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see also Part 1:MAURICE JACOBSON by Michael and Julian Jacobson


I have chosen five works, or groups of works, to discuss which, leaving aside the many arrangements, brief vocal and choral items etc, I feel represent a fair cross-section of Jacobson’s more formal and extended music. These are: The Hound of Heaven, The Lady of Shalott, the Symphonic Suite for Strings, the Theme and Variations for orchestra, and the piano music taken en masse.


"A score distinguished by adroit musicianship, a powerful dramatic sense and a passionate, driving sincerity …. A powerful and exciting score, intensely dramatic, with masterly word-painting and conveying the urgency of an inescapable pursuit." – Stephen Williams, Music Newsletter for New York Times/The Musical Quarterly.

"A most significant setting, in which the poem becomes a living reality." – Alec Rowley, The Musical Times.

"A work of unusual distinction, one of the few that escapes the oppressive influence of the ‘English choral tradition’ and has something new to contribute to it." – Colin Mason, The Chesterian.

In his own and most other people’s opinion, Maurice Jacobson’s cantata "The Hound of Heaven" was his most important composition, the one he took the most care over, that meant the most to him, and that most clearly earns him the right to be regarded as an important composer.

The bulk of the actual composition was done in the early 1950s; the first performance took place in Birmingham Town Hall on 16 November 1954 with tenor soloist Eric Greene and the City of Birmingham Choir and Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Willcocks. The London premiere was on 15 February 1958 with John Mitchinson, the London Choral Society and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under John Tobin. The work received excellent reviews both at its premiere and at subsequent performances in Britain and the USA. It was revived for Jacobson’s 80th birthday concert at the Royal College of Music, London, where it was again conducted by (now Sir) David Willcocks, but has enjoyed few performances since then: (Ex. 1):-


The artistic climate of the 1970s and 1980s was certainly not in sympathy with the musical idiom of "The Hound" – serious, elevated, by no means unadventurous but fundamentally conservative; in the much more pluralistic, post-modern musical world of the 21st century, there is no reason why this fine work should not take its place once again in the repertoire.

The Hound of Heaven is scored for tenor solo, four-part chorus and symphony orchestra. Jacobson had known and loved Francis Thompson’s visionary, spiritual poem of human redemption since his teenage years and had long thought of setting it to music. The nature of the poem places the work as a descendant of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, though both the poem and the musical language are very different.

Thompson’s poem must have presented a daunting challenge. Consisting of 182 lines of variable metre and with an intricate, asymmetrical rhyming scheme, the Hound’s dense, image-laden language is not the kind of poetry that lends itself easily to musical setting. It has often been pointed out that there have been very few successful settings of Shakespeare’s sonnets simply because the language is already so rich and self-sufficient that composers feel they cannot add meaningfully to it; and many if not most of the great musical settings have been of inferior poetry, or, if by major poets, of their deliberately popular or ballad-like lyrics (there are, for instance, plenty of fine settings of Shakespeare’s own "songs" within his plays).

Jacobson must therefore have pondered long and hard on how to set the Hound, and it is much to his credit that his setting does not "sprawl", weighing in at just 58 minutes in the published timing (in fact the 1976 performance at the Royal College of Music takes a little less than 50 minutes). The work is through-composed, though in clearly defined sections; after the opening, reflective, molto lento section (up to the words "Naught shelters thee, who will not shelter Me"), the pace is generally swift, with little repetition of words and brief but deft orchestral interludes. To quote from the introduction to the BBC broadcast of the 1976 performance: "Some of the most personal and intimate music is entrusted to the tenor soloist; the choir underlines the emotional significance of the words and acts as both narrator and participant". The orchestral scoring is for a standard full symphony orchestra, with triple woodwinds, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (used very sparingly), harp and strings. Despite these large forces the scoring is usually light and transparent, the full tutti being reserved for climactic passages. Though the orchestration itself is not a major feature of the work, there are plenty of instances of imaginative textures and colours, as one might expect from a passionate admirer of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe.

