String Quartets Vol. 2
String Quartets Vol. 2
'A most promising start to an essential, richly recorded survey', observed Gramophone about the first volume of Vagn Holmboe's complete string quartets by the Nightingale String Quartet. In this, the second instalment, the Nightingales continues convincingly with energetic, precise, yet lively and poetic interpretations of the Holmboe quartets, which stand amongst the most significant contributions to the genre in the 20th century.
In free motion
By Jens Cornelius
‘I have been composing since I was about 14 years old; before that I painted. The first reason I began to compose was that I was not allowed to become a painter because my father knew too many ill-fated painters. The second reason was that he didn’t know as much about the musicians’ world, so I received permission to play the violin. I began to compose at the same time. From when I was 14 there was no doubt, no doubt at all’.
There was so much creative power in Vagn Holmboe (1909‑1996), and he ended up composing nonstop for nearly three quarters of a century. In all he composed almost 400 works, including 13 symphonies, countless solo concertos, choral works and orchestral pieces. But it was string quartets that preoccupied him more than any other genre. In the course of a remarkable span of 70 years he wrote over 30 quartets, more than Bartók and Shostakovich together, and their quality means Holmboe’s stand amongst the most significant contributions to the genre in the 20th century.
In 1926, when Vagn Holmboe was 16, he attended an entrance audition at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. He took with him his violin and the manuscript of a string quartet. He was heard by the national composer, Carl Nielsen. ‘He had grey hair and was very kind’, remembered Holmboe many years later. ‘When he had looked through the manuscript, he laid his hand on it and said, “Yes, you can regard yourself as accepted”, and I was completely surprised and enormously happy.’
Even though Holmboe didn’t study composition with Carl Nielsen himself, the academy was permeated by Nielsen’s core values, especially the study of the classics and of polyphony, and these were to characterise Holmboe’s music for the rest of his life. For the same reason, the Viennese composer Haydn became one of Holmboe’s life-long role models: ‘He is quite precise and clear, and that is something that one has to be to write quartets at all’, said Holmboe. The music of Béla Bartók, who would become the composer’s second major role model later on, was unknown to him at this time.
Vagn Holmboe grew up in the provincial town of Horsens, in a family which was culturally advanced by comparison with many others at the time. His mother practised yoga, which had just arrived in Europe, and his elder brother Knud was a journalist and probably the first Dane to convert to Islam. As a young musician, Holmboe had a burning interest in Arabic music, and considered concentrating on an academic career to study it. Instead, it was the influence from Eastern European folk music which came to characterise his music. He came into contact with it when he met the Romanian pianist Meta Graf in 1930. They married in 1933, and together they undertook musical ethnological field studies in Romania. Holmboe often talked about how he was ‘freed’ by the rhythms and tonality of folk music. It became a source of artistic inspiration which coloured his music and gave him a special status amongst his generation’s neo-classically orientated Nordic composers.
String Quartet No. 2 (1949)
Having written ten string quartets by 1944, Holmboe reached a decisive point in 1949: only later did he acknowledge a composition as his first string quartet. He discarded all the quartets he had written until then. New and unknown doors opened to him in this music, their creative perspectives seeming endless. The first, second and third quartet were composed over a year and a half in a rush of inspiration which the otherwise so controlled composer recognised ‘a sudden tidal wave’.
The first quartet has the subtitle, ‘In Memoriam Béla Bartók’, and is full of elements which pay homage to the recently deceased Hungarian master. String Quartet No. 2 is in five movements, modelled after Bartók’s symmetrical design. This is inspired music, with both strong coherence and a lively organic freedom. The sequence of movements alternates between quick, energetic movements and slow elegies. The first takes off energetically in 12/8 time, its main theme heard in the first violin then the viola. Its strolling, narrative character resembles a musical adventure, with dangers lurking in the movement’s middle section. The second is an introverted moment, a slow-motion mutation of its predecessor, in which a serious motive becomes the basis for pensive night music. By contrast, the third movement is a wildly flying scherzo in which triple rhythms shift like a footballer’s rapid feints. The fourth movement is the quartet’s second elegy, this one played with mutes. The short, serious movement also functions as a kind of prelude to the work’s redemptive finale, whose music is clearly inspired from the Balkans. It is in 5/8, leading to a quite dissonant but elegant jam session and ending entirely classically with a broad and strong chord of C major.
String Quartet No. 2 is dedicated to the Leo Hansen Quartet, who gave the first performance in a radio broadcast on 23 May 1949. On the initiative of the Det Unge Tonekunstnerselskab (The Young Artists’ Society), it was custom for a period to have performances of new works followed by a formal public discussion, set up with a ‘defender’ and an ‘accuser’ under the headline ‘Musical Tribunal’. In the case of his String Quartet No. 2, Holmboe’s defender was the composer Svend Erik Tarp, while his accuser was the music critic Sverre Forchhammer. The press summed up the debate: ‘Tarp reasoned in a light and sympathetic way, suggesting that the quartet contained many valuable elements, in the end covering the accuser’s superficial attack. The final verdict was left to the listeners’.
