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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


GERARD FRANCIS COBB (1838-1904)

by David Mackie

List of Works

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 memorable.

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 received.

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 ’85". (11)

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 (12).

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 (19).

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 Academe" (24).

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" (26).

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' machine.)

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." (44)

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 ..." (45).

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 2004

Notes

1. The Scottish Students' Song Book, 6th ed., London and Glasgow, Bayley & Ferguson Ltd., 1897.

2. John Whitehead: The Barrack-Room Ballads of Rudyard Kipling, Munslow, Hearthstone Publications, 1995.

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., 1912.

5. Alumni Cantabrigienses Pt. II. Vol. II, Cambridge, at the University Press, 1944.

6. Obituary notice in Musical News, April 9, 1904. pp.349-350.

7. Information kindly supplied by Anna M. Russell. See also Alumni Cantabrigienses, Op. Cit.

8. William Francis Cobb. (II): "In Memoriam, - Gerard F. Cobb", in Nettlestead Parochial Magazine, May, 1904.

9. Ibid.

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, London, 1868.

18. a. A few words on reunion and the coming council at Rome. London, 1869.

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.

20. Ibid.

21. A Brief history of the Organ in the Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge. Contributed to the Trident. Reprinted for private circulation. Cambridge, 1891.

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.

28. Ibid.

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, Op. cit.

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, pp. 187-188.

38. DNB, Op. cit.

39. Musical News, Op. cit.

40. Programme kindly supplied by Anna M. Russell.

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, Op. cit.

44. Pall Mall Gazette, Op. cit.

45. Nettlestead Parochial Magazine, Op. cit.

46. Musical News, Op. cit.

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.

Notes:

David Mackie, the author of this article, would welcome any corrections or further information.

Mr Mackie can be contacted at:

187A Worple Road

Raynes Park

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.

List of Works

Gerard F. COBB (1838-1904)
Barrack Room Ballads

To T. A. [1:10]
The Young British Soldier [4:06]
Mandalay [4:56]
Route Marchin’ [3:00]
Soldier, Soldier [4:07]
‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’ [3:56]
Troopin’ [3:24]
Ford o’Kabul River [3:57]
Danny Deever [4:52]
Shillin’ a Day [2:16]
Cells [3:01]
Belts [3:55]
The Widow’s Party [2:56]
Screw-Guns [3:49]
Gunga Din [4:33]
Oonts [2:55]
‘Snarleyow’ [5:01]
For to Admire [4:00]
‘Back to the Army Again’ [3:53]
Tommy [3:10]
Ralph Meanley (baritone), David Mackie (piano)
rec. 15 November 2001, Sutton, Surrey. DDD
CAMPION CAMEO 2056 [73:90]

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