Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Joseph Holbrooke: Composer, Critic and Musical Patriot Book Review Part 2

Paul Rodmell notes that the limited scholarship on Holbrooke and his music has concentrated on the ‘neo-Wagnerian trilogy, The Cauldron of Annwn. This chapter examines the early and rather more modest and musically less-challenging opera Pierrot and Pierrette (1908) and the chamber ballet The Enchanted Garden (1915). It places this music within the context of the ‘unpropitious environment for opera composers’ in Britain at that time.  One of the reasons for this was the relatively poor quality of the librettos.
Rodmell concludes his examination of these works by suggesting that both works contained ‘some fine and impressive music’ however they remain unsatisfactory due on part to their libretti. The problem with this is that there are no recordings that would allow the reader to hear the music.  Furthermore, in the case of Pierrot the orchestral parts or full score have disappeared. This severely hampers any chance of it being performed unless in a ‘scratch’ or ‘chamber’ version derived from the vocal score with piano accompaniment.

One of the most interesting, if difficult, chapters in this book is Michael Allis’ detailed study of ‘Holbrooke and Poe Revisited: Refiguring The Raven as the Musical Uncanny.’  Most enthusiasts of Holbrooke will know that Poe was one of the composer’s favourite authors, which resulted in some thirty works which, to one extent or another, were inspired by the American author’s stories or poems. A list of these is included by Allis. This chapter studies Poe’s impact on Holbrooke, interestingly noting other composers who were inspired by the author. The major part of this essay is dedicated to a comprehensive study of Holbrooke’s orchestral poem The Raven. The work was well-received by the British musical press and this leads Allis to explore the context of ‘other attempts to reformulate Poe’s poems in alternative artistic forms.’ To this end he examines a number of illustrations for the printed text of The Raven by Dore, W.L. Taylor and Heath Robinson.  He then examines how the ‘uncanny’ could be ‘invoked in musical terms by the composer.’

I referred above to Joseph Holbrooke’s book Contemporary British Composer. Much as I enjoyed this book when I first discovered it, I did feel that there was something a little xenophobic about it. I guess that Holbrooke’s attempt to categorise composers by their relative Britishness seemed to me taking music nationalism too far.  I accept that he wanted to campaign for ‘the advancement of British music that is free from foreign influence.’  Yet it is one thing to bemoan the lack of attention to native-born composers by artists, benefactors and institutions: it is another to suggest that there is a hierarchy of ‘degrees of Britishness’ which creates various classes of composer.  Presumably, for Holbrooke, the more British the better?
Holbrooke divided the composers in his study into three groups: for example the first had ‘solid British names and parentages and often training’. It featured Elgar, Bantock, Bridge and Boughton. The second group includes Delius, Holst, Coleridge-Taylor and Goossens of whom ‘none can pretend that those are of British parentage…’ The third group to a large extent defies categorisation but ‘speculates’ on eight younger men including Bliss, Howells, Baines and Foulds. Interestingly, Holbrooke does not define what he believes to be a ‘British style.’ And finally the composer himself was sometimes dubbed as ‘The Cockney Wagner’ so even he was not beyond foreign influence!
In the chapter, ‘A Nationalist in Art’ Paul Watt analyses Holbrooke’s nationalist agenda by way of a detailed study of Contemporary British Composer with a critique of the text and perhaps more vitally by its contemporary reception especially by Ernest Newman.
The problem is well-summed up by the critic Jack Westrup who stated ‘in appraising the work of our fellow countrymen there is always the danger of an aggressive nationalism.’ Watt attempts not so much to excuse Holbrooke’s ‘aggressive nationalism’ but to look at the ‘ideology that underpinned the expression of his hopes for a better musical future, in which British composers would be celebrated…and the British public…would be patriotic and proud’.

