Gordon Jacob: Concerto for Horn and Strings

performed by David Pyatt and the London Philharmonic under Nicholas Braithwaite, or below in a piano reduction by Gerardo Diaz, horn; Alex Marshall, piano

I personally feel repelled by the intellectual snobbery of some progressive artists… the day that melody is discarded altogether, you may as well pack up music…

Gordon Jacob

(900,000 is a big number)

Gordon Percival Septimus Jacob is a very English name, and the composer who bore it was born on July 5, 1895, in London, the youngest of ten siblings. He nearly died in World War I; Wikipedia says that “The vagaries of war pushed him into the infantry, in the trenches in the front line. He was taken prisoner of war in 1917, and was one of only 60 men in his battalion of 800 to survive,” and tells of how he and his fellow POWs would entertain themselves with impromptu instruments and made “a small prison camp ‘orchestra.'” The composer’s brother, however, did die in the war, and Jacob commemorated him in his first symphony.

He began studying journalism, but eventually gave it up to study at the Royal College of Music. Due to a hand injury and a cleft palate, his performing opportunities were apparently limited, so he dedicated himself to composition, eventually teaching where he himself studied, and among his students were people like Malcolm Arnold, Ruth Gipps, Cyril Smith and Imogen Holst.

As to his compositional style, Wikipedia says that “he is best known for his compositions for wind band and his instructional texts,” and that “Jacob was one of the most musically conservative of his generation of composers… Jacob preferred the more austere Baroque and Classical models to the Romanticism of his peers, and stuck to this aesthetic even in the face of the trends toward atonality and serialism.” So that’s something to look out for. He was quite a prolific composer, and apparently did well for a time, but this conservative approach apparently led to interest in his works cooling off.

In any case, today we have his horn concerto from 1951. It was composed specifically for Dennis Brain (Wiki also mentioned that many of Jacob’s compositions, at least later in his life, were on commission). It was premiered on May 8, 1951 in London’s Wigmore hall, with the composer conducting the Riddick String Orchestra, Brain as soloist. Wiki cites a few sources when it states that “The piece has been regarded as one of the most popular horn concertos of the 20th century,” which is odd considering I couldn’t find a single performance of the piece with an actual orchestra as intended.

The work is in three movements and lasts about 20 minutes.

Mozart comes to mind if only in spirit, with a simple orchestral exhalation and an ebullient, sunny entry from the soloist that immediately gives us an idea of the sound world we’ll be exploring. It’s conservative, sure, but irresistibly musical and expressive, but also clearly a modern work. This lyricism is also seen in the contrasting melody of the first movement. This first movement is the longest, but even then it’s rather light in scope. We’re not plumbing any depths of complexity; there are no leitmotifs that are introduced and transformed, nothing that recondite, but the result is still satisfying. It may border a little bit on a cinematic sound, but there is a standard structure, a helping of drama and tension in the development section, with restatements of the opening figures from orchestra and soloist. It’s straightforward, uncomplicated brilliance, full of color and texture and rich musicality. There’s also a cadenza, as there should be!

But pay attention to the closing seconds of the first movement; just make a mental note of it. The second movement begins with a stirring, rich melancholy from strings. The horn again leads the way here, with long, lyrical lines, a nocturne-like adagio, and maybe it’s only now that you realize this concerto has no woodwinds aside from the solo horn. I mean, unless you read the title. The first movement was so vibrant and colorful, orchestrated with such skill, that you may not notice the lack of flutes, oboes, etc. This pureness, intimacy, is especially effective in this slow movement, the shortest of the three in this piece.

We then bounce right into the finale, with more repeated notes. I said there were no leitmotifs in this work, at least not in any Wagnerian sense, but the first and third movements do begin with a repeated note figure. If the first movement was friendly and exciting and outgoing, the third is joking and humorous, really genuinely bringing a smile to the face, but it’s not all tomfoolery and jokes. There’s beautiful, delicate music here. It’s a movement made up of contrasts: lighthearted joking, and some more dramatic passages, virtuosity and more spacious lines.

There’s nothing really about this work not to like. It’s approachable. All the challenges in this work have been given to the soloist, and generously so. There’s nothing challenging for the audience, and for some listeners, that’s the only challenge there is, that it’s maybe a bit vanilla for the darker souls who want to feel something more raw, and if that’s the case, this just isn’t the piece for you.

This isn’t music that will change your life, but it can certainly brighten your day, so give it a listen. Even if you’re one of those people who likes your music to be higher proof, the Islay single malt of classical music, you still can’t deny that this work is exquisitely well written. I’ll say I am one of those people who likes more substantial, or rather darker, music, and yet… I keep returning to it for the simple but deeply satisfying joys it offers. I’ll admit that the composer’s quote about intellectual snobbery is one that has the potential to rub me the wrong way, seeing as I do quite enjoy much of the more avant-garde (serialist music), but with limitations, but here we are, and here I am, eager to get to know more of Gordon Jacob’s music, so I’d say he stood by what he believed in and made a damn good argument for it. What is interesting to me, as an aside, is how the first and third movements kind of just… end. It’s a simple gesture, sure, and maybe some kind of statement, perhaps that there needn’t be any grandiose finale, or maybe it isn’t.

While that’s all we’ll be seeing of him for now, we have two more of his fellow countrymen lined up for the rest of the week, and then a solo horn epilogue of sorts. Perhaps the roster of Englishmen will give you some indication of our upcoming symphony series and what to look forward to there, so stay tuned. It’s been a long time in coming.

(Also, I’d like to mention that I’m counting this article as officially being the one with which I break the 900,000-word mark for this blog. After more than three and a half years of articles, of varying seriousness and quality, and much calculation (not counting) of averages and the article length of more than half of my articles, this article, no. 730, is the one that puts me over 900k words, so…. in another four months or so, we’ll be at the staggering one million mark. Thanks for reading some of those words, and I hope you continue to do so.)

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