The first two sections of the poem, as far as "All things betray thee, who betrayest Me" are set as a single musical paragraph (to figure 4). The work opens ‘molto lento’, very slow, with a motif of four solemn descending chords in the strings over a pedal G; these chords, whose modal harmonies give them an archaic flavour, act as a unifying device and recur at key points. [Ex.1]

The chorus enters with the words "I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years", set as a rhythmically free unison chant somewhat reminiscent of psalm-singing or even plainsong, preserving the timeless feel of the orchestral opening. A feeling of restlessness is given by the very free rhythms and the avoidance of the strong beats in the vocal line. At the words "and in the mist of tears I hid from Him" the unison line gives way to harmony and the music takes on a more human aspect, emphasised by the dolce marking. At "From those strong Feet" the chorus returns to unison but now with more sustained lines. This section ends (fig.4) with the chorus singing "All things betray thee, who betrayest Me" to a pianissimo unison over a held bare 5ths chord of G and D, pierced on the second syllable of "betrayest" by a high B on solo violin which at that point thus makes a G major chord; this may be taken as the pivotal moment of the work, the remainder developing the ideas of betrayal and pursuit set forth, and resolving them at the very end with the same pure chord of G major.

The tempo now increases to moderato and, after a short, expressive passage for solo clarinet, the tenor enters with the words "I pleaded, outlaw-wise, By many a hearted casement". The clean texture, wide spacing and generally modal harmony may remind listeners of Copland, here and elsewhere, though there is no question of pastiche. The chorus joins and intensifies the music to its first fortissimo at "The gust of His approach would clash it to." (fig.10). The music subsides as the chorus sings "Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue", the unison setting recalling the opening.

An animated, fanfare-like orchestral passage, now Allegro, heralds Thompson’s magnificent lines:

Across the margent of the world I fled,

And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,

Smiting for shelter on their clanged bars;

Fretted to dulcet jars

And silvern clatter the pale ports o’ the moon.

These are given to the chorus, with an impressive dissonance at "clanged bars", at which point the soloist repeats the last two lines. From here the tenor solo and the chorus are freely mingled; the chorus soon gives way to wordless "Ah"s, producing one of the most ecstatic passages in the whole work. The freer rhythms and short phrases at "I tempted all his servitors" (fig.16) recall the opening choral passage. After further excitements the music dies down; the solemn descending string chords of the opening return as the chorus reiterates the important words "Fear wist not evade as Love wist to pursue" (fig.21) and closes the whole section with "Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me" (fig.23), set to the same music as the end of the first passage ("All things betray thee, who betrayest Me", fig.4). The spiritual journey has not yet been accomplished, and Jacobson’s musical design eloquently expresses and reinforces this midway point.

Thompson now brings in the idea of earthly fulfilment through children – "They at least are for me, surely for me!" This gentle passage is set to wistful music in a kind of modal G flat major, poco lento – espressivo e semplice, the words given to both soloist and chorus in close antiphony, very lightly accompanied. At the new idea of nature (" ‘Come then, ye other children, Nature’s’ "), the tempo increases to Allegretto – poco animato (it will be seen how specifically Jacobson’s tempo and expression marks are: there are no metronome marks, but the mood of each section is very precisely pinpointed by carefully chosen markings such as these). The chorus takes this passage, two solo sopranos adding to the sensuous, pantheistic flavour at "Wantoning with our Lady Mother’s vagrant tresses". The soloist picks up the chorus’s final line "So it was done", with a tempo change to Moderato – tempo giusto

(fig.31). The more personal passage that follows, "I in their delicate fellowship was one", is given to the soloist with a measured, march-like accompaniment of staccato crotchet chords in the strings. A new motif of heavy chords rising through cycles of thirds is introduced at the words "I was heavy with the even" and the choir rejoins the soloist. The music quietens at "In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek", and at this point Jacobson chooses to bring back an earlier line, "Heaven and I wept together", which becomes the occasion for a long, expressive fugal passage for the chorus (fig.40-46), centred on E major but very fluid harmonically.

