Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett



"I have written much for old Wales. I’m glad to say that The Birds of Rhiannon is a simple work and also on the Welsh legends. It is for small orchestra and could be played by the Welsh orchestras - if there are any (you probably know of the many large choral pieces supplied to the various Eisteddfodau)" - Holbrooke to the author 31.3. 1958, four months before Holbrooke’s death

Who was this enigmatic figure in British music and what did he write other than an ambitious operatic trilogy based on the Mabinogion with libretti by T.E. Ellis, 8th Baron Howard de Walden? (1)

OVER A DECADE AGO I offered, in these pages, some thoughts on the relationship between the works of Joseph Holbrooke and Wales. These thoughts, naturally enough, centred around Holbrooke's operatic trilogy The Cauldron of Annwn and its pendant works. At that time I began to sense a sort of schism between Holbrooke's musical language in the Cauldron operas and that in the rest of his oeuvre. The typical Holbrookian turns of phrase and the brilliant orchestral or instrumental sense are always there, but the scale of the music, and its aim are different.

Recently reading some memoirs penned by Holbrooke in the late 1930s I came across the following:-

"I never had any great admiration for the length of the Wagner operas. The action always seemed to me too slow, in spite of the glorious music. Into this error I now fell myself. for all my music dramas are too long, for which I must blame the poet! It takes years of experience to judge the length, and how to keep your ideals at the same time in Opera. . . "

Thus Joseph Holbrooke on his Cauldron of Annwn, yet the critic and composer Harold Truscott speaks of 'the sustained mastery of this trilogy' The Cauldron of Annwn, which he considers one of the greatest glories of British opera. Well, that may be so, but are we on the right track in viewing this trilogy as his most characteristic achievement? Wagner's Ring operas are based on the Nibelungenlied and are preceded by the equally large-scale Rienzi, Lohengrin and Tannhauser and succeeded by the massive Parsifal. Holbrooke's Cauldron operas are based on the Mabinogion. What, on a similar scale, precedes and succeeds them?

On the final page of New Poems by Herbert Trench, published in 1907 by Methuen, is the following note:

"Apollo and the Seaman. This poem is intended to be accompanied by orchestral music. Closely following its text, the distinguished composer Mr Joseph Holbrooke has composed a complete symphony which, it is hoped, may shortly be performed. May this splendid music receive that recognition which, in our day, and for the moment only, is denied to poetry! In alliance between the arts of poetry and music, and in the philosophic ideas they may together convey, lies, I believe, much of promise for our civilisation

This symphony was indeed performed in January 1908 and Herbert Trench took Lord Howard de Walden, alias T.E. Ellis, along with him to hear the premiere. Ellis was mightily impressed. Holbrooke's Second Symphony Apollo and the Seaman prompted T.E. Ellis to ask the composer if he would provide music for his own poem Dylan, Son of the Wave. That Ellis's reaction is worthy of note can be deduced from a remark in Harold Truscott's broadcast centenary tribute to Holbrooke in 1978:-

"The Second Symphony is one of the finest conceptions. Based on Herbert Trench's long poem Apollo and the Seaman, it deals programmatically with all eight sections of the poem, divided into four movements ... Holbrooke has stated elsewhere that he did not believe that music is capable of discussing such subjects as philosophy, but makes a very good shot here, in a work illustrating a poem a good deal of which is philosophical discussion on death".

The premiere of the Apollo symphony was accompanied by lantern slides showing the poem and some appropriate images. This was not an idea that Holbrooke much cared for. He always afterwards desired a purely concert performance of the piece. It is a large work, approximately an hour in duration, and having a choral epilogue. Surviving Trench-Ellis correspondence clearly shows the close connection between Trench's project and Ellis's following one. Thus Trench to Ellis late in 1907:-

"Now I scarcely like to ask you, after your recent generosities, but do you feel inclined to be guarantor? And if so, to what amount? It would be an extraordinary thing for Holbrooke and the turning point in his career".

And again:

"When your letter came I was just on the point of writing again about Dylan which I have been re-reading. It strikes me afresh as genuine and newly felt, with splendid passages, especially the avenging-anger-of-the-sea passage. I am struck by the multitudes of fine landscapes and real seascapes..."

