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ClassicsOnline Home » HOLBROOKE: Orchestral Works
Joseph Holbrooke (1878-1958)
Ulalume Op. 35
Bronwen Overture Op. 75
The Bells Op. 50
The Raven Op. 25
Byron Op. 39
Holbrooke's temperament is not unlike that of Edgar Allan Poe, for whose writings he has a marked affection. A rich imagination, with leanings towards the morbid, the bizarre, and that indefinable neutral territory which separates the two, an almost unlimited inventiveness, and enthusiasm which amounts almost to exuberance, and above all a sense of rhythm which approaches the phenomenal. These constitute the basis of Holbrooke's musical temperament. (Edwin Evans 1904)
In his restless search after new tone-qualities, he has outdistanced Berlioz, out-heroded Strauss. His harmony too was as original at that time as his orchestration. One thought that Ravel was the originator of certain bell-chords, but here is Holbrooke revelling in them in 1900.
I shall always regret that I knew so little of Holbrooke's music when I wrote a book on modern harmony. I unwittingly did him a great injustice. Holbrooke has found a subject to his heart's desire and has produced a unique work. 'The Bells' was finished in 1903. As for Queen Mab, it has recently (1919) successfully been performed in Paris and Manchester. When are we going to hear it in London? (Eaglefield Hull)
I have conducted many of Holbrooke's compositions, and will say that I consider him one of the greatest composers living. He has strength, fantasy, poetical and musical imagination, and he masters his orchestra in a perfect manner. (Artur Nikisch)
Holbrooke can do quite easily and unconsciously what Strauss has only done half a dozen times in his career - he can write a big, heartfelt melody that searches us to the very bone. (Ernest Newman)
The Raven, Op. 25
On 3 March 1900 that name of Joseph Holbrooke was first brought to the notice of the orchestral world with his 'poem', inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven'. No doubt the opening of this work also reflected the composer's dire circumstances at the time - 'Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary¡K'
The subject is the hopeless despair of a lover on the death of his mistress, Lenore, and the poet explains that the Raven is emblematical of never ending remembrance. No 'analysis' is required for this music. It is a sound depiction of the poem, and one can almost hear the words: 'The rustling of each purple curtain' -- 'suddenly there came a tapping' -- 'It was in the bleak December' -- 'Open here I flung the shutter' -- 'Take thy beak from out my heart' etc. And the Raven's 'Nevermore', remorselessly reiterated by the cold brass, is finally mumbled in the depths - by three bassoons.
The work was first played on the above date at the Crystal Palace, London and was conducted by Sir August Manns.
Ulalume, Op. 35
It is a pity that Poe did not live to hear such heartfelt appreciation of his poems. Holbrooke's setting of the weird atmosphere in this work was first heard at the Queen's Hall in 1905, conducted by Henry J. Wood. Later, it was conducted by Beecham, Nikisch, and Strausky in New York. The composer thought it one of his best works. Once again, it is concerned with the loss of a loved one, and the words are brought to life by this beautiful and evocative music.
Byron, Op. 39
This small choral work was written in appreciation of Keats' panegyric on Byron. It was first performed by the Leeds Choral Union in 1904 and was conducted by the composer. For this work he was paid £20.
The Bells, Op. 50
The Bells dates from 1903 - several years before Rachmaninov's composition. There is not much doubt which one Poe would have preferred, though the British musical establishment has studiously ignored the native product. The work was originally scored for a large orchestra, but as in the case of most of Holbrooke's orchestra works, the composer has made revisions which enable the more unusual instruments to be dispensed with. The overture, of course, refers to all four of the choral movements, and there is no doubt which variety of bell is being illustrated, and the poem itself provides the obvious programme notes.
The work was given it's first performance at Birmingham in 1906, and was conducted (very badly, according to the composer) by Hans Richter.
Bronwen Overture, Op. 75
The sinister 'Cauldron of Annwn' (the name of Holbrooke's operatic Trilogy) could almost be considered the cause of the Irish 'troubles'. Although this overture begins in a quiet enough manner, there is soon evidence of strife and implacable threats. The slow, rhythmic melody in the middle is an old Welsh folk song which greatly captured Holbrooke's imagination. A stern and dramatic prelude to the opera.
Byron! how sweetly sad thy melody!
Attuning still the soul to tenderness,
As if soft Pity, with unusual stress,
Had touched her plaintive lute, and thou, being by
Hadst caught the tones, nor suffered them to die.
O'ershading sorrow doth not make thee less
Delightful: thou thy griefs dost dress
With a bright halo, shining beamily,
As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil,
Its sides are tinged with a resplendent glow,
Thro' the dark robe oft amber rays prevail,
And like fair veins in sable marble flow;
Still warble, dying swan! still tell the tale,
The enchanting tale, the tale of pleasing woe.
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HOLBROOKE: Orchestral Works