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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

21. Rubbra's
Comedy Overture



This work was the result of a terrible mistake. The Variety Club of Great Britain wanted to commission a light-hearted piece to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee and one of its committee members recommended Edmund Rubbra, under the illusion that during his wartime service with the Army Music Unit, the composer had run a combo under the title 'Ed Rubb and his Hot Seven' (Eric Gruenberg on violin, Bill Pleeth on doublebass and Rubbra himself on keyboards). Surprisingly, Rubbra accepted the commission, telling friends that he welcomed the opportunity it gave him to let his hair down. Though the work is in some ways characteristic of its composer, the comedy element, it has to be admitted, is teasingly elusive.

The music opens impressively with its main - nay, only - theme: three descending tones, blazed out maestoso in unison on the brass. We are quickly made aware of the comic allusions of the theme, when it is repeated a minor third higher on tutti woodwind. This three-note motive can subsequently be detected in almost every bar of the piece, giving it a high degree of unity. In the contrapuntally-inspired Moderato ma non troppo which follows, the theme is treated fugally in eight part, with every conceivable canonic variant displayed: inversion, diminution, double diminution, augmentation, double augmentation, double inversion, inverted diminution, augmented diminution, etc.. Just as we are thinking that the composer cannot possibly have any more tricks up his sleeve and that we could perhaps do with a bar or two's rest, comes the pièce de resistence. The music reaches a mighty dissonance (dominant 7th in its final inversion) hammered out on full orchestra followed by a repeat of the Moderato, but this time with the music heard backwards! And the surprises are by no means over. The music unexpectedly changes course and out of the depths appears what sounds like a new theme. But no: it is the same old three notes again, this time treated as a passacaglia. After some ingenious orchestral polyphony, the work reaches a brilliant conclusion with the 'motto' blazed out in full orchestral unison. The Comedy Overture may not perhaps be the 'laugh a minute' that one admirer has suggested, but nevertheless it is a welcome example of this normally austere, solemn composer in jovial mood - 'loosening his braces', as it were.


Copyright © 13 April 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK


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