Born in London, the youngest of ten siblings, Jacob was educated at Dulwich College in South London, England. His career almost ended before it began. He enlisted in the Field Artillery to serve in World War I when he was 19. The vagaries of war pushed him into the infantry, in the trenches in the front line. He was taken prisoner of war in 1917, and was one of only 60 men in his battalion of 800 to survive. He amused himself and his fellow POWs by forming a small prison camp "orchestra" of any instruments they could muster, and arranging music for it. At this period he received the news that his brother Anstey, who had enlisted with him, had died on the Somme, and this he commemorated some years later in his first Symphony.
After being released he spent a year studying journalism, but left to study composition, theory, and conducting at the Royal College of Music. Because of his cleft palate and a childhood hand injury, his instrumental abilities were limited; he studied piano but never had a performing career. Jacob's first major successful piece was composed during his student years: the William Byrd Suite for orchestra, after a collection of pieces for the virginals. It is better-known in a later arrangement for symphonic band. While a student Jacob was asked by Ralph Vaughan Williams to arrange the latter's English Folk Song Suite for full orchestra.
He taught at the Royal College of Music from 1924 until his retirement in 1966. Malcolm Arnold, John Bevan Baker, Frank Bury, Ruth Gipps, Imogen Holst, Cyril Smith, Philip Cannon, Pamela Harrison and Robert Turner were among his students. Jacob became a Fellow of the Royal College in 1946, and throughout his career often wrote pieces for particular students and faculties.
In the 1930s Jacob, along with several other young composers, wrote for the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company (now The Royal Ballet). His one original ballet, Uncle Remus, was written for them, but most of his contributions were arrangements of established works, such as Les Sylphides, for which his version remains in use, though the rival orchestration by Roy Douglas has been more often recorded for disc. Later ballet scores arranged by Jacob include Mam'zelle Angot, (based on Charles Lecocq's music, which remains in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet) and, in 1958, London Morning, composed for the London Festival Ballet by Noël Coward and orchestrated by Jacob.
Jacob also contributed light music to a morale-boosting comedy radio show during World War II, which earned him the appreciation of the public but the disdain of the musical elitists. He also wrote music for several propaganda films.
In the 1940s he was commissioned, on the recommendation of Sir Adrian Boult, to orchestrate Elgar's Organ Sonata. A recording of this version was made in 1988 by EMI.
The height of his renown was in the 1950s, during which his Music for a Festival was used for the 1951 Festival of Britain, and his trumpet-heavy fanfare arrangement of the National Anthem was used for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
After his retirement from the Royal College in 1966, he continued to support himself by composing, often on commission. He describes many of the works as "unpretentious little pieces", though some of his most important works were published during this time, including his Concerto for Timpani and Wind Band in 1984.
Jacob married twice, once in 1924 to Sydney Gray, who died in 1958, and again in 1959, to her niece Margaret Gray. He had two children by Margaret, who was 42 years his junior. He died in Saffron Walden in 1984.
There is a 1959 BBC documentary about his life, Gordon Jacob, directed by Ken Russell, as well as a 1995 book by Eric Wetherell entitled Gordon Jacob: a Centenary Biography. He was featured on the BBC Radio 3 program Composer of the Week in late November 2016.
Jacob was one of the most musically conservative of his generation of composers. Though he studied with Vaughan Williams and Stanford at the Royal College, Jacob preferred the more austere Baroque and Classical models to the Romanticism of his peers, and stuck to this aesthetic even in the face of the trends toward atonality and serialism.
This conservatism later caused his works to fall out of fashion when the 1960s establishment favoured the avant-garde. Jacob held the movement in little regard, saying "I personally feel repelled by the intellectual snobbery of some progressive artists... the day that melody is discarded altogether, you may as well pack up music...".
He was a skilful writer for winds, and a good deal of his present-day reputation is because he embraced the wind band, which had begun coming into its own as a concert ensemble. Additionally, he published solo and chamber literature at various levels of difficulty for nearly all the wind instruments, many of which are now standard items in the pedagogical and performing repertoires.
Jacob was prolific, publishing over 400 pieces of music in addition to four books and numerous essays on music.
Gordon Jacob was "Composer of the Week" on BBC Radio 3, 15 to 20 April 2013.
Jacob wrote an important number of works for oboe, including 2 concertos, 1 Sonata for oboe and piano, 1 Sonatina for oboe and cembalo, an oboe quartet and some music for students.William Byrd Suite (composed 1922, published 1924)
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1925)
Concerto for Piano and Strings (1927)
An Original Suite for Military Band (1928)
String Quartet (1928)
Symphony No. 1 (1928–9)
Double Concerto for Clarinet and Trumpet (1929)
Variations on an Air by Purcell (1930), string orchestra
Passacaglia on a Well-Known Theme (Oranges and Lemons) (1931)
Concerto for Oboe and Strings (1933)
Uncle Remus (1934), ballet
Variations on an Original Theme (1936);
Suite No. 1 in F (1939)
Clarinet Quintet (1940)
Symphony no. 2 (1943–4)
Concerto for Bassoon, Strings, and Percussion (1947)
Suite No. 2 (1948–9);
Suite No. 3 (1949)
Fantasia on the Alleluia Hymn (1949)
Serenade (1950), woodwind octet
The Nun's Priest's Tale (1951), chorus and orchestra
Music for a Festival (1951), concert band
Concerto for Horn and Strings (1951)
Concerto for Flute and Strings (1952)
Scherzo for Two Trumpets, Horn, and Trombone (1952)
Sextet for piano and winds, "In memoriam Aubrey Brain"
Concerto for Violin and Strings (1954)
Concerto for Cello and Strings (1955)
Prelude and Toccata (1955), orchestra
Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra (1956)
Piano Trio (1956)
Oboe Concerto No. 2 (1956)
Piano Concerto No. 2 (1957)
Five Pieces (In the form of a Suite) for Harmonica and Piano (1957)
Old Wine in New Bottles (1958), For wind ensemble: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets
Prelude, Meditation and Fanfare (1958), organ
The Pied Piper, 2 unaccompanied pieces for solo flute/piccolo: The Spell (solo flute) and March to the River Weser (solo piccolo) (1958)
Overture Fun Fare (1960)
The Barber Of Seville Goes To The Devil (1960), full orchestra (burlesque of Rossini's overture to The Barber of Seville)
Overture for Strings (1964)
Divertimento (1968), 8 winds
Suite for Bassoon and String Quartet (1968) for William Waterhouse
Concerto for Piano Duet (3 hands) and Orchestra (1969)
Partita for Bassoon (1970) for William Waterhouse
Introduction and Rondo (1972), clarinet choir
Suite for Tuba and Strings (1972)
Variations on a Dorian Theme (1972)
Five Pieces for Clarinet (Unaccompanied) (1973)
Fantasia for Euphonium and Wind Band (1974)
Suite for 8 violas (1975), premiered in 1976, in honor of Lionel Tertis' 100th birthday.
Pro Corda Suite (1977), string quartet and string orchestra
Symphony AD 78 (1978), concert band
Fantasia on an English folk song (Dashing away with a smoothing iron) (published c. 1984), concert band
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1978)
Viola Concerto No. 2 (1979)()
Concerto for Timpani and Wind Band (1984)
Denbigh Suite for String Orchestra (or String Quartet) (1929), for Howell's School, Denbigh
Clarinet Concertino (Arranged from two violin sonatas of Giuseppe Tartini)
Orchestral Technique (1931)
How to Read a Score (1944)
The Composer and his Art (1955)
The Elements of Orchestration (1962)