The tenor re-enters with "For ah! We know not what each other says", poco lento, triple tempo, in the gently modal G flat major that we have heard before at "I sought no more". The sinuous, expressive vocal line rises to a couple of high B flats in piano at "The breasts o’ her tenderness" – no easy feat for most tenors. The orchestral transition at the change of key signature repeats the material from the transition at fig.26. A luminous, imaginative orchestral texture of high solo violin harmonics, string tremolandi, repeated woodwind chords, sustained horns and timpani underpins the choral section starting with "Nigh and nigh draws the chase" in the basses, and at the pivotal line "Lo! Naught contents thee, who content’st not Me" we become slowly but surely aware that the descending chords of the opening are returning. These continue to underpin the opening of the next section, begun by the solo tenor with "My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me". The accompaniment becomes more active and the music descends a semitone to the darker key of G flat as the chorus comment wordlessly (to "Ah") on the tenor’s "I am defenceless utterly". At "I slept, methinks" the music moves to a gentler G major with an expressive oboe solo, taken up by flutes. Tenor and chorus continue to intertwine until, at the words "with heavy griefs so overplussed" the chorus dissolves into wordless, mourning "Ah"s and the music arrives at a long pause (3 bars before fig.60). Youthful ideals have faded and we have arrived at some of the darkest lines of the poem. A plangent cor anglais solo (shades of "Tristan"!), in the dark key of E flat minor though as always modally inflected, introduces the bitter words "Ah! Is thy love indeed a weed". The tempo quickens and the mood lightens at "Ah! Must- Designer infinite!- Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?", leading to an exciting orchestral passage, building to Allegro then molto agitato. The faster tempo remains at the tenor’s next entry, "Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds". The glory of war is proposed, but this leads only to death: "must Thy harvest fields Be dung’d with rotten death?" At this point (fig.75) the opening chords return briefly, but here forte, in the dark tonal region of A flat minor, and with a full, rich orchestration. This prepares us for the final chase, introduced allegro molto by tenors and basses ("Now of that long pursuit Comes on at hand the bruit"). The solo tenor picks up the thread, rising to a thrilling held high B flat at "bursting sea". The crucial words of the Hound:

"And is thy earth so marr’d,

Shatter’d in shard on shard?

Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!"

are given to unaccompanied chorus, and at " ‘And human love needs human meriting’ " the opening chords return, now in their original peaceful G major form on strings alone (3 after fig.80). A lovely, timeless, somewhat pastoral passage for the woodwinds now emerges, loosely fugal in texture. Strings, harp and a single horn join but the music retains its gentle pastoral character. The tenors and basses enter in chorale style with "All which I took from thee", somewhat reminiscent of "Here on earth we have no continuing place" in the Brahms Requiem, and this is developed by the full choir. The pastoral music returns as the choir develops the words "Rise, clasp My hand", firstly directed to be sung by the semi-chorus and later tutti. As the tenor soloist senses his final enlightenment ("Is my gloom, after all, Shade of His hand, outstretch’d caressingly?"), the music hovers around G major and rises to an ecstatic orchestral climax marked con espansione (3 bars after fig.102). It remains only for the chorus to give the final answer:

"Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,

I am He whom thou seekest!

Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me."

in a long passage whose harmonic richness is increased by having the choir divided into two sections. Finally we become aware of a persistent high octave G tremolo on violins as the words "I am He" are isolated; the other instruments drop out and the sopranos are left alone on a G major triad with the violins’ tremolo G, fading al niente.


The "Theme and Variations", completed in either 1943 or 1947 (the records are not clear), is a large-scale set of variations on an original theme for symphony orchestra of double woodwinds, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta and strings. Jacobson also prepared a concert version for piano duet which has been performed with great success. A studio recording from 1949 of the original version, by the BBC Northern Orchestra under Stanford Robinson, lasts 21 minutes 17 seconds. The work could be regarded as Jacobson’s "Enigma" set; there is even a reminiscence, conscious or otherwise, of Elgar’s famous theme in the similar shapes and lengths of Jacobson’s phrases, complete with more sustained phrases in the middle section:

[Ex 1, Theme]

However there the similarities end: Jacobson’s theme, based on a tonality of E minor and moving broadly in 3/2 metre, is stated in unison in cellos and basses (with a discreet wind descant from bar 6), which gives it an austere flavour; any implied harmony is modal rather than major-minor. The theme is clearly pregnant with possibilities, with intervals of a fourth and a third both being prominent; several of its short motifs are inversions, retrogrades and re-shufflings of others. At the end it seems about to cadence on to the tonic E but breaks off; a "foreign" C sharp is heard instead, which focuses the listener’s attention on the first variation. The work is in fact composed as a seamless piece of symphonic music, though it is perfectly clear where each new variation starts, and the variations are strongly differentiated in tempo, character and sonority. Yet they are in no sense "strict" variations – all of them being very much longer and more complex than the theme, though they generally preserve at least the outline of its ternary structure. The theme is used more for its intervallic and motivic structure and never returns in its complete form; the opening motif of a rising second and falling fourth is particularly important, and the thirds of the middle section are prominent in the accompanying textures.

