He acquired almost legendary status for two unusual reasons: the number of his symphonies (thirty-two, an unusually large number for any composer from Beethoven onwards), and the almost total neglect they received for several decades. Even today, after something of a revival of interest, not one of his works can be said to be performed with any frequency. While there are doubtless thousands of composers whose work has received total neglect, Brian is unusual in that he did achieve some early success, and then went on composing so many major works long after any chance of performance would seem to have gone for good.
William Brian (he adopted the name "Havergal" from a local family of hymn-writers) was born in Dresden, a district of Stoke-on-Trent, and was one of a very small number of serious-music composers to originate from the English working class. After attending an elementary school he had difficulty finding any congenial work, and taught himself the rudiments of music. For a time he was organist of Odd Rode Church just across the border in Cheshire. In 1895 he heard a choir rehearsing Elgar's King Olaf, attended the first performance and became a fervent enthusiast of the new music being produced by Richard Strauss and the British composers of the day. Through attending music festivals he made the lifelong friendship of his near-contemporary composer Granville Bantock (1868 - 1946).
In 1907 his first English Suite attracted the attention of Henry Wood who performed it at the London Proms. It was an overnight success and Brian obtained a publisher and performances for his next few orchestral works. Why he never succeeded in maintaining his success is a matter for debate, but it was probably due to his shyness with strangers and lack of confidence on public occasions. Whatever it was, the offers of performance soon dried up.
At this point a development unusual in British 20th century musical history transformed Brian's life, for better or for worse has never been decided. He was offered a yearly income of £500 (then a respectable lower-middle-class salary) by a local wealthy businessman, Herbert Minton Robinson, to enable him to devote all his time to composition. It seems Robinson expected Brian soon to become successful and financially independent on the strength of his compositions. This never happened. For a while Brian worked on a number of ambitious large-scale choral and orchestral works, but felt no urgency to finish them, and began to indulge in hitherto-undreamt-of pleasures, such as expensive foods and a trip to Italy.
Arguments over the money and an affair with a young servant led to the collapse of his marriage. Brian fled to London and although Robinson deeply disapproved of the incident he continued to provide Brian with money until his own death, though most of the allowance went to Brianís estranged wife. The affair became a lifelong relationship. Gradually Brian began composing again, and, living in conditions of the most basic poverty, eventually obtained work of a musical kind, copying and arranging, and writing for the journal Musical Opinion.
Nothing was a success for Brian; even his war service was short and farcical, and gave him the material for his first opera The Tigers. In the 1920s he at last turned to symphonies, though he had written more than ten before one of them was first performed in the early 1950s. This was due to his discovery by Robert Simpson, a composer and BBC Music Producer, who asked Sir Adrian Boult to programme the Eighth Symphony in 1954. From then on Brian composed another twenty-two symphonies, many of the later ones short, single or two-movement works, and several other pieces.
In 1961 Brian's largest surviving work, the Gothic Symphony, which had been written between 1922 and 1927, was first performed at Central Hall, Westminster, in a partly amateur performance conducted by Brian Priestman, and in 1966 the first fully-professional performance was given at the Royal Albert Hall conducted by Boult, both occasions largely the result of Simpson's lobbying. The occasion was broadcast live and many people heard their first music of Brian that evening. This encouraged considerable interest, and by his death seven years later several of his works had been performed and the first commercial recordings appeared. For a few years after his death, while Simpson still had influence at the BBC, there was a revival of interest with a number of recordings and performances; two biographies and a three-volume study of his symphonies appeared, though always with an element of special effort. The reputation of his music has always been restricted to enthusiasts and has never achieved the popularity of, for example, Vaughan Williams. For the future it seems likely that his music will always be in the "neglected" category, and the scarcity of well-rehearsed performances or mature interpretations make its quality difficult to assess.