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FAME AND NEGLECT

JOE HOLBROOKE - BRITISH COMPOSER by Rob Barnett


see also JOSEPH HOLBROOKE The Composer of Light Music by Philip L Scowcroft


When I first heard a tape of Holbrooke's orchestral piece Ulalume on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe I knew that I had made a discovery. Ulalume is a work of dark atmosphere and sustained beauty similar perhaps to Rachmaninov's The Isle of the Dead but with a lyrical vein much stronger than the Russian work. That was back in 1980. Since then seeking out the music of Joseph Holbrooke has become as much of an obsession for me as the writings of Edgar Allan Poe were for Holbrooke.

Joseph Holbrooke belongs to the generation of composers at the core of the twentieth century British musical renaissance. He died in 1958, the same year as Vaughan Williams, and in almost total obscurity. His neglect began after the Great War and the gradient of descent increased dramatically from 1925 onwards. However he had a heyday and one with considerable celebrity.

Joseph (more often known to his circle as 'Joe') Charles Holbrooke was born in Croydon, North London, on 5 July 1878. It seems that the place of birth was an accident of the touring music-hall life of his father and family.

His earliest grounding in music was given by his father (also called Joseph), a practical though brutal musician. The identical name, in later years, led to confusion when both began teaching in the same London suburb. Holbrooke adopted the German spelling of the name 'Josef' and this is reflected intermittently in his later works, letters and articles.

His father introduced the teenage Joe to playing and making arrangements for leading music hall artistes. He came into contact with many of the leading music hall figures of the day and wrote countless arrangements for them.

A formal musical education was sought and, after a spell as a chorister at St Anne's Church, Soho, he went to the Royal Academy of Music. There he was a pupil of Frederick Corder for composition and of Frederick Westlake for piano. While at the Academy he won various prizes. He left the Academy in 1896.

In June 1896 he made his solo piano debut at St James' Hall and later the same year joined various music troupes touring the United Kingdom. He was an adaptable 'jack of all trades': pianist and music director of fit-up 'orchestras' with as few as three players. One of these tours took him to Scotland in Arthur Lloyd's entertainment: 'Two Hours of Fun.' This ended disastrously when the tour manager made off with the takings leaving Holbrooke stranded. Making his way South he settled in Haringey as music teacher and composer.

Unlike many of the great names of the era, Holbrooke had no inherited wealth. He was often hungry and lived in poor conditions particularly during these early days. Later some success brought commissions, modest affluence and finally a millionaire patron who continued to support Holbrooke until the mid 1940s.

During the period 1897-1899 solo piano and violin and piano genre pieces flowed from his pen. The dedications are instructive. They were written for the leading soloists of the day and also for his pupils: the sons and daughters of the aristocracy and for the rising middle and upper classes.

He wrote music prolifically and sent various scores to a range of conductors of the day. One of these, his orchestral tone poem The Raven, went to August Manns. Manns' orchestral concerts at the Crystal Palace were the scene of a wide variety of adventurous new and exotic repertoire. He accepted the young Joe's tone poem and put the destitute 'rough diamond' composer up at his house while preparing for the premiere.

Before the Crystal Palace 'breakthrough', an even more important event took place. Holbrooke was aware that at the healthy seaside to the South and West of London the conductor Dan Godfrey was building up a reputation as a pioneer of new music. In Bournemouth the resort's Municipal Orchestra had evolved from a brass band to a fully fledged ensemble well able to tackle the big orchestral scores of the day.

On 7 December during the last year of the old century, Holbrooke conducted the Bournemouth Orchestra in his Suite for Strings Op. 40 (a precursor of his Hommage Suite for full orchestra in pastiche recollection of various composers including Tchaikovsky). This event was more important than the Crystal Palace premiere which was an isolated peak and seems to have marked the last time Manns touched a Holbrooke score. In the case of Bournemouth Holbrooke's works continued to feature in concerts there well into the 1930s and beyond. The music featured included several performances of his Grasshopper Violin Concerto and a rare 1920s performance of the Saxophone Concerto. The Saxophone Concerto is a work in which, in its original version, used a different register of saxophone in each movement. Dan championed various of Holbrooke's orchestral works in one of his last broadcasts with the BBC house orchestra during the 1930s.

In 1900 Holbrooke was appointed conductor of the Woodhall Spa Orchestra. On 3 March Manns conducted The Raven to considerable acclaim. His lifelong friend who was just finishing his reign as music director of the New Brighton Orchestra gave the premiere of Holbrooke's Skeleton in Armour in the Wirral on 19 August. Bantock secured for Joe what proved to be a short-lived appointment as a tutor at the Midland Institute. The year ended with Holbrooke's most popular work the, Variations on Three Blind Mice, being given at the Proms under Sir Henry Wood. Later it was recorded by Wood in a much cut version on 78 disc. This recording of a much disfigured score does scant justice to the variations.