String Quartet No. 14 (1975)
More than 25 years passed between the composition of the second and the fourteenth quartets, years in which Holmboe composed so many works that the gap seems enormous. Still, there are basic features in common arising from Holmboe’s great artistic integrity. It is typical of his later works that they have a greater density and shorter duration, well exemplified by Quartet No. 14, which runs for only a quarter of an hour even though it has six movements. The first three movements run on without a pause between them. The first movement, which is played with mutes and is described as ‘dreamy’, begins with a long violin solo, a fantasy in solitude. Slowly, the other strings join, one at a time, and the dream expands multidimensionally in a way that is truly fascinating. The mutes are retained in the second movement, the most subdued scherzo one could imagine, in which a persistent triplet rhythm allows the dream to unfold in a short, whirling sequence. By contrast, the third movement is very insistent, with an ostinato at its core, shared out between the three lowest string voices.
With beautiful order in its proportions, the quartet’s next two movements are also a ‘set’, played without a pause between them. The fourth movement resembles the first, both in its motifs and in its introverted polyphony. The fifth movement is like the second in its rhythmic contrast, still toned down but this time played entirely pizzicato.
The last movement stands alone. Vital, extroverted and played ‘con spirito’, the music has woken from the world of dreams. All its expressions and developmental forms are in free motion, and the thoughts from the preceding movements fall into place within a whole which is both vigorous and brilliantly controlled.
Quartetto sereno (1996)
In his last years, Holmboe wrote two works for string quartet which he did not include in his series of 20 numbered quartets written till then: Sværm (Swarm), Op. 190b, built on the basis of a work for two violins, and Quartetto sereno, which he worked on in his last days, but did not manage to complete. Quartetto sereno was instead completed by his pupil, Per Nørgård, to whom Holmboe had dedicated his fourth string quartet four decades earlier.
Per Nørgård had become a private pupil of Holmboe in 1949, forming a relationship with the composer and his wife which Nørgård himself described as ‘symbiotic’. This continued until around 1960, when Nørgård, together with his contemporary composer colleagues, Ib Nørholm and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, wanted to explore new musical directions in which their teacher was not interested in at all, for example collage, serialism and the use of stylistic pluralism. Holmboe made it clear that his door remained open if they wanted to return to the shared style they had had in common, but this didn’t happen. In Nørgård’s words, Holmboe was ‘too confident in maintaining his persona, while we younger ones metamorphosed in all possible ways’.
Neither Holmboe nor Nørgård described the disagreement as a break-up, but rather used the polite phrase, ‘a natural development’. But the fact is that even though a friendly relationship was maintained, they didn’t speak about music for the 30 years which followed.
The turning point was a letter which Nørgård wrote to the 81-year-old Holmboe in 1991 after listening to his sixth symphony again. This led to a renewed contact about music and aesthetics. ‘We had a longer correspondence, until he was no longer able to hold a pencil’, explained Nørgård. Their long relationship was now rounded off in the most beautiful way: ‘I had the pleasure of completing his last quartet. I had the feeling – indirectly – that he wanted that. Indirectly, because we never, when I visited him in the hospital or at home, talked about his dying. But he talked about the last quartet – in detail! About “something” he could not find the solution to. Yet … But it was something with a held-on pedal-point in the end, and then “something specific”, something ... I took this as a kind of green light, an indirect signal from this reserved man. And when his family asked if I would finish the quartet, I thought, ‘I’ll try …!’
Quartetto sereno has two movements and is the shortest of Holmboe’s string quartets. The first movement, which Holmboe dated 19 June 1996 (two months before his death) develops through clear changes of tempo from an introverted adagio to a dynamic central section marked ‘con fuoco’, and then returns to the original tempo. The movement’s clear arch form ends with a reflection of its opening.
This could have been a fine way for Holmboe to round off his 70 years work on music for string quartet, but Quartetto sereno continues. The second movement, played pizzicato, opens with new vigour, before the all the instruments switch to playing with their bows and let their voices strengthen. The contrasting elements of the movement point in new directions! Instead, though, an Adagio section follows which metaphysically transforms the music in sound, tempo and ensemble as the music gradually becomes more and more hesitant.
‘To interpret these sketches was an intense experience’, Per Nørgård has said. ‘Normally, when one sees sketches, one sees that the notation becomes more secure the closer one gets to “the goal”, whereas at the beginning the handwriting is slightly unsteady and trembling. Here it was the other way around! At the same time as it became clearer and clearer in its ideas, the handwriting became less and less clear. It was both an exciting and really grateful task’.
With this crystalline work, the symbiosis between these two great artists was restored, decades after the separation that Nørgård called ‘a power outage’. Quartetto sereno was first performed by the Kontra Quartet on 22 March 1997 at the Danish National Academy of Music in Odense. ‘I heard the quartet’s premiere,’ Nørgård said: ‘a short, beautiful and moving epilogue from him’.