GERARD FRANCIS COBB
by David Mackie
I first became aware
of the music of Gerard F. Cobb when,
as a schoolboy, I purchased a copy of
the once-popular The Scottish Students'
Song Book (1). This volume contains
settings by Cobb of two poems by Rudyard
Kipling (1865-1936) - "For to admire"
and "Back to the Army again" - which
come from Kipling's Barrack-Room
Ballads, second series (1896) (2).
These are the only settings that Cobb
made from this series, and they had
been commissioned by The Scottish
Students' Song Book following the
enormous success of his settings from
the first series (1892).
Even at a tender age
(and without quite knowing why) I sensed
that there was a quality in these songs
that set them apart.. The attraction
was perhaps partly (as in many of the
settings of Shakespeare, and in Gilbert
and Sullivan) the result of the stimulus
on a composer of an outstanding text
or libretto; but the composer, too,
must have abilities that match this
if the end result is to be memorable.
I felt that these songs were
As the years went on,
I acquired more compositions by Cobb
- either in the time-honoured
way of finding copies in piles of dusty
music in second-hand shops, or being
given the contents of someone's great-aunt’s
piano-stool. (I am reminded of the late
Arthur Hutchings, formerly Professor
of Music at Durham, who wrote in the
preface to one of his books: "An exercise
bombastically called ‘research’, but
accurately called prying into cupboards
and pestering friends ..." (3)).
Among my acquisitions
were settings of other Barrack-Room
Ballads, and I realised (from the
advertisements on the covers) that there
were many more of these. I also found
settings of other, poems, some piano
music, and several hymn tunes, and became
convinced that here was a distinctive
voice that had somehow been lost to
the latter half of the twentieth century.
I felt that I wanted to know more about
Cobb, and to find all of his settings
of the Barrack-Room Ballads.
In the mid-1990s I
began to work with the baritone Ralph
Meanley, and introduced him to the half-dozen
Ballads that I had acquired.
We both agreed that we should try to
find the remaining settings, which we
eventually located in the British Library;
we then devised a concert based on these
settings, which we called "Thank you,
Mr. Atkins!" We have recorded all twenty
of Cobb's settings - for, we believe,
the first time in their entirety,
although a number of them were recorded
individually in the early years of the
twentieth century by artists such as
Peter Dawson and Andrew Black.
As well as seeking
out Cobb's works, I tried to assemble
some facts about his life. He does not
merit attention in Grove or The
Oxford Companion to Music, and my
main sources of information have been
the Dictionary of National Biography
(4) and Alumni Cantabrigienses
(5). I have also been fortunate in locating
two members of the Cobb family - direct
descendants of two of Cobb's brothers
- who have provided much valuable information;
Cobb himself died without issue.
While I was initially
puzzled by the lack of information in
the standard musical reference works,
I gradually realised that I was dealing
with a man of wide-ranging abilities
and interests, for whom music was but
a part - albeit a major part - of his
life. As a musician he was in fact regarded
as an amateur (6).
Many a seeker after
truth has spent a lifetime (in Arthur
Hutchings' words) "... prying into cupboards
and. pestering friends ..." before committing
the fruits of his research to paper,
but this centennial year (2004) of Cobb’s
death seems a convenient time to collate
the available biographical information
about this remarkable Victorian, and
to attempt to compile a list of his
compositions. Each is inevitably - but
hopefully not irrevocably - incomplete,
and should be considered work in progress.
Any further information will be gratefully
Gerard Francis Cobb
was born at Nettlestead (near Maidstone),
Kent, on 15 October 1838, the youngest
of five children of the Reverend William
Francis Cobb (1795-1862) - the rector
of Nettlestead - and his wife, Mary
Blackburn. The five children were:-
1. Mary (1826-1906), 2. Clement Francis
(1821-1896), 3. William Francis (1831-1916),
4. Francis (1834-1920), and 5. Gerard
Francis (1838-1904). (The patronymic
‘Francis' occurs in several generations.
