Escape from composer's gothic curse

YOU have probably never heard of Havergal Brian. Or his Gothic Symphony. So how could you possibly know about the curse?

So let's begin with the musical prelude, introducing Britain's most eccentric and enigmatic composer.

Havergal wasn't his real name. He was born William Brian, a working-class boy from the Potteries district of middle England. He reinvented himself when he acquired an aristocratic-sounding first name, stolen from a local family of hymn writers.

In his long life (1876-1972) Brian fathered nine children by two wives, the second being the maid of the first. He was an alcoholic, a philanderer, a cold-hearted father, a recluse. By the time he died, aged 96, he had completed 32 symphonies, more than almost any other composer since Haydn or Mozart. Fourteen of those were written after his 80th birthday.

The most surprising thing? Virtually none has ever been performed, while he was alive or since he died. Hence the legend that his music is cursed.

His colossal Gothic Symphony, painstakingly written over nine years from 1919 to 1928, is recognised by Guinness World Records as the largest, longest and most technically difficult symphony ever composed (more difficult pieces have been written, but never performed).

Sometimes labelled ''the Everest of classical music'', it requires two orchestras, four brass bands and five full choirs, a total of 650 musicians and singers on stage, and an auditorium large enough to house them.

Various conductors (Sir Adrian Boult, Leopold Stokowski) have shown interest in Brian's work. But until Queenslander Gary Thorpe took up the challenge 30 years ago (''I had black hair then,'' he jokes) ''the Gothic'' had been performed only four times, and never outside Britain.

Thorpe, now 60 and grey-haired, is the unlikely star of The Curse of the Gothic Symphony, a wonderfully idiosyncratic Australian documentary directed by Randall Wood.

The irony in the title refers to the fact that making the film proved just as fraught as Brian's original composition. Filming took six years because of the setbacks Wood and producer Veronica Fury endured, mirroring Brian's own travails.

But not only did they succeed in their initial goal (The Gothic was eventually performed to a standing ovation at Brisbane's Queensland Performing Arts Centre in December 2010), the documentary is now in cinema release following glowing film festival receptions both here and abroad.

If Thorpe is the Woody Allen character of the film (fixated oddball, loveable loser), Fury is the female lead of every Allen movie since Annie Hall (overconfident, vulnerable, desperate to hit the home run).

There's a wonderful moment in The Curse when Fury crosses over from producer to protagonist. She hated Brian's symphony when she first heard it, but just wanted to document Thorpe's curious fascination, thinking her movie would be wrapped in a year, maybe two. But while she's watching Thorpe get knock-back after knock-back (''Too big. Too expensive. Too many artistic differences''), Brian's music starts to invade her ear. Suddenly, this isn't just a story about Brian's obsession or Thorpe's obsession, but her own.

There are other priceless characters in the documentary. Olga Pringle is Brian's youngest daughter, and utterly damning of her father: ''He should have been born in the time of Henry VIII,'' the elderly Olga says. ''He was an old devil. The Gothic should be put in a box and buried.''

Conductor John Curro somehow remains cheerful despite the tribulations of the largest gamble of his long career: ''The more you look into this, the more of a Pandora's box it becomes.''

Choral master Alison Rogers takes on the job when the initial choirmaster, Michael Black, backs out: ''This could be professional suicide. But in other ways, it's a gift, even though the first rehearsal was audibly abhorrent,'' she says.

As for Kerryanne Farrer, the fixer who eventually takes over Thorpe's executive producer duties (he's relegated to courtesy bus driver): ''Someone has to plant the seeds. And that's what Gary does. But this is one massive beanstalk.''

However, it is the stoic Thorpe and the volatile Fury who anchor the documentary.

Did Fury, veteran producer, feel odd about overstepping a familiar line from impartial observer to impassioned participant? ''I got dragged in by my own obsession,'' she admits. When a friend told her about Thorpe's decades-long attempts to stage the Gothic, she thought it might take her one or two years to follow his story, especially after she won development funds following a successful pitch to the Australian International Documentary conference in 2007.

Finally, convinced her organisational skills were needed to get the symphony staged, she crossed that professional line. ''And for all my good intentions and passion, I ended up making the same mistakes as Gary,'' Fury concedes. ''It was embarrassing.''

Not as embarrassing as the moment director Wood revealed he had been secretly filming her. ''He was using a wide-angle lens. I thought I was hiding [out of shot]. But Randall had the intuition to film me. I was the only one who broke down and cried [when it all went wrong].''

At one crucial funding meeting with the Queensland government, Thorpe was banned from attending. ''Gary was being laughed at,'' says Fury. ''People in Brisbane would say, 'Here comes Gary with the Gothic again.' We decided we just couldn't have him in the meeting. He'd say things like, 'It's just too big.' He'd sabotage it time and time again. I think he was sad in a way when the Gothic was staged because it was his life's passion.''

Not so, says Thorpe: ''I felt vindicated when it got a standing ovation from a full house of 1200 people.''

The Curse of the Gothic Symphony opens on July 21.

The story Escape from composer's gothic curse first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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