Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Joseph Holbrooke in Gerald Cumberland’s ‘Set Down in Malice’

Nothing need be added to this brief pen portrait of the English composer Josef Holbrooke from Gerald Cumberland’s (pseudonym of Charles Frederick Kenyon) witty book of essays, Set Down in Malice.  Cumberland (1879-1926) at the time of writing this book was music and drama critic at the Daily Critic. He also wrote a number of other books and plays.

Joseph Holbrooke, for sheer cleverness, for capacity for hard work, and for intellectual energy, has no equal among our composers. It was Newman who first spoke to me about him, and it was Newman [1] who made me curious to meet this extraordinary genius.
Holbrooke's weakness, but I do not consider it a weakness, is his pugnacity. He has fought the critics times without number and, in many cases, with excellent results for British music, though Holbrooke must know much better than I do that in fighting for his colleagues he has incidentally injured himself. A chastised critic is the last person in the world likely to write a fair and unbiased article on a new work produced by the hand that chastised him. But not only the critics have felt the lash of Holbrooke's Scorn: conductors, musical institutions, some very prosperous so-called composers, committees, publishers and, indeed, almost every kind of man who has power in the musical world, have felt his sting.

But if he is clever and witty in his writing, he is much cleverer and wittier in his talk. I do not suppose I shall ever forget one Sunday I spent with him, for by midday he had reduced my mind to chaos and my body to limpness by his consuming energy. When he was not playing, he was talking, and he did both as though the day were the last he was going to spend on earth, so eager and convulsive was his speech, so vehement his playing.
Perhaps his most remarkable quality is his power of concentration. I remember his telling me that when he was yachting with Lord Howard de Walden [2] in the Mediterranean, he was engaged on the composition of Dylan, an opera containing some of the most gorgeous and weirdly uncanny music that has been written in our generation. At this opera he worked, not in hours of inspiration (for, like Arnold Bennett, he does not believe in inspiration), but when he had nothing more exciting or more necessary to do. For example, he would begin work in the morning, cheerfully and without regret lay down his pen at lunch-time, return to his music immediately lunch was finished, and unhesitatingly recommence writing at the point at which he had left off. Interruptions that arouse the anger of the ordinary creative artist do not disturb him in the least. He can work just as composedly and as fluently when a heated argument is being conducted in the room as he can in a room that is absolutely quiet. Music, indeed, flows from him, and if moods come to him which render his brain numb and his soul barren, I doubt if they last more than a day or two.
Of the truly vast quantity of music he has written, I, to my regret, know only a portion, and that belongs chiefly to his very early period, when he was under the influence of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is his spiritual affinity, and Holbrooke's setting of Annabel Lee a work which I can play backwards from memory is more beautiful and haunting than the beautiful and haunting poem itself.
I have called Holbrooke pugnacious and, some years ago, much to his amusement and, I think, gratification, I called him the stormy petrel of music. But what makes him stormy? What are the defects in our musical life that he so persistently attacks? First of all, he hates incompetence, especially official incompetence, and the incompetence that makes vast sums of money. He hates commercialism in art, and by that phrase I mean the various enterprises that exploit art for the sole purpose of making money. He hates publishers who issue trash; he hates critics who write rubbish. He hates the obscurity in which so many of his gifted colleagues live, and he hates the love of the British public for foreign music inferior to that which is being written at home. And I believe he hates the system that presents editors of newspapers with free concert tickets for the use of their critics. But, in dwelling at such length on Holbrooke's combativeness, I feel I am giving a rather one-sided view of his true character. For he is not all hate. Indeed, it is true to state that no composer has written more in appreciation of men who may be considered his rivals. He is anxious and quick to study the work of men of the younger generation, and whenever any of that work appeals to him he either performs it in public or writes to the papers about it. I have heard him called perverse, unreliable, injudicious, and many other disagreeable things. He may be. But Holbrooke is not an angel. He is simply a composer of genius working under conditions that tend to thwart and paralyse genius.
Gerald Cumberland Set Down in Malice, New York 1919.

[1] Ernest Newman, actually William Roberts, (1868-1959) English musicologist and critic. He wrote extensively on Richard Wagner. Newman was critic at the Manchester Guardian (1905, the Birmingham Post (1906), the Observer (1919) and the Sunday Times (1920).
[2] Lord Howard de Walden (T.E. Scott-Ellis) was a British peer, landowner, writer and patron of the arts. He was also a motorboat racer who competed in the 1908 Summer Olympics. He was a patron to Josef Holbrooke and wrote the libretti for a number of his operas. 


Demetrius said...

Cumberland was almost parallel with Leslie Stuart (born Thomas Augustine Barrett) who 150th Birth Anniversary is this year. See Wikipedia and The Oxford DNB. Of Irish family origin he became a major figure in the West End and Broadway, albeit in operatta and light music. Yet today he is just about totally ignored today. He might be off you wavelength but might deserve some mention.

John France said...
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