Holbrooke, in common with many Corder pupils at the Academy, was an enthusiast of the music of Tchaikovsky. Holbrooke, the virtuoso pianist, appeared in August 1899 as soloist in the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with Bantock conducting the Liverpool Orchestra repeating the work in Bournemouth in 1900. The Skeleton in Armour (on a poem by Longfellow), now revised, was included in a concert conducted by Bantock in Antwerp in 1900 - his first overseas performance though as the years passed others were to follow in Paris, Boston, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Budapest, Monte Carlo, Munich, Berlin, Vienna and Salzburg.

Edgar Allan Poe's writings were an enduring obsession for Holbrooke. He wrote more than 35 works based on the various Poe poems and tales.

Holbrooke was always an energetic publicist for his own works and he wrote voluminously in the form of articles and letters for the specialist musical press and the newspapers.

He was also active in promoting the work of other British composers. His chamber music concert series which ran from 1899 to 1936 presented works by many British composers of the day including the earliest ever performance in the UK of some works by Delius. As late as 1946 one of his De Walden-supported LSO concerts featured a work by George Lloyd.

Holbrooke remained something of an outsider. He was a working class man from a common background and the class system was still strong in Britain at that time. He also had a tough approach to criticism and he upset many people (both performers and critics) with his demands for repeat performances and informed comment. Although not (with one minor exception) a Three Choirs man he did have a few choral festival successes at Birmingham (The Bells for chorus and mammoth orchestra) and Leeds (Queen Mab for chorus and a more modest orchestra).

These successes brought him more public attention and he caught the eye of the Irish poet Herbert Trench who wanted a composer to set his philosophical poem Apollo and the Seaman. This produced a large-scale symphonic work with a brief last choral (male voices) movement. This is remembered in derisory terms because at the poet's insistence it was used as an early multi-media experiment with the orchestra playing in darkness and slides projected on a great screen at London's Queen's Hall displaying the text and suitable pictures. The music and slides drifted out of synch and much laughter followed. There was a second performance, at the same venue, where things went more happily. The second performance was also the last complete one. The tragic march from Apollo however was played a number of times as a homage to Captain Robert Falconer Scott to mark his death during the ill-fated Polar Expedition in 1912. Holbrooke and Scott had been close friends and the composer had been a guest aboard Scott's command, a Royal Navy battle cruiser.

The Apollo Symphony had important repercussions in Holbrooke's life. He was approached by Lord Howard de Walden (T.E. Scott-Ellis) with a commission to set his poetic drama 'Dylan, Son of the Wave'. Initially this was to be a choral symphony but it soon evolved into a music-drama. Together Holbrooke and de Walden were the authors of what was to become an operatic trilogy based on Welsh folklore. This had the collective title The Cauldron of Annwn. It consisted of the music-dramas The Children of Don, Dylan and Bronwen. The setting was legendary Wales. In Fairest Isle Year (1995) BBC Radio 3 finally broadcast substantial extracts from Bronwen. These revealed a work of dark imagining and dramatic intensity. The cycle of three music-dramas was the source of many overtures, concert songs, tone poems and other free-standing concert pieces often for full orchestra but occasionally for solo piano, organ and concert song.

The Piano Concerto Song of Gwyn-ap-Nudd (his first numbered piano concerto) was first performed in 1907 by Harold Bauer at the Queen's Hall. This is another De Walden work with a Cymric plot. The concerto has been recorded several times but is not a strong piece.

De Walden's generosity resulted in a degree of financial security, a car and holidays in the South of France. In the first flush of their early days they went together on holidays. Famously Holbrooke was a guest during De Walden's honeymoon cruise of the Mediterranean in the late 1900s. Later the two went to South America and Africa together. When de Walden died in 1946 Holbrooke found himself largely forgotten, resentful and now without a financial benefactor.

Holbrooke's music has many links with Wales. The Cauldron music-dramas are central to this but we should not forget the concert waltz Talsarnau and the four Cambrian Ballades all for solo piano. These works are souvenirs of Holbrooke's family holidays in the Harlech area. Harlech in those days was a major centre of the arts and was visited by Cyril Scott, Granville Bantock and Eugene Goossens among many others. The Holbrookes took holidays in this area from 1914-20 and musical mementoes of these happy vacations are to be found in many works of these and later years. While Welsh culture and Welsh performances were important to Holbrooke he did not take things as far as de Walden who learnt the Welsh language and who opened his estates and castle to provide a setting for various Welsh cultural events of all types.

