FAME AND NEGLECT
- 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
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 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
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.
SELECTIVE LIST OF WORKS
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;
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.
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),
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
Ulalume, Bronwen Overture, The Bells Prelude,
The Raven, Byron. Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Czecho-Slovak Radio
Symphony Orchestra, Bratislava/Adrian Leaper. CD Marco Polo
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
HOLBROOKE INCOGNITO by Michael Freeman
HOLBROOKE and WALES by Michael Freeman
Lloyd Web site