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VAGN HOLMBOE (1909-1996)

A compact biography and survey of the BIS recordings of the Symphonies by Rob Barnett

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VAGN HOLMBOE (1909-1996)


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 have changed.

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 box.

Holmboe died on 12 September 1996 typically while at work on one of his long series of string quartets.

Rob Barnett


VAGN HOLMBOE (1909-1996)

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

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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 committed interpretations.

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 activity.

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 to find.

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 the above.

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] BIS-CD-843 [70.30]

 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.

Radio tapes:

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.

  Radio Tapes

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 morbid creature.


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] BIS-CD-846C [63.05]

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 the Eleventh.

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!


Rob Barnett

P.S. I hope that Mr Arwel Hughes will be allowed to record for BIS his father's symphony and tone poem Owain Glyndwr.


Rob Barnett

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