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Thursday, April 10, 2014

DVD Review: The Curse Of The Gothic Symphony



I knew nothing about the Gothic Symphony before viewing this film. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of the composer, Havergal Brian. But the opening title card of The Curse Of The Gothic Symphony immediately set me at ease: “In 1919 obscure British composer Havergal Brian began to write the Gothic Symphony.” Yes, that word “obscure,” made me no longer feel bad about not knowing him. It continues: “Finished eight years later, it became the largest, longest and most complex symphony in history. Many great conductors tried to mount performances, but their attempts were thwarted. As a result the composer declared the work to be cursed.”

The Curse Of The Gothic Symphony tells the story of a group of enthusiasts, led by Gary Thorpe, who are determined to mount a production of the symphony in Brisbane, Australia. The Gothic Symphony hadn’t been performed in thirty years, and never previously outside of the United Kingdom. It had only been performed four times in the UK. Because of the inherent troubles in mounting a production, this symphony has been considered cursed. It’s interesting that the composer himself considered the piece to be cursed. Part of the problem is the large number of musicians and singers that it requires – approximately six hundred people (and that’s six hundred incredibly talented people, including a children’s choir). That means a large venue, and some serious coordination.

The film begins in 2007. Interestingly, the film’s producer, Veronica Fury, is also interviewed as a subject because she ends up becoming involved in helping the symphony happen through her involvement in the film itself. And that is just one of the many interesting stories that come as a result of this endeavor.  We meet several of the people involved in the project. It’s interesting that one of the people who is involved for a time, Michael Black (Chorus Master, Opera Australia), himself hadn’t heard of the symphony before. He says he is not concerned with the curse, but then due to mounting troubles and scheduling conflicts, he ends up being unable to stay with the project.

As 2007 becomes 2008 and then 2009, the group gets so close a few times, only to have something go wrong. You can’t help but get completely caught up in their endeavor, in their desire, in their drive. Basically you get caught up in the people themselves as well as their quest. And so even if you don’t care at all for classical music, this documentary should still have appeal.

The film also provides a bit of a background on composer Havergal Brian (1876-1972). There is some old footage of him, and there are also some dramatic re-enactments (which I could take or leave). Some of the information on Brian comes from an interview with Olga Pringle, daughter of the composer, and she is absolutely delightful.

Bonus Features

The DVD includes “About Havergal Brian,” a short, written biography of the composer. He composed thirty-two symphonies and several operas, most of which went unperformed in his lifetime. There is also a photo gallery, which plays without the viewer having to press the arrow button.

The Curse Of The Gothic Symphony was directed by Randall Wood, and is scheduled to be released on DVD on April 15, 2014 through First Run Features.

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