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8.572649 - HOLBROOKE, J.: Violin Concerto, "The Grasshopper" / Violin Sonata No. 1 / Horn Trio (Peacock, Stevenson, M. Smith)
Joseph Holbrooke (1878–1958)
In the first half of the twentieth century a few English composers, such as Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton, were able to tap into something in the national consciousness of their time and become representative of it (rather like Aaron Copland in the United States). There was no need for them to pay homage to fashionable trends such as atonality or serialism and their works have remained solidly in the repertoire ever since. Indeed, the listening public eagerly sought new works from them. Many other English composers of the period also enjoyed considerable reputations in their heyday and produced some fine music—but they and their music managed to slip into comparative obscurity. Now that this music is beginning to be explored we are, at last, in a position to assess whether their lack of success was really down to the quality of their works, the way they were promoted—or both. The composer of the works on the present disc was a particular case in point. Joseph Holbrooke (who sometimes styled himself Josef to avoid confusion with his father, also Joseph) gained something of a reputation in the 1900s and was well respected—but few people of today, including classical music enthusiasts, have heard of him.
Initially given music lessons by his father (a sometime music-hall pianist) the young Holbrooke demonstrated sufficient talent to be accepted by the Royal Academy of Music at the age of fifteen. Here he enjoyed some success and won several prizes before leaving in 1896. He subsequently struggled to make a living as a musical director with various touring musical troupes, as a music teacher and as a pianist—performing in music halls and concert halls (he performed the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto on a number of occasions). In parallel, however, his compositional output was prolific and he managed to attract the attention of conductors such as Dan Godfrey (of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra) and August Manns, whose Crystal Palace concerts put on a range of new repertoire.
Holbrooke’s strenuous efforts were rewarded by several performances of his works and his Second Symphony (a large-scale work with a brief last choral movement) led to an approach by Lord Howard de Walden (T.E. Scott-Ellis) with a commission to set his poetic drama ‘Dylan, Son of the Wave’. This association resulted in a trilogy of operas drawn from Welsh legends with the collective title The Cauldron of Annwn. More importantly, Holbrooke had found a generous financial benefactor whose friendship, support and commissions made a huge difference and afforded the composer some modest financial security until de Walden’s death in 1946. After this time the composer was out of fashion and not being listened to any more.
The way in which Holbrooke promoted his works had a lot to do with his subsequent problems and he was probably his own worst enemy. He was convinced of the genius of his own writing and this sometimes led to a refusal to compromise. His lack of social graces and somewhat excitable, combative manner alienated people. In addition, his tough approach to criticism upset performers and critics. He may even have drawn attention to what he regarded as the weaknesses in the music of his contemporaries. A Musical Times article of 1 April 1913 (which, whilst humorous, is probably not an April Fool prank) illustrates this, whilst still paying tribute:
“London musical life would be different from what it is without Josef Holbrooke. He is the most amusing serious musician in our midst. In his compositions, as in the torrent of his literary outpourings, we are continually encountering the bizarre and unexpected. A good deal of his music has a weird, grim and fearsome psychological basis. This tendency of his mind to dour subjects accounts for his fondness for the poems of Edgar Allan Poe. He has a characteristic style which includes an opulent and amazing, almost dazzling, variety of imaginativeness, yet bold, bad critics sometimes have the temerity to hint that his music does not always accurately fit the situation, and that it is applied haphazard (sic). It is also suggested that he does not apply those reserves of analytic criticism of his own music which he lavishes freely on other composers. But we cannot pretend in this article to give an adequate estimate of the powers and achievements of this fertile composer. We desire simply to give a sketch of his career and some account of his personality and his opinions, and to pay a tribute of respect to a remarkable man.
