VAGN HOLMBOE (1909-1996)
A COMPACT BIOGRAPHY
The Danish composer, Vagn Holmboe, was born at Horsens in East Jutland on
20 December 1909. His background was a musical one. Both parents were amateur
musicians - both pianists. His father was a maker of colours and lacquers.
Young Holmboe took violin lessons from age 14. At first his creativity seemed
to be directed towards painting but this resolved into music. It was at the
recommendation of Carl Nielsen that Holmboe began his studies at Copenhagen's
Royal Danish Music Conservatory in 1926. There his tutors were Finn
Høffding (composition) and Knud Jeppesen (musical theory).
After completing his studies he moved to Berlin in 1929 where Ernst Toch
became his teacher, though only briefly. During his time in the German capital
he met the Romanian pianist Meta May Graf, whom he was to marry five years
later. It was, no doubt, this Romanian connection that resulted in a visit
by Graf and Holmboe to Meta's home country in 1933-34. There the two visited
obscure and remote villages and studied Transylvanian folk-song. The contours
and lilt of folk-song (not specifically Rumanian) were to infuse his music
in years to come. In this context valid parallels with Vaughan Williams and
Kodaly can be made although his music is utterly individual.
On their return to Denmark Holmboe gave music lessons privately and composition
began to possess him. Many of these early pieces have never been performed.
Some of them were used as a ready 'quarry' for ideas and thematic material
in years to come. He also continued to pursue his studies of folk-song with
much field-work throughout Denmark. His interests in what Grove calls
Musical Anthropology also bore fruit in many overtly folk-linked
compositions including the Inuit Songs.
The period 1940-49 (encompassing the years of the German occupation) saw
him holding a teaching position at the Royal Danish Institute for the Blind.
Journalistic criticism also occupied him and his reviews appeared in the
newspaper, 'Politiken'. He taught at Copenhagen Institute (1950-65). His
study of modern music ('Mellemspil' i.e. 'Interlude') was published in 1966.
In an act characteristic of the enlightened attitude of the Scandinavian
states, the Danish Government extended to him a lifetime grant.
He has to his name 13 symphonies, more than ten string quartets and chamber
concertos and all of these have been recorded. There are many other works
awaiting first recording and as each appears more riches are revealed. In
a century's time the comparative standings of Holmboe and Nielsen may well
His music is tonal and based on fragments of melody. Traces of Sibelius,
Nielsen, Shostakovich and Janacek can be discerned. His works are almost
always approachable (Symphony No. 9 alone amongst the thirteen, presents
a stern and unyielding face) and are often driven by grand philosophical
motivations, eternal verities, conflict and peaceful resolutions. His music
shares with that of Nielsen and Sibelius an expression of grand concepts
without (in general) presenting an obscure facade to the listener.
His publisher is Wilhelm Hansen whose enviable good judgement (all too rare
amongst publishers) extended to permitting BIS to record all 13 symphonies
without demanding fees.
The abstract photographs taken by Meta Holmboe decorated the BIS series when
first issued. One of those abstracts now adorns the cover of the present
Holmboe died on 12 September 1996 typically while at work on one of his long
series of string quartets.
The Complete Symphonies - The BIS
cycle Owain Arwel
Hughes/Aarhus SO (joined by Jutland Opera Choir for No. 4)
recorded Aarhus 1992-1996
BIS-CD-843-846A-C [361:50] world premiere recordings except for numbers
7, 8 and 10.
Boxed set of SIX CDs at the price of FOUR CDs
Save around 22% with
the retailers listed alongside
Robert Bahr and Grammofon AB BIS have done it again! They are not content
with recording an isolated symphony here and a concerto there. The complete
sequence of Holmboe symphonies are presented in compact form and in utterly
Authentic style is faithfully captured from a Danish orchestra, a Swedish
company and a Welsh conductor. The Aarhus orchestra knows these works (or
many of them) from their earliest days. Their radio tapes have been the medium
by which not a few of the symphonies have been discovered by enthusiasts.
