Gordon Jacob

Gordon Jacob In Conversation

Celebrating Twenty Five Years Of BASBWE

From the 1st edition of the 1st Journal of BASBWE

with Kevin Thompson, Director of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts
Journal of the British Association of Symphonic Bands & Wind Ensembles Spring 1982

Q. Your music spans over 50 years; looking back from the perspective of today, how would you say your style has developed?

It is always difficult to judge one's own music but I think I aim at greater simplicity nowadays. There was a tendency after World War I to be rather extravagant; we were all very keen on being up-to-date, but as one becomes older that feeling diminishes and you simply write what comes.

Q. You studied with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Herbert Howells and Vaughan Williams at the RCM; how influential were they in developing your style of composition?

I'm not sure they were influential in developing the style of my compositions but they were influential teachers. I think I learnt more from Herbert Howells than I did from either Stanford or Vaughan Williams. Stanford thought all 20th-century music was terrible; he didn't even like Richard Strauss, and as for Vaughan Williams and Holst, he thought they were outrageous.

But Stanford was very good in giving one the basic technique of composition. I did free composition with him, and harmony and counterpoint with Herbert Howells. Later I changed to Vaughan Williams whom I did not find particularly helpful as a teacher, although I was influenced by his music and it was during the time I was a student that he brought out the PastoralSymphony (1922); he had already written the Sea Symphony (1912) and the London Symphony (1914), so his style was set by then.

Vaughan Williams was a great influence then; so was Stravinsky - especially his Rite of Spring (1 913), and I was influenced by Russian music in general; it was something quite new to me. I used to go to the Diaghilev Ballet Russe; there were two seasons of it in London at that time so I heard an enormous amount of Russian music and that really had a marked influence on me during my student days, more so than English music and it still does. Later I was caught up in the Sibelius craze and that was really quite healthy.

Q. In that case to what extent would you say that your music is part of the Holst and Vaughan Williams tradition?

One has to admit that they were both influential in my formative years. Of course I knew them both well, but I particularly admired Holst; he was very different from Vaughan Williams. Later I taught instrumentation to Holst's daughter, Imogen, at the College. Incidentally, she was one of my first pupils to learn to write for brass band, the others wouldn't do it - they were frightened of all those treble clefs.

Q. Your style is economical, direct and never over-sentimental. Was it a conscious decision to write in this way?

No, but I do hate sentimentality in music; it is so different from genuine feeling.

Q. You are renowned as an orchestrator and your book 'Orchestral Technique' (1931) is standard text for student composers and arrangers. Do you ever feel that being regarded as an authority on orchestration and arranging has in some way been detrimental to your reputation as a composer?

It was at one time. If the critics are given a handle to use, as it were, about any-body, it saves them a lot of trouble. If they can say that the instrumentation was masterly, then they don't have to say much about the music. I suppose it's a mechanical reaction. I used to be rather irritated by that, but nowadays I really don't mind. I never read press notices so I don't know what they're saying about me.

Q. The craftsmanship of your works is beyond question. Would you say that this tradition of professionalism is being carried on by the younger composers of today?

Not as much as it should be. They are inclined to follow the rather pernicious doctrine that technique doesn't matter, it's originality and novelty that matter. They think that if you write something which is very awkward to play then that's fine because you ought not to make concessions to technique. But I believe that craftsmanship, particularly the understanding of instruments, is especially important.

I taught at the RCM up to about 12 years ago and some of my students then were pretty advanced in their ideas. In fact one of them hardly wrote any notes down on paper but gave detailed instructions about what to play, so I gave up teaching after that.

Q. I've always been fascinated by some of the harmonic resources from which you draw. Which composers have been influential in this respect?

The Russian Nationalists, particularly Stravinsky in his earlier works, Sibelius and Elgar - whose work I've always admired. His instrumentation is absolutely first-rate, but he was also a fine contrapuntist and his invention in the development of his ideas was remarkable, especially when you consider that he did not have any formal instruction.

Q. Quite apart from your own compositions, you have had a marked effect on the compositions of others. As Professor of composition at the RCM you taught many of the British composers of today; Malcolm Arnold, Adrian Cruft, Elizabeth Maconchy and Bernard Stevens to name but a few. How soon did you realise the potential of these composers?

I recognised that they were especially talented, though my idea of teaching was not to try to influence them to write in a particular idiom, but to encourage them to develop a style of their own. During the Sibelius craze, some of my pupils copied him religiously. I used to say to them, what you admire in Sibelius is his individuality; if you really want to imitate him you have to try and develop your own personality, and you can't do that by following what he does.

Q. Is there anything in your career that you would have changed?

I don't think so. I have had a happy life on the whole and people have been encouraging and helpful to me. There have been no serious set-backs in my musical development, and if I had my time over again I would be happy to do the same.

Q. You have seen great changes within your lifetime in the sort of music being written. How do you see the music of today in relation to, say, that of the 20's?

