A lifelong love of chamber music
by Jens Cornelius
Few composers of the twentieth century were as consistent as Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996). Through-out his long life he wrote music with a Zen-like balance between intellect and nature. His tonal idiom is an unmistakable concentrate that translucently combines modernism and the classical legacy with a great love of traditional folk -music.
Holmboe's music never becomes academic. It buds, grows, blossoms and contracts in an organic process that he called metamorphosis. "The metamorphosis technique is quite natural to me, and it is interrelated with many things that slowly seep in through a life lived with nature," explained Holmboe, who was a true lover of nature. He lived for most of his life in the countryside, and planted 3000 trees with his own hands on his property by the lake Arresø in northern Zealand.
His musical production is almost as extensive. When you try to get an overview of it, his love of chamber music is as plain as a pikestaff. For Holmboe, chamber music was an ideal world where nothing gets in the way and where all the participants have an equal say in the matter. His 21 string quartets are most conspicuous in this respect, but several of his other chamber works are of the same high standard. As shown by this -volume 2 in the series of his free-standing chamber works, Holmboe could express himself in a multiplicity of ensembles, forms and formats.
Vagn Holmboe composed music continuously from his teenage years until his death at the age of 86. The clarinet trio Eco, op. 186 from 1991 is one of his last works. It was written for the classic configuration of clarinet, cello and piano that Beethoven and Brahms also used, and the three-movement form too is thoroughly classical.
The title means ‘echo' in Italian and refers to the way the instruments mirror one another and the way small motifs are used in the music. But the echo is perhaps also the memories of an old man? The trio was written at the same time as Holmboe's ten remarkable Preludes for chamber orchestra, where his concern about the frailty of nature in a violent world is clear. ‘Eco' in the ecological sense is hardly an unreasonable third meaning to assign to the music.
In 1922 Carl Nielsen initiated a Danish tradition for wind quintets. The expressive, witty neoclassical style in Nielsen's Wind Quintet was to set a pattern for the future, and it can also be heard in Holmboe.
There are several direct links between Nielsen and Holmboe: at Holmboe's entrance exam for the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen in 1925, it was Carl Nielsen who heard his violin playing and reviewed his compositions. In 1933 Holmboe's First Wind Quintet was given its first performance by four of the five musicians who had inspired Nielsen to write his. And in 1957, when Holmboe wrote his quintet Aspects, op. 72 it was for an ensemble that included the flautist Holger Gilbert-Jesper-sen, for whom Carl Nielsen had written his Flute Concerto.
Holmboe's work is neoclassical in form and full of learned polyphony, but the neoclassical never becomes stylistic imitation. As usual, Holmboe maintains his great integrity and his total rejection of what he called "tricks".
"I can't abide tricks," he stated. "The moment you use various tricks - just for the sake of the trickery, that is - then it's a lie. Then you lie in the music." Instead the music in Aspects is based on the characteristic metamorphosis technique of which Holmboe had achieved supreme mastery by the end of the 1950s.
The title was chosen with care. The five movements are contrasting views of a small motif that the horn plays in the very first bar. The first movement in itself con-sti-tutes a rounded metamorphosis that develops the motif through a slow introduction and a fugato main section until the horn brings it to an end.
Several neoclassical forms appear in the subsequent movements, not least in the 12/8 time of the final movement, which spins along like a gigue. The horn ensures a soft landing with its recollection of the melancholy motto, but the work ends in-tempo and with good humour.
It was the Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály who, with his great Sonata for Cello (1915) resuscitated a genre that had lain idle since the days of Bach. Vagn Holmboe was certainly familiar with the modernist advances that Kodály and his colleague Bartók had made against the background of the folk music of the Balkans. Holmboe's interest in this grew all the stronger in 1931 when he met the Romanian-born pianist Meta Graf in Berlin. In 1933-34 they travelled around together to study the folk music of the Bal-kans and even got married wearing Transsylvanian folk costumes!
Holmboe's Sonata for Violoncello Solo, op. 101 is from 1968-69 and thus more than half a century later than Kodály's. If the leap in time seems surprising, it is simply an expression of Holmboe's lifelong artistic ideals. To the end he acknowledged his indebtedness to both Bach and the Balkans. From Bach he took the movement types of the Baroque, from Balkan music he took the grand gestures and a sense of drama.
The sonata begins with a grand Prelude that fantasizes over the introductory theme, and as with Bach grows into much more than a prelude. In the finest Holmboe style the music grows naturally, almost as if improvised, while at the same time it has a profoundly satisfying form.
The Baroque genre does not alter the fact that Holmboe would never have dreamt of writing a pastiche. His fugue in the second movement quickly goes its own way, and the -final rondo of the sonata is a highly physical dance, full of lopsided, irregular Balkan phrases.
Not without reason, Holmboe's concentrated and sometimes ascetic music has given him a reputation as a serious man. Cheap points were alien to his nature, but that does not mean that he had no sense of humour. Holmboe's music spans all the temperaments, and in some works humour is a bearing idea. And so it is for example with the charming joke Quartetto Medico, op. 70 from 1956, written for piano, flute, oboe and clarinet.
Holmboe wrote the piece for four amateur musicians who were all medical doc-tors. This explains why the work is not all that difficult to play, and why the movement names merge with the musical expression in musical/medical diagnoses.
The first and second movements represent the contrast between healthy and fever-ish - balance against fitful restlessness. Then come two short interludes (called "-Inter-medico" instead of "Intermedio"): the first is a close-order fugue for the winds alone ("senza pianisticitis"), the second on the other hand is for piano solo ("sans marais", that is "without marsh" - one of the players was a Dr. Mose (Danish mose means ‘marsh'), so he was not the pianist!).
In the last movement comes a loosening-up with an "Allegro con frangula": frangula is a laxative, and the music really does flow easily along ...
Holmboe's Sextet, op. 114 for the atypical configuration of three strings (violin, viola, cello) and three winds (flute, clarinet and bassoon) was written in 1973 and given its first perfor-mance by musicians from the Odense Symphony Orchestra. The mix of instruments offers many possible types of sonority, and Holmboe, who admired Haydn greatly for getting a lot out of a little, uses the six voices like a whole small orchestra.
The first movement has a slow introduction before a fast, teeming main section begins. The little first subject and a brief rhythmic figure run through the music as a recurrent strand, but constantly transformed into new, individual variants. As a contrast, the second movement is a beautiful, ethereal interval in which the parts function as echoes of one another and are mirrored in the most delicate expressions.
Quite classically, the work ends with a lively, rhythmically intricate last move-ment which, typically for Holmboe, is still completely relaxed and camouflages its many inge-nuities. The sextet is a lush, imaginative work, written by a composer at the peak of his mastery.
Jens Cornelius, 2012