Holmboe Violin Sonata no. 1, op. 2a

performed by Johannes Søe Hansen, violin; Christina Bjørkøe, piano

(cover image by Jack Anstey)

As I said at the beginning of the year, we’ve got a new series on the blog, an ongoing one, and Holmboe was one of the first composers to be chosen for the Editor’s Choice series. With more than a dozen symphonies, 20+ string quartets and much else, he’ll keep us busy for a while, and he also writes fantastic music. This very early work, the first violin sonata, sounds more like Bartók than you might expect a Danish composer to sound, but we’ll get to that momentarily.

This first violin sonata of the three sonatas Holmboe wrote for the instrument dates from 1935, when the composer was about 25-26 years old. It is in three movements and lasts for only about twelve and a half minutes. The movements are as follows:

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Allegro molto

Catherine Nelson reviews at The Strad the album on which this recording appears, and gives this first sonata only a passing mention, remarking only on “the Bartókian realms of the First Sonata (1935), with its robust, tripping rhythms.” That’s all.

It’s interesting to note, though, that during Holmboe’s time in Berlin, where he moved in (or after) 1929, he met Romanian pianist Meta May Graf, who studied with Paul Hindemith. They got married in 1933 and left for Romania shortly thereafter. This work comes from only a few years later, when he was collecting folksong throughout the country. With a little bit of that background, the overall tone of this small, early work may not seem so out of place.

Secondly, though, with as very early a piece as this is, and as prolific as Holmboe was, it really isn’t a surprise that this work gets nothing more than the mention Nelson gives it in her review, with other, sometimes much later, pieces on the same album.

However, having planned to write about this work a few months ago (I think), and giving it multiple listens with time to absorb it, its charms show through. It doesn’t captivate at first listen, necessarily, and it’s a small work, at well under a quarter of an hour, but in more recent listenings, I’ve found myself looking forward to its turns and color, a work that shows maybe more potential than pizzazz.

The first movement begins with piano, and suggests Bartók in its rhythms and sonorous full-bodied violin sound, a wild spirit. The piano is also prominent, and in this compact first movement, we find forceful percussiveness and memorable figures for a full-bodied, youthful vigor, suitable for a young, newly-married man in a foreign country, I think.

The piano gets the first word again in the second movement, but here the percussive, heavy nature of the first movement is replaced by a sort of somber, even solemn spirit, something akin to the mystery and darkness of, say, Respighi’s catacombs. They may not sound at all similar, but the violin presents a narrative as mellow and nearly-haunting as the first movement was forceful.

The finale returns to the spirit, and even some of the content, of the opening movement, with some of the same motifs being at least referred to if not quoted outright. The violin writing is also satisfying. You might not find it especially virtuosic or showy, but it’s effective writing for the instrument.

The ultimate result here, with the fast-slow-fast scheme, repeats of material from earlier in the work, etc. is a very compact and not very ambitious but still effective, very solid early piece. In listening to this very early piece, I’d ask you to remember that it’s more indicative of his future skill than any particular mature voice, not that that would have been bad, necessarily. Mature Holmboe certainly doesn’t sound like mature Bartók, though.

Well, that’s that for now. In lieu of a longer article, I’ll suggest giving the piece another listen or two. You could listen five times in an hour, not that you’d want to, but I will say it does become more charming with a few extra listens. I’d love to hear what you think of the piece, and I’m very glad it’s on YouTube, but I know it’s also in iTunes and am pretty sure it’s on Spotify, so go support some artists and listen to it there.

We’ll be seeing a bit more of Holmboe this week, and throughout the year, so stay tuned for that. Thanks so much for reading.

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