Kevin Mandry I recently spent an all-too-rare evening listening to some of Marco Polo’s Brian and Holbrooke CDs. The most striking (and astonishing) realisation such a direct comparison afforded was that - for all their very obvious differences - there is far more linking the two men than I for one would ever have imagined.
We know that they were at the very least acquaintances, though I’m not sure whether they were ever what one would understand as ‘friends’: and we also know that for a few years at least Holbrooke was sufficiently successful for Brian to be have been aware of his work. (Wasn’t he employed as a copyist on some of Holbrooke’s scores?). But a side-by-side comparison threw into strikingly sharp relief just how many of the characteristics that we now think of as practically copyright Brian were also shared by Holbrooke. Given that in his preludes and overtures the latter wasn’t even attempting symphonic thought, he nevertheless shares Brian’s impatience with straightforward repetition, and with conventional working out’.
Very marked is the strong tendency to that Brianic hallmark, abrupt transition. There’s a similar taste for wide dynamic contrasts, and many of Holbrooke’s (often ravishing) melodies tend to flower only briefly before being brutally aborted in a way that was to become even more marked in Brian. The use of wind supported only by high strings or deep bass occasions a certain similar ‘hollowness’ of orchestration (compare The Bells, say, with parts of In memoriam), while the reliance on dogged side-drum tattoos and off-beat rhythms (often combined with abruptly curtailed, vaguely ‘Celtic’ melodies, à la Sinfonia tragica) is strikingly Brianic.
In fact, given that so much of (particularly late) Brian is written in a kind of musical shorthand, I found myself noting again and again how remarkably similar many passages in Holbrooke would sound if they were similarly compressed and tautened. I’m not really suggesting there’s any direct influence - after all, for all Holbrooke’s felicities, Brian was a vastly more sophisticated musical thinker; but I am suggesting there may be some deep-seated shared attitudes at the heart of both men’s music. and that there may be a lot of work to be done on this one day.
I tend to the view that, after HB himself, of all the long-neglected British composers now slowly being hauled back to light and life, Holbrooke remains the most neglected and the most misunderstood. Written off as simply a sprawling Late Romantic (notoriously as a Cockney Wagner) be was in fact a more subtle and more complex character than might at first appear - not least in his assimilation of the popular (well, music-hall) idioms of his time, in a way that no-one else I can think of even attempted. (Though again, HB was up to something not dissimilar in his early English suites and, of course, in The Tigers).
Indeed, some of his raucous settings of Chesterton would fit very easily in mood and temperament into the world of The Tigers, and in this respect it’s precisely as a Cockney composer (for all his Germanic and Celtic affiliations) that he was more of an original than he’s ever been given credit for. I suggested some time ago that the influence of popular idioms - from the music hall to the brass band - on both Holbrooke’s and Brian’s work would one day merit serious investigation, and the more I think about it the more I now believe this to be an important, and overlooked, aspect of their musical personalities. Unfortunately, it’s likely to be many years before we have enough material (from either source) to actually make a proper assessment possible.
NL127 © 1996 Kevin Mandry
Newsletter, NL 127, 1996