Joseph Holbrooke (1878 - 1958)
Sextet in D major, Op. 43, Henry Vaughan
for two violins, two violas and two cellos
Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 21
for piano, violin, viola and cello
Symphonic Quintet in G minor, Op. 44
for piano, two violins, viola and cello
Joseph Holbrooke was born in Croydon in 1878 and made his debut as a pianist at the age of twelve. He later studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where his teachers included Frederick Corder, a pupil of Ferdinand Hiller and teacher also of Arnold Bax and Granville Bantock. His studies completed, he worked as conductor of a spa orchestra, undertaking other work of a similar kind, while applying himself to composition on a large scale.
Holbrooke enjoyed particular success in the early years of the twentieth century, with a successful performance of his choral and orchestral setting of Edgar Allan Poe"s The Raven, dedicated to the conductor Sir August Manns and given a successful performance at the Crystal Palace in 1900, followed three years later by a setting of the same poet"s The Bells, dedicated to Elgar. Poe remained an important literary influence, providing inspiration for a number of other works. There were other compositions on a similar scale and, most notably, a large-scale operatic trilogy derived from the Mabinogion and commissioned by Lord Howard de Walden, who had written a poem of epic dimensions based on this source.
A prolific composer, Holbrooke continued to write music throughout much of his long life, until his death in 1958. Performance of the larger scale works is now exceptional, since, like Havergal Brian, he made very considerable demands on the resources of promoters and the patience of listeners. Like other contemporaries and, in particular, his composition teacher Frederick Corder, he was much influenced by Wagner, notably by The Ring, an influence perceptible in the scale of the Mabinogion trilogy, The Cauldron of Annwyn. Apart from this, he wrote ballet scores, one for Poe"s The Masque of the Red Death, seven symphonies, of which four remain in manuscript, and concertos for piano, for cello, for violin and for clarinet or saxophone. He also left a quantity of chamber music, sonatas, quartets, quintets and sextets, some of them with programmatic suggestions in their titles. His son Gwydion Brooke, for some years a leading player in Sir Thomas Beecham"s orchestras, has been among the most distinguished bassoonists in England, exercising a wide influence on younger players in his style of playing.
Holbrooke"s String Sextet in D major, Opus 43, wrongly listed in Grove as Al Aaraaf the Koranic limbo, the subject of a poem by Poe and seemingly the inspiration of Holbrooke"s Seventh Symphony, in fact carries the subtitle Henry Vaughan, a reference to the seventeenth century devotional poet, possibly a reflection of Vaughan"s reflections on childhood, although the suggested title of Holbrooke"s slow movement, Unhappy Boyhood is not in accord with that. The sextet was completed in 1902. The first movement opens with a slow introduction, marked Adagio espressivo e molto sostenuto, moving on to a 5/4 Allegro that brings its own episodes of romantic intensity. The slow movement, Andantino mesto, has a poco allegro central section. The first theme is poignant enough, but the mood is soon lightened, to return, before the conclusion, to the feeling of the opening. The finale has a forthright opening, followed by melodic material of strong feeling and a fugal exposition, as one instrument follows another. The sextet ends positively in final triumph.
The Piano Quartet in G minor, Opus 21, was originally a piano trio and was completed in that form in 1898. The trio was first performed in a concert of chamber music by Holbrooke given at the steinway Hall on 23rd March 1903, an event that drew favourable criticism from The Daily Telegraph. The quartet version, with the original title Symphonic Quartet No.2, was first performed at the Salle Erard on 27th March 1905. It was eventually dedicated to the memory of August Jaeger, Elgar"s adviser and the original Nimrod of the Enigma Variations. The style of writing was perceived at the time as calling for larger forces and the quartet is, indeed, grandiose and powerful in conception. The first movement opens ominously with a strongly marked theme that is followed by a lyrical cello melody. The development leads to the return of the first theme and other material in recapitulation. The slow movement, a lament, makes use of thematic material of traditional provenance. Although Holbrooke made occasional use of English folk-music, a contemporary interest, such use was never overwhelming. The piano announces the characteristic theme, followed by the violin and the other instruments. The cello leads the way into another region, and there is a lightening of tension in a scherzo section before the return of the original theme and a sombre conclusion. The final movement is introduced by an angular motif, before the Allegro brings in a mood of another kind. Here there is music of strongly lyrical feeling in intervening episodes and a fugal element, a recurrent feature of Holbrooke"s chamber music.
The Symphonic Quintet No.1, Opus 44, sometimes known as Diabolique from the not particularly diabolical third movement Valse diabolique, was completed in 1904. The first movement has about it all the romanticism of a Rachmaninov. The second subject is lyrical in outline, the material developed and leading to a tragic conclusion before the Andante, with its thematic suggestions of a well known lullaby, material much expanded. The Valse diabolique is marked Valse grazioso, a direction that seems to belie its title. It is in fact a graceful waltz, to which the piano provides initial accompaniment. The quintet ends with a rapid finale that has a marked fugal element, after the panache of the opening.