The Chamber Concertos & Sinfonias
The Chamber Concertos & Sinfonias
Vagn Holmboe (1909-96) worked throughout his life to distill his own ideas and cut out the unnecessary. This collection comprises his 13 concise chamber concertos as well as the four sinfonias in the acclaimed recordings by the Danish National Chamber Orchestra and former chief conductor Hannu Koivula. These neoclassical concertos for one or more soloists reveal Holmboe’s rustic, down-to-earth style, that can be described as Danish or Nordic, and his inspiration from eastern European folk music.
Holmboe: Chamber Concertos and Sinfonias
by Jens Cornelius
For Vagn Holmboe the small ensemble of a chamber orchestra was often fully adequate. He worked throughout his life to distill his own ideas and cut out the unnecessary. The small ensemble accorded well with this aim. In general, Holmboe’s mode of expression may seem sober or terse; but it first and foremost expresses concentration, straightforwardness and artistic humility. Nothing gets in the way of the music.
Although Holmboe had a calm, controlled personality, he certainly did not hold back his creative instincts. He composed over 300 works, and to these we can add almost 100 works of his youth which he scrapped in 1935 when he started over again with a new opus 1, a Suite for Chamber Orchestra. He remained active as a composer until his death at the age of 86 in 1996.
It can be difficult to form an overview of the production of such a prolific artist, but with Holmboe certain clear lines and periods are evident. It was typical of him that he worked in series. The completion of one work generated ideas for another in the same format – and so on. His focus on particular forms or genres could last for years, after which he would at some point arrive at a well-considered awareness of having explored his possibilities. Then his voyage of exploration would continue in other forms.
Often it was traditional classical genres that he explored. In this way he created among other things 13 symphonies, 20 string quartets, 13 chamber concertos, 4 chamber symphonies, 4 sinfonias and several other works with roots in the concerto and symphony form.
Holmboe’s chamber concertos are a perfect introduction to his music. They are short, neoclassical concertos for one or more soloists. Most were written in the 1940s. Holmboe later changed the titles to the even more classicizing Concerto no. 1, Concerto no. 2 etc. This recording preserves the original titles.
The best known predecessor in the genre is Paul Hindemith’s work series Chamber Musics with seven short solo concertos for a small orchestra, written in the 1920s. Holmboe studied in Berlin in 1929-32, and would certainly have known about the conspicuously new works. But in 1925 Holmboe’s composition teacher in Berlin, Ernst Toch, had also written a concert for cello and chamber orchestra.
Holmboe does not emulate Hindemith’s tonal language as such, although he is influenced by the “Neue Sachlichkeit” of the time. He is less ironic than Hindemith, and the rustic, down-to-earth style of Holmboe here (especially in the first concerto) can perhaps be partly described as Danish or Nordic. Another element that is peculiar to Holmboe’s music from this time is his inspiration from eastern European folk music, which he had studied in the field in 1933-34.
Each chamber concerto is individually formed. Holmboe varies not only the solo instruments, but also the orchestral configuration and the number of movements (from two to nine). Chamber Concerto no. 1 from 1939 is for piano, strings and timpani. It is dedicated to Holmboe’s wife, the Romanian pianist Meta Graf. They had met in Berlin, where she was studying with among others Hindemith.
In this, his only piano concerto, Holmboe combines the classical models with features from Balkan music, and the ensemble is rather Bartók-like (with reminiscences of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta). Meta Holmboe gave the concerto its first performance in 1941. It only has two movements: on the other hand the first movement is longer than any other movement in the subsequent works. The formal develoment of the work seems experimental. Perhaps already here Holmboe had a sense of the project on which he had embarked?
In Chamber Concerto no. 2 from 1940 the solo instruments are flute and violin, and the concerto is formed in four movements – that is, more as a concerto grosso than Chamber Concerto no. 1 was. The first and last movements have the feel of Vivaldi, while the intervening movements are in short tripartite forms. This is a very energetic piece; right from the beginning one hears the contrast between the insistent rhythms of the community and the free interventions of the soloists.
Chamber Concerto no. 3 from 1942 is a miniature clarinet concerto where the orchestra has now been expanded with trumpets and horns. The concerto had to wait until this recording was made in 1996 to be played for the first time – possibly because it may have been intended for the clarinettist Aage Oxenvad. When he died, in 1944, the concerto had not yet been premiered, and he had no obvious successor in Denmark.
Chamber Concerto no. 3 is clearly influenced by Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto from 1928 (this too was written for Oxenvad). Carl Nielsen was the examiner for Holmboe’s audition for the Academy in 1925 and looked through some of his compositions. However, Holmboe did not become a pupil of Nielsen; instead he studied with Nielsen’s pupil Finn Høffding, and it is almost symbolic that Nielsen and Holmboe did not establish closer contact. They were two great originals, and one continued where the other left off.
Chamber Concertos 4, 5 and 6 have the same three-movement form as no. 3, but new combinations of soloist and orchestra. In Chamber Concerto no. 4 the soloists are a piano trio – as in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto – and the orchestra has now been expanded with woodwinds. The neo-Baroque concerto was given its first performance in 1943, as in the preceding case by the orchestra of the Young Composers’ Society, which was industriously presenting new Danish works in those years.
Chamber Concerto no. 5 is for viola (Holmboe also wrote a ‘proper’ Viola Concerto, but not until as late as 1992). The chamber orchestra has now grown further and sports a double set of woodwinds. Compared with the playful Chamber Concerto no. 4 there is greater drama in the music, and in the slow movement the viola, like Orpheus, is alone in a dark underworld.
