Holbrooke the pioneer!

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Periodically the Holbrooke Society issue a manifesto which never fails to stir the imagination, for the reader is never sure when he will have to dodge a brickbat. The latest issue, entitled The Work of a Pioneer, is singularly free from the usual missiles, the most conspicuous falling from grace being the name of Vasco Akeroyd — whom so many of us admired and esteemed in the good old days of Rodewald and the Liverpool Orchestral Society — spelt as Vasco A Keroyd, which will compel Vasco to sit up if he sees it. The record contained in this brochure is of Josef Holbrooke’s pioneering in the cause of new chamber music by contemporary British composers.

Naturally Holbrooke’s name looms large as the composer of chamber music and songs; otherwise he seems to have exercised an indiscriminating generosity to his contemporaries, many of whom must at least have felt honoured in having their works included in his chamber concerts given in London, the Provinces, Paris and the West Indies. In a letter to the [present, ie HB] writer Holbrooke says that the composers he had helped only turned and kicked him: I rather doubt this, deeming it largely imagination. My name does not appear on his list of those helped, though in the past I, as a composer, have been helped considerably: but I have never had the inclination to kick my friends after being helped. Until broadcasting came into existence, composers depended entirely on the favour of individuals for the performance of their new works. Broadcasting cannot entirely replace personal effort, but it has completely changed the face of things, and there is now less personal effort than formerly.

This brochure was well worth the publishing if only to show how much spade work Holbrooke did on behalf of others. It was always his claim that he was the first man in this country to perform the works of Delius. The first entry is of a recital of songs and piano pieces, which includes several songs by Fritz Delius at Steinway Hall in 1903. I remember the friendship in those years between Beecham and Holbrooke; to meet them together was to feel like sitting over a powder magazine. There are many records here of Beecham’s pioneering efforts as an orchestral conductor in the early nineteen hundreds.

What impresses me most about this brochure is the conscious panorama of a changing world. For the majority life has few changes; with many artists it is a case of here today and gone tomorrow. Many names on the list are now but memories, one notable exception being that of John Barbirolli, conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. As recently as 1929, 1930 and 1931 Barbirolli appeared at the Holbrooke concerts as solo cellist in new works by John Ireland. I have often heard Holbrooke championing the supremacy of English instrumentalists, — particularly the violinists John Dunn, John Saunders and Vasco Akeroyd. Their names occur frequently in these stirring pages of endeavour.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, February 1939, p. 395