Chaos magic from the cockney Wagner

A curious experiment was tried out in Queen’s Hall at one of those concerts when Holbrooke’s orchestral commentary on Herbert Trench’s Apollo and the Seaman was introduced. A screen was rigged up immediately in front of the orchestra, and upon it as the music proceeded the text of the poem was projected by a magic lantern at the back of the hall. It was so contrived that the reflected stanzas synchronized with the sounds intended to illustrate them, a sort of precursor to the “talkies.” The screen entirely hid the conductor and orchestra from the audience, a fact of which Beecham took full advantage, conducting in his shirt-sleeves and even at one point exclaiming in a stage whisper, “My God! I’ve the most colossal thirst! Let me see – ah yes! The third trumpet has nothing to do for pages. Just run out and get me a brandy and soda, will you, my dear fellow?”
On An Overgrown Path has been an staunch advocate of combining classical music and kinetic art, so it seemed appropriate to share that cautionary tale about quenching classical music’s thirst for innovation. It refers to a 1908 concert conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham and comes from Arnold Bax’s Farewell My Youth. The composer Joseph Holbrooke (1878-1958) - seen above - was a leading figure in the English musical renaissance at the turn of the last century. Although now forgotten he left much music that is worth exploring, most notably his trilogy of operas The Cauldron of Annwn inspired by Welsh mythology. In a year when no Bayreuth connection is being left unexplored it is worth recalling that Holbrooke’s operatic cycle earned him the sobriquet ‘the cockney Wagner’; although the perceptive Peter Pirie curtly comments that the nickname is “rather apt if no question of status is raised”. This path is one of several prompted by the discussion in Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney’s Hidden Wisdom of ‘chaos magicians’, an occult movement which urges its practitioners to use any available means to dislocate the consciousness from its customary moorings. Looking at the specific, Arnold Bax and Joseph Holbrooke were musical chaos magicians, as, in a very different way, was John Cage. But looking at the bigger picture, chaos magicians are the antithesis of the single composer fetishists who are currently perverting the course of classical music. In fact chaos magic is a neat description of my recent chance-driven listening experiments, and if classical music really wants to reach new audiences it needs fewer social media pundits and more chaos magicians.

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