About this Recording
8.571351 - JACOBSON, M.: Theme and Variations / Music Room Suite / Mosaic / The Song of Songs (J. Jacobson)

Maurice Jacobson (1896–1976)
Theme and Variations


Maurice Jacobson, my father, was regarded in his lifetime as a “musician extraordinary”, gifted with exceptional versatility on many fronts. A child prodigy, by the age of sixteen he could play the whole of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas from memory. Studies at the Modern School of Music and the Royal College of Music were interrupted by World War 1 but resumed afterwards, concentrating on composition under Stanford and Holst. Already as a student he was noted as an exceptional accompanist, working with the great tenor John Coates. Later he was to discover Kathleen Ferrier, whom he encouraged to become a professional singer. After World War 2 he was instrumental, with Dame Ruth Railton, in setting up the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. From 1923 he was, first reader and editor, then a director, and finally chairman (1950 to 1972) of the musical publishing firm of J. Curwen & Sons. He was an indefatigable adjudicator at competitive music festivals, not only throughout Britain but in Canada and Hong Kong. For his services to music he was awarded the OBE in 1971. These manifold activities left him less time than he would have liked for composition: nevertheless he left an impressive total of some 450 works.

Fundamentally Jacobson was a classicist, steeped in the great Austro-German and French repertoires and—despite his professed love for Berg and Bartók—unable or unwilling to give up his classical habits of clear phrase structure and major-minor tonality, sometimes with modal inflections or chromatic exoticisms characteristic of Jewish music. A Londoner through and through, albeit from a family that had only recently arrived from Eastern Europe, he hardly belongs to the English pastoral tradition. Yet there is a sort of liberality and kindness about his music that may be thought of as an English characteristic. His enormous facility and professionalism ensured that he could write gratefully for amateurs and children, and the catalogue of his works shows many impeccably written arrangements for amateur choirs, pianists and others that served a useful purpose in their day. But his more important original compositions, though not numerous, show that he managed to forge a personal idiom from his many and varied influences—music of complete technical assurance and a warm, open and engaging communicativeness.

The works on this recording were all written between 1935 and 1949, a period when (despite the war intervening) Jacobson still had time for composition before the increasing demands of public life made it more and more difficult. Most of the pieces are just postwar: Mosaic, a lively, quirky, characterful piece, is the latest composition to be presented here. Expertly laid out for the tricky piano duet medium, it shows the composer’s harmony developing in a new, more adventurous direction. The textures are much lighter and thinner than in Jacobson’s pre-war music, and at certain points rather jagged, like the roughly edged stones or glass which give buoyancy to a mosaic. Salcey Lawn, by comparison, represents an idyllic retreat into dearly remembered musical landscapes of the past. The work is named after a Grade 2 listed country house in Northamptonshire where Jacobson had been able to get away from time to time during the war. In gratitude to his hosts he wrote a beautiful, tranquil piece for cello and piano, entirely conservative in its musical language, conveying nevertheless the warmth of real conviction.

Written with an eye to the amateur market, The Music Room, the earliest work on this recording, contains some of Jacobson’s most attractive writing for piano, fresh, vivid and full of contrast. His conservatism is here given new life through many felicitous and personal touches of harmony and texture. The suite enjoyed considerable popularity in its day, and the Sarabande is perhaps the composer’s loveliest melody.

The two biblical songs show an important side of Jacobson’s musical personality, though he never regarded himself as a Jewish composer per se. The Lord is my shepherd (Psalm 23) is described as “set to Tonus Peregrinus”—a medieval psalm-tone which gives Jacobson’s music an austere, timeless quality. This setting is extracted from the Markova-Dolin ballet David (1936). Jacobson’s setting of The Song of Songs, the famous words from the Book of Solomon, was derived from his incidental music for Men of God, six radio plays devoted to Hebrew prophets. Kathleen Ferrier was one of its early interpreters.

Jacobson’s more classical side is shown in the Romantic Theme (1910) and Variations (1944). The theme shows the powerful influences on the fourteen year old piano mad boy of Beethoven and Chopin, and the five formally strict Variations and freely extended Finale range wider while not fundamentally departing from the harmonic language of the theme. The fifth is the most original and forward-looking, and, although the Finale is perhaps less convincing in its quasi-Elgarian grandeur and echoes of Beethoven, it still makes an impressive, full-blooded ending.

The inscription at the top of the score of the Lament for cello and piano reads “To the memory of Harry Plunket Greene”, the noted Irish baritone and teacher who had accompanied Jacobson on an adjudicating tour of Canada in 1931. It is one of the composer’s most serious, concentrated and deeply felt pieces in any form, gaining particular strength from its unusual and intense harmonic language.

Jacobson had been a pianist of considerable virtuosity in his younger days, and the piano piece Carousal is an essay in brilliant figurations and forceful articulation, perhaps depicting a fairground scene. A central section, marked Alla Musette calms the proceedings; the rowdy atmosphere returns before the piece ends quietly and mischievously. The Humoreske for cello and piano, too, displays the vivacity and keen sense of humour which are remembered by all who knew him. This swift and capricious piece contains some novel and elliptical harmonic progressions which, like Mosaic, show the route Jacobson’s music might have taken if he had been able to devote more time to composition after the war.

Finally the Theme and Variations is the one extended work presented here and shows Jacobson’s assured handling of a large-scale structure. Composed for a large orchestra, it received many performances, and the composer himself made the piano duet version which was discovered only after his death. The modal theme is stated in unison until its end, giving it an austere, plainchant character. Variation 1 continues the modal flavour but now as a playful dance with a hint of Vaughan Williams (a personal friend). Variation 2 is still faster and the music flits by, largely in ‘pianissimo’. In Variation 3 the music becomes more serious—it is in fact a fully worked out fugue which develops considerable power and momentum. Variation 4 returns to the Lento espressivo marking of the Theme, now decorated and harmonised with rich solemnity. Variation 5 is a complete contrast, much faster, passages of darting, dancing lightness alternating with thundering ‘marcato’ repeated chords. The ‘marcato’ texture continues without a break into Variation 6, though with a quieter middle section. Variation 7 has a sort of morse-code continuous tapping texture of high repeated notes against short, expressive phrases. The tonality shifts up a semitone for Variation 8, a beautiful cantilena over long pedal notes. This leads to Variation 9, the emotional heart of the work, with a plaintive, desolate melody in D minor, turning at the end to a consoling D major, at which point the music pauses. Returning to E major, Variation 10 blows this all away in a fine bluster of activity. Variation 11 is a Scotch reel, a comic relief, but towards the end the atmosphere becomes more serious as Jacobson ushers in his Finale. Some highly dramatic writing, including a cadenza-like passage, leads to a grand, triumphant peroration with jubilant peals of bells, rounding off this rich and wide-ranging set of variations.

In preparing this recording, I had the benefit of studying some of my father’s manuscripts and personal copies. An eminently practical musician, he left many pencil markings on the scores, such as (for instance) a complete set of suggested metronome marks for the Romantic Theme and Variations, as well as various suggestions for dynamics and expression. I have tried to use these to get closer to his intentions.

Julian Jacobson

Close the window