Holmboe Symphony no. 1, op. 4

performed by the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra under Owain Arwel Hughes, available on Spotify

(cover image by Charlie Wild)

One of the difficult things about some of these more obscure works, no matter how rewarding it is to discover (and yes, even to share) them is the paucity of information about them. In some cases, there just isn’t much exciting background on a piece, and in others the work was just overshadowed by what came later. I think we have both of those elements for today’s piece.

Thankfully Chandos has the booklet for this release available in PDF form online. It tells us that the first symphony “was composed between June and September 1935, but first performed by the then relatively newly-founded Aarhus City Orchestra (nowadays the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra) conducted by Thomas Jensen, at a concert in Aarhus on 21st February 1938.”

That’s really all we get from there. Robert R. Reilly, in the chapter on Holmboe in his Surprised by Beauty, gives merely a reference to the first five symphonies as being “more conventional than his later works but no less fine.”

This is the shortest of the composer’s 13 symphonies; some of the chamber symphonies may be shorter, but also likely not. The work is in three movements, as follows, and has a playing time of a mere 15-16 minutes:

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Allegro energico

The first and longest movement begins forcefully but turns out to be more of a dance than an aggression. Listen for the trumpet’s near-repetitive motif throughout, and what sounds like the kind of bouncy, buoyant string writing you might expect from Aaron Copland. As light and carefree and fun as the movement is overall, it closes with a decisive punch.

The second movement begins with a bassoon solo, and is immediately darker than the previous movement, but then also relatively sparse. After the military-sounding climax, there’s a clicky, subdued passage featuring solos from the woodwind section, punctuated by percussive outbursts. These melodies that try to persist in the woodwinds over percussion and brass are clearly, unmistakably patterned after the opening movement, lingering into this more remote but still related movement. In fact, it really feels like a meditation, a memory of the previous movement, with a few sudden recollections or unrelated thoughts, but overall, a sort of step away from the action, but it leads without pause into the finale and shortest movement.

We arrive again at Copland-esque sound, with interesting rhythms, and even the trumpet theme that shows up again, slightly modified, but easily identifiable from the first movement. There is a lot of percussion throughout this symphony, affording not only an intensity of rhythm, but  texture and space to the sound. Our main players from the previous movement return for a reprise of their solos, most notably bassoon and flute, but timpani also persist.

This finale could either be interpreted as bordering on repetitive, or as tying this small little work together in a nice way. As small as the piece is, in its entirety still shorter than many individual movements of Romantic era symphonies, I wouldn’t say it’s too repetitive. It’s concise, and if nothing else, the rhythmic interest and orchestral provide enough excitement to sustain us through to the almost abrupt, but still forceful end to the piece.

It is unmistakably not a life-changing symphony, not on any ‘greatest’ lists, almost no matter what qualifiers you’d like to add to it, not even first symphonies, not even Danish first symphonies. That being said, Holmboe does show his strengths as a young composer. What the piece lacks in symphonic structure (feeling more like a symphonic suite than anything) it makes up for in the little thrills of color or rhythm, and a surprisingly boisterous heft to an otherwise diminutive little piece. Like some other early works, the greatest value it has as a piece of music is to show the composer’s potential, his underlying abilities, his skill set and thought process as he began, and as we continue discussing his music, we’ll see much more of that.

We’ve got a few more pieces to discuss from Holmboe before we get back, as I have already said, to Weinberg, but there are a few more people we’re also going to visit in this installment of the Editor’s Choice series, four more to be exact, so stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

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2 thoughts on “Holmboe Symphony no. 1, op. 4

  1. I’ve only ever listened to Holmboe 1 once (I went through the whole cycle on Spotify back in the spring), but two things that immediately struck me were that (a) it didn’t sound much like mature Holmboe, but that (b) it really couldn’t have been written by anyone else. How many “rookie” works in the form can claim that? Certainly not Shosty 1, which has Prokofiev and Hindemith’s fingerprints all over it (although admittedly Holmboe had the advantage of a few more years of life), and certainly not Nørgård’s 1st, which sounds…very much like a Vagn Holmboe symphony!

    1. Got it!
      Well said. I feel Nørgård’s first sounds like a very late, more adventurous Sibelius, to whom I recall he looked up. I love that work, and I was actually just thinking today to get him back on my to-do list. More Holmboe to come, though… still lots of those chamber concertos left!

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