I will give a brief description of each variation. The first, allegretto moderato (the tempo is carefully related to that of the theme) is in 3/4 time – triple, like the theme, but much faster, one-in-a-bar. Its pastoral simplicity is undermined by rhythmic complexity, with uneven measures and strong cross accents giving a restless edge.

The second, Allegro leggiero, 6/8, is yet more animated, though still suppressed in tone and remaining within the orbit of E minor.

The third, Allegretto con moto, 3/4, begins to shake things up a bit. A fugato, it is tonally less stable and line takes precedence over harmony, though it later settles into D flat major (a very long way from E minor) and the music reaches its first climax.

The fourth, Lento espressivo, has a fluid, changing metrical pattern and a freer phrasing structure than hitherto. Its English-pastoral harmonies inevitably recall Vaughan Williams, somewhat unusually in Jacobson’s work though the two composers knew each other well and collaborated on a number of occasions, most obviously on "A Cotswold Romance" (derived from "Hugh the Drover").

The fifth, Allegro vivace, 3/4, blows the pastoral sentiment away in helter-skelter activity. The prominence of 4ths suggests a possible influence of Bartók, as does the kaleidoscopic, colouristic orchestration with stopped horns, a prominent part for celesta, and imaginative percussion touches.

The sixth, Allegretto scherzando, in the rare metre of 6/16 (which might bring to mind the Quintet in "Carmen") continues the swift pace and flies past; harmonically fluid and subtle, it hints at several tonalities without ever settling on any of them.

The seventh, Andante semplice, 3/2 like the theme, is a complete contrast. The key of E flat is a new tonal region which gives the music a warm colouring we have not yet had. The violas bind the texture together with a constantly reiterated melodic pattern derived from the first part of the theme; it lasts 5 beats and the violas are indeed directed to play "as if in 5/4". This underpins a rather gorgeous passage that remains harmonically static above an E flat and B flat pedal in the basses; it has a distinct Russian feel, though the long, almost ecstatic prevalence of a single chord also recalls certain moments in Martinů.

The eighth, Lento espressivo, can probably be taken as the work’s emotional heart. While one can detect similarities to Venus from Holst’s "Planets" Suite, the music has a sort of benign radiance in its open-spaced harmonies that perhaps does not quite belong to anyone else.

The ninth, Allegro strepitoso, again (like the fifth) blows away the preceding serious mood in a variation of somewhat Elgarian, though harmonically more "modern", bluster and bustle. It is also notable for an intrusion of whole-tone harmonies (perhaps ironically intended).

The tenth, Allegretto con moto – alla Reel, is the variation that may give some modern listeners trouble. It is nothing less than a full-blown Scottish reel dressed up in orchestral garb, and while it is clearly humorous in intent (and perhaps had some extra-musical significance for Jacobson) it feels too far removed from the rest of the Variations and, as a joke, does not seem quite to "come off". Still, the more sustained string writing that enters about two-thirds of the way through brings a welcome return to the work’s general tone and character, and prepares us for the very impressive Finale (so marked).

The Finale – Largo, Molto pesante e misurato brings back the 3/2 metre (later 4/4) and E minor tonality of the theme, later moving to E major. While Jacobson avoids anything as traditional as an apotheosised version of the full theme, its outlines are present throughout, particularly its opening motif of a rising second and falling fourth. The orchestration is rich and dark-hued; the music might have been in danger of becoming a little over-blown but it is saved from this by some quite dissonant harmonies as bits of theme are pitted against each other over an unchanging tonic pedal, and by the feeling of inexorable progression. The texture lightens as several rhythmically free wind solos unfold over timpani quavers that remain in strict tempo. The work seems to be ending, in great breadth and a confident blaze of sound, but two soft, mysterious wind chords of G minor stop the music in its tracks, hinting at darker areas the music has traversed, just before the final triple forte E major chord.


Jacobson was, certainly in his youth, a virtuoso pianist who retained his enormous facility into old age. He once told me that in his "piano-mad" years – roughly from the age of 16 to 19 - he had practised eleven hours a day and had ended up knowing the entire piano repertoire as it then existed; even if one needs to take this with a slight pinch of salt (I think his knowledge of the concerto repertoire, for instance, was less all-embracing) he certainly had a huge knowledge of piano music at his disposal and was completely at ease writing for the instrument (as several of his predecessors and close contemporaries – Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Delius, Holst – were not, the organ rather than the piano having been at the forefront of English musical life).

