In 1895, Britain was scandalised by a series of sensational trials. Oscar Wilde – writer, wit and flamboyant star of high society – was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ for homosexual acts, and sentenced to two years of hard labour. The origin of the trials had been an accusation by the Marquess of Queensberry, who was in fact the disapproving father of a man who had been Wilde’s lover: the young Lord Alfred Douglas, sixteen years Wilde’s junior.
This episode in Wilde’s life, and his early death in Paris in 1900, is relatively well known. The life of Lord Douglas (1870-1945) is less well remembered – even though he was a poet and author himself. He has been described as ‘the Yoko Ono of Victorian literature’.
Douglas, who went by the nickname ‘Bosie’, was a man of many flaws. His life story reads like a soap opera of squandered privilege, marred by dysfunctional relationships, bitter feuds, and an alarming number of court cases. In the years after Wilde’s death, Douglas repudiated him utterly; converting to Catholicism, marrying, and renouncing homosexuality (he reportedly told a court that Wilde had been ‘the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last three hundred and fifty years’). He attempted to sue Arthur Ransome (later the author of Swallows and Amazons) for passages in a book on Wilde, but lost. In the 1920s, further darkness emerged: his publication of an antisemitic conspiracy theory, alleging sinister links between Winston Churchill and Jewish financiers, landed him with a six-month jail sentence for libel.
Perhaps chastened by his experience of prison, Douglas seems to have lived a quieter life after his release. It must have been some surprise when, in 1937, the 67-year-old Lord received a letter from one Havergal Brian, asking permission to set to music Wine of Summer – an obscure poem he had written 40 years previously.
Brian was only six years younger than Douglas, but their backgrounds were worlds apart. Born into a working class family in Staffordshire, he was a former church organist who was self-taught in composition. A career as composer had once seemed possible: in 1907 his English Suite and overture For Valour were performed at the Proms. For a while he was even financially supported by the patronage of a wealthy businessman, in order to dedicate himself to composition. But despite this stroke of luck, opportunities never significantly progressed. Brian soon had to work a series of other jobs.
And yet, undeterred by circumstance, Brian embarked upon a most extraordinary artistic shadow-life. He threw himself into composing large-scale works, without any prospect of hearing them performed. These included a three-act opera, The Tigers, and – as if to mock the hand life had dealt him – one of the biggest symphonies ever written: The Gothic, a work lasting nearly two hours and requiring enormous forces. It was an absurdly ambitious first step in perhaps the most counter-intuitive of all symphony cycles.
Brian’s style is somewhat hard to define, but that will to compose against all odds is not difficult to hear. His music breezily sets about its own idiosyncratic path; a development of ideas highly contrasted, colourful and unpredictable. An early formative musical experience was hearing Elgar’s cantata King Olaf, and the big-boned sound of massed forces was clearly influential. His orchestrations are often rugged, with brass and percussion frequently deployed, and marching passages haunt the pages of his scores.
Wine of Summer however stands out for its more understated, impressionistic approach. The poem describes a midsummer day in a wood, a vision of natural paradise that progresses to melancholy rumination over the author’s lost loves. Brian set it for orchestra with baritone soloist, and it became his fifth symphony.
In a mysterious introduction, softly snaking violin lines evoke a heat haze. Douglas’ scene-setting becomes low and ominous with the lines ‘In the soft air the shadow of a sigh / Breathes on the leaves and scarcely makes them sway’. It may be summer, but the wood is full of shadows.
Brian’s music is driven by the poetry throughout – it ebbs and flows around the baritone solo, delicately orchestrated and with a haunting strangeness. Particularly magical is the scoring of a passage that itself invokes ghostly music:
The soft faint whispering of unnumbered trees.
Mingle with unreal things, and low and deep
From visionary groves,
Imagined lutes make voiceless harmonies.
And false flutes sigh before the gates of sleep.
Over forty years earlier, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun used lush strings and drooping lines to convey languid summer heat. So too did Gershwin’s Summertime from his 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Heat comes with many associations – sensuality and eroticism, but also energy-sapping idleness. And idleness, with its requirement of leisure time, touches on the question of class. In Lord Douglas’ case class is clear enough, whereas Gershwin’s lullaby comes with a layer of cultural irony – ‘the livin’ is easy’ and ‘your Daddy’s rich’ sets the scene in the poor black community of Catfish Row.
Douglas was apparently delighted when he met Brian and heard his setting played through on a piano, though it would not be performed in the Lord’s lifetime. Happily for Brian, he lived long enough to enjoy some belated recognition. His music came to the attention of the young BBC music producer Robert Simpson (later a prolific composer himself) and many of his symphonies were finally performed in live radio broadcasts. In 1961, the gargantuan Gothic had a concert premiere in London.
In retirement, as if making up for lost time, Brian became astonishingly prolific: he composed 14 symphonies in his eighties, and 7 in his nineties. The final count of 32 is truly remarkable, and yet – with cruel irony – today his name is generally remembered for just one: The Gothic. The notion of an eccentric outsider toiling over a monster opus is appealing – less so the more complicated truth. But then Brian’s life, like his music, never followed the expected script.
Wine of Summer is a good departure point for a more rounded appreciation of his legacy. As a single movement of 20 minutes, it marks the beginning of the condensed approach that characterises the symphonies of his later years. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its abrupt ending on a thundering climax. ‘My dreams go out like tapers – I must hence / Far off I hear Night calling to the sea’. Cymbals crash like waves, before the orchestra is suddenly snatched away from the singer. Chris Kettle has noted a similarity to Michael Tippett’s setting of W.B. Yeats’ Byzantium, which also ends on ‘sea’ – ‘both Brian and Tippett […] leave the vocal soloist hanging onto the word – its drawn-out vowel-sound opening onto an unknown and measureless infinity’.
As for Lord Douglas, his final years seem marked by a poignant sense of what might have been. His marriage had long since broken up – though they never divorced – and his only child spent most of his adult life in a mental hospital. In 1940 he published Oscar Wilde: A Summing Up, a more sympathetic assessment of the man he had once fiercely renounced – a testament perhaps to his greater maturity, but also to the long shadow still cast by his former lover, whose literary reputation outshone his own.
It is a shame that he did not live to hear a performance of Brian’s work. This maverick composer was able to breathe strangely beautiful new life into a relic of his youthful summer. One of the symphony’s impassioned climaxes coincides with perhaps the poem’s most memorable lines. They might have resonated in his old age:
Sweet with faint memories,
And mellow with old loves that used to burn
Dead summer days ago, like fierce red kings.
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