Devil of a time staging cursed symphony

Most eccentric ... Eugene Gilfedder plays the enigmatic Havergal Brian who took nine years to write his magnus opus.
Most eccentric ... Eugene Gilfedder plays the enigmatic Havergal Brian who took nine years to write his magnus opus.

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 someone who was 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. But he reinvented himself when he acquired an aristocratic-sounding Christian 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'd completed 32 symphonies - more than almost any other composer since Haydn or Mozart. Fourteen of those were written after his 80th birthday.

But few of them have ever been performed. Hence, the legend that his music is cursed.

His colossal Gothic Symphony, painstakingly written over nine years from 1919 to 1927, is officially recognised by the 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 ''the Gothic'' had only been performed four times, and never outside Britain.

Thorpe, now 60, 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 to complete because of the setbacks Wood and producer Veronica Fury had to endure, mirroring Brian's own travails.

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 - unexpectedly - on cinema release following glowing film festival receptions both here and abroad.

If Thorpe is the Woody Allen character of the film (oddball, lovable loser), Fury is the female lead of every Allen movie since Annie Hall (over-confident, 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 about 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 lengthy career: ''The more you look into this, the more of a Pandora's Box it becomes.''

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 first 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 quite 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 everything went wrong].

''I think he was sad in a way when the Gothic was staged because it was [Thorpe's] life's passion.''

Thorpe says that isn't the case: ''I felt vindicated when it got a standing ovation from a full house of 1200 people.''

The Curse of the Gothic Symphony opens in selected cinemas on July 19.

This story Devil of a time staging cursed symphony first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.