PRO-9226: Gordon Jacob: Chamber Music for Clarinet

The history of music for any period is almost always dominated by a few well-known composers. However, reality is often more complex than the refining hindsight of history. While major composers’ works represent the quintessence of a period, the composers themselves operate in a milieu which includes many other presently lesser-known, but very able composers. Gordon Jacob, although not among the best-known, is certainly one of the more influential composers of 20th-century British music.

Born July 5, l895 in the London suburb of Upper Norwood, Gordon Percival Septimus Jacob, according to his earliest recollection, always wanted to be a musician. Educated at Dulwich College, his earliest efforts at composition date from the age of ten; with the Dulwich College orchestra performing one of his earlier works when he was fifteen. Despite his obvious talent, his family was opposed to his desire to become a professional musician, citing the usual reservations regarding the lack of opportunity in the arts.

In l914, still in his teens, Jacob joined the British military service. He saw considerable battle action and was captured, becoming a prisoner of war. While there can be no doubt that these experiences, together with the tragic loss of his brother killed in action, had their effect, the War did present an unforeseen opportunity. He managed to organize a small prisoners’ orchestra, comprised of two violins, two cellos, a flute, a clarinet, a cornet and a piano. Because they had no music, Jacob either composed or orchestrated everything they performed, and also served as conductor. Given these primitive, sometimes hostile conditions, Jacob was still able to produce concerts that were well-received by the prisoners. Even the German guards attended, amazed that an English soldier could also be an “artiste!”

Returning to England after the war, Jacob enrolled in a journalism school, apparently still under the influence of his family’s opinion of the musical life. Although the year of study went poorly, he did learn a considerable amount about writing. This would resurface years later in the authorship of several books, numerous articles and prefaces to editions of scores. The decision to leave journalism was finalized when he discovered that as a returning war veteran he could obtain a government grant to study at the Royal College of Music.

By the early 1920s, many of the teachers who were to establish the modern reputation of the Royal College of Music were already there, and an excellent group of students, government grants in hand, had come from the War with a mature appreciation of the value of education. Jacob chose to study composition, conducting and piano. His composition instructor was Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and he also studied harmony and counterpoint with Herbert Howells, both leading composers of the day. His conducting teacher, Adrian Boult, would become world-famous as conductor of several major British orchestras. He also studied piano with George Thalben-Ball, a distinguished organist, although a severed tendon from a childhood accident restricted Jacob's hand movement. All this superb teaching and general environment of excellence was not lost on Jacob and was to provide a firm basis of sound musicianship which is evident in his music.

Upon graduation from the Royal College Jacob obtained a teaching position at Birkbeck and Morley College and in l926 was invited to join the faculty of the Royal College of Music. Although he considered himself primarily a professional composer, he would maintain his teaching position at the Royal College until his retirement in l966 and would become renowned for his teaching of harmony, orchestration and composition. During this lengthy tenure he had many pupils who distinguished themselves including: Malcolm Arnold, Philip Cannon, Adrian Cruft, Alexander Gibson, Imogen Holst, Joseph Horovitz and William Waterhouse. It is also a fact that he aided many another composer, most notably Vaughan-Williams, by orchestrating several of his major works.

Jacob’s active life as a professional composer spans sixty years, from the early l920s until his death in 1984. During this time, he composed a vast catalog of works for virtually all instruments and encompassing a myriad of forms. His emphasis on works for wind instruments is clear; with l59 individual compositions for this family of instruments. They range from solo works to concertos, including many works for the standard smaller wind ensembles (i.e., duos, trios, quartets, and quintets) as well as mixed ensembles and a considerable number of works for concert band and brass band.

The part of this considerable output devoted to the clarinet is very indicative of the whole. There is a wide variety of works, and they are extremely well-crafted. The ones selected for this recording are personal favorites of the performers representing to large extent a cross-section of the entire output for clarinet.

The Concertino for clarinet and either string orchestra or piano is freely arranged from two violin sonatas by Giuseppe Tartini. Most often heard in the arrangement for clarinet and string orchestra, this recording is believed to be the first offered with piano accompaniment, an arrangement fully authorized by the composer. Its existence reflects Jacob’s desire to expand the clarinet repertoire by drawing on works from the Baroque period. In a brief preface, he laments "the lack of repertoire for clarinet from a golden age of music, which included Händel and Bach and a host of lesser but admirable composers.” (The clarinet had not reached its present recognizable form until the time of Mozart.) It is worth noting that Jacob notates the quick-moving melody of the second movement in an entirely slurred (i.e. unarticulated) phrasing. One of the original performers, experiencing difficulty in articulating the rapid melody, moved the obliging Jacob to put the entire passage under slur markings. Most clarinetists, however, make some kind of articulated “edition” of their own in order to enhance the dance-like melody.

The Three Songs for Soprano and Clarinet were composed in l931 and are dedicated to soprano Dora Stevens, who first performed them on November 5th of that year. The clarinetist was Alan Frank, who would later become head of music at Oxford University Press. The songs themselves, composed on poems from the book, English Madrigal Verse at first glance seem sparse (set as they are without piano accompaniment). Yet in the end we are convinced by the rightness of Jacob’s vision. His mastery of text setting for voice and a deft instinct for when to use the clarinet as accompaniment or countrapuntal partner is evident everywhere in this wonderful set of songs.

Five Pieces for Solo Clarinet, composed in the early l970s, were dedicated to the London-based clarinetist, Georgina Dobrée. Making use of virtually every aspect of traditional clarinet playing, these short, precise pieces masterfully reflect their subtitles: Preamble, Waltz, Homage to J.S.B. (Johann Sebastian Bach), Soliloquy and Scherzo and Trio.

The Quintet for Clarinet and Strings , composed for the legendary English clarinetist Frederick Thurston and the Griller String Quartet in l939, was premiered at London’s Wigmore Hall. “Jack” Thurston had been a fellow student with Jacob at the Royal College of Music and in later years Jacob was fond of recalling the many occasions on which Thurston gave remarkable performances of concertos and chamber music. Jacob's former pupil and noted English film composer Joseph Horovitz remarks, "Jacob composed expressly for Thurston whenever he wrote for clarinet. For Jacob, Thurston’s sound was the sound of the clarinet."

In part, our hope in issueing this recording is that it inspire others to look into Gordon Jacob's work. One of my teachers used to say, "There are two kinds of music: good and bad." Gordon Jacob’s works stand firmly in the former category. In an age when craft, skill, and dedication seem unpopular as a lifestyle, his works stand as a monument to a life well-lived in music. (DG)

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