Holbrooke had a number of pupils. These included the pianist, Lydia Stace who later recorded the First Piano Concerto for Paxton. The conductor, Anthony Bernard was also a Holbrooke student. Outside the limited sphere of his pupils Holbrooke's friends were many and various. From musical spheres there were characters such as Havergal Brian, Percy Grainger (with whom he corresponded extensively until Holbrooke's death in 1958), Bantock and Godfrey.

He was also at home in the spheres of art and sculpture. He was a friend of Jacob Epstein and from the 1920s there is a famous bronze bust of the composer by Epstein. Various painters were financially supported by De Walden and Holbrooke came into contact with them both at Harlech and at the de Walden family Castle (Chirk Castle) close to the Welsh/English borderland. Holbrooke also enjoyed the company of literary figures such as the novelist George Moore.

As was the case with a number of other composers, particularly his great and life-long friend Granville Bantock, Holbrooke suffered neglect and unfashionability from 1918 onwards. This happened despite his involvement in writing music for dance band and for the jazz age. The resort and provinces orchestras played his music but London looked the other way unless he or de Walden paid for the performances. Dan Godfrey and Bournemouth remained staunch friends despite personal squabbles. Ernest Goss at Torquay supported Holbrooke with concerts featuring his Fourth Symphony (an entry in the 1927 Schubert Competition, judged by a committee chaired by Glazounov, which was, according to the World Encyclopaedia of Recorded Music, privately recorded on 78 during the 1940s - does anyone have these 78s?) and the First Piano Concerto.

Like Beethoven, Holbrooke was afflicted with deafness. This set in relatively early from 1920 onwards. Visitors to the family home often had to contend with Holbrooke struggling with a massive old-fashioned hearing aid. Composition and re-composition continued. He revised earlier works and quarried discarded works for thematic material. There are also a few cases of the same work emerging under a different title. He occupied himself during the late 1930s and through into the 1940s with an autobiography.

Holbrooke continued throughout his life to batter at the doors of the BBC and concert promoters but in general he was not being listened to any more. His works had been published by all and sundry from 1895 onwards. He systematically bought back the copyright in these works. He established the firm "Modern Music Library" which published and controlled all his recognised music and recordings. This mantle and responsibility has been inherited by his son Gwydion Brooke and the firm Blenheim. Nowadays the performing materials for some of his later and possibly disowned works may be difficult to obtain.

De Walden paid for a number of expensive recording sessions. These included sadly brief excerpts from the Cauldron of Annwn as well as piano and chamber works. Most impressive of all was the funeral march and cradle song from Bronwen. Rather like Ulalume this gives an insight into what may well be the best of Holbrooke. It is gloriously romantic and eerie piece which deserves to be taken up by Lesley Garrett or any of the rising generation of young singers. These recordings meant that his music was being promoted in the media of the day and it was available not only on shellac but also in pianola and organ rolls.

He wrote a considerable amount of light music and not once did he veer in the direction of atonalism although the four dances for solo piano may be taken as lampooning the trendiness of people like Ornstein and Schoenberg. Jazzy moments find their way into some of the music of the Twenties. For example he wrote music for the big society balls of the day and also went dancing with his wife Dorothy, better known as 'Dot'.

Holbrooke has a strong handle on melody and perhaps his apprenticeship in the music halls accounts for the fact that he retained an unfeigned and unashamed admiration for real whistleable tunes. These found their way into his concert music which (with a few exceptions), contrary to popular myth, are not for monster-sized orchestras.

Klaus Heymann's adventurous recording company Marco Polo have already recorded a number of his orchestral works but what we desperately need now are recordings of the symphony (No. 2) Apollo and the Seaman and the impressionistic tone poem Queen Mab (after Shakespeare). The three music-dramas are a natural for cinema or TV. In fact Holbrooke used film as part of the scenery in the premieres of all three works. The late works based on Poe short stories also appear to be worth exploring and are at the very least intriguing. These include the overture Amontillado, and the two 1930s tone poems The Pit and the Pendulum and The Maelstrom. All are in urgent need of exploratory performances. A full score of the overture and The Pit and The Pendulum exist; however the full score of The Maelstrom, which may also be entitled Descent Into the Maelstrom appears to be missing. At a less ambitious level we need recordings of his two titled piano sonatas of the 1930s/40s.

There is so much which remains an unknown quantity with Holbrooke. His eight symphonies are each scored completely differently from the other seven. We can look at the later symphonies (5-8) and wonder particularly about the eighth symphony (Dance Symphony) which is scored for piano and orchestra. This work may well trace its origins back to the popular music he wrote during the 1920s but it could just as easily point towards new directions and experiments. Throughout his life Holbrooke was an experimenter but one who chose the language of romance in which to express himself.