Gerard's grandfather was Francis Cobb
(1759-1831), a brewer and banker of
Margate, whose sons were William Francis
(Gerard's father), John Francis and
Thomas Francis. Gerard's brother Clement
also had a son Francis William (1872-1938)
(7). The parents were both musical,
the mother being a pianist (and latterly
organist at Nettlestead) and the father
a ’cellist. Gerard early showed an aptitude
for music and was able to pick out a
tune on the piano while still a child,
and without any formal instruction (8).
Gerard's brother -
William Francis Cobb (ii) - was also
rector at Nettlestead, and his son William
Francis Cobb (III) - was curate at Nettlestead
from 1907 and himself latterly rector
there. A plaque in the parish church
(St. Mary the Virgin) records all three
incumbents (with their identical names
and remarkable family achievement) ensuring
that the name ‘Cobb’ is remembered at
Nettlestead. Two of the church bells
are dedicated to the Cobb family, and
Gerard planted two yew trees (in 1845
and 1861) which still stand in the churchyard
(9). Gerard's brother Clement was rector
of the nearby parish of Teston (10).
One of Clement's sons
- John Bartlett Cobb (1861-1895) - also
showed an aptitude for music, and was
a music scholar at Emmanuel College,
Cambridge. He spent most of his short
working life in Russia, and wrote several
hymn tunes, some of which were included
in the Russian National Hymn Book. He
also wrote at least one other piece
- Beauty, a waltz for piano which
was published in Moscow. Gerard F. Cobb's
Three English Ballads (1884)
are dedicated "To my nephew, John Bartlett
Cobb". Another of Clement's sons - Henry
Venn Cobb (1864-194-) worked in the
Diplomatic Service in India. A collection
of Cobb's songs - given individually
to his nephew (and bound in leather
by him) - has survived; each has an
inscription, e.g. "H.V. Cobb from his
affectionate uncle, The Composer, May
Gerard Francis Cobb
was educated at Marlborough College
from 1849 to 1857. (His brothers William
and Clement were also educated there.)
He was a bright pupil, reaching the
Sixth Form in September 1854 (still
aged 15) and winning several prizes
- the Divinity Prize (Summer 1853),
the Upper Fifth Prize (Summer 1854),
the Lower Sixth Prize (Christmas 1854)
and the English Essay Prize (1856).
He was also appointed a College Prefect
and (when he left school) donated a
cup as an inter-house singing trophy.
(Inter-house singing competitions continue
to be popular at Marlborough to this
day.) Two concert programmes from Marlborough
College (Christmas 1854 and Christmas
1856) show his active involvement as
singer, pianist and harmonium player,
although in neither programme is there
any indication of a composition by him
From Marlborough (like
his brother Clement) Cobb went up to
Trinity College, Cambridge, matriculating
in 1857. He was elected a Scholar in
1860, and graduated B.A. in 1861 with
a double first in the Classical and
Moral Science Triposes. He then went
to Dresden for a short time, to study
music. While there, he perfected his
knowledge of German, later providing
English translations for three of the
texts of his own Lieder und Gesang
(1885); he was also proficient in French
and Italian, as well as being an excellent
classical scholar (13). (Cobb wrote
the words of at least one of his own
songs - Reconciliation (c.1891)
- and inserted a verse of his own into
another song - Drawbacks (1892),
words by Henry S. Leigh.)
It may have been at
this time that he decided not to make
music his profession: he returned to
Cambridge, where he spent the rest of
his life. He was elected a Fellow of
Trinity in 1863, proceeding M.A. in
1864, and in 1869 was appointed Junior
Bursar of his college. This office,
which he held for twenty-five years
and in which he showed great business
capacity, seems to have centred around
the day-to-day running of the college,
which included looking after the accommodation
of some six hundred students (Trinity
was the largest of all the Oxbridge
colleges) and even making sure that
the brewery horse had the correct number
of nails in his shoes! (The college
had a small brewery (14)).
