As promised below, I attended a Sarasota Film Festival screening of The Curse of the Gothic Symphony, a documentary about the Australian premiere of Havergal Brian's mammoth First Symphony, the "Gothic," in 2010. It's a slightly overwrought but generally delightful movie, its appeal likely to extend beyond the fairly limited circle of people who believe that Brian is a neglected master of twentieth-century symphonic writing. The "curse" in question is the malign force that has allegedly hovered over and within the work since its inception, when Brian is said to have gone to bed certain nights and found upon waking that an unknown hand had scribbled devilish curses in his manuscript. Randall Wood, the director of the documentary, makes too much of the diabolical rumors, staging spooky reënactments of episodes from Brian's life and cueing lightning and thunder. Nonetheless, it does seem that the quest to present the "Gothic" in Brisbane — a nearly lifelong endeavor on the part of the broadcaster Gary Thorpe — encountered more than the usual obstacles: financing falls through, choruses fall behind schedule, presenters get cold feet, and a mood of perpetual panic sets in. Colorful personalities add fuel to the fire: John Curro, the conductor, goes around predicting imminent doom, and then, at the end, happily pronounces that he always knew it would work out.
Some of the best footage comes from a trip to the United Kingdom. In one scene we are privileged to observe a meeting of the Havergal Brian Society, at which the projected Brisbane performance and other pressing matters are discussed. At one point, a member asks what might be done to raise Brian's profile during the period of the London Olympics, to which another sagely responds, "I wonder if the sports audience is the most receptive." The genial Scottish critic Malcolm MacDonald follows the Brisbane saga from afar, comments on the composer's life and work (with the inevitable cat in his lap), and finally makes the journey Down Under for the big event. Then there is Olga Pringle, the composer's nonagenarian daughter, who is seen in her snowbound house in Ballater, Scotland, feeding blackbirds on her windowsill and suggesting that her father's mightiest creation might best be "put in a box and buried." We get a few glimpses of Brian himself, via BBC television footage; his personal motto, we are told, was "Nothing matters." Comic touches aside, the documentary is a fine portrait of obsession in action. Both the film and the symphony carry an epigraph from Faust: "Whoever exerts himself with endless striving / That man we can redeem."