Josef Holbrooke Symphonic Music Sails On

Josef Holbrooke wasn’t the only composer continuing the later Romantic traditions well into the 20th Century. But he was the only one I know of who scolded his audiences for not appreciating his talent. So it’s not surprising that Holbrooke’s music quickly fell into obscurity, even during his lifetime.

Almost a century later, we have a chance to reevaluate his music, without all the baggage (and the attitude). This is the third volume of Holbrooke’s orchestral works released by CPO, and it’s a nice selection of music.

I don’t have to be chided to like Holbrooke. I personally find his work tuneful, harmonically interesting, and — if not genius — well-crafted and imaginative.

The major work here is Holbrooke’s Symphony No. 3 in E minor. This 1925 symphony is titled “Ships,” but it was also at various times labeled “Nelson,” the “National Symphony,” and “Our Navy.”

Collectively, these titles describe the work pretty well. Holbrooke creates a three-movement programmatic symphony that portrays various ships at sea. And not just any ships — proud vessels of the Royal Navy and Merchant Marine!

The orchestra gently rises and falls to simulate the waves, with the major themes floating above in the higher registers. The shape of Holbrooke’s melodies has a hint of English folk song, giving the work a nationalist flavor. And while it isn’t a great symphony (sorry, Josef), it does what it sets out. Holbrooke lays out his themes, works with them, and leads the listener to a satisfying conclusion.

The shorter works are, I think, more interesting. The Birds of Rhiannon, written the same year as the symphony, is a tightly constructed tone poem that evokes a bygone world of legend. To my ears, it greatly resembled similar works by Arnold Bax (without the Gaelic overlay).

Where Holbrooke really shines is with his symphonic variations on “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” Holbrooke deconstructs the melody and seems to thoroughly examine all the melodic and harmonic possibilities of each phrase. And he does so with a generous measure of good humor, especially at the climax.

The Deutsche Radio Philharmonie under the direction of Howard Griffiths delivers some solid performances of Holbrooke’s music. The symphonic variations featured some sections and individual players, and all rose to the task. I credit part of the work’s cheerfulness to the orchestra’s performance and Griffiths direction.

Holbrooke may have been his own worst enemy. But without his personality to get in the way, we can simply enjoy his music. And I did.

Josef Holbrooke: Symphony No. 3 “Ships”
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie; Howard Griffiths, conductor

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