Robin Hull begins his review of the score of Gordon Jacob’s (1895-1984) ‘Variations on an Original Theme’ by suggesting that although some of the composer’s shorter works ‘are familiar to a very wide public, his music on a larger scale is less-well known than it deserves’. This would be even more pertinent today when few of Jacob’s works are currently established in the repertoire. The exception to this are a few brass band pieces, the Trombone Concerto and a selection of his chamber music. Enthusiasts are blessed with the Lyrita recording of both Symphonies.
Hull writes that it is ‘puzzling’ that there have not been more performances of this ‘exceeding fine’ set of Variations. In British Music of Our Time (1951) the same author went further and proposed that this work is ‘one of the finest sets [of variations] written by a composer since Elgar’s day.
The theme is ‘attractive and finely shaped’ and Jacob ‘turns it to splendid account in his nine well-contrasted variations. Hull is impressed with the ‘consistently successful’ orchestration and the ‘genuine and vivid originality of Jacob’s invention.’ I guess it was this former facet of this work that forcibly struck me when I first heard it played. This is only to be expected from a composer who has written a standard textbook on Orchestral Technique (1931). The brass writing is particularly worthy. Perhaps the most impressive part of the work is the final fugue, although some of the slower sections have an undeniable impact, especially the slow ‘sarabande’ (5th variation).
Gordon Jacob’s ‘Variations on an Original Theme’ was completed on 24 February 1936 and was dedicated to Julius Harrison who was then director of the Hastings Music Festival. The first performance was given on 26 February 1937 at the White Rock Pavilion during that year’s Festival. The London premiere was heard the same year on 8 September at a Promenade Concert. Both performances were conducted by the composer.
The Times (27 February 1937) reporting on the Hastings concert felt that this was an ‘ambitious’ work about which the interesting fact is that the variations seem to derive from the instrumentation of the theme rather than from any melodic phrase of pattern. Once again the reviewer was impressed by the closing fugue. Frank Howes, in his study of The English Musical Renaissance (1966) writes that Jacob is ‘predominately concerned with the orchestra’ and the present work is guided by ‘ingenuity rather than sentiment.’ He considers that the ‘theme and the variations were made for each other in one original conception.’
It is surprising that the ‘Variations on an Original Theme’ does not appear to have been commercially recorded. The work has been uploaded to YouTube in what would appear to be a radio broadcast. Vernon Handley conducts the BBC Philharmonic (or Concert?) Orchestra on 18 July 1995.