Cobb's interests were
many and varied. There was music, of
course, but (appropriately, as the son,
brother and uncle of rectors) he was
also much interested in Church matters:
he was in sympathy with the Tractarian
movement (associated with Newman, Pusey,
Keble, Forbes and Froude) and at one
time contemplated (but finally declined)
holy orders (15). He actively advocated
union between the Anglican and Roman
communities, and published an elaborate
treatise which caused a sensation in
ecclesiastical circles (16). A second
edition (with a sequel) followed (11)
and this, in turn, was followed by two
short tracts (18). Even as late as the
1860s there was a form of religious
intolerance which although not life-threatening
(as in the reigns of earlier monarchs)
nevertheless ensured that a career in
the Church would no longer be an option
for Cobb. His appointment at Trinity
was timely, and his energies were then
directed towards the running of the
College and to the pursuit of music
Cobb was a fine organist,
and gave occasional recitals at Trinity
(20). His writings include a history
of the organ (21) and an account of
the choir (22) which, apparently, he
also trained (23). He was, too, the
University’s representative on municipal
affairs and produced pamphlets on rather
more mundane matters than were normally
dealt with in "the olive-grove of
When Cobb went up to
Trinity in 1857 the Professor of Music
was the recently appointed (1856) William
Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875). Cobb
enjoyed Bennett's friendship and was
helpful to him in dealing with the Faculty
of Music. In the last years of his life,
Bennett made use of two bound octavo
music note-books in which he jotted
down sketches and ideas; these books
had been brought to him from Germany
by Cobb (25).
Cobb's friendship with
Bennett also extended to his family.
Three letters from him to Bennett's
son and biographer - J.R. Sterndale
Bennett (1841-1928) - have survived.
These were written to Bennett on the
death of his father in 1875, and clearly
show Cobb's regard for the composer.
A musical autograph given to Bennett's
grandson - Robert Sterndale Bennett
(1880-1963) - has also survived. This
consists of a few bars of Cobb's song,
Cavaliers and Roundheads (1902)
and was written just a month before
his own death. The inscription reads:
"Gerard. F. Cobb Feb. 29, 1904 /
a friend of three generations"
On Bennett's death,
the Professorship passed to the blind
George Macfarren (1813-1887). Cobb proved
equally helpful to the new incumbent,
particularly in the reform of the Faculty
(27). He had been elected President
of the Cambridge University Musical
Society in 1874 and became Chairman
of the University Board of Musical Studies
in 1877, serving in that capacity for
fifteen years (28).
Among the illustrious
musicians who passed through Cambridge
at this time was the young Charles Villiers
Stanford (1852-1924) who, although matriculating
at Queen's College in 1870, was appointed
organist at Trinity in 1873 and graduated
from there in 1874 - having "migrated"
from Queen's. Stanford was appointed
conductor of the Cambridge University
Musical Society in 1873, and it was
partly through Cobb's influence that
he was given leave of absence during
the years 1874-1876 to continue his
studies at Leipzig and Berlin (29).
On Stanford’s death, a fellow undergraduate
wrote to the Press to confirm Cobb's
influence on him. He added that there
were many who would remember with pleasure
and gratitude the delightful musical
parties that were given in Cobb's rooms
after "hall" on Sunday nights in the
1870s - with Stanford invariably
to the fore (30).
Ralph Vaughan Williams
(1872-1958) was also at Trinity (1892-1895)
and must surely have known Cobb, although
(as far as can currently be ascertained)
he made no written or verbal reference
to him (31).
Aside from his work
at Trinity, and his musical, religious,
and municipal interests, there is yet
one more facet of this Victorian polymath
which must command our attention. He
was, perhaps surprisingly, a great lover
of outdoor activities - swimming, walking,
hill climbing, and - above all - cycling.
He was one of the founders - and first
President (1878) - of the National Cyclists'
Union (originally the Bicycle Union)
and was also President of the Cambridge
University Cycling Club. For the International
Health Exhibition (1884) he contributed
a chapter on 'Cycling' to the handbook
on athletics, part 11 (32).