Trench's poem and Ellis's Dylan, from which the entire Cauldron of Annwn sprang, have a lot in common. Both deal with profound metaphysical questions using richly allusive, colourful English. Ellis had caught Holbrooke at the right vital moment, for Apollo and the Seaman is the soloework in Holbrooke's output which could be thought of as a precursor to The Cauldron of Annwn.

Let us go back now and examine the music which occupied Holbrooke for roughly the first decade of his mature composing career. This will comprise the first fifty opus numbers. There is but one opera in this list, the lyric drama, Pierrot and Pierrette, whose scale can be inferred from the fact that it has been given in a double bill with Gustav Holst's Savitri. The rest of this list is made up, mainly, of songs (choral and solo), piano pieces of modest scale, various chamber works and six compact and powerful symphonic poems. Three of these are inspired by poems of Edgar Allan Poe.

Holbrooke's symphonic poems, or orchestral poems, as he preferred to call them, are not Straussian monsters. They are compact orchestral bombshells with an average playing time of twenty minutes or less. In The Raven, one of the responses to Poe, for example, black midnight, the rustling curtains, the sweeping, arrogant arrival of the ominous bird, and the consequent plunge into despair all flash by in eighteen minutes of urgent symphonic development. The same treatment is given to the anguished autumn of Ulalume where Poe's visions flash cinematically by in thirteen sumptuous orchestral minutes. The brilliant Shakespearian scherzo Queen Mab is equally compact. Even with its optional (but clearly essential) choral epilogue this lovely work lasts no more than twenty-five minutes. The entirely choral setting of Poe's The Bells is the 'giant' of this group, lasting approximately thirty-five minutes. It is thus roughly on the same scale as the setting by Rachmaninov.

What of the chamber works written before his encounter with Messrs Trench and Ellis? There are twelve major items. Three of these, the String Quartet No 1; the Cello Sonata and the Second Piano Quartet are in the 'fantasy' form, i.e. three or four movements constructed as one uninterrupted span of music. This form, looking back to the 17th century, was popularised one hundred years ago by W.W. Cobbett The other compositions in this group are trios, quartets, quintets and sextets of normal classical proportions. There is also a considerable body of small-scale piano music and songs. There are no piano sonatas, for instance. As recently as the mid-nineteen-nineties I encountered yet another long article on Holbrooke which babbled about his 'penchant for monumental conceptions and massive resources'. What are they?


"Joseph Holbrooke for sheer cleverness, for capacity for hard work, intellectual energy, has no equal among our composers". Thus wrote the poet and journalist Gerald Cumberland in 1919. Holbrooke appreciated the society and the encouragement of men like Trench and Ellis: "... and I enjoyed his brain - a very fine one (quite unlike our usual 'aristocracy')"

Thus Holbrooke, on Ellis, in a letter to Percy Grainger 23.5.1957. Apollo and the Seaman is permeated with rich antique and classical allusions. Dylan, Son of the Wave is instinct with Nature mysticism and colour:

"Caswallawn from the north came down.

The passes of the hills were pied

With proud grey steed and harness brown

White bronze blade and black bull, hide". .

Or again:

"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".

(Those familiar with the landscapes of James Dickson Innes will recognise this sort of colour!)

These examples are taken from the libretto of Bronwen, the final part of The Cauldron of Annwn, rather than from the original Dylan poem for no better reason than that I happen to love them. They show, however the richness of Ellis’s style, and one can see why Holbrooke was drawn to it. "My music dramas are too long" he had complained. "For which I must blame the poet". Holbrooke did appreciate brevity, as his orchestral poems demonstrate. He also appreciated beauty. His friendships with other artists included the painters Phillip Wilson Steer, Christopher Nevinson and the brilliant illustrator Sidney Sime, with whom, in the 1920s, he produced a typically Holbrookian jeu d'esprit entitled Bogey Beasts! Perhaps his uneasy relationship with that dubious nabob of the paintbrush Augustus John ought also to be included. Ellis soon became Holbrooke's patron, declaring him to be the finest British musician since Purcell. For all his culture we must now ask was Ellis's influence on Holbrooke all for the good?


Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis was obviously no armchair aesthete. Apart from being a fine poet he was associated with the Haymarket Theatre. He was a trustee of the Tate Gallery and founder chairman of the Contemporary Art Society for Wales. He was also a widely travelled explorer. He subsidised Holbrooke generously. The Cauldron of Annwn took its composer twelve years to complete. Orchestration of Bronwen was finished in 1920, though this final part of the trilogy was not premiered until February 1929. Holbrooke was then fifty. Excerpts from this opera were immediately recorded by Columbia Records in a fine three disc set which is still available on a CD transfer today. Ellis paid for a much cut recording on Decca of excerpts from the other two parts of the trilogy in the mid-1930s. The only considerable recording other than these operatic fragments to be made before the outbreak of war in 1939 was the three disc Columbia set of the Clarinet Quintet, opus 27. What if someone had the foresight to ask Holbrooke into the recording studio to record The Raven or Ulalume at that time? They would only have taken a pair of 78s each! How would the character of Holbrooke's achievement have appeared then? By the time of his death in 1934 Elgar had recorded most of his major orchestral works, in fine electronic sound, for HMV. We now, in 2002, have several CDs of important orchestral works by Holbrooke and can begin to get a more balanced view of him. There are also no fewer than six of those early, svelte chamber works available on CD.


"So what did Holbrooke compose after the Cauldron operas?" I hear the reader ask. The answer is, perhaps, the expected one: A series of lightweight, almost neo-classical concertos, another Fantasy Sonata (the Third Violin Sonata), a couple of light operas or operettas, and a series of compact works which he called 'symphonies'. The Seventh Symphony is, in fact, an arrangement for string orchestra of me earlier String Sextet, opus 43. There is also some piano music. Some of this last is woven from material from the Cauldron operas.

One work of 1935 bade fair to repeat Holbrooke's successes of thirty years earlier. This was the ballet Aucassin et Nicolette danced by Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova. Its long run also starred the young Wendy Toye. Dolin recalled that it 'remained one of the most popular items in our repertoire throughout our company's existence. It was a simple love story, delicately expressed and enchantingly staged'. Alas the resolute indifference of establishment and public to all Holbrooke's works now continued well beyond his death in 1958.

His penultimate work is a Bassoon Quintet, opus 134. This is dedicated to his brilliant bassoonist son Gwydion, whom the world knows as Gwydion Brooke. It is a delicious pastel-shaded work which deserves to be known better.

So, had Ellis 'waylaid' Holbrooke? In a sense, yes, but neither of them was aware of it at the time! The creative siren is a treacherous bitch, and the artist has to handle her carefully! They had both begun the enterprise in the spirit exhibited by Herbert Trench quoted at the beginning of this article: ‘In alliance between the arts of poetry and music, and in the philosophic ideas they may together convey, lies, I believe, much of promise for our civilisation'. Let me mention a parallel case in music which happened very close by in time and space. When, in 1903 Elgar presented his Apostles at the Birmingham Festival, Symphony had been knocking at the door of his creative soul for several years; since the Enigma Variations, in fact. He had consummated his choral-orchestral ambitions with The Dream of Gerontius. The Apostles and The Kingdom constituted, as it were, a kind of loop in the line between Gerontius and the First Symphony, with In the South as a major station! But Elgar the artist gave way to Elgar the man. The commission was there, so was the money. Something similar happened in Holbrooke's case. That said, who would forego the scene of Judas's repentance in The Apostles or the Pentecost scene in The Kingdom? Who would forego Bronwen's Cradle Song, as lovely as anything for soprano and orchestra by Richard Strauss; or, again, what does the mighty Dylan Fantasy for orchestra, now available on CD, promise for that opera in its entirety? Elgar may, unknowingly, have robbed us of a complete Third and Fourth symphony. Which of Holbrooke's unwritten orchestral poems would have been the finest? What was Sibelius' Eighth Symphony really like? What was wrong with all that music that Paul Dukas destroyed?

