Joseph Holbrooke is an enigmatic composer. It is fair to say that at the beginning of the 20th century he would have been a serious candidate for fame. Most critics would have seen him as being in the ‘Top Ten’ of British composers – at least potentially. Yet, it is easy to accuse him of being over-productive and lacking self-criticism and restraint. It may well be that Holbrooke created the reaction against himself with his outspoken views on music, his massive operatic projects that required a huge commitment from producers and performers and maybe even his apparent wish to ‘Germanize’ himself: he changed the spelling of his Christian name to ‘Josef’!
It is only in our time that a reappraisal has begun. I guess that the operatic cycle based on Welsh legends will hardly ever be revived. Yet we are lucky to have several of his fine chamber works, his overblown but quite gorgeous Piano Concerto ‘The Song of Gwyn ap Nudd’ and a selection of tone poems. One of the amusing things about Holbrooke is his idealistic socialist contention that music ought to be approachable to the ‘proletariat’ or the Common Man/Woman. However, apart from his Variations on Three Blind Mice he wrote little that would have been of interest to the average Working Man down at the Dog and Duck! The commitment required from listeners to his music is immense and would sometimes baffle even the most battle-hardened of Wagnerians!
Rob Barnett included Holbrooke’s original programme note for The Birds of Rhiannon in his detailed review of SRCD 269 published on on 7 June 2007.
"[The Birds of Rhiannon] is a fantasia written for small orchestra with glockenspiel and harp ad. lib. It is copious in material and has plenty of variety of theme, mood and rhythm. The work opens with a horn solo, the theme being taken up by the strings in the major key and treated with easy fluency and beauty of sound. Another theme on the first violins soon makes an appearance, leading into an andante movement in triple time; then the rhythm changes and the music continues in this mood for some little time while until we reach a tranquillo version of the first theme for oboe solo with tremolando accompaniment. After this there are many changes of style and rhythm and much flowing melody which could only be satisfactorily indicated by extensive quotation. The story of the Birds is found in the wonderful Mabinogion stories of early Welsh history. An episode says: After the death of Pwyll, [his wife] Rhiannon was by her son Pryderi, bestowed in marriage upon Manawyddan, the son of Llyr, and her subsequent history is detailed in the Mabinogi that bears his name. Her marvellous birds whose notes were so sweet that warriors remained spell-bound for eighty years together listening to them, are a frequent theme with the poets. Three things that are not often heard: the song of the Birds of Rhiannon, a song of wisdom from the mouth of a Saxon, and an invitation to a feast from the mouth of a miser. The music of this piece is taken from various episodes in the composer’s dramas - Dylan, Children of Don and Bronwen- which are all scored for a very large orchestra. Although these dramas have now been written nearly fifteen years - and performed abroad - they are still practically unknown to our music lovers."
The score’s prefatory poem was written by T.E. Ellis (Lord Howard de Walden) the librettist of The Cauldron of Annwn trilogy of operas:
‘On dark stars cold and ended,
Beyond the Gods we nest,
Our young wing white and splendid
From depths of death possessed.
We draw to where the spirit
Stands naked, clean and bold,
The Birds of High Rhiannon
Who save the vales untold.’
Yet, Holbrooke’s tone poem The Birds of Rhiannon is approachable and quite beautiful. As noted above, it is related to Holbrooke cycle of Celtic operas; however, it stands on its own. Arthur Hutchings, in the programme notes for the Lyrita recording, wisely points out that there is no need to dwell on the original ‘programme’ of this music in order to be able to enjoy its ‘beauty and integrity’.
Suffice to say that this is a well-constructed piece of music that displays Joseph Holbrooke's ‘exuberant versatility’ and his considerable skill at creating atmospheric musical pictures with the resources of a large orchestra.
The Birds of Rhiannon, Op. 87. Poem for small orchestra was premiered on 28 November 1923 at Hastings Pier. The Municipal Orchestra was conducted by Basil Cameron.
The Lyrita recording by London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley has been uploaded to YouTube. (Accessed 14/11/2018)