Vagn Holmboe: Chamber Symphonies
30 January 2013
Ronald E. Grames
Written throughout the period that Danish composer Vagn Holmboe
(1909-1996) was also writing symphonies for full orchestra, these are expressively and technically the equal of their larger siblings. In fact, they are marvelously concentrated snapshots of his developing compositional style using continuous metamorphosis of thematic material. Based on models found in nature-"from egg to larva to cocoon to insect" was his common example - he built his works through constant evolution of themes: the end point a logical extension of the start, if often of markedly different character. The fascination is in observing the process, like watching a plant grow, bloom, and then wither in a time-lapse video. It is a subtle and powerful tool for the expression of Holmboe's intensely felt, but often exquisitely restrained, musical ideas. Primarily modal in tonality and conservative in language, if not in form, these are works that could be from no other century but the last, and yet they exhibit none of the formalism, extremes in harmonic language, or cool objectivism that turn some away from contemporary music.
Each of the three symphonies is also a personal testament to his spiritual state at the time. Chamber Symphony No. 1
reflects his debt to Carl Nielsen, both personal and musical, notably in the elegiac Adagio
and the timpanipunctuated finale. One hears as well the influence of his studies of Balkan music, and his lifelong admiration for Bartók. The symphony was written in 1951, not long after he began teaching at the Royal Danish Conservatory. It is the most classical of the three in structure, though in its cyclic development of the opening motif it already shows the beginnings of Holmboe's organic development method.
The melancholy of the Chamber Symphony No. 2
, "Elegy" (1968) makes clear, for this usually reticent composer, that there had been a crisis in life and spirit. The public rejection of his aesthetics by former students - Per Norgård and Ib Nørholm in particular-and his subsequent resignation from the conservatory and retirement to his home in remote Zealand are reflected in the agonized writing. The intervening years had been spent perfecting metamorphic development, and here he revels in its expressive complexity while seemingly questioning it in the work's many uncharacteristic modernisms. Holmboe finds no resolution in the Second.
The Chamber Symphony No. 3
, "Frieze" was written between 1969 and 1970. The intense emotion is once again internalized. The traditional language now integrates some of the innovations he previously struggled against. Metamorphosis is used, but not as a unifying force, and the work signals a new peace. It was created in collaboration with friend and sculptor Arne L. Hansen; Holmboe's six movements reflect the six panels in Hansen's frieze, and each panel bears the name of one of the intensely concentrated symphonic movements. The composer would continue to write for more than 20 years, and produce masterpieces, but only a few works so thoroughly distill the essence of his mature voice as this haunting piece.
Unbelievably, these are first recordings of these important works. Filling this gap in Holmboe's discography is an important milestone in the ongoing noble effort of Dacapo and BIS to make Holmboe's work known outside of home turf. The composer is considered by many of his compatriots as the rightful successor to Carl Nielsen. I maintain, as do many others that know his music, that he is one of the great musical voices of the 20th century. I suppose he really needs someone to champion his work on the world stage: a Bernstein to his Mahler. For now, he has impressive advocates in Finnish conductor John Storgårds
and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra
; they deserve special thanks for bringing these three remarkable chamber symphonies to the catalog in performances of such insight and technical perfection.