It has always been a nightmare for musical historians to try to get a handle on just what Joseph Holbrooke composed. It has been summed up by Kenneth Thompson in Holbrooke - some catalogue data (Music and Letters,1965):  ‘Many works bore various opus numbers at different periods; conversely, an opus number can be found attached to several different works; and the identity of some earlier compositions, particularly in the realm of chamber music, is difficult to trace because of recasting and incorporation into new definitive versions… revisions, rearrangements and reshufflings led to havoc from which not even works of later date, when the numbering system might have been expected to have settled down, are exempt.’
The 1966 edition of Grove states that ‘the catalogue of…works is enormous and though many are published, more have remained in manuscript and are often difficult to access. Even those in print have changed publishers repeatedly.’ It then gives what it calls a ‘selection from the more important works…’ The current Grove is more detailed, but is still a selection, with for example, a blank heading indicating ‘Works for Unaccompanied Chorus’ and ‘Song incl.’ followed by a few titles and ‘many others.’ There is a detailed works list on Wikipedia which is listed ‘chronologically, where possible, by opus number and by category’.
In this present volume Rob Barnett has contributed a monumental document entitled ‘Notes towards a Work List.’ Allowing for the fact that any composer’s catalogue is ‘provisional’ Holbrooke’s is ‘more [so] than most.’ Barnett admits that the ‘evidence left by Holbrooke and his publishers points in various directions’ so the ‘work list’ is largely tentative and will inevitably be superseded. 
The list is presented in the sequence of opus numbers, however many works exist outside of this category.
Each piece is itemised, along with subdivisions of movements, variations or songs where appropriate. Holbrooke seemed to enjoy giving works alternative titles – the tone-poem The Viking, op.32 (1899) was originally called The Skeleton in Armour and possibly The Corsair. Details of first performances are given where known, although I imagine that these particulars will be added to as scholarship (hopefully) explores Holbrooke’s reception history more rigorously.  In many cases subsequent concerts and broadcasts are also noted.  In the listings for the operas and ballets Barnett has included a brief synopsis.
Also included is a generic list of works. This certainly highlights how much music Holbrooke wrote: surely one of the stumbling blocks to his reassessment in our time.  Finally, there is a list by opus number which one glance at reveals the complexity Holbrooke’s works list. For example, there are six works carrying op.91 – all different genres.

The discography is a major part of this book: I was surprised at just how many recordings of Holbrooke’s music have been made over the years. Alas, many are private or are no longer commercially available.
The present discography does not include the two CDs of piano music played by Panagiotis Trochopoulous issued on the Cameo Classics label: they were probably released too late for inclusion in this book.  Other missing recordings include the Fantasie-Sonate, for cello & piano, op. 19 recorded on the British Music Society label (BMS436CD), by Raphael Wallfisch (Cello), Raphael Terroni (Piano) and the Sonata for Violin and Piano no 3 in F major, op. 83 ‘Orientale’ with Jacqueline Roche (Violin), Robert Stevenson (Piano) on Dutton Epoch (DUTTON EPOCH CDLX7219).
Typically the discography has been produced by ‘opus number’, however there are a few examples, whether deliberate or not, that appear out of sequence. The lovely waltz ‘Pandora’ has been included in the listings twice (p.292 & p.300). Aucassin and Nicolette, op. 115 are out of sequence in the text. In fact pages 298 and 299 seem to have become transposed in the printing.  Violin Sonata or Sonatina, no.1 op.6a is also out of order from the main run of ‘opus numbers’.
Finally, it would have been better if the titles of each work in the discography had been exactly the same as that given in the main ‘Work List.’

The ‘References’ division of the book is divided into two sections – ‘Unsigned Articles’ including concert reviews and appreciations, followed by ‘Signed Articles, Books, Chapters, Websites and Reference Works.’ This is the most extensive bibliography of Holbrooke currently available, and will no doubt form the basis of scholarship and study for many years to come. It is broad-based and includes entries on Welsh history, nationalism and Sigmund Freud. 
In the first section, many of the reviews are simply listed by event. For example, ‘Crystal Palace Concerts’ Musical Standard 13 no.323 March 10, 1900:151.’ I had to look this up to establish that it was referring to a performance of The Raven. It would have been good to have provided this reference in the catalogue section or to have noted the work in [square brackets].
The comprehensive index provides references to the works discussed in the text as well as those described in ‘Notes towards a Work List’.
There are brief biographical details of the editors and contributors given at the end of the book.
This volume is well produced, with clear, readable print. There are a number of musical examples and copies of Doré illustrations for The Raven tone poems and the Edgar Alan Poe inspired works. I was disappointed that there were no photographs of the composer and his associates. 

Joseph Holbrooke: Composer, Critic and Musical Patriot will be of considerable interest to a surprisingly large group of people. Firstly, there are the musical historians for whom this volume will be invaluable in gaining a greater understanding of British music, especially in the first half of the twentieth century. Of especial interest is the detailed examination of Holbrooke’s often misplaced, but strongly held nationalism, as expounded in his Contemporary British Composers.  Students of Celtic and Welsh history and arts will require this book as an essential adjunct to their understanding of the influence of that nation’s history, ‘nationalist ideology’ and folklore on the London-born composer. The more general reader will find the examination of Holbrooke’s life of great interest as well as the examination of some of his key chamber and orchestral works prove helpful in gaining an understanding of one of the most important, but neglected, if somewhat wayward, British composers. 

Joseph Holbrooke: Composer, Critic and Musical Patriot
Paul Watt and Anne-Marie Forbes, eds:
pp.380, published 2015
ISBN: 9780810888913
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Hardback £49.95 ($75.00)

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