He is what is called a ‘character’; an idiom that conveys the idea that he is something out of the common and at least slightly eccentric. One very creditable feature of his outlook on the world of music is the generosity of his appreciation of the socalled young British ‘school’ (if there is one). He not only writes enthusiastically about his contemporaries, provided always that they are up-to-date, but he often brings forward their most hopelessly unpopular works at his concerts. It is true, however, that a perusal of his voluminous scattered writings (which are a liberal education in the application of epithets) induces a feeling that some of his swans are masquerading geese.
The programme book of the concerts he gives generally provides some light reading, chiefly consisting of scornful remarks on the attitude of the public to his music, and thus the severity of the effect of some of the music performed is pleasantly mitigated…Although Josef Holbrooke has enjoyed exceptional advantages in having his music performed and in getting his music published, it is evident that his halo does not fit perfectly. But he girds chiefly at the public, although publishers, critics, and others with whom he comes in contact, are considerately not forgotten. Does he take himself seriously? The answer is that on the whole he does, and it may be said that he has established his claim to be considered a force in British music.”
If Holbrooke was ever a force in British music he was not to remain so. In due course many of his early champions would desert him as a result of his behaviour and he remained an outsider all his life. Increasing problems of deafness and poor sight probably contributed to growing desperation and, perhaps, even more extreme behaviour. Throughout his life he battered at the doors of the BBC and concert promoters but he made little headway and managed to get few of his works performed—let alone broadcast. His works had been published by several different houses from 1895 onwards. Later in life he systematically bought back the copyright in nearly all of these works and established the firm Modern Music Library which attempted to publish and control all his recognised music and recordings. Sadly, the indifference of the establishment and the public to all his work continued well beyond his own death in 1958.
So what of his works? There is no problem with the volume of them—Holbrooke’s large compositional output includes:
A considerable amount of light music, including music for the big society balls of his day.
Only a small fraction of this has been recorded, so it is too early to draw conclusions about the quality. Some general characteristics are evident. Holbrooke never veered in the direction of atonalism (his Four Futurist Dances, Op. 66, for solo piano may be taken as lampooning the trendiness of people such as Ornstein and Schoenberg). He had a strong handle on melody and, perhaps, his apprenticeship in the music halls accounts for the fact that he retained an unfeigned and unashamed admiration for real, whistleable tunes—and these found their way into his concert pieces (which, contrary to popular myth, are not all for monster-sized orchestras). That said, a distinct ‘voice’ is difficult to discern and it is not yet particularly easy to recognise a work of Holbrooke by any obvious fingerprints—other than the influences of his forays into light music.
In some of the chamber music, there may be flashes of originality although there is no clear evidence of evolving maturity. The lovely String Sextet, Op. 43, although it has a lighter, more ebullient, side that occasionally breaks through, is still redolent of the influence of Brahms—even though, by this opus, we are entering what might be referred to as the ‘middle’ stage of Holbrooke’s composing career. The subsequent String Quartet No. 2, Op. 58A, is pleasant but hardly strikes one as distinctive. The peculiar Third Violin Sonata, Op. 83 (‘Orientale’) is, arguably, one of Holbrooke’s most original and memorable works. On the evidence available so far, it seems to be a one-off, stylistically—although this impression may change when we can hear the Second Piano Concerto (‘L’Orient’). Much of the Fourth Symphony, Op. 95, is heavily based on Schubert’s sketches for the third movement of his ‘Unfinished’ Eighth Symphony so that any recognisable characteristics of a Holbrooke style are not really given much chance to emerge.
Of course, the lack of ‘fingerprints’ by no means makes such pieces unmemorable or any the less enjoyable. Indeed, for many listeners, it will be preferable that the composer managed to resist any temptation to pepper his works with the kind of audible signature one frequently finds in the music of composers such as Malcolm Arnold. The works on the present disc, illustrating what was probably the most successful period of Holbrooke’s composing career (i.e. up to the end of the First World War) may contribute to a clearing of the mists on this subject. The first two violin ‘sonatas’ allow us to see how his essays in this medium progressed. Moreover, the second ‘sonata’ and the horn trio share characteristics of quirkiness, ebullience and good humour that just may be the nearest we can get to distinctive Holbrooke characteristics (alongside the good tunes)—that were present at least some of the time.
Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 6A (‘Sonatina’)
The early Violin Sonata No. 1 (possibly originally dating from the late 1890s) was dedicated ‘A Fritz Kreisler’—probably more in hope than with any realistic chance of getting a performance by the great violinist. It was actually given its first performance by the composer and Louis Zimmerman at a Salle Erard concert on 16 January 1905. Early versions of the score are variously labelled ‘Duet No. 1’, ‘Sonata’ and ‘Sonatina’. The published score (Larway, 1907) is labelled ‘Sonate’ and is actually dated 1906—probably the date of the last revision, when the composer was resident in Finsbury Park, London.
The work may be regarded as a ‘sonata’ in so far as it has movements that follow the standard classical sonata lay-out that had evolved by this time, although these are not linked musically. The four movements are marked as follows:
As with many of his works, Holbrooke made several versions of the material. Whilst this, perhaps obsessive, habit contributes to continuing confusion over the identification of various works, some of the different versions here at least have the same principal opus number. The Scherzo and Rondo, Op. 6b, for clarinet and piano, and the Rondo, Op. 6c, for bassoon or cello and piano are probably re-scorings of the same movements from the Sonata. The second and fourth movements were also separately published by Larway—as were the Scherzo and Rondo (this time in an arrangement for string orchestra).
Whilst not particularly individual, the Op. 6a Sonata is comparable in style with the early violin sonatas of Grieg (which date from the middle 1860s) and the 1893 violin sonatina of Dvořák. George Lowe’s 1920 book: Joseph Holbrooke and his work describes the piece as follows:
For all its lack of individuality, the work does illustrate some of the characteristics of Holbrooke’s music referred to so far. For example, Lowe’s description of the Rondo suggests a connection with popular songs: “The last movement Rondo has a bright and buoyant theme of a similar type to those themes with which the pages of French light opera have made us familiar. There is a fête champetre air about this.” These themes just might be related to music hall songs. Whilst the work is not technically challenging, Holbrooke—as a capable soloist himself—typically makes life fairly tricky for the pianist, especially at the end of the first movement—where bars end and begin with crotchets or quavers in a fashion that is difficult to predict. This is the first recording of the work.
Horn Trio, Op. 28
Holbrooke is one of the very few composers who wrote a significant work for horn, violin and piano. Indeed, in writing this trio, he probably calculated that performances of the Brahms Horn Trio, Op. 40, would usually need to programme a further piece for the same forces—so it made sense to take advantage of this situation. The work is dedicated to Adolf Borsdorf (1854–1923) a German horn player who made his home in London in 1879, was renowned for his particularly clear sound and was widely regarded as the finest player in the country during the subsequent thirty years. Perhaps not surprisingly, Holbrooke makes no concessions to the performers and the piece may fairly be regarded as rather more difficult to perform than the Brahms Trio. The work is in three movements:
It seems that the British Music Society Annual of 1920 and contemporary music advertisements referred to the Horn Trio variously as Op. 24, Op. 25, Op. 36 and Op. 37. No doubt the confusion was down to Holbrooke’s lack of clarity on the subject—although the Modern Music Library catalogue unambiguously lists the trio as Op. 28. The original score, published by Rudall, Carte & Co, Ltd, has no dates on it. The trio was probably originally composed in 1904 although Holbrooke evidently had second thoughts about it. A revised version, published by Blenheim (a company founded by Holbrooke’s son, the bassoonist, Gwydion Brooke) is still available and, confusingly, this has two dates: 1906 and 1912. This might indicate that the revision was undertaken in 1912, although it is conceivable that the composer did not actually get round to the revision until just before Blenheim published it—which would have been much later in his life. Both versions are provided in fairly neat manuscript copies which are, nevertheless, still quite difficult to decipher in places.