As recordings appear one by one we can get an ever-clearer impression of the 'real' Joseph Holbrooke, a man with a fund of melody, a fine orchestral sense and, yes, a sense of humour."... all my music dramas are too long." I wonder, but I would like to take leave, here, of Holbrooke with his own words once more. He is writing to Percy Grainger on 10 September 1957, less than a year before his death. He signs himself "thine JH", and adds a P.S. 'Just heard Carmen - poor Bizet and his lovely Flower Song. Wish I'd written that!" That put Joseph Holbrooke in focus for me!


Labelling composers can be a dangerous and destructive business. Thus Brahms, confidently expected to be the heir of Beethoven, disappointed many because he didn't quite write Beethoven's Tenth. He wrote something else. Honegger, bracketed as one of 'Les Six', is still not appreciated as the serious composer he undoubtedly is. Joseph Holbrooke was called the ‘Cockney Wagner’ seventy years ago, and so he is expected to be Wagnerian by those who expect anything at all of him. Holbrooke's is a more complicated nature than that. He has more than one voice, but, like many composers who have been accused of inconsistency of style, he has, in fact, a strong personality that avoids mannerism. His son remembers him thus:

"We used to get a great kick out of his non-stop repartee, which was very humorous. He was an Ashkenazy of nervous energy and would hold a room with his wit. No-one ever got a word in edgeways. When he ran out of steam, or became fed up, he would suddenly disappear. This was sometimes a relief".

This gives us a clue to a nature that spread naturally and creatively into some of his best music. He was capable of irreverence when such an attitude was not fashionable. His music is therefore not like Parry or Elgar, or even Bantock, to whom he is, perhaps, closest. He frequently exhibits a quirky humour which is essential. It is no pose. This attitude to life germinated in Holbrooke's early years working as a music hall pianist, composer and orchestrator.

"My father was a musician in a humble way, a pianist who performed in the music halls. When he was prevented from keeping his engagements he would often send me to act 'as his deputy at the Old Bedford Music Hall, Collins' Dances and other places. By playing at these music halls I got to know many of the comic singers, several of whom became stars of considerable importance. Among them were Dan Leno, Herbert Campbell and Lottie Collins. They knew I had a certain gift for composing, and they used to give me the words of their songs to set for them. In this way I wrote hundreds of comic songs, and scored them for:. eight to ten instruments for an inclusive fee of five shillings each. I wonder where they are?"

Holbrooke interviewed in The Star 19.8.1924

Joseph Holbrooke would not have needed much convincing of the truth of the following claim made by Neville Cardus in his book Second Innings (Collins 1950):

"My mother and her sisters frequented the variety theatres, and while they went about their housework they sang tunes out of The Geisha, San Toy and Leslie Stuart. The ramifications of the melody Tell Me Pretty Maiden left them rather at a loss. No popular music has equalled the beautiful and unexpected phrasing and transition of this part-song in Floradora. The tunes of musical comedy and variety theatre of the late nineties and nineteen-hundreds had charm and art enough to awaken a child's sensibilities to music proper".

Holbrooke was twelve when he began work as a music hall accompanist in 1890. At fourteen he was sent to the Royal Academy to study under Frederick Corder. At seventeen he had to begin earning his own living. By 1901 he had written this theme:

This dates from the same period:

First cousins, respectively, of Who were You with last night? and Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside? Maybe, but they are themes from two strongly constructed movements in chamber works, namely the Sextet for piano and wind, opus 33, and the Clarinet Quintet, opus 27. Their energy is typically Holbrookian. Francis Poulenc, that great flirt with the Music Hall, was not yet two years old! Walton and Lord Berners were far in the future, but let us stop for a moment and eavesdrop on Edward Elgar and Dora Penny (alias Dorabella).

"One day I went into the study while he was playing a tune I knew quite well but to which I could not put a name, and I joined in and sang it. The end of the refrain gave me the chance to ask:

What is that thing?

Villikins and his Dinah; I’m going to write a fantasia on it - the trombone has the solo here and forgets the beginning of the last line - listen!

Then he played it through and made the last line begin with two false entries with the first two notes. With a shout of laughter he played it again.

"Do you like it? I shall do something with that one of these days". But unfortunately he never did".