Cobb thought so much
of cycling that his enthusiasm induced
not only undergraduates but even many
of the Dons to take to it (33). He celebrated
his sixtieth birthday by undertaking
a cycle run of sixty miles in company
with one of his nephews (34). Cobb was
not very tall and was almost equalled
in height by his earlier high cycle,
although in later years he rode what
was then called a 'safety cycle' (which
was smaller) and, eventually a 'free
wheel bicycle' (35). (The cycle which
features in the accompanying photograph
is presumably a 'safety' or 'free wheel'
Little is known of
Cobb's life outside Cambridge. His duties
at Trinity would have kept him there
for most of the year, and his dealings
with his London publishers were probably
conducted by letter. His name appears
on the invitation lists of several of
the Royal Society of Musicians' annual
dinners in the 1880s and, although he
did not attend any of these, he is recorded
as having made several donations to
the Society (36).
In 1893 Cobb
married Elizabeth Lucy Parkinson, widow
of Stephen Parkinson, Fellow and Tutor
of St. John’s College, Cambridge, and
(in accordance with the custom of the
time) resigned his offices at Trinity.
He continued to reside in Cambridge
- at The Hermitage Silver Street (37)
- and devoted himself mainly to musical
composition. From this last period of
his life came the second (1893) and
third (1897) sets of Barrack-Room
Ballads (the first having appeared
in 1892) and his delightful Twenty-four
Songs for Little People (1897) to
words by Norman Gale (d.1942), as well
as works on a larger canvas, including
his most ambitious work - A Song
of Trafalgar Op. 41, a Ballad for
men's voices (solo and chorus) and orchestra
(1900) (38), to words by Edith
Nesbit (1858-1924) - remembered today
as the author of The Railway Children
(1906). (The forthcoming bi-centenary
of Nelson's victory in 1805 would be
an ideal time to hear the work again.)
[Photograph of Cobb
with bicycle courtesy of Anna M. Russell]
Among Cobb's large-scale
works is reputed to be a Symphony (39)
although no trace of this has yet come
to light. What can be stated with certainty,
however, is that on 27 November 1902
a concert was held at the Winter Gardens,
Bournemouth, given by the Municipal
Orchestra under the direction of Dan
Godfrey, jun. - later Sir Dan Godfrey
(1868-1939) - and Gerard Cobb, who conducted
"For the first time in Bournemouth"
(and probably the first time anywhere)
three of his own works - Introduction
and Allegro Giocoso in B flat, Valse
Pathétique 'Niobe', and Romanza
for Orchestra, in E flat (performed
at a Prom in 1901); two of Cobb's earlier
songs - I wish to tune my quivering
lyre (written in 1868) and Mount,
Gallants all! (published c.1890
were sung by Henry Corner (40). (An
orchestral score and band parts for
Mount, Gallants all! were available
for hire from the publishers, and it
must be assumed that both songs were
given with orchestral accompaniment.)
Cobb's last-known compositions
were three further settings of poems
by Kipling - not from the Barrack-Room
Ballads this time, but from a similar
collection, Service Songs. The
three songs. - M.I. (Mounted Infantry
of the Line), The Married Man
(Reservist of the Line), and Lichtenberg
(New South Wales Contingent) - had
been commissioned by Charles Sheard,
who had published his settings of the
Barrack-Room Ballads and they
were completed just a few days before
his death (41). Sheard published them
later that year.
Gerard Francis Cobb
died at The Hermitage on 31 March 1904.
having succumbed to an attack of pneumonia.
He was cremated at Woking on 5 April
at 12.00 noon, at which precise time
a memorial service was held at Trinity
College Chapel; the music was all by
Cobb (42). His ashes were laid to rest
on 8 April in the churchyard at Nettlestead
(43), where his widow erected a handsome
cross in his memory.
Cobb's death was widely
reported. The writer of "Church Notes"
said that he was "... a man whose personality
and career were both or them of so remarkable
a character as to deserve something
more than a mere passing notice." Referring
to The Kiss of Peace, he continued:
"Probably the majority of those who
read the news of his death only regarded
him as being the composer of the 'Barrack
Room Ballads'. It will be news to them
to learn that this cultured musician
at one time occupied a foremost place
in the field of theological controversy."
William F. Cobb (II)
wrote an affectionate and more personal
account of his brother's life which
contains much interesting information
not found elsewhere, e.g. that Cobb
wrote two hymn tunes - Hastings
and Sancta domus - especially
for use at Nettlestead, and that
he also wrote two tunes for the church
bells there - " ... not an easy thing
to write with so limited a compass as
four notes only." (Cobb's setting of
Ah, County Guy - the first of
his Three English Ballads, Op.
