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HOLBROOKE (1878-1958):
The Composer of Light Music

by Philip L Scowcroft


Joseph (or Josef, as he was sometimes styled) Holbrooke is rarely reckoned as a purveyor of the lighter musical forms. He is remembered, if at all, (and his music is notorious for its neglect, both in his lifetime and since) for his major works: at least eight operas, including a trilogy The Cauldron of Annwn, concertos for piano (2), violin and cello, at least eight symphonies, not all of them published, plus several symphonic poems and a large amount of chamber and piano solo music.

His father was however a music-hall pianist, and the young Holbrooke composed many comic songs for that medium from the age of 12. In the early 1920s when fox-trots became the rage. he composed several, one of them rejoicing in the title Let's Brighten Brighton.

He wrote widely for brass and military bands. His brass band works mostly substantial, included a symphony Wild Wales and Song of Llewellyn, but they were not accepted into the repertoire, though Clive of India was voted as the test piece for the 1940 'Open Championship'. And his prolific output includes much that can be reckoned as being in or near the mainstream of 'Light Music'.

Of his many songs, titles like Autumn, Clown's Song, Come Not When I Am Dead, The Garden, Summer Sweet, Sympathy, You Are In Love and The World's Fair are effectively ballads; he published at least a dozen drinking songs. Some of his large corpus of chamber music was light and entertaining: the Miniature Suite for wind quintet; a trio for piano, oboe d'amore (or flute or clarinet) and viola subtitled Fairyland, and most of his five string quartets - the second is subtitled Impressions of Belgium - Russia etc the third is a humoresque The Pickwick Club, in 13 short movements with titles like The Amorous Tupman, The Picnic and Mrs. Bardell (its technical difficulty outweighed its humour, and limited its popularity), the fourth is a Suite On National Songs And Dances, the fifth A Suite On Folksongs Of Great Britain; the latter could be, and were, played by string orchestras. He was a fine pianist and much of his later output, was 'serious' in character but the charm of such things as Valse Alsacienne, the valse caprice Three Blind Mice, the Three Bagatelles, the twenty Jamaican Melodies, the intriguingly titled Javanese Pepper Dance (even Ketèlbey did not go farther afield in search of exotic colour!), the Gavotte Elégante, Orientale, Scherzino, Clair De Lune, An Enchanted Garden, the rather satirical and epigrammatic Bogey Beasts even the Juliet Nocturne I heard in recital recently, the valse de concert Talsarnau and the Cambrian Ballades (entitled Dolgellau, Penmachno, Tan-Y-Grisiau and Maentwrog - he lived in North Wales for many years), entitle us to count them as light music; the ten Mezzotints, which bear titles like Syracuse, Palermo, Eilean Shona (Spring Song) and Butterfly Of The Ballet, are attractive musical picture postcards, several of which are reminiscences of a Mediterranean cruise. Some of the Mezzotints were orchestrated.

Holbrooke's other lighter orchestral compositions included Souvenir De Printemps (arranged by H. M. Higgs). Triumphal March and Imperial March, the Four Dances op 20, Novelette, the Suite Pantomimique and suite Dreamland, Scherzo And Rondo for strings, a collection of Reels And Strathspeys, premiered at Bournemouth, and sets of variations on Auld Lang Syne, The Girl I Left Behind Me and first performed at the Henry Wood Proms in 1900, The Three Blind Mice.

He composed music for several ballets of which the best known in their day were The Moth And The Flame, a suite from which was premiered at Bournemouth in 1931-32 and the charming Aucassin Et Nicolette. Holbrooke's Saxophone Concerto had a finale in jazz idiom. Thus, it can be seen that Holbrooke, like almost all British (and doubtless other) composers, 'serious' or not, made substantial contributions to light music.

His are almost forgotten (though I have heard one or two of the lighter piano pieces in live performance in Doncaster recently) but not more so than his 'serious' music. After all he did write mostly in a diatonic idiom which did not get in the way of some pretty good tunes. And his often whimsical ideas were as well suited to light music as to any other sort.

Philip L Scowcroft

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