Vagn Holmboe: Symphony no. 5, op. 35

performed by the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra under Owain Arwel Hughes

(sorry- no video for this work. I highly, strongly recommend purchasing at least whatever album the fifth symphony appears on, if not the entire cycle, but I can understand that that may be a bit much. It should all be in iTunes. That link is to Naxos, which provides links to a number of sources where the album can be purchased.)

Vagn Gylding Holmboe was born on 20 December 1909, not in Copenhagen. He “was born into a merchant family of dedicated amateur musicians.” His parents were piano players. Holmboe started taking violin lessons in his teens, and began formal music study at the age of 16, at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, not under but upon recommendation of Carl Nielsen. He studied with both Knud Jeppesen (mentioned in a previous article) and Finn Høffding in composition.

Holmboe moved for a time to Berlin, where he met a former student of Hindemith, one Meta May Graf, and they were married in 1933 and moved to Romania, her country of origin, relocating to Denmark shortly thereafter, and it seems it wasn’t until this time that he began to compose and give private lessons. He taught in the ’40s at the Royal Institute for the Blind. His students (not there) included Per Nørgård and Ib Nørholm.

I am excited to have recently acquired a copy of Robert R. Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty, and in light of the Danish series this month, the first featured composer I turned to was Holmboe, and Reilly is satisfyingly enthusiastic about the composer’s work. I’d started the plan for this series long before I got my hands on the book, and had started my listening for it many months ago. I’d describe Holmboe’s work, or at least the symphonies of his I’m familiar with, especially this one, as a kind of propulsive, intense, tight symphonic sound, one with stellar, spectacular power to it, but a sense of delicacy, or finesse at least.

In his book, Reilly puts Nielsen and Sibelius at opposite ends of an interesting spectrum: if Sibelius expresses nature, then Nielsen expresses humanity, or mankind’s place in nature. As we saw last week, Nielsen’s symphonies (or at least the first and third that we looked at) are bold, powerful pieces, works that breathe and expand and live, and Reilly makes an argument that Nielsen is the 20th century’s Beethoven in the way he creates tension and conflict. I digress. The main point is, I agree with Reilly when he places Holmboe between Nielsen and Sibelius. Holmboe’s symphony today has the rawness of both unadulterated nature, and of forceful mankind, a controlled, powerful, beautiful explosion of power and energy, something that grows and builds to a glorious, breathtaking conclusion.

The work is in three movements and comes in at about 25 minutes. The first movement, marked allegro non troppo, is the longest, at around ten minutes. It begins with a pulse, as if a heart has suddenly started beating. Something has been set in motion that can’t be stopped. Bowed strings set this pulse, and a few near-violent plucks accentuate it. This figure is hammered down, established, and then a softer current of melody appears under it, and it feels like things are falling somehow inevitably into place.

I don’t want to reveal too much from Reilly’s writing, but he quotes the composer as saying:

“Metamorphosis is based on a process of development that transforms one matter into another, without it losing its identity.” Holmboe explains that contrasts, however strong they may be, are always made of the same basic material and are complementary rather than dualistic.

p. 155

It couldn’t be said any better. As one listens to the stark contrasts between driving intensity of a galactic-sized line and its soft, earthly counterpart, one begins to hear this 20th century Beethovenesque conflict, and the Brahmsian economy of material. It’s a powerful, gripping first movement, at times as if it threatens to go out of control, but there’s always a direction behind the force. It just soars, and one gets the impression that this indeed must be one of the symphonic masters. The movement finishes with blazing power and focus.

The second movement is the slow movement, as apparent from its heartfelt beginning, strings only. The movement is marked andante affetuoso, and reaches a lyrical intensity to match the power of the first movement. After a number of timpani pulses, the brass enter and ratchet the intensity up even higher. It’s a poignant, honest movement, beautiful, but with shades of sorrow, a purposeful, necessary-sounding melancholy. With each listen of this symphony, I feel more strongly that it is one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th (or any) symphony, and Reilly says it’s only with the sixth that Holmboe finds his voice.

Don’t be lulled into nostalgia by the melancholy and sorrow of the second movement, for it reaches intense, pulsing, heartrending power of its own, as the percussion and brass relentlessly pound out an ostinato-like rhythm that sounds like it belongs to Shostakovich’s pen. That intensity, though, eventually melts away, as if anger or resentment cool off to leave only regret, and then perhaps just memories. The second movement ends angelically with a flute leading a small portion of the ensemble to a quiet close.

The pulsing of the third movement calls to mind the opening of the symphony, but here it’s much brighter and optimistic. This finale is the shortest of the movements of this symphony, at less than seven minutes. The bright, even celebratory nature of the the third movement does not mean its lost any of its propulsive intensity. There’s an undercurrent of purpose, never a sense that we’ve lost our way or that Holmboe doesn’t know where he’s taking us, even in the most carefree of passages in this movement. Although the work ends quite cheerfully, the sense is that the listener has been riding the same current that was established in the first few bars of the opening movement, that there is a strong sense of purpose and drive, and to top it all off, we have a celebratory, triumphant ending.

It might be a little difficult to understand a listener’s statements about structure, a tightly-composed symphony, conflict, etc. On the one hand, it’s easy enough to enjoy this symphony, or one from Beethoven or Nielsen, without considering those large-scale ideas, but liken it to the floor plan of a house.

Have you ever walked through an unfinished home? A decade and a half ago, I did a lot. When we were looking to move, I remember looking through home after home after home. Some were finished and we could literally see what the house would look like, with the exception of it being full of our stuff, and maybe painted differently. But it was difficult for me, at that time, to envision what the house would ‘look’ or ‘feel’ like when none of the walls were finished, when it was all bare bones. A real estate agent or builder might walk you through and point at this or that square of space, or a chalked-off section of concrete and tell you it’s the dining room, or the eat-in kitchen, or this is a guest bedroom. But without those real visual cues, like walls and furniture, it might be hard to get your bearings.

Listening to larger-scale works is a bit like keeping your bearings and relative position in mind as you’re touring through a house. While it might be nice to focus on that space you’re in at that moment, it’s only when you know that space’s relation to everything around it that you can appreciate the layout of the house as a building. It would, for example, make no sense to put the kitchen and dining room on opposite sides of the house, or to have to go through the office to get to the living space.

Equally, there is a logic, a certain ‘flow’ to (some) larger-scale pieces, and when you begin to notice the relationship that A has to B, you appreciate not only what’s going on right in the moment, but also what significance it has to the overall work. With that in mind then, hearing a piece like Beethoven’s fifth, you hear connections, ideas, that run through a work, and Holmboe’s work here has such a singular purpose, a focused intensity, that the individual movements don’t stand alone, but make up a powerful, dense, defined composite whole. It’s music like this that gets me intensely excited to hear what else might be out there to enjoy.

Sure, it took a handful of listens to appreciate the piece, but if you ‘get’ Nielsen or Simpson, there shouldn’t be anything too challenging for you in this work. It’s a shame there isn’t something online to hear it in full. I don’t support the unlawful sharing of copyrighted material, but I also know people aren’t keen to buy something they haven’t heard. Just go buy whatever album you can find this symphony on. You’re welcome. What amazing music.

That’s all for now, but stay tuned for that extra glimpse of Langgaard that I hinted at last week. Vi snakkes ved.



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