4 (1884) - is based on the hour-chimes
of Great St. Mary's, Cambridge). We
learn, too, that prior to his sudden
and unexpected death "... so vigorous
was his condition ... that the very
next week he had purposed to have been
in the Westmoreland district climbing
and cycling - like any young man ..."
The obituary in Musical
News spoke of him in glowing terms:
"Our English world of music has sustained
a distinct and serious loss by the death
of Mr. Gerard Francis Cobb, which took
place at Cambridge on March 31st. Mr.
Cobb ranked as an amateur, but his influence
on music has been far from slight. Despite
a multitude of important official duties
which fell to him at the University,
he always found time for music; he was
a good player, a composer of music
anyone might be proud of putting forth,
and a practical worker for the art in
many ways, who will be sorely missed."
After a lengthy account of Cobb's life
and work, the writer (Dr. T.L. Southgate
- who seems to have been a colleague,
or close friend) ends with the following:
"There can be little doubt that had
Mr. Gerard Cobb devoted himself to music
as a profession, he would have occupied
a distinguished position as thinker,
teacher and composer; he was a man of
great gifts and many attainments. Those
brought into immediate contact with
him recognised his powers, his unfailing
readiness to help the Art of Music and
its Profession in every way, and could
not but be charmed by his courtesy and
kindness of heart." (46).
"... a mind illumined
by the spark of real genius ... " (Scottish
Leader). © David Mackie
1. The Scottish
Students' Song Book, 6th ed., London
and Glasgow, Bayley & Ferguson Ltd.,
2. John Whitehead:
The Barrack-Room Ballads of Rudyard
Kipling, Munslow, Hearthstone
3. Arthur Hutchings:
Church Music in the Nineteenth Century,
London, Herbert Jenkins, 1967,
4. Dictionary of National Biography
(DNB), Second Supplement. 1901-1911,
London, Smith, Elder & Co.,
5. Alumni Cantabrigienses Pt. II.
Vol. II, Cambridge, at the University
6. Obituary notice in Musical News,
April 9, 1904. pp.349-350.
7. Information kindly supplied by Anna
M. Russell. See also Alumni Cantabrigienses,
8. William Francis Cobb. (II): "In
Memoriam, - Gerard F. Cobb", in
Nettlestead Parochial Magazine, May,
10. Alumni Cantabrigienses, op.
cit. Of nine members of the Cobb family
who are recorded here, no less than
six held church appointments.
11. Information kindly supplied by
Andrew J. Bailey. See also Alumni
Cantabrigienses, Op. cit.
12. Information kindly
supplied by Terry Rogers. .
13. DNB, Op. cit. See also Musical
News, Op. cit.
14. DNB, Op. cit. See also Nettlestead
Parochial Magazine, Op. cit.
15. DNB Op. cit.
16. The Kiss of Peace: or England
and Rome at one on the doctrine of the
Holy Eucharist. By a Fellow of ***
College, Cambridge, London, 1867.
17. Ibid ... Together with a sequel
or Answer to Criticisms on the Same,
18. a. A few words on reunion and
the coming council at Rome. London,
18. b. "Separation" not "Schism".
A plea for the position of Anglican
reunionists, London, 1869.
19. "Church Notes", in Pall Mall
Gazette. April 9, 1904.
21. A Brief history of the Organ
in the Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge.
Contributed to the Trident. Reprinted
for private circulation. Cambridge,
22. Our Chapel choir and the appointment
of Chaplains, Cambridge, 18-.
23. Notes compiled by William F. Cobb
III, kindly supplied by Anna M. Russell.
24. a. Road paving. (Addressed)
To the paving commissioners for the
Town of Cambridge. Cambridge, 1878.
24. b. The sewage question (at
Cambridge). Cambridge, 18-.
25. J.R. Sterndale Bennett: The
Life of Sterndale Bennett, Cambridge,
1907, pp. 444 and 460.
26. Information kindly supplied by
Barry Sterndale Bennett.