It is therefore rather surprising, and a matter of some regret, that there is no major piano work to set beside "The Hound of Heaven" and "David". Perhaps this was simply a question of lack of time, or of a suitable commission (Jacobson himself gave very few solo recitals after his early years). Nevertheless there is a solid quantity of piano music including several works that could easily find favour if revived.

Pride of place must go to "Carousal", published in 1946. This is a bright, colourful piece in C major, with a loose rondo structure, which has a riotous yet charming flavour of an English country fair about it. The second episode, an "alla musetta" in the unexpected (and unprepared) key of B flat, is particularly felicitous. The manuscript bears a dedication to Louis Kentner which for some reason did not survive in the published edition; however, writing for a virtuoso, rather than the amateurs, students and children so often in his mind, freed Jacobson to produce some of his most vital and full-blooded piano writing. I can confirm that the piece is not at all easy to play!

A shorter piece, "Soliloquy" (published 1940) bears a dedication to Kentner’s first wife, the redoubtable Hungarian pianist and teacher Ilona Kabos ("Ilonka Kabos-Kentner" in the dedication). The mood, perfectly expressed by the title, is well sustained, and this, together with the subtle, delicate harmony, compensates for a certain four-squareness in the phrasing (however Jacobson helps the pianist by writing "poco rubato" at the head of the work). There are a number of what one has come to recognise as harmonic fingerprints, such as the favourite chord (spelling upwards) of F#, A#, D and E#, here more often in open position (F#, D, A#, E#), which give a characteristic flavour to the piece. This chord results from the independent movement of voices – there is as a rule a strong linear aspect to Jacobson’s texture and he rarely used a chord just for its own sake – yet its sensuous piquancy is certainly savoured en passant.

Two fine sets of variations show both solid construction and an improvisatory fantasy; the variations are free, though in both sets they remain more closely tied to the theme than in the orchestral Theme and Variations. Both sets remind me somewhat of the solidly crafted sets by Fauré (Theme and Variations) and Paul Dukas (Variations, Interlude and Finale on a theme of Rameau). The "Romantic Theme (1910) and Variations (1944)" (thus titled) take a Chopinesque theme by the 14-year old Jacobson as the subject for five variations and an extended finale which covers a wide range of keyboard textures in a most imaginative way, even if the harmony, and the music’s general quasi-Romantic grandezza (echoes of the variations of Beethoven’s op.109 sonata!), are very conservative for 1944. The Variations on a Theme of Schumann (from the Album for the Young) are similarly built up but, while perhaps more adventurous, seem less inspired.

In an altogether lighter vein, the "Music Room" suite was Jacobson’s most popular and successful piano work during his lifetime. Published in 1935 by Elkin, it consists of five short movements, Rustic Ballet, Sarabande, Bagatelle, Brown Study, and River Music, each dedicated to a friend. The first two numbers are also published separately by Roberton. (I have a private recording by Jacobson himself which includes a couple more numbers that remained unpublished; his performance of the tricky "River Music" shows to what extent he had retained his pianistic skill despite a schedule that allowed for almost no practice at all). These delightful, wholly successful miniatures do not venture beyond conventional, if modally inflected, tonality and a clear, classical phrase structure, but they are sensitively laid out for piano and the invention is fresh and spontaneous.

I mention the "Lament" (1941) in memory of the eminent singer and teacher Harry Plunket Greene here although it also exists for cello and piano. This is a serious, rich-textured work with more Jewish melodic and harmonic influence than normal in Jacobson’s instrumental works.

Passing over the music for children (which includes "I’ve lost my penny" and "Found it!", both from 1923), there are two important arrangements: one of Jacobson’s own ballet suite from "David" (only in manuscript, dated 1935), and the other a very fine arrangement from 1939 of Peter Warlock’s "Capriol Suite". The Capriol Suite is largely a scrupulous, impeccably laid out straight transcription; there are nevertheless some ingenious and imaginative touches where Jacobson’s skill as a transcriber results in textures that convey the original better than a literal rendering could, such as the end of the first movement (ex.2):

