think applicable). It is going to change our lives and our view of musical history. There is usually an astonishing tale behind it. We enjoy a huge anticipatory build-up... and then it turns out that maybe there's a good reason after all that the thing isn't performed every other weekend in Weston-super-Mare.
For instance, there was John Foulds and his World Requiem. Foulds, a rather fine composer who has been much championed recently and with good reason, married a mystic Maud who whisked him off to India, where he died of cholera. His World Requiem was given on Armistice Day for three consecutive years after World War I. Then it disappeared...until a few years ago. Much excitement: Foulds undoubtedly wrote some wonderful pieces. Unfortunately it turned out this wasn't one of them.
Sometimes white elephants are too risky; sometimes too large; sometimes virtually unplayable. Sometimes the critics love them and the audience hates them. Sometimes the audience gives an eight-minute standing ovation, as apparently was the case last night, yet the critics wheel out the wild garlic.
So should we keep doing them? Shouldn't we just let sleeping Gothic Symphonies lie? Ahh - I didn't buy into the Gothic, but I'm still glad it happened. I still think it was absolutely right to give it an airing. Because sometimes, in amongst the football rattles and the harmoniums, sifting through strange texts and outlandish philosophies, there might be a gem waiting for us. If we don't give the white elephants a chance to be heard, we'll never know the truth. You need to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.
UPDATE: after a rather Middle Eastern-style scrap about balanced viewpoints, it seems fitting in the interests of world peace to present an alternative and more enthusiastic view written by someone who was at the performance and has explored it in depth. Over to Brian Reinhart:http://bgreinhart.wordpress.com/2011/07/18/seeing-the-gothic/