Holmboe String Quartet no. 2, op. 47

performed by the Kontra Quartet

(unfortunately there isn’t a recording on YouTube, but go check out all of Holmboe’s quartets on Spotify)

(cover image by Trần Anh Tuấn)

Covering this second quartet today means we’re 10% of the way through his twenty quartets… Actually the Great Dane wrote a handful of quartets, or fragments of quartets, (something like ten?!) before he published his first, in 1949, the same year as the second and third quartets. He must have been preparing for a while. I don’t believe any of these early quartets were ever performed (and likely not ever published), but Holmboe’s list of compositions on Wikipedia still has them.

Coming to the world in 1949, the second quartet dates from between the composer’s sixth and seventh symphonies. It has a duration of about 27 minutes, and is in five movements, as follows:

  1. Allegro fluente
  2. Andante con moto e affettuoso
  3. Presto
  4. Un poco adagio
  5. Allegro molto e leggiero

Says MusicWeb International, “The second quartet has a rocking pastoral motion with thoughtful asides along the way,” and says that it is “A magical piece that ends magically too.” That’s some praise, in contrast with the negativity someone had for some of the works we discussed midweek.

The first movement might seem a bit like Simpson, to whom he is sometimes likened, We have a work of great unity (perhaps not in the same way as Simpson) that unfolds with magical skill, ideas coming and disappearing, combining and evolving clearly and concisely. I’d say the similarity I (might) hear to Simpson is more in the momentum and energy than specific technical qualities. Here, it’s not that one character leaves the stage to make room for another, but that they morph and move around each other, shuffling around the ‘stage’ so that we see them all as this work develops.

Listen for the opening melody, or just fragments of it, in this entire work, as things are pulled apart and reconstructed, like a bouncing figure in the violin, repeated notes, pizzicato passages… I’m sure someone else can speak more eloquently about these details, but even just recognizing them in passing lends a sense of convincing cohesiveness to this work.

The second movement seems to take its opening material from the DNA of the first. It is of about equal length, and makes use of similar pizzicato phrases in the cello, like a meditation or softer side of the first movement. The ‘affetuoso’ in the movement’s marking means ‘gentle, tender’ not necessarily comforting, but maybe nostalgic or melancholy. It is outstandingly beautiful writing, kind of a quiet room between the bustle of the first and third movements, somewhere to close the door and be alone for a little while.

The central scherzo is frenetic, with some rustic elements similar to what we heard in earlier works this past week. There are ear-catching changes in meter and texture, with the trio mostly in pizzicato, but a few quiet moments before its close. This may be the thing, if you’ve heard the early Holmboe works, that seems most familiar so far.

Marked ‘un poco adagio,’ the fourth movement is the shortest of the work, and even more morose and poignant than the second. The cello speaks some wonderfully melancholic lines, coming to the fore as the narrator in this brief movement against a very quiet background.

The finale brings Bartók back to mind, with a rustic style, folk-like gestures in the midst of such a serious tone. It’s the most dissonant movement so far, but Holmboe has carefully chosen his colors and harmonies. The ‘leggiero’ marking means ‘lightly, gracefully.’ We have a repeated note motif that figures into the close of this final movement, leading to a perhaps surprising major-key gesture, a flowery, optimistic end to this vivid, captivating second quartet.

It’s been mentioned before that the place to start with Holmboe is likely his symphonies, as the quartets, especially the late ones, offer a little more challenge. That being said, there’s nothing too foreign here for even the more conservative listener. The harmonies are clearly more modern; there is a wealth of dissonance, along the lines of Simpson’s language, without being acrid or even in the same zip code as atonality. It’s a scintillating, magical work, and its maturity and polish may come as a surprise to listeners who were as inclined as another reviewer to be critical of some of the earlier works. I absolutely love this quartet, and Rob Barnett speaks highly of the cycle as a whole in the above-linked article:

Holmboe’s quartets are one of the great treasures of the last century and one that should endure for as long as audiences have even the slightest of grip on an attention span.

I look very forward to discussing them further, but after a whole week of Holmboe, we’ll be moving onto something different, so please stay tuned, and thank you so much for reading.

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