Josef Holbrooke (born Joseph Holbrook) had his first success in 1900 with the premiere of his orchestral poem “The Raven.” Before that, he’d been an accompanist, music teacher, and itinerate conductor kicking about the UK.
But the recognition went to his head. Although frequently performed in the era before World War I, Holbrooke didn’t make many friends.
He often attacked critics and even his audience. “Mr. Josef Holbrooke steps forward somewhat adventurously… to an apathetic public, and hopes to receive as few blows as possible (with the usual financial loss) in return,” he wrote for a concert program.
After the war, his music was seen as increasingly old-fashioned. And without supporters, it soon disappeared from the English concert repertoire.
So how does Holbrooke’s work sound today? It’s definitely music of its time — but some of the best-constructed music of that time.
The 1906 “Variations on “Auld Lang Syne” are quite imaginative. Inspired by Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, Holbrooke created twenty variations, each a portrait of a friend. While not on par with “Enigma,” the variations do go in unexpected directions.
They remind me of Charles Ives’ treatment of “America,” as some variations have a hint of music hall and other popular music. I’m surprised this hasn’t become a classical radio staple for New Year’s Eve.
A 1917 review of Holbrooke’s violin concerto claimed, “Here the composer was at his best: the music may almost be said to be overflowing with milk and honey.” The harmonies are certainly rich enough. And while the melodies are sweetly beautiful, the violinist is presented with plenty of challenges. Violinist Judith Ingolfsson’s exciting performance keeps the milk and honey to a minimum, letting the structure of the work shine through the sentimentality.
Holbrooke’s breakout composition, “The Raven” reflected his love of Edgar Allen Poe.
I think it’s the weightiest work of the album. Holbrooke was once called the “Cockney Wagner,” and there are echoes of “Tristan and Isolde” in this work.
Like Wagner’s score, there’s an underlying sense of disquiet and tragedy running through the score. A disquiet that’s in tune with the timbre of the poem. Of the three works on this release, “The Raven” was the one I returned to most often.
Josef Holbrooke: Symphonic Poems, Vol. 2
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 59 “The Grasshopper”; “The Raven” Poem No. 1 for Orchestra, Op. 25; “Auld Lang Syne” Variations No. 3 for Orchestra, Op. 60
Judith Ingolfsson, violin; Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt; Howard Griffiths, conductor
CPO 777 636-2