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Brian Elias

Publisher: Chester Music

The House That Jack Built (2001)
Commissioned by the BBC
Chester Music Ltd
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
22 Minutes
Programme Note
Brian Elias The House That Jack Built (2001)
The playground and all its rumbustiousness rather than the more gentle nursery is the setting for The House That Jack Built. The moment to moment construction attempts to mimic the furious and manic activity of the playground with its rapid succession of games, chants, calls, jeers, taunts and jibes all repeated frequently at random. Many of these calls impress themselves on our memories instantly and for life, first by their rhythmic force and then by their obsessive quality, which like all ritual acquires unexplainable and magical meaning. This aspect is one of the main building blocks of the piece. It is the manner in which these rhymes and games are made up and played as much as their often bizarre imagery and glorious nonsense which provide background for The House That Jack Built. The work is not programmatic in any way, and with the exception of one well known and easily recognisable musical catchphrase, I have not quoted from or referred to any particular rhymes or games. The single quotation is sounded very early in the piece and generates much of the subsequent material.

The House That Jack Built is made of three main sections. The first, which is the longest, already hints at the curious, cumulative structure of the archetypal nursery rhyme from which the piece takes its title; pairs of episodes of gradually increasing length build towards the central point of the work. This short central section takes its form directly from the construction of the nursery rhyme; 'lines' are added successively to an initial short phrase, creating 'stanzas' which get longer and longer:

This is the house
that Jack Built.

This is the malt
That lay in the house
that Jack Built.

This is the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house
that Jack built.

This is the cat, That killed the rat………

The last section recapitulates earlier material but enters a different world by using more gentle orchestration and lighter colouring. Many of the same games are played just as quickly as before, but the mood is transformed (as so often happens in the playground), and the piece ends as suddenly and as abruptly as a playground may be deserted.

The House That Jack Built lasts approximately 22 minutes. It was commissioned by the BBC for performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra during the 2001/2002 winter season.

Brian Elias
October 2001

Preview the score

  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Orchestra
    Tim Mirfin (bass)
    Martyn Brabbins
Brian Elias has reached his mid-fifties without ever basking in the sort of limelight currently enjoyed by younger British composers such as Turnage or Adès. But his orchestral piece, The House That Jack Built, a BBC commission receiving its world premiere, matched any of today's whiz kids in terms of brio, dramatic instinct and security of technique.
Brian Hunt, Evening Standard,25/03/2002
Purely as psychodrama, then, The House is gripping. But what makes it really memorable is the clarity and vigour of Elias's orchestral writing. Humming throughout with perky rhythms, never cluttered, and full of imaginative ideas (including the 21st-century equivalent of the Pizzicato Polka), it struck me as among the best things that the 53-year old composer has penned.
Richard Morrison, The Times,23/03/2002
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