Joseph Holbrooke and the saxophone in his opera trilogy

In the early 20th century, the saxophone fell out of favor in opera and ballet. In the database, there are only a small handful of operas that premiered before WWI. Out of that small number, two operas are by English composer Joseph Holbrooke (1878-1958). Who is Holbrooke and how did the saxophone end up in his operas?

Joseph Holbrooke studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music in the late 1800s. He found early success after setting Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” to music in 1900. Holbrooke set out to write his first symphony in 1905, Symphony no. 1 ‘Les hommages,’ Op. 40 which included S/A/T/B saxophones. Looking at the musical landscape in London at this time, it’s not unusual for Holbrooke to include saxophones because in that same year, Richard Strauss conducted his tone poem, Symphonia Domestica at the Queen Hall in London. This tone poem is notable for being the only piece Strauss wrote using saxophones and even more unusual, he wrote for saxophones tuned in C and F. The review of the concert was less than kind to Strauss and his expansive orchestration. The reviewer seems to indicate that saxophones tuned to C and F were manufactured specifically for this piece.[1]

Holbrooke was a fan of Strauss, and it is quite possible that Symphonia Domestica influenced the work of Holbrooke. One year after Strauss’s performance of Symphonia Domestica, Holbrooke premiered his Symphony no. 1 at Queen’s Hall.[2] Unlike Strauss, Holbrooke’s Symphony received great reviews.

In 1908, Holbrooke wrote his next symphony, An Illuminated Symphony, Apollo and the Seaman, A Poem on Immortality, Op. 51. This work contained just the soprano and tenor saxophone. This takes the poetry of Herbert Trench and sets it to music with men’s chorus. This symphony also received rave reviews, W. H. Hadow, editor of the Oxford History of Music declared “this work is the beginning of a new and beautiful art form.”[3]

Holbrooke’s next project was to write a trilogy of operas based on The Cauldron of Annwn by Thomas Scott-Ellis. Holbrooke wanted to follow in Wagner’s footsteps, using Welsh stories to create a national identity through opera.[4] The three operas that create this trilogy are, 1909 Dylan, Son of the Wave (Op. 56), 1912 The Children of Don (Op. 56), and 1929 Bronwen (Op. 75). In 1909, Holbrooke debuted the prelude to Dylan at Queen’s Hall in London, for an orchestra of 120 musicians including three saxophones (S/A/T).[5] Holbrooke considered this work as a symphonic poem rather than as a overture or prelude to an opera. The saxophones got rave reviews in this work, “He has here made use of exceptional instruments…and from these instruments he draws some fine effects, especially with the saxophones.”[6] Two years later, The Children of Don debuted at the London Opera House. There was much hype to this opera,

“and if this eagerly-awaited production will serve to remove the reproach, so long levelled against this country, of being unable to bring forth a really fine serious opera, Mr. Hammerstein’s house will not have been built in vain—from the standpoint, at any rate, of our native art. Let all, then, hope that Wednesday may prove a red-letter day in this country’s musical history.”[7]

The Children of Don includes S/A/T/B/Bass saxophones. I can’t find any reviews on the operas, but these works were revived in the 1920-30s. The last of Holbrooke’s opera in this trilogy, Bronwen premiered in the 1920s and this opera omits the saxophone.

The operas are no longer performed, but recordings of the overtures exist. The only contemporary recordings of the overtures are by the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra and they omit the saxophone, using double reeds to play the saxophone solos. In the Children of Don, the saxophones often double the woodwinds, and there is a saxophone duet in the overture. The saxophones solos start at 4:08 in the video below with the English horn playing the alto saxophone solo and the oboe playing the soprano saxophone solo.

In the “Prelude” to Dylan, the alto saxophone has a solo at 6:20 mark played by the English horn in the video below.

Both of these works highlight the Wagnerian influence in Holbrooke’s writing. His use of the saxophones expanded on how French composers were writing for the instrument, he often doubled up the woodwind or the brass section with the saxophones, using the instrument in both families.

Why did Holbrooke and his music fall into obscurity? In an obituary from The Times in London, the music critic notes that Holbrooke was a Romantic in a neoclassical world. After WWI, there wasn’t an appetite for the large scale romantic works that dominated late 19th century.[8] He simply became a man out of his time.

HoIbrooke continued to write for the saxophone. In 1928, Holbrooke wrote a Concerto for Saxophone in B flat, Op. 88. This concerto was recorded in 2011 by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra with Amy Dickson on the soprano and alto saxophone.

Edit: I received more information about Joseph Holbrooke from his grandson, Richard Holbrooke. Richard sent me a review of the opera, The Children of Don from The London Musical Courier. I’ll post the review in full, complete with illustrations of druid sets, one act is set at Stonehenge. There is no mention of the saxophone in the review, but it does illustrate much of what we already know of the opera and Holbrooke’s Wagnerian influences. Another piece to fill in the details of this forgotten opera.

[1]”Music.” Illustrated London News, 8 Apr. 1905, p. 486. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, Accessed 17 Jan. 2023.

[2]”Promenade Concerts.” Daily Telegraph, 26 Oct. 1906, p. 10. The Telegraph Historical Archive, Accessed 24 Jan. 2023.

[3]”Art Music & the Drama.” Illustrated London News, 25 Jan. 1908, p. 124. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, Accessed 24 Jan. 2023.

[4] Anne-Marie Forbes and Rob Barnett, “Holbrooke, Joseph” Oxford Music Online,

[5]”Musical Notes.” Daily Telegraph, 29 Jan. 1910, p. 15. The Telegraph Historical Archive,
doc/IO0706489662/TGRH?u=duke_perkins&sid=bookmark-TGRH&xid=1ac4e7ce. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023.

[6]”Queen’s Hall.” Daily Telegraph, 26 June 1909, p. 12. The Telegraph Historical Archive,
doc/IO0706881623/TGRH?u=duke_perkins&sid=bookmark-TGRH&xid=59ec45d6. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023.

[7] “Musical Notes.” Daily Telegraph, 8 June 1912, p. 15. The Telegraph Historical Archive,
doc/IO0706957379/TGRH?u=duke_perkins&sid=bookmark-TGRH&xid=bd9b7da0. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023.

[8]FROM OUR MUSIC CRITIC. “Music’s Summer of Heavy Losses.” Times, 19 Sept. 1958, p. 6. The Times Digital Archive, Accessed 24 Jan. 2023.

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

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