Venus' Wheel - Works for Choir
Venus' Wheel - Works for Choir
The medieval concept of Venus’ Wheel is the symbolic framework for this collection of timeless choral works by the Danish composer Bo Holten (b. 1948). Himself a renowned conductor, Holten leads the Flemish Radio Choir on a passionate journey through the many facets of love, using the whole of musical history as a framework and sounding board for his own contemporary idiom.
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by Klaus Møller-Jørgensen
Bo Holten stands out in several ways from the other Danish composers and conductors of his time. In the first place it is essential for him to combine the roles of performing and creative artist. Throughout his career he has devoted as much energy and profes-sionalism to the work of conducting as to composing. In addition, as a composer he has seen his music performed frequently and sought-after, and yet rejected as old-fashioned or banal by many composer colleagues. And finally, as a conductor Holten has always put great effort into unearthing new music, both newly composed music (he has conduc-ted about 190 first performances) and unknown or neglected music from earlier times.
Bo Holten studied musicology and bassoon; as a conductor and composer he is self-taught. In 1979 Holten founded the vocal ensemble Ars Nova, of which he was the regular conductor until 1996. The ensemble was ground-breaking in the Nordic coun-tries and quickly attracted international attention with its high artistic standard and its personal take on the sonorities of both brand new contemporary and very early music (medieval and Renaissance). In 1996 Bo Holten founded the vocal ensemble Musica Ficta, in which he continued the work with early music, and where his experience from the work with this repertoire is also applied to the music of other epochs - for example the Danish national song repertoire. Holten is internationally sought after as a guest con-duc-tor; from 1990 until 2005 he was principal guest conductor of the BBC Singers in London and from 2008 until 2011 chief conductor of the Flemish Radio Choir in -Brussels.
However, both as a conductor and as a composer Holten has also always been interested in other genres than choral music. He has conducted all the Danish and seve-ral other Nordic symphony orchestras, typically in oratorios, early music, contemporary music (including his own) and music that is not on the standard symphonic repertoire. With the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, for example, he has recorded a number of internationally acclaimed CDs of music by the English composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934). As a composer Holten has written over 100 works, among these two symphonies, five solo concertos, seven operas, chamber music, film music and much else, including about 40 works for a cappella choir.
As a rule Bo Holten's music has been positively received by the general public as well as musicians and choral singers. There is typically something direct and familiar about it which - compared with much other present-day composition music - has made it relatively popular. But a new development in recent years is that Bo Holten has also expe-rienced far great acceptance from composer colleagues and other music profes-sionals. Not least the very positive reception of Holten's major full-length opera The Visit of the Royal Physician (2009) has shown that today, among both audiences and professionals, there is a more tolerant attitude to diversity in musical expression; that one can write as one likes, and that music can be incisive, interesting and innovative without necessarily being modernist or avant-garde in its idioms.
Holten believes that it is first and foremost the world around him that has changed. He himself writes music as he has always done. He goes for the clear and dis-tinctive in expression and describes his music as fundamentally dramatic\ in the sense that the listener must be able to experience a drama, a development in the music.
Earlier, Bo Holten was accused of being a neo-Romantic who wrote superficial and semi-sentimental music. And this is a great misunderstanding, he thinks. In the 1970s and 1980s he made a considerable effort to engage with and perform the moder-nist -music of the time. And although he often opposed it and considered it unnecessarily inaccessible, his own music was also influenced by post-war modernism; the early works were more complex than those he writes today. However, what has endured from modernism - and from early music - is his thorough, systematic approach - for example taking a point of departure in certain fixed structures or a particular -compositional -prin-ciple.
The present CD has its specific background in Bo Holten's close collaboration with the Flemish Radio Choir over the past few years. It features a number of new examples of the wide scope of the choral composer Bo Holten, including the way he uses the whole of musical history with supreme craftsmanship as a framework and soun-ding board, and as direct inspiration for his own contemporary idiom.
Roman Elegies (2011) is based on two of the 20 elegies that Goethe wrote in con-nec-tion with a stay in Rome in his early youth. The poems are related to the love elegies of antiquity (Ovid's for example) and in highly poetic imagery describe an \\I\\ (Goethe himself?) who experiences the ancient ruins and manuscripts in the Eternal City. It all seems rather dusty and empty to him - until he meets a young Roman woman with whom he subsequently spends all his nights. Inspired by this love affair, the beauty of all the poetry and art of antiquity unfolds for the poet; by tracing the shape of his beloved's breast he understands the beauty of the marble!
In Elegy no. 1 the poet has not yet met his beloved. The dead city seems empty and gloomy, he feels that something is concealed from him. This is reflected in the music by ‘empty' chords and minor-tinged harmonies. The solo cello does however hint at the presence of something warm-blooded; it stands - like Goethe - alone among the almost lapidary columns of vocal harmonies.
In Elegy no. 5 the poet meditates on his own happiness; by day he devotes him-self to the art treasures of antiquity; by night he devotes himself to the erotic. The poetic persona has now acquired a voice in the form of a baritone soloist around whom the cello with its female forms clings fondly. With the cello, the eight-part choir forms an almost orchestral background for the unfolding narrative of the subject. The choir sheds a mellow light - the warm haze of Rome? - over the sensual, warm-blooded story.
