Holmboe String Quartet no. 3

performed by the Kontra Quartet

(no YouTube, but you can listen to the work, at least to snippets, at Dacapo’s website for the complete quartets, here, or on Spotify, if that’s something you have.

(cover image by Jeremy Bishop)

Holmboe’s third quartet dates from 1950 and is dedicated to the Koppel Quartet, who premiered it the same year. Holmboe composed his first three quartets in very quick succession, so this work marks the last of his earliest phase of composition in the form.

Rob Barnett says at MusicWeb in his review of the box set that “[The third quartet] shines with folksy highland mists and skips with vitality.” But that’s an interesting comment, I think, for if you listen to the piece as a whole, you may find a different atmosphere than ‘vitality’ ultimately prevails.

The work is structured in a sort of Bartókian five-movement symmetry. The piece has a duration of about 24 minutes, and the five movements are as follows:

  1. Lento
  2. Allegro assai e leggiero
  3. Andante quasi giacona
  4. Allegro decido
  5. Lento

The first movement finds a beautiful point between the grand, late Romanticism of the very earliest 20th century and the upheaval of tonality that would shortly follow, but Holmboe is already writing after two World Wars. That’s not to say he’s behind the times, because Holmboe never would go down any of the truly ‘modernist’ paths. His music is far from derivative or bland.

The opening lento is truly breathtaking, an engrossing dirge of a lento that quickly enwraps us, pulls us into this five-movement journey. It is, suitably, I feel, the longest movement of the five, at about seven-and-a-half minutes.

The second movement’s ‘leggiero’ means ‘light, delicate’, and it’s a break from the melancholy atmosphere, like a separate room of the house that makes up the whole. This is the kind of passage where you may hear Barnett’s ‘vitality’ and ‘highland mists,’ and the ‘lightness’ of this short movement does suggest an exciting walk through dense forests, maybe, an enchanting landscape, maybe a storm building? But no.

The third movement, the center of the work is equally as pensive as the first movement, but not so dark. One voice enters after another, as if (perhaps truly) in canon. The ‘giacona’ marking for this movement perplexed me, but aside from an Italian surname, I could find absolutely no meaning for it. I’m almost positive Holmboe (or his publisher) misspelled the Italian word for chaconne, ‘ciaccona,’ which the work maybe appears to be. There’s a very effective pedal tone from cello, and it’s again pensive and serious but not bleak, necessarily. As the central movement, it’s easy to see this as the emotional climax, perhaps even the destination, but we see it better in the context of having finished the whole journey.

As with any work, a tasteful application of contrast goes a long way in generating interest, and in our fourth movement, after the dense pensive cloud of the central movement, provides it. The fourth movement is brighter, indeed ‘decided’ or ‘decisive’ or whatever, as marked, and it’s the first time we’ve really had a propulsive movement that pushes forward, and if you listen, and don’t think about there being a fifth movement, this close would make for a perfectly suitable and very effective finale, no? But instead…

A fifth movement, the other lento that bookends this piece. After the seeming peroration in the fourth movement, this finale feels like an epilogue of sorts, or else a flashback, started by viola, then cello, sort of a reprise of the opening movement. It’s a powerful construction, like an arch, all the pieces compressing down against one another without collapsing, creating a stable, sturdy whole.

This is a little example, to me, of how certain musical constructions or structural ideas that may seem merely academic on paper can actually be a great source of interest. It’s like the analyses we’d do in literature class about internal and external conflict, or symbolism. It seemed so dry, but once you read a compelling story and see why it is so, it affects how you read. This arch form is a compelling one, and it’s not just the same thing backwards and forwards; there’s still contrast and new material, but the overall structure centers around the keystone central movement. Anyway, I love that kind of stuff.

Holmboe has already been inaugurated into our Editor’s Choice series, but there are two composers out of this week’s three who have not. They’re earning their badges in upcoming posts, so please stay tuned for them, and thanks so much for reading.

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