This is in Edward Elgar, Memories of a Variation by Dora Powell, the married name of Dorabella of the Enigma Variations. The event referred to would have occurred in the 1890s.

To Elgar, as to Holbrooke, the shift from symphony to music hall song would not appear so great as it does today. Elgar used his popular songs for light salon pieces. Holbrooke sometimes chose to work his harder, with highly individual results.

This is from the Dramatic Choral Symphony, settings of four poems by Edgar Alan Poe:

but this is from a delicious little piece called Butterfly of the Ballet. It is for clarinet and piano, but one could imagine it being whistled by some youngster as he strolls down the street.

Holbrooke grew up with these sounds, and they haunted his style rather in the way that the military band imagery haunts the music of Gustav Mahler. We are speaking, here, of the sublimation of childhood experiences into great art, for, just as none would now seriously doubt the stature of Mahler's symphonies, the sextet and quintet quoted from above are amongst the masterpieces of British chamber music. Accusations of dubious taste have, nonetheless bedevilled both composers!

There is more of the 'Latin' rather than the 'Teuton' in Holbrooke's muse. His love of Poe he shares with Debussy and Baudelaire. It was Poe, too, that he chose to set in his choral works rather than the Te Deum or the Benedictus. Even the 'barbarian' Bantock turned in a certain amount of Three Choirs Festival work:

"And others will remember how the Dean and Chapter shrivelled into their surplices with horror when a sturdy soprano singing a passage set by Bantock from The Song of Solomon suddenly screamed through the cathedral 'Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth'".

(one of the many delicious bits in Rosa Burley's Edward Elgar, record of a friendship (p. 80)

In 1922 Holbrooke took a fancy to writing foxtrots. The newspaper, The Star, on the 27 November of that year has the following:

"Mr Holbrooke told the Star reporter today how it all came about. At the instigation of Mrs Holbrooke, who alleged he was getting old, he took up dancing a few months ago. He has now reached the stage where, on the slightest provocation he will demonstrate a step for anybody anywhere. 'I've got foxtrot on the brain', said Mr Holbrooke"

This was the origin of the foxtrot Let's brighten Brighton which had its world premiere at the Three Arts Club ball on 7 December that year. The Star again: .

"'Why shouldn't we have a shot at dance music?' asks Mr Holbrooke. 'Dancing is vitality and most of the tunes people dance to are poor and their orchestration hasn't any … any …. guts.' He added after reflection".

In 1925 Holbrooke agreed to do some orchestration for Jack Hilton. At the same time William Walton did some similar work for the Savoy Orpheans. Holbrooke went a stage further and wrote some pieces for dance band 'to petrify the critics' as he characteristically put it!

In the Daily Graphic for 2 September 1925 he announced "People must not rot dance music. I look forward to the day when Jazz orchestras will be used even as accompaniment to the opera". This was three years before Johnny Spielt Auf, Krenek's jazz opera, had its premiere. In that same year, 1925, a work that Holbrooke loved had its British premiere: Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was played with Billy Mayerl as soloist. Holbrooke would no doubt have approved of Mayerl's engaging piano pieces too.

He saw the value, as artistic expression, of what has become known as 'the Media'. In 1908 the premiere of Apollo and the Seaman was given, accompanied by lantern slides. He had this to say about the event:

"Some artistic embellishment was attempted on the screen, but with little success... I think Mr Trench made a real mistake in this matter, as it is hardly possible to engage two senses at once. However, the symphony, one of my biggest efforts was highly thought of by many of my friends and enemies".

Six years after Apollo Holbrooke used movie films in the opera Dylan. Again he was well ahead of continental experiments by composers such as Berg or Zimmermann.

Bogie Beasts, of 1923, an album of drawings by Sidney Sime with music by Holbrooke would make splendid television today were Sime's sketches of such characters as 'Prapsnot' and the 'Iffysaurus' to be animated. It would make fine entertainment for kids of all ages, from four to eighty-four!

