Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett



Eighty years ago mention of the name Joseph Holbrooke aroused expectation and exasperation in an exciting mixture. Now, if it is mentioned at all, it is with scorn by some supercilious music critic who has probably heard no note of his music. Holbrooke's reputation before the First World War was that of one of the most promising and controversial of young composers of the day; mentioned with approval by Elgar, and commissioned to write large works for the choral festivals which abounded in this country in those days. Holbrooke's setting of Edgar Allan Poe's The Bells for example, was premiered on the same day, at the Birmingham Triennial Festival, as Elgar's The Kingdom. That was in 1906. Part I of Granville Bantock's mighty setting of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was also first given in that festival in that year. The second part of Bantock's great work was premiered at Cardiff the following year.

Holbrooke encountered Wales in 1908. In the January of that year his Dramatic Symphony: Apollo and the Seaman, opus 51, inspired by a poem from the pen of the Irishman Herbert Trench, was given for the first time at the Queen's Hall, in London, under Beecham's direction. Trench, a friend of Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis, Eighth Baron Howard de Walden, persuaded this latter to attend the premiere. Ellis was duly impressed, so much so that in a very short time he had succeeded in interesting Holbrooke in setting one of his poems to music. T. E. Ellis was obviously a fast worker. The premiere of Apollo and the Seaman had been on the 20th January. On the 25th of February Holbrooke writes as follows,

"Dear Lord Howard

Mr. Trench brings me the good news that you wish me to give music to your "Dylan". I have read it several times and I like the language! There would be one or two things I should dare to omit - if I wished to do my best, - I should also like to have your suggestions if you have any preference - orchestral or choral? or partly both? From my early impressions I fancy orchestral mainly, but voices for the 'Wildfowl' - and perhaps the 'Winds'? Solos preferable to chorus, as they are easier to obtain.

It would be another symphony and a long work. If you dislike the title of Symphony (?) I will call it after my order a 'Poem' for orchestra and chorus."

This 'long work' turned out eventually to be the operatic trilogy The Cauldron of Annwn. Holbrooke did not complete it until 1920.

The Symphony Dylan had, by the end of 1908 turned into the opera Dylan, Son of the Wave. By 1912 this work was part II of the trilogy of which part I was called The Children of Don, Part III Bronwen was begun in due course. T.E. Ellis was no mean writer. The resultant libretto of The Cauldron of Annwn has passages of great beauty and finesse of expression. I quote, here, from a biography of Sidney Sime, designer of the sets and costumes for the early productions of The Cauldron of Annwn.(1) Don, opus 56, had been premiered in 1912. Dylan, opus 53, followed in 1914:

"The rehearsals were enthralling and entertaining. Arguments about lighting, battles over advantageous cuts, or Beecham, baton in right hand, stroking his tiny pointed beard upwards with the back of his small left hand and loudly drawling 'give it hell boys!' This was in June 1914. Among the splendid rolling lines of 'Dylan', some words of Gwydion's may well have rung with ominous appropriateness:

. there breathes

About me menace of dire things to come,

Great beings watch, and a low distant drum

Thunders for change.'"

The lurid flames of war which illuminate this hectic trilogy are once more painted with rich imagery in Bronwen. The heroine of the title is singing a cradle song, fearful as she is, to her son Gwern:

"When once the bold and barren frame of earth was new and dry

And warring gods like hawks of flame

Swept through the golden sky,

The little souls that had no name

Crouched close while they went by


Make us our gods anew, no longer stern and needless,

But weak as even you."

And at the very end of this second act of Bronwen the distant song of the departing Britons:-

"Haul home!

The blue mud drips from the anchor stone,

The hide wrapped thole pins give and groan,

The blunt bows bite the sea's white bone.

Haul home!"

Holbrooke's music is equally rich; profusely melodious and superbly orchestrated for elaborate forces. Ellis's plots derive, of course, from the Mabinogion. Holbrooke's music is individual. It is possible to trace elements of Debussy, Richard Strauss and one or two others in this inspired eclectic; though, on balance, he will be seen to be more 'Latin' in feeling than 'Teutonic'.

