Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Joseph HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
Chamber Works
Clarinet Quintet (19) [24.43]
Piano Quartet (19) [26.14]
Traditional Melodies of England, Scotland and Ireland (19) [22.59]
Quintet: John McCaw (cl), Delmé Quartet
Quartet: London Piano Quartet
Traditional Melodies: Delmé Quartet
recordings first issued in the 1970s on Blenheim LPs

Joseph Holbrooke was one of those romantic composers whose bright success was eclipsed by the Great War.

From lowly, even meagre, circumstances, the young Joseph (he later used 'Josef' to distinguish himself from his father who was also 'Joseph' and also active as a music teacher) struggled to make his mark. Sadly, for him, he lacked the social graces and had a manner that tended to alienate. He was known to remove dedications and substitute new ones by way of reprisal for real and imagined slights. It was cruelly said of him that his music would do better when he was no longer in the world to promote it. Like Bowen he lived well past the point where people in the artistic cultural towers had even a shred of sympathy for composers writing in his vein.

His musical legacy rivals the profusion of Milhaud or Martinu or Villa-Lobos. On top of this he was an inveterate reviser and recycler of ideas into later works (again hardly a rare phenomenon). He left worklists (some published by him and some private) which include eight symphonies, concertos for piano (2), cello, violin, saxophone, many tone poems, operas, ballets, music dramas, six string quartets and many songs and piano solos.

He was fixated with the literary works of Edgar Allan Poe and wrote more than thirty works for which he claimed inspiration from that author. From this point of view he can be compared with Finzi (Thomas Hardy) and Bax (W B Yeats).

His major benefactor was the millionaire landowner Lord Howard de Walden. Holbrooke spent happy times in de Walden's Chirk Castle in the Welsh marches as well as holidays in the South of France and South America and on safari in Africa. He travelled as part of the retinue during the de Waldens' honeymoon cruise around the Mediterranean. De Walden's circle included many major artistic figures. In De Walden's company Holbrooke met George Moore, Augustus John and Jacob Epstein, the latter of whom was later to produce a striking bust of the composer.

De Walden's literary and Cambrian inclinations produced a libretto for his trilogy of music dramas: The Cauldron of Annwn. These are major works which, on the evidence of the overtures, preludes and some extracts from Bronwen (the last of the three) broadcast by the BBC in 1995, represent a rugged, dark saga with music to match. While his subject is certainly Celtic it has none of the off-putting fey-ness of Boughton's Immortal Hour. Holbrooke's benefactor paid for performances and publication of the full scores.

In 1907 his Symphony No 2 Apollo and the Seaman was conducted by Beecham complete with lantern slides (showing the text of the poem by the Irish poet Herbert Trench) to produce a multi-media 'happening' attended by the glittering Great and Good. His music was played at the Proms by Henry Wood and at the Crystal Palace concerts. It was August Manns who gave this struggling and starving composer his first chance with a performance of The Raven - typically a Poe-inspired subject. In due course, however, all or most of his supporters deserted him unable to brook his over-weaning confidence and demands. Holbrooke was not a man for compromise and would sometimes refuse to make a work available for premiere if there were insufficient rehearsals or no provision for a repeat performance.

Browsing through the Holbrooke files at the BBC (Data Centre, Caversham Park, Reading) is a salutary experience. There you come across Holbrooke undiluted. Eventually he reaped the personality-induced whirlwind and performances became fewer and fewer or moved from the great centres of population to the provinces. In fact Bournemouth was one of his most consistent champions at least while Dan Godfrey was in control. Godfrey was clearly able to make allowances for the man and the end-result was a long list of performances and some premieres as well. With a section of the BBC Symphony Orchestra Godfrey broadcast a complete Holbrooke concert for the BBC in the 1930s though this was with a section of the BBC Orchestra not the full Bournemouth Municipal.

Holbrooke's most constant friend and practical supporter was Granville Bantock. Bantock, too, suffered neglect after the Great War but he had a more knowing approach to the world and was able to hold down music administration jobs and to manoeuvre and compromise with the best.

Holbrooke's music is often erroneously grouped with Bantock's. In fact Holbrooke is both darker, more intense and more open to the fashion of the day than Bantock. Holbrooke dabbled extensively with jazz during the 1920s but to little effect in terms of commercial success. Bantock would have none of it.

The present disc turns away from the Holbrooke of the great orchestral canvases and instead embraces the intimacy of chamber music. The music includes, for me, some of the most beautiful inspirations in Western art music. The Clarinet Quintet and the Piano Quartet are works from his years at the Royal Academy of Music - although later revised. Both are works of great melodic resource with great drama in evidence in the quartet. Holbrooke was not short of a tune (perhaps his years with his father in the music hall helped here) and there are some superb examples here especially in the Canzonett of the Clarinet Quintet. The Quintet has been recorded previously by Reginald Kell and, typically, with one different movement. In the Piano Quartet one might have expected a touch of Brahms or Schumann but it is certainly not on obvious show. The Melodies are from the years of the Great War and show Holbrooke's astounding (I do not exaggerate) facility and almost pointilliste skill as an arranger. Time after time tunes which you half expect to leave you indifferent grip you. This is down to the composer's freshness of invention and to the players' bright-eyed attention.


Rob Barnett

UK is £10 incl UK P&P
abroad, the appropriate extra - Please approach Mr Skeet for quote.

Mike Skeet at F.R.C.
44 Challacombe
Milton Keynes MK4 1DP
phone/fax +44 (0)1908 502836



Excerpts from Cauldron of Annwn, Piano Quartet, Symphony no. 3 (part of one movement) and solo piano works by various artists including the composer. Reissued from original 78s (mostly 1930s). Various artists and orchestras. SYMPOSIUM 1130.

Ulalume, Bronwen Overture, The Bells Prelude, The Raven, Byron. Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Bratislava/Adrian Leaper. CD MARCO POLO 8.223446.

Children of Don Overture, Dylan Prelude, The Birds of Rhiannon. National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Andrew Penny. CD MARCO POLO 8.223721.

String Sextet; Piano Quintet; Piano Quartet. Endre Hegedüs, piano/New Haydn Quartet/Sándor Papp, viola/János Devich, cello. CD MARCO POLO 8.223736

Clarinet Quintet: Reginald Kell/Willoughby Quartet rec 17 March 1939, Abbey Road Studio No 3, London; Reissued: February 1991 coupled with Kell's recordings of Brahms Clarinet Trio and Weber's Concertino. TESTAMENT CD SBT 1002

Piano Concerto No. 1 The Song of Gwyn ap Nudd, Hamish Milne (piano), BBC Scottish SO/Martyn Brabbins, 4-5 June 1999, Glasgow Hyperion CDA67127

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