Holmboe String Quartet no. 1, op. 46

performed by the Kontra Quartet

In his book Surprised by Beauty, Robert R. Reilly suggests taking the Holmboe quartets in their published order, saying they might be the most challenging listens of everything the composer wrote. He hails Holmboe’s output as some of the greatest work of the 20th century, but does give some kind of caveat that the later quartets may not be the place to start. And the composer ended up writing twenty quartets, so we have plenty to enjoy in the future.

I’m all for a chronological approach anyway, so here we go with the first. Rob Barnett at MusicWeb says “Holmboe’s twenty quartets are masterly examples, modelled [sic] on Haydn, carrying a Bartok inflection and irradiated with a sense of the natural world.”

The work is in three movements of almost equal length, and lasts around 27 minutes. The opening viola sets a tone for the work, indeed. You have the advantage above of the score in the YouTube video, so I shan’t actually spend too much time here. That mood is kind of a passionate melancholy, and this sentiment doesn’t so much grow as it does solidify, thicken, as the cello enters. It’s about three and a half minutes in before the rest of the quartet dares to enter, and it’s here that we get a brighter, slightly exotic but somehow familiar, rustic theme that enters, something slightly slithery and sticky, from which it seems the entire quartet is now growing like a weed. The first movement clearly focuses on but also builds from these few seedlings and provides the foundation for the entire rest of the work.

The second movement, though, seems expansive in the content that it covers, acting as the slow movement, and beginning as such, but also presenting quite a contrast in expression and intensity. The impression, not only from this work, but the (astounding) fifth symphony earlier in the week, is that while the music is organized into separate movements, the overall musical form, its overarching ideas, are above the concept of movements or ‘chapters’ in the traditional sense, and they rather feel like overlapping sections, extensions of the same idea. You’ll hear echoes, or just quotes, of the viola’s heartfelt expression in this movement, almost challenging the delineations between movements, and there are clear scherzo-like passages in the second movement (or have I just missed the marking for an entire movement?). While the three (I thought) movements are of roughly equal length, the second feels the most ambitious.

The third movement is where the Bartokish, Stravinskian elements appear. The movement alternates time signatures, for long passages giving us a 4/4 that sounds more like 8/8 (3+3+2 beats), as well as the most convincing use of the awkward 5/4 that I’ve ever heard (aside maybe from Holst). The third movement, I think, also begins with an echo of that viola’s opening statement. It’s like we’re in the same forest, seeing it at different times of the day or year, in different lights, with a striking unity and familiarity, but biting, vibrant newness. After that familiar introduction, we’re off. If it’s a time of year, we’re in spring or summer, and the music rushes and bounces, full of energy and crunch. Can you hear the connectedness in what’s been built here? The work ends in an interesting few gestures you should go listen to.

For a first string quartet, it’s a strong start. That being said, the composer didn’t write the work until he was 40 years old, and in the same MusicWeb article linked above, Barnett says “There were ten quartets before this one written at the age of 40.” I’m not sure if that’s to mean there were ten other attempts, or if the works were published (very) out of order, but there’s no reference to that effect I could find. In any case, the choice for a string quartet is a good one for this content, or rather the composer uses the quartet to strong effect with an intimate, personal sounding, crisp, even slightly biting sound, like an almost too-chilly stiff breeze. There’s rawness and delicacy in this music, but overall a compelling sense of musicality, direction and logic. It’s also very exciting to know that after these two works of Holmboe this week, we still have a dozen symphonies and 19 string quartets to enjoy. What else will this composer hold for us? We shall see.

It does get me thinking, though, of the wealth of choices we as listeners (and [some of] you as performers) have in string quartet repertoire. Add up the collective total of quartets from Haydn, Cherubini, Mozart, Pleyel, Beethoven, and you’ve already got a few hundred, not to mention Wanhal and then the tons of others from the last century and a half. Of course none of that devalues the quartets, especially of this quality, written in the last (or almost last) half century, but I do wonder if there’s such a thing as over-saturation, if we will ever be spoiled for choice and never get beyond the ostensible creme de la creme of the classical canon. If Robert Reilly or Rob Barnett or other adventurous, dedicated listeners and writers have anything to do with it, we won’t come to such a boring end. I hope I can do something to help that cause as well. Listen and enjoy.

Today’s work is the last chamber work for our Danish December series, and we only have a few pieces left before we’re finished with that and with 2016, but do stay tuned for much more on the way.

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