It is related in the sense that the pursuit for novelty and dissonance was going on then. Of course Schoenberg and Webern were around in the '20's, and I remember one performance of some of Webern's music - particularly sparse and with many silences - in which a well-known German conductor proceeded to conduct a clarinettist playing pianissimo and a harpist playing a harmonic, with great energy and enormous sweeps of the baton. It was impossible to take it seriously.

Q. Which contemporary composers do you most admire?

One cannot help but admire Britten whom I suppose is still considered a contemporary composer. Others include Prokofiev, Shostakovich and some of the American composers, especially Copland. All of these, it seems to me, are in the line of progress. I don't really admire the extremists.

Q. If you could select only one work by which you were to be judged, which would you choose?

It changes from time to time so I doubt I could choose just one. My favourites are the Clarinet Quintet which I wrote in the '30's; the Oboe Quartet (1938); more recently the Mini Concerto for Clarinet and Strings, which I wrote last year; and some of my pieces for band like the Concerto for Band (1969) and Flag of Stars (1956).

Q. Turning more specifically to your wind band and wind ensemble music, perhaps your best known work in this medium is 'An Original Suite'(1928). The title puzzles many people; why 'original'?

I never liked that title and I asked Boosey & Hawkes to change it but they said that the Suite was now known by that name so I decided to retain it. There is historic reason for the name. At that time very little original music was being written for what was then 'military' band, so the title was a way of distinguishing that it was an original work rather than an arrangement - not that the music was very original in itself. It was an unfortunate title, I know. When I went to America some years ago, I heard many bands playing the work, and I told them that I didn't like the title.

Q. You seem to have an affinity with wind instruments and a particular penchant for the wind band. As an orchestrator, the 'all-colour' quality of the band obviously appeals, but are there other reasons for your interest in the medium?

One of the chief reasons is that you get your music performed if you write for wind band, whereas writing for orchestra can be a purely academic exercise unless you have a definite commission.

Q. English folk song suites have long been associated with the wind band - one thinks of Vaughan Williams, Holst and Grainger. Your own works 'Old Wine in New Bottles' and 'Concerto for Band' are derivative of folk material and, to a lesser extent, even your 'Original Suite' is folkish. What would you say was the reason for composers transcribing folk song material for band?

It was simply the Vaughan Williams' influence on English folk song music. My Original Suite was written in 1923 whilst I was still a student at the RCM. The slow movement is Irish rather than English 'folky', the reason being that the Londonderry Air was extremely popular and much admired during the '20's.

Q. Transcribing the Vaughan Williams' 'Folk Song Suite' from military band to orchestral score was quite a responsibility for a 29-year old. How did this transcription come about?

Boosey & Hawkes, who publishes the original, asked Vaughan Williams to do his own transcription, but he couldn't be bothered, so he asked me, and that's really what put me on the track of writing band music.

Q. I understand that you are still writing today. What sort of things are you working on at present?

I'm writing an orchestral suite. I have recently completed a concerto for flute and string orchestra which has yet to be performed and a double concerto, receiving its first performance this year, for trumpet and clarinet with wind band accompaniment.

Q. Have you any remaining or rather unfulfilled ambitions musically?

Not now. I just go on writing whatever people commission me to write. I did the Second Flute Concerto and the Mini Concerto without being asked but nearly everything else is commissioned. Most composers give up when they are much younger than me. I ought not to be writing at my age.

(I know many that would disagree!)

Catalogue of Works For Wind Band By Gordon Jacob

First President of BASBWE

Work Year Publisher
All Afoot 1984 Studio Music
Barber of Seville goes to the Devil arr O'Brien 1960 OUP
Blow the Man Down 1984 R Smith
Cameos for bass trombone and wind band 1978 Emerson
Celebration Overture 1982 Boosey and Hawkes
Ceremonial Music military band and fanfare group 1970 Boosey and Hawkes
Concertino for trombone and wind band 1977 Emerson
Concerto for Band 1970 Boosey and Hawkes
Nocturne from Moorside Suite by Holst arr. 1941 Boosey and Hawkes
Concerto for Timpani and Band 1984 R Smith
Fantasia on an English Folk Song 1983 R Smith
Double Concerto for Clarinet, Trumpet & band 1975 Emerson
Fantasia for Euphonium and Band 1969 Boosey and Hawkes
Festal March 1948 Chappell
Flag of Stars Concert Overture 1954 Boosey and Hawkes
Giles Farnaby Suite 1967 Boosey and Hawkes
Miscellanies for alto saxophone 1976 Emerson
Moorside Suite by Holst arr Jacob 1960 Boosey and Hawkes
Music for a Festival Wind band and fanfare trumpets 1951 Boosey and Hawkes
Original Suite 1928 Boosey and Hawkes
Overture to Comedy 1981 Studio
Prelude to Revelry 1944 - 1983 Novello
William Byrd Suite 1922 Boosey and Hawkes
Symphony AD 78 1978 R Smith
Tribute to Canterbury 1972 Boosey and Hawkes

Official website: Gordon Jacob