With The Cauldron of Annwn finished in 1920, Dance seemed to have occupied Holbrooke's thoughts a lot. In 1928 came a Dance concerto, his second piano concerto, with three movements called respectively Javanese Dance, Sinhalese Dance and Burmese Dance. This was followed in the 1930s by a Dance Symphony, with obbligato piano. Havergal Brian described the piano concerto as 'homophonic, individual and full of rare surprises'. In 1920 Holbrooke and the violinist Vasco Ackeroyd visited Jamaica to give recitals. They included several important British works on the tour. He found it 'very good fun careering (more or less) in a car some forty miles up a grass track road of incredible hairpin bends'. Daily Telegraph 19.6.1920.

Holbrooke subsequently published a collection of twenty Jamaican melodies. One wonders, for all that, how much these extended his musical vocabulary. At what music hall minstrel routine did this idea have its origins?

It is from the fine String Sextet of 1902.


Even his lifelong affection for concertinas can be traced to the music halls of his youth. Eighty years ago, in Favourite Musicians from Stanford to Holbrooke, Sidney Grew wrote:

"Holbrooke has always drawn from his own personal experiences. Even the use of concertinas in the orchestra for The Bells he derived from his visits to music halls with his father; the concertina being a favourite solo instrument with entertainers in the 1880s and 90s.

Grew goes on to point out that Sir George Macfarren had, in an earlier generation, attempted to 'make the concertina into an artistic instrument'. What he does not point out is that Tchaikovsky had used them in the Scherzo of his Second Suite for Orchestra in 1883. A glance at the score of Holbrooke's The Bells shows that their effect is electrifying. He is at all times a brilliant orchestrator.

So how are we to approach the dawning revival of interest in this extraordinary figure whose talent was so 'electric and absorptive' (Thomas Beecham's phrase)? We have to consider a series of powerful and energetic chamber works with their occasionally impish reference to the late Victorian music hall - a world for which Holbrooke obviously had a great affection. And we have to consider a series of some seven or eight 'orchestral poems' or symphonic poems charged with romantic colour and melody. There is also, of course, a body of charming and evocative small-scale piano music and song;. The symphonic poems are crying out for a record company such as Hyperion to do them all, particularly as the pioneering Marco Polo disc of three of them achieved 'Editor's Choice' status in The Gramophone magazine when it first appeared, a decade ago. One should hope that familiarity with these would, in time, stir up the confidence in a revival of The Cauldron of Annwn. A worthwhile enterprise, surely, if Harold Truscott is to be believed.

© Michael Freeman

[Joseph Charles Holbrooke (1878-1958): The Trilogy The Cauldron of Annwn was produced between 1912 and 1929: Part I The Children of Don 1912; Part II Dylan, Son of the Wave 1914; Part III Bronwen 1929]



(Seen as a comparison between The Cauldron operas and the rest)

a. Cauldron recordings

1. Orchestral excerpts, National S.O. Ukraine/Penny (Marco Polo 8.223721)

2. Historical excerpts, including complete 1929 Bronwen set (Symposium 1130)

b. The Rest

1. Symphonic poems, including The Raven, Ulalume and Byron, Czech RSO and Chorus/Leaper (Marco Polo 8.223446)

2. String Sextet, Piano Quintet, Piano Quartet, New Haydn/Hegedus (Marco Polo 8.223736)

3. String Quartets 1 and 2, Clarinet Quintet, Rasumovsky/Hosford (Dutton CDLX7124)

4. Clarinet Quintet (alternative version) with Brahms op.114, R. Kell (Testament SBT 1002)

5. Clarinet Quintet, Piano Quartet, McCaw /Delme/London (British Music Label BML 040)

6. Piano Concerto The Song of Gwyn ap Nudd Milne/BBC Scottish Brabbins (Hyperion CDA 67127)


The reader will realise that this exercise cannot be done properly until we have a complete recording of one of the Cauldron operas. We may have to wait a long time! It is reassuring, however, to see the discography gradually increasing. As it stands today it gives a very different picture of Holbrooke to that of sixty years ago, and that is why I have written the foregoing.

(1) Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis (1880-1946), 8th Baron Howard de Walden and 4th Baron Seaford, was descended from an old Wrexham family which had prospered in the West Indies. The Howard title descended through the female line (Ed.).

(2) Vol. IX No. 4, Winter 1991-2 (Ed.)

DAILY SKETCH 8th January 1923





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


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