A few days ago I posted about a concert programme I had found in a second hand bookshop. I gave an overview of the first half of that performance. Arthur Hammond conducted the London Symphony Orchestra and the soprano soloist was Mary Cherry. The raison-d’être of the concert was the promotion of the music of Josef Holbrooke (1878-1958)
The second half opened with Siegfried’s Journey to the Rhine from Richard Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. It was a concert version of the music used at the parting of Siegfried and Brunnhilde and the music that covers the scene change at the beginning of the opera. This was followed by the aria ‘Einsam in Truben Tagen’ from Wagner’s Lohengrin.
The Holbrooke theme was to dominate the remainder of the concert with the performance of three works – the Overture: Amontillado, the Elegy for Strings: Caradoc’s Dream and finally the tone poem The Viking.
Once again Edgar Alan Poe was the inspiration for the dramatic overture. This work was based on story ‘A Cask of Amontillado’ however the composer did not attempt a detailed portrayal of the incidents in the story. What he has done is to describe the mood and the general character of the story rather than ‘an account of the relentless pursuit of the victim during the Carnival, the visit to the endless vaults where the cask of Amontillado, the lure, is said to be kept.’ I will not tell the rest of the tale, lest readers of this blog have not read it.
The programme notes give a brief description of the music – ‘It is interesting to note that in this, one of [Holbrooke’s] latest works, unlike the symphonic poems where the organic nature of the themes seems frequently to condition the pattern of the music, the composer has enjoyed the traditional overture form with, however a very dramatic coda...’ Amontillado was heard at this concert for the first time. At present time there is only one recording of this work available – CPO 777442-2. I listened to this work before writing this post: it was my first hearing. I was impressed with every bar and once again feel that if this music had been composed by a German or Russian it would be ‘essential listening.’
The next work is not currently available on CD or MP3. The Elegy for Strings: Caradoc’s Dream (c.1920) is derived from the cycle of Holbrooke’s Wagnerian style operas – The Children of Don, Dylan Son of the Wave and Bronwen. The plots of these music dramas are complex – however suffice to say that the elegy is founded on a selection of themes from the Trilogy – but mainly from Bronwen. The predominant theme is the ‘beautiful ‘Bronwen’ motif and that of her parting from Caradoc, the heroic British chieftain, when she – vainly as it turn out – leaves him to wed the High King of Ireland and save her country from war. ‘Though it be ice upon my heart to speak it fare you well,’ she says. So the lovers part and when they next meet it is for Bronwen to die in his arms, overwhelmed and broken hearted at all she has endured.’ It sounds absolutely fantastic stuff. Both operatic ‘Trilogy’ and Elegy ‘sound’ as if they ought to be revived.
The final work in this concert is The Viking (1901 rev.1912). It is based on Longfellow’s ballad ‘The Skeleton in Armour.’ In essence the said skeleton appears to the narrator and demands that he record his tale. I will not plot-spoil what is a dramatic story based on a true archaeological ‘find’ –but suffice to say the Viking loved the daughter of a great sea-king: naturally there is a tragic ending.
The programme notes suggest that Holbrooke’s music is ‘full of the exhilaration and flashing colour of the poem.’ Ernest Newman, the music critic, has written about Holbrooke’s The Viking that ‘the boy who could...bring the heart into one’s throat at passage after passage of ‘The Skeleton in Armour’ ...has surely added something to the world’s store of great and lovely things’.
The first performance of this work was given by Sir Granville Bantock at Liverpool and then Antwerp. The work is available on CPO 777442-2: there is an upload to YouTube.
Finally, the programme gave intimation of a subsequent concert to be held on Monday November 4 1946 at 7pm. Non-Holbrookian works included Weber’s Overture: Preciosa, Donizetti’s overtue to Linda de Chamounix, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and George Lloyd’s Entr’acte & Norman March from his second opera The Serf. Holbrooke was represented by his Piano Concerto No.1 (The Song of Gwyn-ap-Nudd), his tone poem Queen Mab and as ‘new’ prelude from the opera Dylan. A formidable concert indeed. Alas I do not have the programme notes for this one!