The association between Holbrooke and Ellis flourished. In 1912 Holbrooke accompanied the newly married Ellis on a Mediterranean honeymoon cruise. This produced some small pieces with titles such as Adriatic and Cyrene, but no new Welsh pieces. Ellis was devoted to the resurrection of Welsh culture, and in 1911 he established his home at Chirk Castle, in Denbigh. In the words of Simon Heneage and Henry Ford in their biography of Sidney Sime referred to above:

"Howard de Walden was a reticent grandee and polymath, a man of great wealth and estates, a figure in society, accomplished sportsman and traveller. He was also a poet and lavish patron of the arts. Through his connection with the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, he played a part in the growth of the London theatre during the Edwardian period. In association with Herbert Trench he put on Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird in 1909 and Ibsen's The Pretenders in 1913, both with designs by Sime."

This was the man who now proceeded to lure many of Britain's finest artists of the time to North Wales. Around the romantic nodal point of Harlech and its castle, a little to the West of Ellis's home, came during the First World War, and in the years immediately following, a host of imaginative men; Augustus John, James Dickson Innes, Granville Bantock, Cyril Scott, Wilson Steer, the American photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, Eric Gill, and, of course, Holbrooke.

Ellis described Holbrooke as "the best English musician since Purcell", and proceeded to subsidise his music generously. He paid for most of the publishing costs of The Cauldron of Annwn. Holbrooke responded to Ellis's patronage with other works inspired by the literary output of his patron. In 1908, the first year of their association came the Piano Concerto The Song of Gwyn ap Nudd opus 52, based on another Mabinogion poem by Ellis. In those years, immediately preceding the First World War, also appeared the incidental music to a play Pontorewyn, similarly by Ellis. This music utilises some traditional Welsh tunes; Men of Harlech and Ton-y-Botel, this last also figuring dramatically in Bronwen in the Cauldron of Annwn cycle. Much later in their partnership Holbrooke wrote music for another of Ellis's stage works Llwyfan y Byd. Its exact date can only be guessed from its opus number 117. Bronwen, finished in 1920, is opus 75.

From a congenial headquarters near romantic Harlech however, Holbrooke wrote other Welsh-inspired pieces. Foremost amongst these are the four Cambrian Ballades for piano; 1) Dolgellau, 2) Penmachno, 3) Tan-y-Grisiau, 4) Maentwrog, and the Valse de Concert: Talsarnau, all dating from the 1920s. These are his opus 80, 81, 82, 104 and 79 respectively. There is also the lovely orchestral pendant to The Cauldron of Annwn, based on some of its themes, called The Birds of Rhiannon, opus 87, (1924). This piece has actually achieved a modern stereo recording, at present alas unavailable.

Lord Howard de Walden did not restrict his artistic interests to music. In the mid-1930s he became the first secretary of the Contemporary Art Society for Wales: In that same decade he was amongst the first to encourage the talent of Dylan Thomas. It is of interest to note, in passing, that it was reputedly the excited press notices, in 1914, of Holbrooke's Dylan which inspired Thomas père to name his new born son Dylan.

Holbrooke probably had ancestors from the region of Neath, in South Wales; nevertheless as Myrrha Bantock (2) recalls:

"Joseph Holbrooke spent a great deal of time at Harlech. He lived first in a large square house on the cliffs, some way from the village and the castle. It was overrun by his six children and presided over by his slim and attractive wife who everyone called Dot. We often visited the Holbrookes and played cricket with them on the beach. A few years later they left this big house, which had been rented. On our next visit to Harlech we found them in new quarters. Uncle Joe had found two old Welsh cottages in a poor state of repair, which he had bought cheaply and converted into one. Here he had a very beautiful study with long windows all along one side, through which could be seen the most wonderful panoramic view of the five mile bay with a range of mountains beyond it very much at home in North Wales, Holbrooke was friendly with George Davison, a wealthy and rather eccentric American philanthropist who had settled at Harlech, where he had built himself a magnificent house called Wernfawr on the old cliffside. This huge mansion had an archway over the road. There was also a fine hall with an organ, here Davison held musical evenings, free to whoever cared to come to them. Nearly everybody attended Davison's musical evenings and at those weekly recitals we were able to hear Cyril Scott play some of his piano compositions."

But during these enjoyable times Holbrooke's successes were almost over. Images such as these, recorded by Eugene Goossens (3) another visitor to Harlech, Could not avert the approach of a sad end:

"Joe, like his young contemporary Peter Warlock, rode a battered motor cycle to the terror of the country folk, who regarded it and its rider with superstitious dread. Mounted on that noisy vehicle he rode, with no cut-out, at a terrifying pace, Joe could be heard day and night rushing on some innocuous errand:- a bearded demon in goggles roaring and echoing among the hills and down cliff roads."