27. Musical News, Op. cit.
29. Notes compiled by William F. Cobb
(III) Op. cit.
30. Letter from the Rev. E. Milsom
- unascribed Press cutting, kindly supplied
by Anna M. Russell.
31. Information kindly
supplied by Ursula Vaughan Williams. I
32. DNB, Op. cit.
33. Musical News, Op. cit.
34. Nettlestead Parochial Magazine,
35. Notes compiled by William F. Cobb
(III) Op. cit.
36. Information kindly supplied by
Maggie Gibb, Secretary of the Royal
Society of Musicians of Great Britain.
37. This early nineteenth century house
is now part of Darwin College. See Nikolaus
Pevsner: The Buildings of England/Cambridgeshire,
Penguin Books, 1954, 2nd ed., 1970,
38. DNB, Op. cit.
39. Musical News, Op. cit.
40. Programme kindly supplied by Anna
41. Musical News, Op. cit.
42. Information kindly supplied by
Anna. M. Russell. Cremation was legalised
in Britain in 1884, and the crematorium
at Woking was the first to be built.
43. Nettlestead Parochial Magazine,
44. Pall Mall Gazette, Op. cit.
45. Nettlestead Parochial Magazine,
46. Musical News, Op.
Acknowledgements: A number of
people have been of great assistance
in the preparation of this article.
First of all, a special word of thanks
to Anna M. Russell, great-grand-daughter
of William F. Cobb. (11), and Andrew
J. Bailey, great-grandson of Clement
F. Cobb. Anna Russell generously contributed
much information about the Cobb family,
and kindly supplied obituaries, Press
cuttings, and the programme for the
Bournemouth concert; she also kindly
supplied the accompanying photographs.
Andrew Bailey also supplied information
about the Cobb family, and kindly drew
my attention to the volume of songs
once owned by Henry V. Cobb. Dr. David
McKitterick, of the Wren Library, Trinity
College, Cambridge, has shown much interest
in this project; he and his staff have
facilitated my research there. Dr. Terry
Rogers, Honorary Archivist of Marlborough
College, kindly supplied information
about Cobb’s schooldays, and Mrs. Clare
Brown, Assistant Archivist of Lambeth
Palace Library, also kindly supplied
information. Staff at the British Library
have also been helpful. I am grateful
to Ursula Vaughan Williams for taking
the trouble to respond to my question
about Vaughan Williams' undergraduate
days at Trinity, and to Maggie Gibb,
Secretary, of the Royal Society of Musicians
of Great Britain, Dr. Rosemary Firman,
Chief Librarian of the Jerwood Library
of the Performing Arts, Trinity College
of Music, London, Dr. Robert Manning
of the Open University, Barry Sterndale
Bennett, and Stuart and Sylvia MacWhirter
- all of whom have answered questions
and supplied relevant information. Finally
Nancy and Jackie Bennett, who have maintained
an interest in the Cobb family, have
kept the flame burning at Nettlestead.
To all of them - and to anyone I have
inadvertently omitted - my thanks.
David Mackie, the author of this article,
would welcome any corrections or further
Mr Mackie can be contacted at:
187A Worple Road
LONDON SW20 8RE
Phone/Fax 020 8946 7892.
Mr Mackie is keen to locate a copy
of Cobb’s A Song of Trafalgar
for a possible performance in 2005 -
the Cobb bicentenary.
It is hoped to add a full list of works
to this site in due course.
The article is a corrected version
of the article that appeared in the
British Music Society Newsletter No.
103, September 2004, pp. 208-213.
F. COBB (1838-1904)
Barrack Room Ballads
To T. A. [1:10]
The Young British Soldier [4:06]
Route Marchin’ [3:00]
Soldier, Soldier [4:07]
Ford o’Kabul River [3:57]
Danny Deever [4:52]
Shillin’ a Day [2:16]
The Widow’s Party [2:56]
Gunga Din [4:33]
For to Admire [4:00]
‘Back to the Army Again’ [3:53]
Ralph Meanley (baritone), David Mackie
rec. 15 November 2001, Sutton, Surrey.
CAMPION CAMEO 2056 [73:90]
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