My first introduction to Joseph Holbrooke’s music was his tone poem The Birds of Rhiannon, op.87 (1925). This had been released on a Lyrita record in 1979 coupled with Cyril Rootham’s Symphony No.1 (SRCS103 LP: SRCD269 CD). It was a number of years before I heard anything else from his pen. In the meantime, I had discovered a copy of the composer’s polemical study of Contemporary British Composers (1925) which I read avidly. It is a book that I enjoyed in spite of its eccentricities and intellectual confusion.
Back in 1979 it was difficult to find out much about Holbrooke. There were the usual entries in Grove’s and other musical dictionaries and encyclopaedias. I was fortunate in being able to borrow G. Lowe’s Josef Holbrooke and his Work (London, 1920) from the library. Yet this book had been written some 38 years before the composer’s death, so it could hardly claim to be up to date. I had a copy of Sydney Grew’s Our Favourite Musicians, from Stanford to Holbrooke (Edinburgh, 1922) in my collection, which was interesting, but again only covered the first half of his life, in a popular manner. In 1937 Josef Holbrooke: Various Appreciations by Many Authors was published by the then-extant Holbrooke Society. The contents included a selection of reprints from contemporary journals as well as some specially written. They featured one or two famous names including Ernest Newman and the composer Richard H. Walthew. It is a volume that I have not seen and is scarce.
In the post-war year’s interest in Holbrooke seems to have evaporated, with little written in the academic or popular press. The first stirring of a revival appeared in 1974 when Lewis Foreman and Graham Parlett produced a contemporary discography published in Antique Record. It was not until the nineteen-nineties that some articles began to appear in the musical press, especially the British Music Society Journal and Newsletters. Rob Barnett has contributed an important appreciation on MusicWeb International as well as publishing two major essays by Michael Freeman – ‘Joseph Holbrooke Incognito’ and ‘Joseph Holbrooke and Wales’. An interesting note by Philip Scowcroft examined the composer’s light music. Since that time there has been a small number of CDs issued dedicated to his music.
It is possible to find countless contemporary references to Holbrooke in the musical press as well as in many contemporary arts’ journals and daily newspapers. However, there has been no previous attempt to give an overview of the composer, his music and his musicological and political endeavors.
Joseph Holbrooke: Composer, Critic and Musical Patriot is the first book to provide a detailed examination of the composer.
There is no need to present a detailed biographical sketch of Joseph Holbrooke in this review. Nevertheless, it would not be amiss to give the briefest of overviews which quotes part of the entry in Percy Scholes’ eternally useful Oxford Companion to Music.
Holbrooke was born in Croydon in 1878. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music and continued with a busy professional life of ‘great activity and variety.’ His catalogue of music has works in every genre including the major opera trilogy The Cauldron of Anwyn. Scholes concludes with a very astute sentence: [Holbrooke] ‘has composed fluently and ably… sometimes without sufficient self-criticism. As a controversialist he used to be both vigorous and even violent. He found both creation and destruction agreeable diversions and aimed at possessing a string of critics scalps as long as his list of opus numbers.’ The composer died, virtually forgotten, in 1958.
The first section of this book is one of the most valuable: the massive chronology of ‘Holbrooke’s Life and Music’ assembled by Rob Barnett. It extends to more than 30 pages. As an example, the entry for ‘August 1915’ notes the premiere of The Enchanter, op.70 in Chicago, a performance of the Imperial March, op.26 at Bournemouth under Dan Godfrey and the a fugitive Romance op.59b for viola and piano in the Wigmore Hall. Generally, entries include details of when works were begun and completed, the composer’s travel arrangements and holidays at home and abroad and the death of people associated with Holbrooke. Naturally, any reception history of Holbrooke’s music will have to be cross-checked with contemporary programmes, adverts and reviews, but this chronology is critical to all subsequent study of the composer.
The first chapter, also by Rob Barnett, gives a concise overview of the composer, both biographical and musical. It is essential reading before beginning to explore the more specific and detailed essays in the remainder of this book. Barnett has been an enthusiast of Holbrooke’s music since hearing the tone poem Ulalume in 1984 and has spent much time researching and writing about the composer and compiling a catalogue of his music.
David Craik has investigated Holbrooke’s ‘Friendship with Granville Bantock.’ This chapter examines this relationship by way of some 150 letters in the Bantock Collection at the University of Birmingham. Holbrooke was fortunate in having such a friend who was not fazed by his outbursts and often outrageous polemic. Craik writes that Bantock ‘exercised a paternalistic and fraternal relationship with Holbrooke’ from the first meeting at Liverpool in 1895 until Bantock’s death on 1946. Although the two composers had widely varying musical aesthetics, both loved North Wales and represented this in their music. Bantock ‘remained a bedrock of almost unconditional encouragement and affection for Holbrooke throughout [his] turbulent career’. One (of many) interesting things I learnt in this chapter was Holbrooke’s intention to write a biography of Bantock. It is not known if the book was completed or if the draft survives.
Anne-Marie Forbes, as well as being one of the book’s editors has contributed a chapter on Joseph Holbrooke’s relationship with Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis, Eighth Lord Howard de Walden. This larger than like ‘boy’s own’ character who had fought in the Boer War, at Gallipoli, sailed yachts, raced speedboats, retained racehorses, owned a Scottish island and some Kenyan forest and was passionate about medieval history and Welsh culture. He became a patron of the composer who himself was deeply influenced by Celticism. Ellis was to provide Holbrooke with the libretto for his operatic trilogy. Equally important, he was to offer financial security, opportunity for holidays in the Mediterranean and travel to Africa and South America. It was Ellis’ influence on Holbrooke that caused the composer to write many Welsh works. These are listed in Appendix 2. Through Ellis, Holbrooke came to share ‘a romantic vision of an unspoiled land…populated with the heroes of mythology and legend’.
This chapter includes a major analysis of Holbrooke’ overblown, heart on sleeve, but ultimately beautiful Piano Concerto: The Song of Gwym ap Nudd, which was based on a poem by Ellis.
Joseph Holbrooke’s chamber music is the subject of Paul Hopwood’s chapter which examines its neglect and the influence of ‘mass-culture’. After noting the vast amount of chamber music in Holbrooke’s catalogue, Hopwood laments that lack of currently available recordings of these works. He considers that this music suffers almost total neglect. Part of this may be down to the composer’s difficult attitude towards performers and concert promoters. Hopwood argues that the problem is that the chamber works may have been backward looking, reflecting a kind of ‘deliberate antiquarianism’ but further submits that it reflects the ‘emergence of music produced for the mass consumer market. It is for that reason it came to be ‘disparaged and ignored by the majority of the musical establishment.’ After a section on contemporary critical response Hopwood examines the ‘Fantasie’ String Quartet no.1 in D (op.17b) (1906) and the Clarinet Quintet in G major, op.27 no.2 (1910) in some considerable technical detail complete with musical examples.
He concludes with a section on Holbrooke’s ‘Time and the Rise of Mass Culture’ which sets the composer in the context of cheap music, the invention of the gramophone, the ‘gothic’ literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He considers that at this time there was a ‘crack’ opening up between what was popular and what was regarded as being highbrow. It was Joseph Holbrooke’s problem that to a large extent he sat on the ‘border between elite and mass culture...’
To be continued...
Joseph Holbrooke: Composer, Critic and Musical Patriot
Paul Watt and Anne-Marie Forbes, eds:
pp.380, published 2015
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Hardback £49.95 ($75.00)