The arrangement of the "David" ballet suite ["The ‘David’ music is extraordinarily apt" – Bristol Evening Post] is a more functional affair, probably made for rehearsal purposes; the unpublished manuscript score is full of cuts and re-orderings, and Jacobson’s own recording has a different selection again. The music itself, after a strong, harmonically rich and dark-textured opening which may remind listeners of the music being written around the same time by Frank Bridge, tends to become rather too "illustrative" for the suite to work in purely musical terms, though it is always attractive and colourful. This opening, however, representing the entrance of Samuel and his asking for Jesse’s song, contains what for me is some of Jacobson’s most powerful and personal music and shows what he might have done if he had been able to devote himself more completely to composing (ex. 3):-


With the fine Symphonic Suite for Strings of 1951, which received its first performance by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli at the 1951 Cheltenham Festival, I feel I cannot do better than quote in full the composer’s programme note to the first British performance in 1952:

"Having neglected composition for very many years, during which time I have imbibed and loved much music of vastly varying idioms, I now find myself uncertain of my own musical language. This I discover to be in a curious state of flux. My "David Ballet" music, for example, written in 1935, is in some ways more "modern" than this present suite, written last year. So now I write and write, letting matter dictate manner, in the hope that in due course I shall find my own idiomatic feet. That, obviously, is what I have done in this present instance.

In this Suite, a reflective central movement divides the serious-gaiety of the first movement from the more unleashed jollity of the last. The interval of a fourth, leaped or filled-in, makes some characteristic re-appearance in all three movements.

The first movement is, I suppose, in E major – certainly in the main. Its persistent rhythmic vivacity suggests gaiety; yet it has its more serious undertones, in no way lessened by a certain amount of syncopation. It is fairly fully scored up to the appearance of a fugato. The four-bar subject of this begins in the ‘cellos with the leap of a fourth already mentioned. Violas follow, then 2nd violins, and so on, building quickly to a return of the opening. Here, only the first part is given, leading to an extended coda. During this, the music plays about with earlier and new material, and the movement finishes in a mood of unashamed syncopation.

The slow movement explores a gentler and subtler scoring. Solo instruments co-operating or contrasting with tutti, much divisi, mutes and no mutes, all make their customary contributions to the essential thought of the movement. This I find difficult to define. Conflict, there is, of some sort. Straightway, the introduction, vague in harmony and movement, seems to pose a question. To this a D minor folk-like tune appears as the first answer. In it, the characteristic fourth can be heard with a leap in the main theme, and filled-in in the accompaniment strands (as also in the introduction). A note of some personal distress appears, separating the more communal fold-utterances. All this mainly D minor tonal stream has its momentary harmonic excursions, and now the music quickly plunges into a key-conflict, from which a serene B flat minor emerges. This is tested in various ways as an answer to the opening question, and then discarded in favour of a brief re-trial of the earlier D minor material. But this is soon rejected, and the music ends with renewed irresolution, unless the entire movement be regarded as an answer to its own implicit questions.

Syncopated fourths, leaping alternately up and down, begin the cheerful journey of the last movement. Here the harmonic departures seem to serve rather than dissipate the prevailing tonality, E major as in the first movement. The first section of the three-part structure of this movement finishes with the opening theme metamorphosed into a tune which recalls the nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall" with, however, my fourths substituted for Humpty’s thirds. After his final fall, the central panel of this movement appears as a short Theme and Variations related in some obscure way to the foregoing material, but entirely different from it in mood. The first section is then repeated, somewhat curtailed and changed. This leads into Humpty’s apotheosis, which moves quicker and quicker to a conclusion based on material from the variations."

This is interesting, both for what it reveals and for what it doesn’t. Engaging and stylish, it guides us well enough through the work itself, yet it is strangely distanced, as if Jacobson is describing the music of someone else. For instance, an underlying programme for the slow movement is merely hinted at, and we are given no clue as to the reason for the sudden appearance of "Humpty Dumpty" – which is unmissable – in the last movement. The key to all this is surely in the opening paragraph where Jacobson describes his uncertainty as to his current musical orientation. The actual composition is spontaneous and assured, yet it arose from no stylistic certainty beyond that born of great experience and technical craftsmanship.

