Joseph Holbrooke

From Wind Repertory Project
Joseph Holbrooke


Joseph Charles Holbrooke (5 July 1878, Croydon, London – 5 August 1958, St. John's Wood, London) was an English composer, conductor, and pianist.

His father, also named Joseph, was a music hall musician and teacher, and his mother Helen was a Scottish singer. Their family travelled around the country, with both parents participating in musical entertainments. Holbrooke was taught to play the piano and the violin by his father, who was not averse to the use of violence as a method of instruction, and played in music halls himself before entering the Royal Academy of Music as a student in 1893, where he studied under Frederick Corder (composition) and Frederick Westlake (piano). Whilst at the academy he composed several works, chiefly piano miniatures, songs and some chamber music, which were performed at student concerts. After leaving the Royal Academy, he sought a variety of occupations.

During his career as a performer, Holbrooke developed a reputation for being susceptible to impulses. Having found frustration in British audiences' preference for foreign music (mainly Germany, but also that of other European countries), he would often call them out in his concert programs. These sentiments of his were exacerbated when World War I broke out. Another example of his cantankerousness is an occasion in which he withdrew from a particular concert in Bournemouth due to its advertisements – they promoted a Russian-German performer more than himself, despite the latter's event being scheduled for two days later.

Regardless, Holbrooke produced a large catalogue of works in nearly every medium, with numerous operas, ballet suites, orchestral symphonies, piano compositions, chamber ensembles, and several pieces for brass band and military band. His era of composition was the late Romantic period, with much of his music making use of tonal yet chromatic figures. He has been likened to an angular Tchaikovsky. An idée fixe of his was the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. A number of Holbrooke's compositions were based on famous Poe works, such as The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Cask of Amontillado, and others. The composer also took an interest in jazz during the early 1920s, even taking up dancing and becoming engrossed in the activity such that he would demonstrate at the slightest justification to do so.

Many of Holbrooke's works have been lost to time, due in no small part to a 1928 fire that destroyed his music library and most of his home. Despite a foundation being formed in 1931 to help promote his compositions, he simply never reached the level of fame of other prominent 20th-century British composers. It did not help that he was known for constantly revising and making changes to his pieces, often putting out several versions of a single opus (version a, b, c, etc.), and inconsistently using various spellings of his name (he could be known by the names Joseph, Josef, Holbrook, Holbrooke, and also the pseudonym Jean Hanze) to avoid being confused with his father. He eventually became deaf and passed away at age 80 in London.

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