Normally, given a choice like this with rare repertoire, one might be tempted to go for whichever version could be regarded as definitive. When it became evident that a revised version existed, there was some debate between the artists as to whether the revised version should be offered. It can certainly be argued that some passages in the original version are a few bars too long and might benefit from being cut. Similarly, the middle movement is rather episodic and might be better integrated. Holbrooke’s revisions, however, go a great deal further than this and, in places, seriously change the character of the original work. In fact, to anybody who has grown used to the original version, the revisions sound very strange and, arguably, not only fail to make any improvement but actually do damage. In the third movement alone odd new changes of key and tempo seriously disrupt the flow of the music. On this basis the artists felt that the composer’s first thoughts were significantly better, so the original was the version recorded. This was probably just as well since a recording now exists of the revised version as well and the interested listener is invited to compare the two. (In fact, neither is the first recording of the work. Gwydion Brooke commissioned a recording—probably of the revised version—for Blenheim, but it was never to be issued because he kept wandering into the recording studio and talking, thereby making the takes unusable.)
Lowe’s book does not make it clear which version he is referring to in his description of the work, which is as follows.
“This Trio, for the unusual combination of violin, horn and pianoforte, is one of the brightest and most genial of Holbrooke’s works. It is also uniformly melodious, and, in its middle movement, attains to considerable dignity and beauty of expression. Its sentiment has, to a large extent, been suggested by lines from Byron’s Don Juan:
This Trio is uniformly interesting and, though it strives after no big effects, is artistically strong. It charms chiefly by reason of the placidity of its moods and of its cheery, optimistic sentiment, and, by contrasting it with the more intense work of the composer’s pen, one is made to realise very vividly the many-sided nature of his genius.”
Violin Concerto (‘The Grasshopper’) - and Violin Sonata No. 2 - Op 59
Holbrooke’s short, single violin concerto was written between 1909 (one authority has 1906) and 1916. Some sources show the opus number for the concerto as Op. 66, although Lowe’s book lists it as Op. 59b, with Op. 59a assigned to the second string quartet and Op. 59c assigned to the Four Futurist Dances for piano referred to above. Holbrooke’s own Modern Music Library catalogue lists it simply as Op. 59 (assigning Op. 66 to the set of ‘Four Futurist Dances’). The violin and piano score was published by G. Ricordi & Co. in 1919. The full orchestral score followed from the same house in 1922. It carries no dedication in the score although a contemporary review notes a dedication to John Dunn. There are three movements:
The orchestral première, with the dedicatee as soloist, took place on 7 November 1917 (incidentally, the day after the Bolshevik Revolution in Petrograd) at a Leeds Philharmonic Society concert where the Hallé orchestra was conducted by the composer. The Musical Times review of the occasion indicated that this was the ‘first performance in this country’ of the concerto. (In fact, the reduced version for violin and piano had already been performed—see below). No information has been traced regarding any earlier performance abroad.
G. Saunders wrote quite a full programme note for a 1922 performance in Bournemouth, which provides the following information:
“Mr Holbrooke has often said he thinks the concertos for stringed instruments—particularly the violin—are all too heavy, too long and weightily scored, to allow the solo instrument to come through as it should. Hence the present attempt to give the violin solo its proper position when accompanied by a band. No brass is used of the heavy kind, and horns sparingly. Very few violins are used—4 a side—hence the woodwind has much importance and material in the accompaniment. The composer does not claim this scheme is superior but it should give the right atmosphere to a violin, an instrument at once elusive, refined and delicate. Three short movements, but in the usual symphonic form—with some development.
“The opening theme for the orchestra is the motto—of the 1st theme proper—heard on the solo instrument. The second subject in B is more valse-like and characteristic of the composer, with its ending in 8 semiquavers! The usual recurrence of the themes is given—and the coda is remarkable for a quaint harmonic passage on the violin—sans accompaniment. The whole of the movement is most optimistic.