The result, for me, is a terse and somewhat astringent, even edgy work, with less "gaiety" than Jacobson heard in it or perhaps intended. The Humpty Dumpty reference is amusing in an enigmatic way, and better integrated into the musical line than the "Scottish reel" in the Theme and Variations*. Only the opening of "David" could really be seen as more modern than the Symphonic Suite; as a whole, the Suite is more consistently "modern" in its abandonment of clear tonality and its lithe, linear, Bartókian counterpoint. In fact I see in the Suite the working out of certain harmonic and thematic processes that reach their full expression, in a more measured manner, in "The Hound of Heaven". This might have then served Jacobson as his mature musical language, but sadly there were to be no major works after the "Hound". The exigencies of public musical life took over, leaving too little time for the demands of large-scale composition.

Returning to the Suite, the string writing is remarkably vital and virtuosic, reminding us that Jacobson was also an expert violinist in his youth. While no use is made of the advanced effects already in vogue – harmonics, glissandi, bow effects such as col legno – the string writing is fully worked out and not at all easy, certainly too difficult (surprisingly) for the strings of the Juilliard Orchestra on the only recording I have been able to hear: their playing is frequently scrappy and out of tune, and the work stands in need of a good modern recording to reveal its true stature.

*Perhaps it has an element of self-caricature. Interestingly enough I myself wrote a set of choral variations on "Humpty Dumpty" when I was a student at Oxford, though at that time I did not know the "Symphonic Suite". I’ve inherited my father’s short stature and tendency to rotundity, and am now, like him, very challenged in the capillary department – though I certainly wasn’t when I wrote my variations.


"Extraordinarily evocative, sometimes quite magically so, and exquisite in its use of subtle colour of harmony and of sound-values." – Eric Blom, Music & Letters

"This is one of the most poetical and imaginative choral works that I have seen for some time." – Edmund Rubbra, Monthly Musical Record

Jacobson’s setting of Tennyson’s famous poem – if less famous than it used to be – dates from 1942 and, like "The Hound of Heaven", is scored for tenor solo (representing Sir Lancelot), SATB chorus and orchestra (versions exist for both full orchestra or just strings). The published duration is 35 minutes. The musical language is considerably more conservative than that of the "Hound", and the work is perhaps aimed more at the amateur choral societies, with which indeed it had considerable success in its early years. The first performance was given on 31 October 1942 at Manchester University by the Sale & District Choir under Alfred Higson. In May 1944 Jacobson conducted it himself with the Etruscan Choral Society at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, with the young Peter Pears as soloist. (Kathleen Ferrier sang in the first half of that concert: it was her first meeting with Pears, and it led to him introducing her to Britten who then wrote "The Rape of Lucretia" for her.)

Tennyson’s poem dates from 1832 and was an important influence on the Pre-Raphaelites. Indeed Lord David Cecil, in his preface to "A Choice of Tennyson’s Verse" (Faber 1971), says that "The Lady of Shalott anticipates and surpasses the Pre-Raphaelite poets in its power to recreate the charm of medieval romance as it appeals to later ages." Jacobson must have been conscious of the responsibility to convey the special qualities of a much-loved poem, and his success is indicated in Eric Blom’s review:

"The work, while making one wonder why no composer seems ever before to have been attracted to Tennyson’s poem, causes one to feel quite glad Mr Jacobson had it to himself, for his treatment of the poem is most engaging, and in the final section truly moving."

Jacobson maintains Tennyson’s division into four parts, the musical setting of each part running on without a break to the next. The first part sets the scene, only hinting mysteriously at the actual person of the Lady of Shalott. The chorus sets the scene in music of a quiet, mysterious remoteness, undulating gently above a long-held pedal note of C with a persistent A flat. At "Willows whiten" the solo tenor enters but there is no sharp change in the music’s character. At "But who hath seen her wave her hand?" the tempo quickens, the mood lightens, and the music skips along in an airy D major triple-time passage of great charm, intensified at "Only reapers, reaping early" with the addition of sopranos and altos singing wordlessly – a highly evocative passage. An orchestral passage hints at the heroism of Sir Lancelot but his time has not yet come! Returning to C major and the opening material, the first part ends in a mood of questioning with the words " ‘Tis the fairy Lady of Shalott".

The second part fills out the character and story of the Lady, ending with the important words:

‘I am half-sick of shadows,’ said

The Lady of Shalott.