The original release numbers are printed helpfully on the 'label' surface
of each CD.
Notes are compact: a model of succinct expression, clarity of expression
and not taking refuge in needless technicality.
The music is essentially tonal though obvious long tunes are not abundant.
The music often cascades melodically powerful fragments and cells in restless
All of the Holmboe symphonies are tonal and approachable. Only three play
longer then half an hour (Numbers 6, 8 and 9 and none exceeds 34 mins). They
are full of life and variety lit by an intense imagination. For years people
came to them through the odd imported LP and others which were often hard
I recall the Turnabout LP of the Symphony No. 8 about which Robert Layton
enthused in Gramophone during the early 1980s. It was this review which set
me exploring and collecting Danish radio broadcast tapes of the Holmboe works.
The Aarhus Orchestra does not disappoint. The purity of their strings in
the long-spinning lines of these symphonies, and the blooming brass, mark
out an orchestra of world-class completely at ease with this repertoire.
British conductors seem to have made quite a place for themselves in the
Scandinavian states. Vernon Handley, Norman Del Mar and here Owain Arwel
Hughes have all been principal, chief or guest conductors in the Nordic
countries. Sweden in particular seems to have been very receptive to them.
Owain Arwel Hughes' commitment is obvious from his conducting role in this
complete cycle. There is, of course, a history of the BBC Welsh Symphony
Orchestra (now the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) championing Holmboe's
music. In the mid-late 1980s they played the middle period symphonies in
a radio-cycle conducted by the late Bryden Thomson. The Twelfth Symphony
was premiered in October 1989 by the BBC Welsh conducted by Richard Armstrong.
The BIS notes by composer Knud Ketting are excellent: high on information
and empty of verbiage. The classically sober design is elaborated with a
frost-detail cover photo by Holmboe's widow, Meta May Holmboe.
This set is a very economical way of getting the complete span of symphonies
by one of this century's towering symphonic masters. It is not just that
they are impressive. These are loveable works as well.
The discs are available separately but the catalogue numbers differ from
Here they are individually should you wish to buy them separately:-
No. 1, 3 & 10 CD605
No. 2 & In Memoriam CD695
No. 4 & 5 CD572
No. 6 & 7 CD573
No. 8 & 9 CD618
No. 11-13 CD728
I should stress however that this set is worth purchasing as a unit not least
because the price is 6 discs for the price of 4.
VAGN HOLMBOE Symphony No. 1 for chamber
orchestra (1935) [26.40] Symphony No. 3 Sinfonia Rustica
(1941) [15.53] Symphony No. 10 (1971 rev 1972) [26.27]
Symphony No. 3
The Rustica and its two successors were written during the Nazi occupation
of Denmark. Rather like Panufnik's Rustica Holmboe's bounds and bounces
with the rustic stomp of a village fair. Indeed there is a touch of
Petrushka about the proceedings. No doubt it also traces its lineage
to J.P.E. Hartmann's rustic symphonies and those of Ludolf Nielsen. The second
movement is a grand span in excess of quarter of an hour of Slavonic melancholy.
A long mournful melody is limned by the cellos punctuated by the muffled
crump of the brass and drums. The music rises to a Rubbra-like eminence at
4.46 and is further lit at 7.43 by an extended tempest of anger. The succeeding
melody has the long lines of Hovhaness melting into a stomping clod-hoppers'
dance then a far from listless pastoral air. The final movement dances free
as the wind chirpy, cool and lively (cf Moeran's symphony) with airy flutes
and the spirit of Sibelius No. 6. The least played of the Holmboe symphonies
its neglect is difficult to fathom.
Symphony No. 1
The First Symphony (for chamber forces) is alive with irrepressible rhythms
rushing and thrashing left and right punctuated by sledge blows out of Nielsen's
Sinfonia Espansiva. Aside from wondering whether Basil Poledouris
had heard this work before writing his music for the Conan films we
can move on to the central movement. This is a Vaughan Williams type pastoral
but with a tidal rip from further north than any English pasture. The finale's
hieratic trombones and grand oriental-style dances are surprisingly like
Hovhaness. I wonder if the influence of Romanian folk song in some way bridged
the continental gap. The ticking woody clatter of wooden blocks reminds us
of Shostakovich 15's eternal dysjunct clockwork. This work is deeply attractive,
lithe and vigorous in much the same way as Moeran's Sinfonietta.
