Gordon Jacob: An Original Suite
Gordon Percival Septimus Jacob was born in 1895 in South London. He was the youngest of ten siblings, and the seventh male. He was enlisted to go to war at the age of 19, and in 1917 he was taken as a prisoner of war. He was one of the 60 men out of 800 who survived. His musical talents thrived as he set up a prison camp orchestra. After the war, he studied at the Royal College of Music.
Due to various injuries and a cleft palate, Jacob never pursued a performance career. His composition and arranging talents, however, did not go unnoticed by famous British composers of the time. After graduating, Jacob remained at the Royal College, and taught there until his retirement in 1966. His students included the likes of Malcolm Arnold, Philip Cannon and Robert Turner. Jacob is perhaps best known for his wind band music.
An Original Suite was composed in 1928, and is perhaps Jacob’s most famous wind band piece. It’s in three sections, and each movement brings a different atmosphere to the piece. The genesis of the work is rather mysterious, as there is no documentation as to why Jacob wrote it, as it was not dedicated for someone, nor was he commissioned to write it. Interestingly, Jacob hated the title of the piece and explains what happened in a 1982 interview:
“I never like 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 a 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 itself. It was an unfortunate title, I know.”
The first movement, entitled “March” lasts about three minutes in total and is the grand opening to the suite. This movement, however, does not follow any typical march forms as it does not follow an intro/first/second/third strain etc. The movement has four different themes, which are presented in succession, and are separated by transitions or new introductions. The piece begins with a 2-bar snare drum introduction, which is followed by the first theme in G minor. This theme is played very quietly by the flutes, oboes, clarinets and solo trumpet. This 8-bar phrase is then repeated, but this time an octave up and much louder. The accompaniment by other instruments in the ensemble is much more complex and prevalent.
The next theme hints at F major, and is also an 8-bar theme. This theme is in common time, and the second time is more ornamented. The character of the piece then becomes a completely different character and this prepares us for the third theme. Previous themes are also brought back and varied in places, creating inverted melodies. The fourth theme is pentatonic and is a long and flowing melody. It’s in a cantabile style and is played by the woodwind section. There is a recap section and the movement ends with a 7-bar coda, ending as it began with a snare drum solo, followed by a G major chord.
The second movement, entitled “Intermezzo”, is the slow movement of the suite. Interestingly, there is actually only one main theme in this piece, and it is 17 bars in length. The tonality fluctuates between C major and A minor at the beginning of the piece. The solo is played by an alto saxophone for the first two times, the third time by the solo cornet.
The development section is much more chromatic and takes a lot of control to play. There are lyrical triplets and a flowing quaver-based melody which soars above the orchestra. There is an effective climax where an Eb9 chord is played by the band. This section transitions into the coda section which is based around A minor. The chord is built up through the band and the brass then fade away, but the woodwind chord remains.
The final movement, entitled “Finale”, is the most upbeat of the work. This movement has been said to be juxtaposing itself. For instance, in the beginning, the clarinets and saxophones are written in Bb major, whereas the rest of the ensemble are in G minor. The main 7-bar theme is taken, altered and repeated throughout the movement. There are a lot of 4-bar themes that don’t exactly relate to each other, yet they seem to work well together. The second theme is pentatonic again and is focused on a syncopated rhythm. Due to the amount of repeating in this movement, it has been suggested that this is the least creative out of the suite.
Ⓒ Alex Burns