“No. 2 Adagio non troppo is very clear—a Romance in D, with a fine broad and sad melody for the violin which continues on into a rising passage of passion—in double stopping ff, and then is followed by a secondary melody—very tender—in A, for orchestra and violin. The first theme is then given again with more elaborate accompaniment—dying eventually away—ppp.
“No. 3. A Rondo—In this work Cadenzas—so called have been relegated to their proper place. As the work is brilliant throughout for the solo, it is not necessary to give a long virtuoso passage. Indeed to give Concertos their true place as works of art ‘cadenzas’ could well be eliminated altogether in modern works. Two well-defined subjects are given after a Maestoso introduction. The second in C is very characteristic of the composer with its end in 8 semiquavers. A più presto coda, with much brilliant work for the violin—where the second subject is cleverly worked in the orchestral texture—leads to a fine climax—and a brilliant ending. A fine example of the composer’s genius.”
This is interesting because one or two details do not quite line up with the Ricordi score. In particular, the opening ten-bar orchestral ‘motto’ theme to which Saunders refers is, like the opening of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, thematically unrelated to anything that follows—hardly a ‘motto’. (Similarly, the theme of the Maestoso introduction to the third movement is never referred to again.) Rather than eliminating cadenzas altogether a single short cadenza is included in the Rondo but this also has no thematic relationship with the rest of the movement and seems to be wholly gratuitous. Given the extreme difficulty of the movement, Holbrooke might have been forgiven for writing an interlude to give his soloist a rest. Instead, he requires Paganini-like passages of sixths and thirds, followed by an appallingly difficult bar of apparently random but extremely rapid descent and re-ascent to a final high trill. Quite what the ‘proper place’ of this might be is questionable.
In a letter to Bantock, dated 8 December 1917, Holbrooke referred to the dedicatee, John Dunn, as “a crack fiddler”. Indeed, Dunn would need to have been since the concerto requires a considerable technical facility from its soloist (comparable with that needed to play Shostakovich’s First Concerto). The technical demands are such that, when Holbrooke produced the version for violin and piano, he was almost certainly prevailed upon to tone down the difficulties and make the work more accessible to a wider range of violinists. It seems that he limited the changes to the third movement where, of a total of 357 or so bars, passages of 11, 10, 8, 11 and 12 bars are replaced by technically simpler figurations and the zany cadenza is omitted—although the final (nightmare!) page of the third movement remains untouched. The Ricordi violin and piano score provides both versions—referring to the piano reduction of the ‘orchestral version’ but without giving any name to the simplified version which, presumably, was subsequently regarded as the ‘sonata’. (Incidentally, the piano part is by no means simple either—it is full of the kinds of tricky figurations and subtle traps which are very much a Holbrooke characteristic!)
The very first public performance was by Dunn, with Holbrooke at the piano, at the Crane Hall, Liverpool, 22 January 1917—repeated at the same venue on 27 April 1917. It is not clear whether these were performances of the ‘concerto’ or the ‘sonata’ version. Subsequently, the pair performed the piece at Temperance Hall, Huddersfield, on 11 December 1917 (where it was referred to as the Sonata-Concerto) and at the Royal Spa Rooms, Harrogate, on 27 February 1918 (where the work was listed in the programme note as ‘Concerto Lyrical’ with a note: “This work is arranged in a somewhat simplified version as a ‘violin and piano sonata’.). Subsequently, the work was almost exclusively referred to as the Sonata-Concerto. Confusingly, there are also references to the ‘Romantic Sonata’ arrangement, Op 59b—but there is currently no particular evidence of any other arrangement for violin and piano and, as has already been indicated, Holbrooke’s opus numbers are notoriously unreliable. That said, there may well be an arrangement for solo piano awaiting discovery.