Symphony No. 10
Time has moved on in No. 10. We are shot forward 35 years. The age of anxiety
has the world in its grip. Shostakovich style shrieking woodwind give place
in the second movement to trumpet calls in sour and querulous register and
the return of the Dies Irae chant from the first movement. The finale's
cycling smooth strings joined by wraith-like wind contributions give an eerie
but strangely reassuring sense of summation. The great whirling power of
a universe (a mill of stars and a furnace of life) with materials ever-changing,
crumbling, re-cohering is surely what Holmboe had in mind. The symphony ends
convincingly and this is no pat Hollywood reconciliation but a steady stare
into a benign eternity.
3 Aarhus SO/Aksel Wellejus 1970s?
10 BBCWelsh SO/Bryden Thomson April 1986
Symphony No. 2 (1939) [27.28] Sinfonia in memoriam -
Symfoniske Metamorfose (1954) [26.38] BIS-CD-844 [55.02]
Symphony No. 2
On the brink of another world war Holmboe, then 29, wrote his first symphony
for full orchestra. He dedicated it to his parents. It strikes much the same
note as its predecessor rather Hindemithian (Harmonie der Welt) although
still touched with the influence of Nielsen. The work almost 'failed' .Holmboe
entered the symphony in a competition organised by the Royal Danish Orchestra
(Det Kongelige Kapel). It was eliminated in the first round. However the
orchestra's leading conductor, Egisto Tango (1873-1951) was away during the
preliminary stage. On his return he went through all the scores and promptly
restored Holmboe's work to the lists. It won.
Sinfonia In Memoriam
This and a number of other works which are symphonic in character and layout
occupies the long gap (1951-1967) between the eighth and ninth symphonies.
It marks the tenth anniversary of the liberation of Denmark from German
occupation. For some years it was billed as No. 9 but the composer seems
expressly to have omitted it from his numbered sequence. It is nonetheless
a work of symphonic stamp and character.
It announces itself in stricken echoes of Panufnik's antiphonal brass and
the woodwind's supernatural skirling - clean and clear. The rolling sea miles
of Gösta Nystroem's Sinfonia Del Mare also rumble here and relaxed
into silky skein over which the woodwind briefly and softly interject. The
movement returns to anger (6.20) like the crashing of some chisel being driven
in between bones and flesh. The second movement is cold but in hectic life-force
motion: billowing horns and tolling brass all coldly rippling with life.
I detect a Soviet poster art populism at 7.35. The finale's deep gruff string
chant (basses and cellos) is joined by the other strings keeping up a thin
high whisper. This resolves into a succulent climax recognisably influenced
by Stravinsky's Firebird. This is grand symphonic construction beauty
in sadness - an upwelling that contrives to be simultaneously cool and warm.
Symphony No. 4 Sinfonia Sacra* (1941 rev 1945) [26.35]
Symphony No. 5 (1944) [25.12] * with Jutland Opera Choir/Mogens
Dahl BIS-CD-845 [52.33]
Symphony No. 4
This is invigorating, propulsive and urgent. The stride and reach of the
music has a bruising feral adrenaline rush. The woodwind gibber in a strange
bird song. Choral clamour suggests hysteria resolved into the irrepressible
punched-out power familiar from the Nielsen Inextinguishable and
Espansiva. The blue-eyed second movement has gentle contours. The
energetic third movement has some engaging fugal singing. The fourth movement
is infinitely easeful with clean singing. Innocent Sibelian woodwind (1.55)
are the hallmark of the movement (Gloria In Excelsis Deo). The
comparatively short laudate movement scurries merrily along without a care
in the world. This is the only choral symphony in the sequence. The notes
indicate that Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms was an influence but,
if so, that is all it was. It is dedicated to the composer's younger brother,
Ebbe, who died in a German concentration camp in 1944 (age 22). The words
(in Latin from original texts by Holmboe) are included in the booklet and
trace progress from Gothic medieval terror to peace, good and praise.