The sad end alluded to had little enough to do with road safety. [see newspaper cutting at end ] (3)

By the 1930s Holbrooke's star was on the wane. Musical styles had changed. The eventual premiere of Bronwen, the final part of the Cauldron of Annwn, in Huddersfield in February 1929 indicated the last high water mark of its composer's career. Wales showed an interest in his work from time to time, however, and not merely in his 'Welsh' pieces. I quote from Robert Barnett's Holbrooke, an Interim Worklist. (4)

"The Choral Symphony in Homage to Edgar Allan Poe, opus 48, was also performed at Wrexham by the Wrexham Choral and Orchestral Society directed by its conductor T. Hopkin Evans. Evans also gave a performance of this work at the Llanelli National Eisteddfod, and yet another in Liverpool with the Welsh Choral Union. In November 1923 Evans took the Liverpool Welsh Choral Union to London for their first performance in the capital. They included the Poe Choral Symphony in their programme at the Queen's Hall".

Excerpts from this work were included in an Eisteddfod at Port Talbot, and the choral finale of Apollo and the Seaman, at the premiere of which, it will be remembered Holbrooke and Ellis met, was given at an Eisteddfod in Neath in 1932. Excerpts from Bronwen, too, have appeared from time to time as choral items in Eisteddfodau. The finale of the Symphony for Brass Band 'Wild Wales' of 1920 (but published as opus 106 in 1933), was used as brass band test piece at an Eisteddfod at Wrexham, and there have been some pieces written specially as choral test pieces for eisteddfodau, for example the setting of Masefield's Laugh and be Merry, Holbrooke's opus 108, no. 4, which was the chief choral test piece at the Caernarvon National Eisteddfod in 1935.

By the outbreak of the Second World War Holbrooke was a forgotten name. Meetings at Harlech were memories. The Cauldron of Annwn, whose first part had been given successful performances at both the Vienna State Opera and Salzburg in 1923, aroused little interest anywhere; in spite of Harold Truscott's centenary appraisal broadcast in which he spoke of the trilogy as 'one of the glories of British opera.' The symphony Wild Wales and a Song of Llewellyn, opus 110, both for brass band, have not entered the repertoire. The same fate has overtaken the Cambrian Cello Concerto of 1936. Havergal Brian, in his role as music critic, described the Song of Llewellyn as a 'magnificent elegy.'

In 1946 his patron T. E. Ellis, Lord Howard de Walden, died. Holbrooke outlived him by twelve years. He died on the 5th of August 1958, one month exactly after his 80th birthday which so few in the musical world bothered to celebrate. Cyril Scott, his old colleague of Harlech days, did not forget, however. Himself nearing eighty, he wrote in an 80th birthday tribute in The Musical Times of August 1958 which, happily, Holbrooke lived to read: "Few composers have written such vital sea music as appears in Dylan". In his salute he also quotes Norman Demuth's assessment of the setting of The Bells. 'Magnificent' is the word used. Half a century earlier Ernest Newman had agreed.

It is time we in Wales, at least, took another look at his output, but he has much to offer the world at large which has ignored him for far too long.

© Michael Freeman

(1) Sidney Sime, Master of the Mysterious. Simon Heneage and Henry Ford (Thames & Hudson)

(2) Granville Bantock, a personal portrait, Myrrha Bantock (Dent), Overture and Beginners. Eugene Goossens (Methuen)

(3) See our newspaper-cutting illustration. (Ed.)

(4) Holbrooke, an interim worklist Robert Barnett (unpublished), for details contact Mr. Barnett at 88 Barrows Green Lane, Widnes WA8 3JJ

Some works of Holbrooke are now published by Blenheim Press. They also publish a cassette of piano works by him including the Cambrian Ballades Nos. 1, 3 and 4 and the Concert Valse: Talsarnau Cassette number BLEN 62, pianists Hamish Milne and David Parkhouse. Address: Blenheim Press, 38 Carter Street, Fordham, Ely, Cambs., CB7 5NG.
With acknowledgement to 'Welsh Music', Winter 1992

see also



HOLBROOKE (1878-1958): The Composer of Light Music by Philip L Scowcroft

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