Joseph Horovitz: A 75th Birthday Appreciation

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A 75th birthday appreciation by Robert Matthew-Walker

The noted Viennese-born but naturalised British composer, conductor and pianist Joseph Horowitz celebrated his 75th birthday on 26 May. Musicians and music-lovers have many reasons to be grateful for the work of this excellent musician, in so many fields, but it is perhaps as a serious composer that we should honour him most today.

Joseph Horovitz began his earliest musical studies in his native Vienna, but following the Anschluss the family moved to London in 1938. Young Joseph's studies in England and, later, in France were distinguished: during the War, he read music at New College Oxford, under Sir Thomas Armstrong, whilst acting as lecturer and pianist for the armed forces stationed in England. Later at the Royal College of Music he studied composition and orchestration with Gordon Jacob. An early one-act ballet, The Emperor's New Clothes, written during his Royal College years, won him the Farrar Prize there. Following this, Horovitz went to Paris for a period of further intensive study with Nadia Boulanger.

As the late Ernest Bradbury wrote, Horovitz "is a composer of remarkable versatility, graceful wit and an enviable ability to communicate, whether in his refreshingly light or more serious styles" a verdict with which it would be difficult to disagree when considering the enormous range of his art, from ballets to operas, from serious and lighter concert works to film and television music.

All this is grist to a compositional mill which is superbly adaptable, and when on occasion these seemingly various styles coalesce into a work of more serious intent the result is a dazzling display of wondrous communicative ability. Speaking, in this instance, from personal experience, Joseph Horovitz's brilliant Jazz Harpsichord Concerto with String Orchestra may not be easy for the soloist to play, but it is an absolute winner, the neglect of which I find utterly inexplicable. It should undoubtedly be recorded.

Horowitz's theatre works include two early comic operas, The Dumb Wife and Gentleman's Island, and a series of ballets, most notably Alice in Wonderland, written in 1953 for the inaugural Royal Festival Hall Season of Anton Dolin's Festival Ballet, and Les femmes d'Alger, from which four Concert Dances were restored for Symphony Orchestra, together with Lets Make A Ballet, from a story by Michael Bentine. The earliest of these, Alice in Wonderland, has been very well recorded by the Northern Sinfonia under the composer on Max Sound MSCC1.

Perhaps Horovitz's best-known dance piece is his Concerto for Dancers, which made a deep impression at the 1958 Edinburgh Festival, and which has been recorded in the version for two pianos by the Cann sisters, Annette and Claire, on Pianissimo PP21192.

There are also half-a-dozen and more concertos, including that for Jazz Harpsichord, most of which are scored for string orchestra accompaniment, and are unjustly neglected today. …