Symphony No. 5
The extent to which possible influences on or tributaries from this work
are borne out in fact need not trouble us. However to place this work in
the reader's judgement I will mention a number of other works you are likely
to know. These will give you some impression of the sound of this symphony
which with its brethren on either side are the works through which newcomers
should approach Holmboe. The turbid seething activity of the opening measures
is topped off by the col legno clatter of the violins. All is packaged
with urgency (Shostakovich 10 and 12) and some vituperation. The flutes remind
one of De Falla's Love The Magician and later of Janacek (Sinfonietta
I 6.04) and Nielsen (Nielsen 5 I 6.43). After the cataracts of the first
movement the second is a calm forest pool. The final movement has Holmboe's
trademark woodwind in quick rhapsody and mercurial swing. The strings buzz
and chatter in activity out of Holst's Jupiter. After an episode like
a shoal of fish wheeling and darting Holmboe rounds out this fine work with
stomping timpani and brass.
No. 4 Aarhus SO/Per Dreier 1969?
No. 5 Danish RSO/Per Dreier 1969?
BBC Welsh SO/Bryden Thomson 2 March 1986
Sonderjyllands SO/Carl von Garaguly
Symphony No. 6 (1947) [31.23] Symphony No. 7 in
one movement (1950) [23.07] BIS-CD-846A [55.15]
Symphony No. 6
This two movement work is dedicated to the composer's wife. Chamber like
filigree treads the ultra-fine line between silence and whisper with some
ineffably tender playing from the orchestra. The recording does great justice
to the strings and there is a tacit sense of renewal. The warm aestival horns
bloom as they do in Neilsen's Helios. This speaks of an untroubled
morning with the sun's first rays warm enough to raise steam from pools -
all seen from a cliff-eminence under skies azure clear. This fades as purposeful
and splendid energy chatters through the medium of the oboe. This chatter
is to return and adds high octane to the sense of direction and thrust to
the woodwind. Then once again there is a retreat into a much more uncertain
world of threads and shadows - chamber textures and a solo violin emerge.
This takes us into a meditation that slips into a dream and untroubled sleep.
In the second of the two movements the music is hyper-dramatic with the brittle
dash of Shostakovich 7. In the succeeding crash and dash of a Holmboe
allegro con fuoco the xylophone and woodwind rhapsodise at break-neck
pace. Horns carol and trombones tramping down the scales in brusque anger
and snarling Stalinist authority. The work closes in whispering strings.
Symphony No. 7
How often do we come across hammering or stamping motifs in Holmboe! This
symphony is no exception. While it is in a single movement BIS have helpfully
provided separate bandings to follow the episodes marked in the score. The
quiet high blue skies of the Sixth Symphony return before a mood of foreboding
and restlessness dominates with sliding fanfares and calls. The work must
have been well liked by Shostakovich. In any event it ends indeterminate
as if cut off amid the last exhausted shrugs and stumbles of some lost and
Symphony No. 8 Sinfonia Boreale (1951) [33.56] Symphony
No. 9 (1968 rev 1969) [23.07] BIS-CD-846B [65.25]
Symphony No. 8
This work opens a door on a rushing and scampering unstoppable energy complete
with a tempo giusto Nordic Ride of the Valkyries. Elementals
wheel in the firmament and trumpets howl (2.40 Track 2). There is also contented
peace conjured by glistening strings but this soon gives way to convulsive
forces ruckling the earth in a shuddering iron grip. In the third movement
the cor anglais mourns. This is not superficial or shallow. There is the
hint of disturbing a pool and setting loose disruptive heavy sleeping hood-eyed
forces. In the finale the howl of the second movement returns pregnant with
disaster as in the up-rearing wail of the Apocalyptic Horsemen in Franz Schmidt's
Book of the Seven Seals. After a momentary blue-eyed peace a great
storm of drum salvos and a tornado run past us newsreels of devastation,
blasted heaths, flame-throwers and scorched earth. The conclusion stamps
out in cleanly sculpted riven chordal hammer-blows sustained over great waves
of strings sound.
