Joseph Groocock came to Ireland in 19351 at the age of 21 to teach music in St. Columba's College, a boys' boarding school near Dublin. Retiring from that post 40 years later, he continued lecturing and teaching for another 22 years at three of Dublin's principal schools of music: the University of Dublin (Trinity College) School of Music, the Dublin Institute of Technology Conservatory of Music and Drama, and The Royal Irish Academy of Music. As well as lecturing, he continued taking private pupils right up to his death at the age of 83. He is remembered with affection and admiration by hundreds if not thousands of his pupils, and by others who heard him talk, perform and conduct.
Born in November 1913 in Croydon, near London, Joseph Groocock was the only child of a successful organist, teacher and choirmaster, Edward Groocock, who claimed pedagogical descent from Mozart, through Attwood, Crotch, Stainer and Balfour. Joseph attended St Michael's College Tenbury as a choral scholar, and later St Edward's School Oxford, before studying Classics and Music at Christ Church, Oxford. From his father he inherited an exceptional aural ability and an unshakeable belief in the value of ear-training and dictation, which he regarded as fundamental to all musical education. Both father and son were outstanding accompanists, and both excelled in improvising at the keyboard.
Within a few years of arriving in Ireland, Joseph married and began bringing up a large family, most of whom (and a good proportion of his grandchildren in turn) became professional musicians and music teachers. In the early 1950s he made a tour to survey musical activity in the Irish Republic, commissioned by Foras Éireann, a social and educational foundation. Later, in recognition of this, the University of Dublin awarded him an honorary Doctorate in Music. He became well-known to the Irish public, presenting regular radio programmes on music; he gave talks to gramophone and other societies, and conducted choirs including that of the Irish Countrywomen's Association and (for four decades) the University of Dublin Choral Society. He also gave organ recitals: his speciality was Bach's unfinished Art of Fugue, for which he composed a conclusion.
He is remembered by those who heard his presentations, or sang under him, as a wickedly witty, energetic man who charmed and cajoled them, and gave to many their first real musical impetus, striking a spark that had lurked unsuspected within them.
St Columba's College
One of his early pupils at St Columba's recalls:
He was almost always easy-going, although there is a story that he was once encountered storming towards the Warden's [Headmaster's] house, muttering: 'I'm very angry with the Warden. I'm going to see him now.' When someone told him that the Warden would be away until the next Tuesday, Joe calmed down immediately and said 'Then I'll be very angry with him on Tuesday'. He inspired a love of music in many of us, especially at his informal organ recitals after the Sunday evening Chapel service. As we processed out of Chapel, Joe would usually play an improvisation on the final hymn tune, often cunningly weaving in a bit of the latest popular song. Then we'd rush back into Chapel, to join the varied group of boys and masters gathered round the organ bench. The most favoured had the privilege of sitting beside Joe, and turning the page when he gave a brisk nod. His legs flew over the pedals, and his arms might have been those of the six-armed Hindu god as they pounded the keys and stabbed at the organ stops.Another remembers him as a genuinely welcoming, interested and humane person, a rare thing for a new boy to meet in the harsh and intimidating environment of a boarding school in the 1950s.
One of his duties was to compose and produce musical comedies for the St Columba's boys to perform at the end of term, of which the best-known, Jack and Jill and the Drainpipe, has been revived many times since. It is a delightfully scatty story, full of catchy songs with witty lyrics in a 1930s style. Jack and Jill are the children of Mrs Hanky, a laundress; a chorus of laundresses open the play singing:
Washing is the greatest pleasure, washing is the greatest fun,
Don't you want to come and join us now our wash-day's begun?
When Mrs Hanky announces that her children have gone missing they sing:
What is the use of complaining, children will always come back,
Jack will look after his Jilly, Jill will look after her Jack!
Children are fond of adventure, there is no need for dismay,
So pick up a handful of soapsuds, wash all your worries away!
This has to be envisaged with a cast of adolescent boys dressed as hugely buxom washerwomen flinging suds around the stage.
As a university teacher Dr Groocock's method was to lead by example.
He would pose a contrapuntal problem and set his pupils to come up with as many solutions as we could while he, on the blackboard, swiftly outnumbered us. The Bachelor of Music degree in Trinity College for a number of years was taught almost solely by him and all hinged on the writing of fugue. His bible was Bach; his harshest criticism was 'would Bach have done that?' (Softened frequently by 'he could have...').
He would test our harmonic exercises, making chords in the air with his hands; then he would praise our efforts generously, pointing out any unintended effects we had produced, and not without admiration for our daring. Above all he made sure we really heard what we were doing, and he was 'snortingly' derisive of any music teaching that showed how to do things 'on paper' - at the thought of such humbug his eyes would flash. Otherwise he spoke with seemingly excessive modesty, but always with the authority of one who was utterly intimate with the process of composition in many styles. He championed the use of sol-fa for ear training. I cannot imagine a better undergraduate grounding in musical theory than Joseph Groocock's intensive Bach-centred method.
As a composer Joseph Groocock had nothing to do with modernity. He quoted Oscar Wilde: It's not a good idea to be too modern, one goes out of fashion so terribly quickly. He wrote many songs and sonatas in a tonal idiom that evokes 1930s England2, but he was adept in various earlier styles. Many of his pieces are distinctly Bach-ish, but he was also able to provide the Prelude Brass Ensemble, a Dublin group, with a brilliant and beautiful fifteen-minute composition in the style of Brahms; brass quintets are generally starved of good Romantic pieces.
In his middle age he taught himself to play the guitar, in order to help a primary-school student who couldn't find a teacher. The student went further on the guitar than he did, eventually taking his diploma and becoming a professional performer. Joe remained amused at the sight of his own right hand leaping wide open to play a tenth, a large stretch on a keyboard but a small one on a guitar. One fruit of this study was his exquisite set of eight short canons for guitar duet, in the style of Bach: one at each interval from unison to the octave, with a free bassline added in one part, beautifully idiomatic for the guitar.
His list of compositions, which can be seen at The Contemporary Music Centre site, includes, among several other canonic pieces, an extended three-part canon by double augmentation: a feat that few who accept the restrictions of tonality have achieved since the Renaissance. He also wrote accompanied and unaccompanied vocal music, instrumental pieces for various combinations including string quartet and cello octet, and his own set of 24 keyboard preludes and fugues. In his last years he wrote a fugue nearly every day for mental exercise, as one might do a crossword.
'I abominate fuss'
In his lifestyle Joseph Groocock was both spartan and extremely hospitable. He is remembered with deep gratitude by many people, not only his students, for his painstaking kindness and thoughtfulness in times of difficulty. He 'abominated fuss', in the words of one of his favourite fictional characters3, but he was always approachable and at ease in any company; to the last he was full of humour, impossibly energetic, endlessly interested in the people he met, and warmly appreciative of kindness in others.
Posthumous Publication of Fugal Composition
After Joseph Groocock died, his widow persuaded the eminent Bach scholar Dr Yo Tomita to edit his major work on Bach's contrapuntal technique for publication. Dr Tomita did a brilliant job, becoming convinced of the book's excellence and falling under the charm of its author, whom he regrets never having met. It was published in February, 2003 by Greenwood Press with the title Fugal Composition: a Guide to the Study of Bach's '48'; and it has had excellent reviews.