The setting opens with a classic spinning motif in 9/8 with running legato semiquavers. No clear tonality is established though the music hovers around A major. Again the chorus sets the scene in music of tender mystery, as if describing a presence divined rather than witnessed. At "There she sees the highway near", the music quickens and a dotted motif, marked ritmico e non legato, gives perhaps a rather too facile impression of the "surly village churls" and the "red cloaks of market girls". Again the more withdrawn images seem to elicit the most imaginative responses, such as the fine unaccompanied passage at "For often thro’ the silent nights a funeral". The solo tenor remains silent in this entire section, awaiting his big moment in the third part. The music dies down to pianissimo, and Jacobson conveys the Lady of Shalott’s ennui in irresolute harmonies over a sustained A flat/G sharp tremolo.

The third part introduces us to "bold Sir Lancelot" in a firm C major which is nevertheless coloured by G sharps/A flats as if to indicate the proximity of the Lady of Shalott and that their paths are about to cross. The tempo is a fast Allegro con allegrezza, and Jacobson gives a further direction of Tempo giusto to blow away any lingering traces of the former music’s irresolution and half-lights. The solo tenor describes Sir Lancelot’s knightly appearance, armour and bearing in what to all intents and purposes is a substantial aria, loosely in strophic form. This takes up almost four full stanzas of the five in Tennyson’s third part, the chorus entering only at "From the bank and from the river" with more measured, legato music swinging along in whole bars. A fortissimo climax is reached at "He flash’d into the crystal mirror". We have now reached the turning point of the story, where the Lady of Shalott is compelled to look down to Camelot, thus invoking the curse. The music breaks off; we get a reference to the "spinning" motif, broken by silences (perhaps influenced by the famous moment at the climax of Schubert’s "Gretchen am Spinnrade"). The chorus enters senza espressione, perhaps to indicate that the Lady of Shalott is moving in a trance, under the influence of urges she cannot understand: "She left the web, she left the loom, She made three paces thro’ the room". The dynamic is pianissimo apart from a single outburst at the line "The mirror crack’d from side to side". The altos, representing the voice of mature womanly experience (they at least know what it means!), end with " ‘The curse is come upon me’, cried the Lady of Shalott.", set to disconsolate, meandering chromatic harmonies.

The fourth part describes the Lady’s death as she sings herself to sleep in a boat floating down the river. In a sombre G minor, and a measured 4/4 tempo – most of the music hitherto having been in some form of triple metre – the tenors and basses solemnly set the scene in bare octaves. The sopranos enter at "Down she came and found a boat", imparting a little more warmth to the music. A barcarolle motif enters subtly, without fundamentally disturbing the music’s measured pace. This whole section is subdued and without strong contrasts, yet there is enough harmonic colouring and melodic subtlety to keep the attention: as Eric Blom and others have pointed out, there is more substance in Jacobson’s music than a superficial reading might reveal. The wordless accompaniment by the lower voices to the sopranos’ "And as the boathead wound along" is a specially imaginative touch, and indeed the whole final section breathes the magical Pre-Raphaelite air of Tennyson’s poetry. A kind of pilgrims’ chorus, beginning at the words "Heard a carol, mournful, holy" binds the section together; against it the altos sing a wordless, melismatic lament. The solo tenor re-enters at "For ere she reach’d upon the tide" and the music takes on a little more animation, rising to a restless Allegro inquieto at "Out upon the wharfs they came", as the "knight and burgher, lord and dame" gather to observe the tragedy of the now dead Lady of Shalott in her boat. This allows Jacobson one further fortissimo climax (without which this final section might have been too muted) at the words "Who is this? and what is here?"

The music dies down and returns to the quiet, undulating C major of the very opening. The solo tenor sings the famous closing lines:

But Lancelot mused a little space;

He said, ‘She has a lovely face;

God in his mercy lend her grace.

The Lady of Shalott.’

His words are echoed gently by the chorus, not in the prevailing C major but in subtle, modally-inflected harmonies touching D flat and F sharp minor in a passage that reminds me strongly of certain progressions in the music of Fauré. The C major returns, quite "pure", without the persistent A flat colouring that it has always had till now, and the music fades to nothing as the chorus holds the word "grace" on a long C major chord.


I hope I have conveyed something of the extent and quality of the music of this now-neglected composer, for whom a revival is surely overdue. The huge corpus of arrangements and music for amateur choirs and children served a useful, honourable purpose in its day; but the larger and much more personal compositions, which clearly meant the most to him, represent a true contribution – small, maybe, but powerful and individual – to mid-20th century British music.

Julian Jacobson © September 2007

see also Part 1:MAURICE JACOBSON by Michael and Julian Jacobson


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