Its sister work is Chamber Concerto no. 6, which calls for the same orchestral set-up, but has a violin as soloist. The two works are musical pseudo-twins from 1943, and the violin concerto too has a long, serious second movement. The World War made Holmboe’s music more sombre in these years. His younger brother Ebbe, who was a resistance fighter, was taken prisoner by the Nazis and died in 1944 in the concentration camp Neuengamme.
The viola and the violin from Chamber Concertos 5 and 6 met three years later in a close pairing in Chamber Concerto no. 9, a very elegantly formed double concerto from 1946. Holmboe’s balancing of the form and content of the genre had come a long way in just a few years, compared with the asymmetrical Chamber Concerto no. 1.
In between, he wrote the two two-movement concertos Chamber Concerto no. 7 for oboe (1945) and the unusual Chamber Concerto no. 8 (also from 1945) with the subtitle Sinfonia Concertante. The oboe concerto has a long first movement, which in Bartók style takes a symmetrical arching form with a slow introduction and ending. The concerto was given its first performance by Waldemar Wolsing, one of the most prominent Danish musicians of the time, who played it many times in the Nordic countries over the next few years.
In Chamber Concerto no. 8 there is no specified soloist, and the instrumental groups emerge to prominence successively. The movement proportions are the opposite of Chamber Concerto no. 7’s with a short, energetic first movement, while the long second movement consists of eight variations on a theme in the bassoon.
The collective idea from Chamber Concerto no. 8 was something Holmboe continued with in Chamber Concerto no. 10 (1946) with the subtitle “Wood, Brass and Gut” – that is, the three instrumental families woodwinds, brasses and bowed strings (which at the time still used gut strings). The concerto is quite differently structured from any of the other chamber concertos – that is, as a variation work in a whole nine movements. It is probably the Holmboe chamber concerto that has been played most often.
Holmboe had now moved far from his starting point with the genre and was reaching the end of the road with his concertante laboratory work. But he still had to explore the brasses. I 1948 he wrote Chamber Concerto no. 11 for trumpet, another of the chamber concertos that has enjoyed a good afterlife and has been recorded several times. Haydn, one of Holmboe’s great models, is an obvious ideal here. Chamber Concerto no. 12 (1950) is for trombone, and is energetic and witty music, without making fun of the soloist. In the printed edition of the score the solo cadenza is partly composed by the soloist from the first performance in 1952, Palmer Traulsen, and later on, several other versions have been tried. This recording uses a cadenza by Holmboe’s famous pupil, Per Nørgård.
In 1949 Holmboe had experienced a turning-point in his composing work. This happened with his String Quartet no. 1 – not counting the many quartets he had written in his youth. “My First String Quartet marks a kind of turning-point or a development point. I was prepared for this, but suddenly it all broke loose,” Holmboe remembered shortly before his death. A new work series was about to succeed an older one.
Chamber Concerto no. 13 from 1956 is therefore a kind of appendix or epilogue to the 12 preceding ones, and Holmboe originally did not call it a chamber concerto at all, but Collegium Musicum no. 2 (in a series which never developed further than this). It is a double concerto for the unusual combination of oboe and viola. After this Holmboe composed no solo concertos for the next few years, until, in the mid-1970s, he embarked on a series of concertos on the grand scale – the first four are for cello, recorder, flute and tuba respectively. There are thus two tracks with solo concertos in Holmboe’s production, and the confusion is not lessened by the fact that the chamber concertos are sometimes simply called “Violin Concerto”, “Viola Concerto” etc.
After the long concerto phase Vagn Holmboe was preoccupied in the 1950s with new musical problems, and this brought a new genre into focus: the symphonic. Among the many Holmboe works called “symphony”, “sinfonia” or the like, the four Sinfonias for Strings form a series of their own. The first two were written in 1957, the year after the last chamber concerto, and no. 3 came in 1958-59. These are unusually pure-blooded works where the polyphonic work in the homogeneous orchestral group is paramount. At the same time the sinfonias are written in free forms that constitute an artistic alternative to the classical framework that Holmboe maintained when he wrote concertos and string quartets. The four sinfonias are therefore designed very differently and last between 11 and 19 minutes each.
When the last of them, Sinfonia IV, was written in 1962, Holmboe realized that the four works together – in a different order – could be viewed as one large work. Between the four movements of Sinfonia IV he inserted the three one-movement Sinfonias I, II and III. The hour-long work that emerged from this he gave the name Kairos, the Greek word for time; not quantifiable time, Chronos, but time in the abstract sense of “point in time” or “the right moment”. Holmboe described it in more detail as follows:
“Kairos means ‘time’ in the psychological sense – that is, the passage of time that we sense – as opposed to Chronos, which is the name for the time that can be divided up into seconds and minutes. Apart from the general variability of time that arises between concentrated and relaxed periods, I have further attempted to elucidate this among other ways through the alternation of objective-abstract and subjective-expressive passages, through various simultaneously acting sequences and through the timelessness of the metamorphoses in the chronological sense.”
Kairos is a suitable heading for a major work that is one of Holmboe’s most intense. The needful things – and nothing else – are said at the right moment. This poses challenges for both musicians and listeners, but Vagn Holmboe never hesitated, for he had a matchless ability to put his visions into practice. Even if it meant that the work as a whole was so demanding a task that he himself was not to experience a complete performance of Kairos before his death in 1996.
Jens Cornelius, 2017