Symphony No. 9
This is in five movements - two spinning intermezzos both marked
quieto sandwiched between an allegro fluente - allegro con fuoco
and a final andante austero. This pattern is rather like the three
intermedios in the single movement seventh symphony. The symphony
is dedicated to Nadia Boulanger (Holmboe was not a Boulanger pupil). Here
the orchestral strata are softened with a more impressionistic approach though
there is no trace of Ravelian intoxication. The French horns are open-toned
and warm. There is an un-looked-for complexity in the string sound (2.55
in I). There are similarities with Borealis (same string whirling
and shuddering 6.20) but this is one of Holmboe's least approachable symphonies.
The Tippett-like filigree at 8 (1.37) is redolent of the Corelli
Fantasia. The drugged beauty of the string textures and the summery sheen
are both sensed through the intensifying glass of Frank Bridge's There
Is A Willow. Holmboe creates a sense of the shimmer and ripple of eternity
(rather like Harris 3 or 7). The final pages take us into the world of Alan
Hovhaness; in particular one of his great crashing courtly dances evocative
of some whirling universe.
Symphony No. 11 (1980) [20.21] Symphony No. 12
(1988) [23.05] Symphony No. 13 (1994) [19.03]
The recording quality throughout the set is natural, open and immediate:
try the last 3 minutes of track 4 if you doubt me!
Symphony No. 11
This has a propulsive first movement. There is an invigorating and life-enhancing
force in this score whose second movement teems with detail like a massive
darting silver shoal of fish. Not once does he let go of his tonal credo
and the driving pulse of the first movement thrusts the music ever-forwards.
Sibelius and Nielsen are very occasionally echoed but their influence must
not be overstated. A momentary hint of Dies Irae and a few flourishes closes
the second movement. The Andante 3rd movement is like the quieter wastes
of Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony. This tundra clears and we are into a
brass-punctuated world which will be well recognised by those who enjoy Roy
Harris's symphonies. The work ends not entirely unconvincingly.
Symphony No. 12
Again this symphony has that driven feel - strong on rhythm and bright-eyed.
At 2:00 in track 4 there is an evocation perhaps of the harp-bedecked world
of some Medieval castle in Jutland though I doubt that Holmboe had such
illustration in mind. Wild caperings by percussion (4:01) hint that Holmboe
may have been impressed by Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony. These
initiate that driving forward pulse and this is soon picked up by the brass.
The middle movement is all mystery and rain-drenched landscape with again
a glance into the same abyss which fascinated Vaughan Williams in the 1930s
and 1940s. The last movement bursts into activity and ends conventionally
but with here a convincing sense of resolution missing from the close of
Symphony No. 13.
The three movements are all quick and there is little sense of repose. The
first punches into action with a rich horn figure. The brass and woodwind
are dominant movement and there is a hint of Shostakovich. The second movement
begins quietly but soon erupts into desperate activity and occasional festivity
which always seems troubled - never carefree. The last movement opens with
an oriental figure and many punctuating brief interjections from horns and
woodwind. A ruminative interlude, low in the orchestra, is the home for a
tender melody which, as it unwinds, is blown away by gusts and shudders of
quicker music which ultimately fades with the same unfinished sense of unresolved
conflict found at the end of the eleventh.
I am probably already preaching to the converted but I want to get the message
over that these Holmboe symphonies, written in the last 65 years, are treasurable
works. They are there to be discovered. Their roots are struck deep in the
Nordic romantic soil. Tonal and dramatic, they have a great sense of
concentration and humanity. They sing gloriously! Hear them!
P.S. I hope that Mr Arwel Hughes will be allowed to record for BIS his father's
symphony and tone poem Owain Glyndwr.