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Gordon Jacob's Clogher Head Overture

Coincidence is a strange thing. I first came across Clogher Head over sixteen years ago whilst on a holiday in Eire. I was staying at Howth in a lovely hotel. Each morning, before breakfast, I climbed to the top of Howth Hill and took in the magnificent view over Dublin Bay and the up seacoast towards Rush and Lambey Island. On one occasion I guessed I could see Snowdon on the North Wales coast. One day I met a gentleman on the hilltop who suggested I made a trip to Clogher Head. Two days later I did and discovered one of the loveliest parts of the British Isles that I have ever seen. Later that week, I was in a second-hand bookshop in Dublin. In amongst a box of bits and pieces I discovered a prospectus for the 1928 Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. Back at the hotel in Howth, over a pint of Guinness, I was amazed to discover that on the evening of Saturday 29th September 1928 the Symphony Orchestra gave a performance of a piece of music called Overture: Clogher Head by Gordon Jacob. In the days before the Internet it was not possible to check out if this piece had been recorded, or whether the score had been published. Even more difficult was the location of reviews or programme notes. I forgot about the work until a week or so ago when I read that Clogher had lost the ‘Blue Flag’ status for its beach. I hunted out the prospectus in my filing system and then got to work on the ‘net, on email and in the RCM Library.

I contacted the composer’s widow, Margaret Hyatt-Jacob, who very kindly sent me a copy of the composer’s programme note, which I quote in full:

The Overture is named after a promontory on the East Coast of Ireland, a few miles north of the mouth of the River Boyne. It is not intended to be pictorial or topographical, though it may be taken as an attempt to express in terms of music something of the exhilaration one feels when standing on a rocky point overlooking the sea and, in its quieter moments, one’s response to the romantic views to be obtained from this particular spot- to the north Dundalk Bay and the Mourne Mountains: to the south the hills of Wicklow: inland Tara’s ruins on the skyline, and out to sea, if the day be a clear one, the Isle of Man, an elusive wraith on the far horizon. And, over all, the charm of “Ireland green and fair.”  

The work is cast in classical symphonic form. There is no introduction, the principal subject being delivered at the outset by the full force of the orchestra. After some brief development a climax is worked up over a rhythmical ground-bass and then the music dies down to make way for the second group of subjects, the chief of which is an oboe melody accompanied by the harp. The quiet mood thus set up prevails for some time during which the main themes undergo various transformations and developments until the recapitulation is reached and the vigorous atmosphere of the opening is re-established. During the recapitulation, the themes are continually developed and the work ends with a quiet Coda based on the chief second subject and a mysterious passage unconnected with the main themes, which has previously been heard in the middle section of the work. The Overture is scored for the normal symphony orchestra.

Even a brief perusal of the note suggests that this is a work that may well bear revival. At least there should be one recording made of a piece that was a significant part of the composer’s output. I am intrigued by the reference to a ‘mysterious passage’ and wonder if there is a little bit of the Celtic twilight about this. However until the work is heard or the score is studied all that the musicologist can rely on is the reception history of this work. The concert was reported in the Times, the Guardian and the Musical Times: the reviewers appear to be a wee bit mixed in their thoughts about the Overture.

Rather than paraphrase I have included them below ‘verbatim.’

The reviewer in the Manchester Guardian ([EB] October 1, 1928), writing a couple of days after the concert wrote that:

“At the Promenade Concert Mr. Gordon Jacob conducted the first performance of his overture “Clogher Head”, an orchestral work named after the promontory on the east coast of Ireland, the wonderful view from which is said to have inspired the composer. The work falls into three sections, the first of which is breezy, the second dreamy and the third a modified recapitulation of the first. In spite of this formal scheme one was struck by a curious lack of shape as its main defect. The moments of exhilaration are very good indeed, spontaneously invented and convincingly presented. The lyrical contrast, though less incisive is also capable of making its impression, but the two are not reconciled into a single work of art. Strangely enough in this instrumental work Mr. Jacob seems to have fallen into the trap that so often waylays composers of songs. He is so occupied with enforcing a contrast, which happens to be only one element in his scheme that it comes to dominate and to some extent impair the coherence of his work as a whole”.

The Times reviewer (October 1, 1928) initially pointed out that there were “no less than four tone-poems” of one sort of another” at the Saturday night concert.

“Mr Gordon Jacob himself conducted the first performance of his overture “Clogher Head”. He warns us in a programme note not to look for pictorial or topographical interest in this work bearing the name of an Irish cape, but it is still programme music full of the feeling of the sea.”  

He considers that the work is less impressionistic than de Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain. His description of the work’s progress continues:

“It plunges straight into the heart of its subject, moves forward on strong rhythms with some fine writing for brass, and is ingeniously scored with a sure hand to secure effects that are new without calling undue attention to themselves. The quieter moods of the second subject are no less apt, but the contrasts seemed too strong for the unity of the work. Mr. Jacob wastes no notes on transitions from his first to his second group of themes and he is direct to the point of brusqueness in all that he wants to say, so that a strange contrast is not out of the picture. None the less the work, for all its strength, tends to fall into pieces.”

The Musical Times (November 1, 1928) declared that:

“The novelty on September 29 was Gordon Jacob’s Overture ‘Clogher Head’. It is named after an Irish cape, and is a well-made bit of programme music. There is much sound, strong writing, and the scoring, both in the finely vigorous opening subject and in the quiet, expressive sections, is consistently sure.

Here is another composer who shows a fine gift for turning out music and compelling our respectful admiration for the product. High-sounding, deeply felt, skilfully worked- these are the calculated praises that give the show away. Clogher Head lacked thrill. Not a loved moment survived the listening. As to the truth of the landscape-painting, one must run down to the nearest wind-swept promontory before presuming to judge.”

The other pieces given at this concert were the Marche au Supplice from Berlioz’s Fantastique Symphony, Träumerei by Schumann arranged for Strings and Horns, Abscheulicher from Fidelio by Beethoven and Nights in the Garden of Spain for pianoforte and orchestra by Manuel de Falla. The soloist in this last work was Harriet Cohen. The second half of the concert included The Prologue from Pagliacci by Leoncavallo, Francesco da Rimini by Tchaikovsky and the Valse Caprice by Rubenstein. Perhaps the most important work played at this concert Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Quixote.

On the 31 January 1929 the work was given on the radio at 3 pm In fact two of Jacobs’s works were broadcast from the weekly Bournemouth concert. The second work was his Concerto for piano and strings. It is the last time I can find reference to Clogher Head and I assume that it largely disappeared from view.

It is always difficult to pontificate on a piece of music that one has not heard. However, unless there are some later performances that have been overlooked by the reviewers, it would seem that no one has heard the work for over 80 years. I have established that the score is in the possession of the composer’s widow, however she tells me that the parts are missing. Jacob dated the score as having been completed on March 2nd 1928. Margaret Hyatt-Jacob told me that the score has blue pencil work, which she suggests may be publisher’s marks. However, they may have been corrections and rehearsal notes.

I could arrange to see the score and I may well do that one day - certainly if there is ever any interest shown in producing the work. However, unless it is part of a major project, I guess that the work may well remain unheard for another eighty years.

I am grateful to help, advice and comments from a number of people including Rob Barnett, Dr Geoff Ogram, Eric Wetherell and especially Margaret Hyatt-Jacob.

John France
The Land of Lost Content blog


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