© ROBERT BARNETT

SELECTIVE LIST OF WORKS

STAGE

The Stranger opera, 1908, The Cauldron of Annwn music-drama cycle, 1908-20 (Dylan 1910, London, 1914; The Children of Don 1912, London, 1912; Bronwen 1920, Huddersfield, 1929); The Enchanter opera-ballet 1914, Chicago, 1915?; The Masque of the Red Death ballet, 1913, London, 1913 part only; Pandora, ballet 1919, London, 1921; The Sailor's Arms operetta, 1930; The Snob opera, 1920s; Aucassin and Nicolette ballet 1935, Newcastle 1935; Tamlane opera-ballet, 1943;

ORCHESTRAL

Symphonies: no. 1 Homage to Edgar Allan Poe - A Dramatic Choral Symphony, chorus, orch, 1907, Leeds, 1908; no. 2 Apollo and the Seaman, chorus, orch, 1907, London 1908; no. 3 e, Ships, 1925, Budapest, 1936; no. 4 b, The Little One - Homage to Schubert, 1928; no. 5 Wild Wales, brass band, 1930s; no. 6 Old England, military band, 1928; no. 7 for strings, 1929; no. 8 Dance Symphony, pf, orch, 1930; Symphonietta, D, 14 wind instr, 1930s.

Concertos: Piano Concerto no. 1 The Song of Gwyn-ap-Nudd, 1908, London, 1910; Violin Concerto The Grasshopper Leeds, 1917; Saxophone Concerto, B flat, 1927; Piano Concerto no. 2 L'Orient, 1928; Cello Concerto, E flat The Cambrian, 1936; Concerto, Cl/Sax/Vn, Bn/Vc, small orch Tamerlane, 1939; Concerto, Fl, Cl, Cor Ang, Bn, Orch, late 1940s.

Tone Poems and Fantasies: The Raven, 1900, Crystal Palace 1900; The Viking, 1901, New Brighton 1900; Ulalume, 1903, London, 1904; Byron, 1904, Leeds, 1904; Queen Mab, 1902, Leeds 1904; The Bells, 1903, 1906; The Birds of Rhiannon, 1920; Fantasy The Wild Fowl, 1920s; The Pit and the Pendulum, late 1930s; The Maelstrom, late 1930s.

Other Works: Pontorewyn, Welsh Suite, orch, early 1900s; Three Blind Mice Variations, 1900, London, 1900; Les Hommages suite (1904), London, 1906; Auld Lang Syne Variations, 1906, London, 1915; The Girl I Left Behind Me Variations, Ostend, 1905; Amontillado, Dramatic Ov, 1935, London.

CHAMBER MUSIC

String Quartet no. 1 D major Departure, Absence, Return, 1890; Fantasie-Sonate, vc, pf, 1904; Sextet, piano, str Four Dances, 1906; Piano Quartet g, 1905; Clarinet Quintet, 1910; Trio, hn, vn, pf, 1902; Piano Quartet d Byron, 1902; Sextet, pf, wind instr/str Israfel, 1901; String Sextet D Henry Vaughan, 1902; Piano Quintet Diabolique, 1904; Sextet, pf, strs, db In Memoriam, 1905; Fairyland Nocturne, ob, va, pf, 1912; String Quartet no. 2 Belgium - Russia, 1915; Violin Sonata no. 2 Romantic, 1917; String Quartet no. 3 Pickwick Club, 1916; Violin Sonata no. 3 Orientale, 1926; Irene Nonet, late 1930s; Bassoon Quintet Eleonora, 1940s; Octet, early 1940s.

Songs: Annabel Lee ballad w pf/orch, 1905; Marino Faliero scena w pf/orch 1905

Piano: Ten Rhapsodie Etudes, 1898-1905; Ten Mezzotints, 1906; Jamaica Melodies, early 1920s; Celtic Suite, 1917?; Barrage, circa 1920; Cambrian Ballades, early 1920s: no. 1 C Dolgelley, no. 2 c Penmachno no. 3 b Tan-y-Grisiau; no. 4 C Maentwrog; Bogey Beasts, 1920s; Eight Nocturnes, 1939; Sonata Fantasie Sonate no. 1 A The Haunted Palace, 1940s; Sonata Fantasie Sonate no. 2 b Destiny, 1940s.

Organ: Grand Prelude and Fugue g (Dylan), 1912

RECORDINGS (compact discs)

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 8.223446.

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

© Robert Barnett

see also JOSEPH HOLBROOKE The Composer of Light Music by Philip L Scowcroft

JOSEPH HOLBROOKE INCOGNITO by Michael Freeman

JOSEPH HOLBROOKE and WALES by Michael Freeman

 

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