Dominus regit me (2005) was written for a booklet with settings by a number of Danish composers of Psalm 23 from the Old Testament, Dominus regit me: \\The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want\\. The text offers great solace and profound gratitude over simply being alive and enjoying existence as it is.
Holten draws on his thorough familiarity with Renaissance music. The piece begins polyphonically with an ingenious weave of voices criss-crossing. Gradually the parts come together more, as in a madrigal. Throughout the work the music stays close to the text, and with the progression from the polyphonic to the homophonic it is as if the focus is finally on the concluding statement; \\Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.\\
Precisely with a Biblical text it is appropriate to use the composition techniques of early music. Here there is no point in elaborating the music as in the Roman -elegies - that would be far too specific and personal; the Biblical texts require a certain distance and more reserved expression. However, the harmonies are very much of today; here Holten follows in the wake of composers like Francis Poulenc and Bernhard -Lewko-vitch, who also found inspiration in early music but gave it present-day harmonic ex-pres-sion.
Gustav Mahler: Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (Holten, 2010) is an arrangement for baritone soloist and 8-part choir of one of Mahler's Rückert-Lieder. There is already an often-performed arrangement for 16-voice choir by Clytus Gott-wald, which Holten has himself conducted a few times. But Holten does not really think that Gottwald does justice to Mahler's song; among other things it lacks a soloist who can express the \\Ich\\ that is so central to the text.
Holten takes his cue from Mahler's piano setting but with Mahler's own sublime orches-tral setting firmly in mind. The choir thus functions as an (orchestral) accompani-ment for the soloist. Holten has taken pains to stay as close to the model as possible within the constraints of what in fact can be sung by a choir. And he has striven to func-tion solely as an arranger and as far as possible to avoid mixing his own personality with Mahler's.
Cantigas d'amigo (2010) was written at the request of the Skt. Annæ Girls' Choir. Bo Holten thought long about which texts would be suitable for these young girls standing there in their budding adolescence. Quite by chance he came upon a large collection of medieval Portuguese poems, and with an excellent English translation too. It was fashio-nable in 13th-14th-century Portugal for male poets to write as if they were young girls; maidens' dreams of boys and men out at sea or at war or otherwise unreachable.
Holten has chosen five texts whose content and musicality call for various tem-pos and moods. The texts are highly repetitive in their basic structure, and this is reflected in music that draws inspiration from medieval music (bourdon, canon and echo effects) and from American minimalism (motifs that repeat cyclically with minimal shifts).
But first and foremost Bo Holten exploits the delicacy of the girls' choir: they can make chords sound fantastic, and they have a sound that is slightly innocent yet luxu-riant and sensual.
Handel with Care (Variations on Darwin) (2009). Bo Holten was asked to write some variations on a piece from Handel's Water Music to celebrate the Handel Year 2009 (the 250th anniversary of his death). But 2009 was also a Darwin year (the bicen-tenary of the naturalist's birth and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species), and since Holten is in his own words a hard-line Darwinist, he also felt like involving Dar-win in this anniversary piece.
In connection with the Darwin year Holten had read among other things Dar-win's memoirs, where there is a passage in which Darwin writes with impressive brevity and humility about how he got the idea for his theory of evolution. Holten now has the altos and the men sing - or perhaps rather recite - this short text; in so doing they simply lay down a harmonic ground in the form of a chord sequence and have al-most no melodic motion. Darwin's profoundly revolutionary theory is chanted here as if it were a Catholic credo.
Gradually the sopranos enter in three groups with the most beautiful melodies in the form of one little Handel quotation after another in both text and melody - for example from The Messiah (\\I know that my Redeemer liveth\\), Rinaldo (\\Lascia ch'io pianga\\) and Water Music. In some places the soprano parts are quite demanding; it has something of the showpiece about it. With this little musical joke Holten manages to mark two anniversaries at once that otherwise have nothing to do with each other.
Rota Veneris (2008). After the completion of the full-length opera The Visit of the Royal Physician Holten felt completely emptied of ideas for new compositions. Howe-ver, in order to begin somewhere he took up some anonymous motets from the 1300s and decided to elaborate further on them. The original text was replaced by other -medi-e-val texts that speak of widely different aspects of love. Rota Veneris, the Wheel of Venus, is a concept from the Middle Ages that describes how everything in love has its ups and downs.
The original pieces are in two and three parts. To various extents Bo Holten has added new parts, most simply in Aprili tempore, where an upper voice in the form of a soprano soloist has been laid over the original piece. In the soloist we meet a young girl who can tragically only see her beloved in dreams; there is great drama in the expres-sion of the solo part over the underlying medieval texture.
Quia sub umbraculum is about the elevated sort of love where a damsel sits patiently waiting for her knight - her Mr. Right. Here Holten has worked the three-part original into a grandiose six-part madrigal-like piece; while in the last piece, the Nun's Lament, he has written a virtuoso dance with parts that constantly try to drown one another out, thus emphasizing the comic mood of the text.
Klaus Møller-Jørgensen is a music journalist and freelance programme producer for DR.
He also works as an information officer for the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Aarhus.