The London première was given at the Steinway Hall on 18 (or, possibly, 10) October 1917 by John Saunders and Richard H. Walthew at one of Isidore de Lara’s Wartime Emergency concerts. The concert was reviewed in the Musical Times, Vol. 58, November 1917, p. 513: “Here the composer was at his best. The music may almost be said to be overflowing with milk and honey. There is a future surely for this excellent specimen of Holbrooke’s gift.”
Ernest Newman, possibly reviewing the same performance, commented: “One’s impression of it is that it is one of the best examples of its genre that we have heard for some time. Mr Holbrooke is one of the few modern composers who are developing concurrently along all the lines of their art. The satisfactory feature of this latest music of Mr Holbrooke is that melody, harmony, rhythm, figuration and all the other elements of the music, run smoothly in the same harness. The slow movement of the sonata is especially beautiful.”
The Violin Sonata version was considered in Walthew’s article in the 1928 Cobbett: “The themes are of excellent lyrical quality but which is rather an accompanied violin solo than a duet.” This is important. The piece is always a concerto, regardless of the ‘sonata’ label.
Other violinists who took up the concerto included Samuel Kutcher, Sybil Eaton, Evelyn Hunter and Arthur Beckwith. In the absence of documentation it can be assumed that these eminent violinists only played the concerto in its sonata version rather than with full orchestra.
It is not clear how the title: ‘The Grasshopper’ came to be attached to the work, although the frenetic leaping around in the solo part obviously has something to do with this. Writing of the concerto in 1937 long after its run of performances had dried up, Havergal Brian described the first and last of its three movements: “as nimble and quick-witted…of rhythmical capriciousness suggestive of the title”. It is possible that the title was inspired by the famous poem by Richard Lovelace (1618–1658).
The original plan for this programme was to record both the alternative versions of the last movement but, after the recording sessions were complete, it soon became evident that there would only be sufficient room on the disc for one version if the Horn Trio was to be presented with its exposition repeat. A painful choice was necessary and it was decided to present the concerto version rather than the ‘sonata’ version. Given that other versions of both the Violin Concerto and the Horn Trio will be available in due course some will regret this. On the other hand the reasoning was as follows.
Op. 59 is obviously a violin concerto—whether with orchestral or piano accompaniment—and slightly toning down the difficulties of the last movement makes little musical difference and does not change its essential character or turn it into a genuine duo sonata (like the Third Violin Sonata, Op. 83). Including the alternative version of the movement would, therefore, be unnecessarily repetitive—much like including both versions of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.
The objective was to make the first recording of the Holbrooke concerto (which this is) and the considerable time and effort invested by Kerenza Peacock in surmounting the difficulties of the last movement (particularly the cadenza) deserves to be recognised.
If there is any demand to hear the recording of the alternative ‘sonata’ version of the movement this can easily be made available.
Holbrooke wrote several sets of short pieces for violin and piano, including his Opp. 3, 5, 8, 12, 23, 71 and 74. In 1913 Op. 55 was occupied by a projected cycle of twelve Mezzo-Tints for clarinet (or violin) and piano; one for each month of the year. The project appears never to have got off the ground, although it is very likely that some of the subsequent Op. 55 set of pieces (arranged for various instruments but principally for violin and piano) can be traced back to this first plan. In 1918 the Op. 55 set seems to have consisted of eight items, of which L’Extase (Andante semplice) was the second. All of these were published but by a variety of different publishers. Evidently Holbrooke had not clarified his numbering intentions at that stage and, in Ricordi’s 1920 edition of three of the pieces (L’Extase, Albanian Serenade and Celtic Elegie) these are shown, confusingly, as Op. 55/1, 2 and 3. In any event, L’Extase is a lovely little piece and it deserves an outing. This is its first recording.
© 2011 Robert Stevenson
With thanks to Stevenson Consulting Associates Limited, without whose financial assistance this recording would not be possible The artists would like to thank David Rattray and the Royal Academy of Music, London, for the loan of the 1699 ‘Crespi’ Stradivarius.
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