Curse of the Gothic Symphony

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Imagine a symphony performance the equivalent of climbing Mt Everest! That’s exactly how Gary Thorpe describes his journey to stage The Gothic Symphony in Australia, one of the largest and most complex symphonies ever composed and recorded as such in the Guinness Book of Records. It takes a colossal effort to stage – about 180 orchestral musicians, 4 brass bands, 500 choristers and over 2 hours long.

The Gothic Symphony was written in the 1920s by British Classical composer, Havergal Brian. Attempts to perform the symphony have frequently met with failure, with only a handful of performances staged since it was written – leading Brian to believe that it was cursed.

Gary Thorpe, the General Manager of 4MBS Classic FM Brisbane, took on the goliath task of staging what he believed to be a powerful and inspiring symphony in 1982, taking a further 28 years before it saw the light of day – a true testament to Gary’s sheer perseverance.

Filmed over seven years, The Curse of the Gothic Symphony tells the funny and inspirational story of Gary’s journey to prove the symphony could be performed for the first time outside the UK, despite almost impossible challenges and many naysayers.

On Saturday 13 October, The Curse of the Gothic Symphony will screen for one night only at the Manning Entertainment Centre and will feature Gary Thorpe as special guest. Bec Pearson caught up with Gary to talk about the film ahead of his trip to the Manning Valley.

Congratulations on a great film, Gary. What was it that captured your imagination with this symphony?

I think it was the challenge to be able to mount the first performance of the work outside of England and to do it in Brisbane. I like a good challenge. I particularly wanted to show that this neglected composer who wrote 32 symphonies – none of which were released on record in his lifetime – wrote some wonderful and inspiring music. The Gothic Symphony was his first symphony, written when he was about 50, and it was one of the largest symphonies ever written. He lived to 96 years of age, writing another 31 symphonies – 22 of them after the age of 80. It’s one of the most remarkable and inspiring stories in music.

How did you ever decide to take on such an enormous project, knowing that the symphony was cursed? 

A rare performance of the symphony was announced for 1980 in London, so I decided to fly there for the performance in the Royal Albert Hall. I was so impressed by the power of the music and the sheer spectacle of the performance, that about two years later I thought we should do it in Brisbane. It took about five unsuccessful attempts in Brisbane over 28 years before we managed to finally get it done.

Can you explain the curse?

The Gothic Symphony was declared by Havergal Brian to be cursed, because there had been many attempts to stage it since the 1920s, but they failed – due to world events such as the Great Depression or Second World War, which made it impossible to pull off. Then of course, there’s always the problem of getting all the elements together at the same time – the musicians, the singers, the venue, the funds. If one of these is not in place, the whole project collapses.

This was a journey over 28 years, where you were often faced with enormous challenges and obstacles. Tell us a little bit about your experience?

I felt that the work was so big, it could only happen if one of the big government funded festivals took it on. I met with all the festival artistic directors and pitched the idea, and they kept knocking it back. I was told it was too expensive. I was told that no one would come to a concert of an unknown composer’s unknown symphony. Also, there were few venues that could cope with the size of the orchestra and choirs. And there was not enough money. There were not enough musicians and singers, and the list of challenges went on and on.

So I just kept on pitching the idea to anyone who would listen. In the end, it was achieved by bringing together a whole range of Brisbane music organisations to pull it off. For that, I have to thank the wonderful management team that came together for the project.

What inspired you to turn your incredible journey into a film?

One of the staff at 4MBS mentioned to the documentary producer Veronica Fury that I had been trying for years to stage this enormous symphony in Brisbane. She thought it would make an interesting documentary and obtained some funding from the ABC and others. She thought it would take a year at most to film, but it took seven. I’m so pleased that she hung in there.

What brings you and the film to the Manning Valley?

I think Veronica and the director, Randall, have done a marvellous job telling the incredible story of the composer and of our quest to stage his most famous or infamous symphony. It won the Best Documentary Award at the Australian Screenwriters Guild Awards and has been nominated for two other awards – the Taree Film Society is screening it on October 13 and has invited me to attend.

Staging The Gothic Symphony is the musical equivalent of climbing Mt Everest or going to the moon – I enjoy sharing the adventure with others. You don’t have to know anything about Classical music to enjoy the film. It’s a story of overcoming great odds through perseverance and determination, so it has a universal message.

It seems you are naturally a big thinker and adventurer. what is your next project?

Yes, I think the area I work in, Classical music, lends itself to big ideas. It is inspirational and powerful, so you do get swept along. And you don’t have to be able to read music or play an instrument – I can’t, and that hasn’t stopped me. Come and see the film; my next big project is revealed at the end, as the credits roll.

Thank you Gary.

This story was published in issue 68 of the Manning-Great Lakes Focus

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