Joseph Holbrooke (1878 -1958)
The Children of Don (Overture), Op 56
The Birds of Rhiannon, Op 87
Dylan (Prelude), Op 53
The English composer Joseph Holbrooke was born in 1878, studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, having made his debut as a pianist at the age of twelve. Earning his living initially as a pianist and conductor, he became deeply interested in the work of Edgar Ailan Poe, a fascination that had its musical result in 1900 with the symphonic poem The Raven, to be followed three years later by The Bells and later still by the ballet The Red Mask. His imagination was stirred too by the Welsh legends of the Mabinogion from which Lord Howard de Walden had derived a long poem, The Cauldron of Annwyn, commissioning from Holbrooke the operatic trilogy based on it, The Children of Don, Dylan and Bronlven. Others have compared Holbrooke to Poe in his leaning towards the bizarre and morbid, fired by a vivid imagination and power of inventiveness. His tendency to write for large forces has, with changing fashions, led to a present neglect of his music, once highly praised and valued by critics of great distinction, compared favourably with that of Richard Strauss, with Holbrooke seen as a precursor of Ravel in colourful orchestration.
The Children of Don is the first opera of the trilogy called The Cauldron of Annwyn, the libretto of which, based on ancient Welsh legends, was written by T. E. Ellis. The Children of Don was performed in 1912 at the London Opera House under the direction of Artur Nikisch and the composer. The opening pages depict primeval energy, leading to themes for Gwydion, Seithenin, Govannion, Math, and Nodens, in succession. The Birds of Rhiannon is a felicitous title for the mellifluous symphonic poem of that name, since the ancient bards and Celtic lore have it that the beautiful Rhiannon"s birds made such magical noises that the Seven Heroes, on their way to London with the head of King Bran, were beguiled into tarrying at Harlech for seven years. The operatic trilogy already mentioned, from which the present work derives, is concerned with ancient Celtic mythology, contests between the Sea Gods and the Titans, poisonous cauldrons, and the sad fate of a British Princess who married an Irish king. This work, however, uses the more lyrical thematic material, providing a piquant introduction for anyone curious about these operas. The Birds of Rhiannon is splendidly introduced by the French horn, beginning with a principal Dylan theme and breaking into the call of Caradoc. The initial phrase is developed by the strings, and after a few flirtations with other character themes, leads eventually, through a little oboe solo, to some happy moments between Govannion and Goewin, a Druid priestess. The roisterous seithenin takes over in due course, in the form of a Vivo in duple time for full orchestra. Introduced once again by the oboe playing an echo of the opening horn tune, the violas now give an exposition of the charming Bronwen music. The ensuing melody, given to the oboe and then the violins, also represents Bronwen in a previous incarnation, Elan, in the earlier opera, The Children of Don. The passionate music shortly before the final "Birds" section is unmistakably for Gwydion and Elan - upon his metamorphosis from the form of a wolf. The fluttering birds music at the end of the work is also to be heard at the close of the opera, as Bronwen dies in the arms of Caradoc. Archaeological evidence of her burial has been adduced in a grave found in Anglesey, claimed to be that of Bronwen.
This work does not demand a large orchestra. The brass section is limited to one trumpet, one trombone, and two horns, while the timpani are dispensed with altogether.
Dylan is the second opera of the trilogy. The composer revised and reduced the originally large orchestra, and the work is based on the words of T. E. Ellis. The Winds:
Through the dusk our faint breath,
Where like a wave the pale hill shows,
Landward to the heath and snows.
We are lonely in our playing,
Dylan comes not for our praying.
The Wild Fowl:
Whistling wing and firm stretched neck,
Midnight course that none shall check.
The first human theme, that of the murderer Govannion, is immediately apparent, as is the contrasting theme of his victim, Dylan. Storms arise, disperse, and the wild fowl chatter off to the various recapitulations.
@ 1995 Gwydion Brooke