Holmboe, Vagn (Gylding)
(b Horsens, 20 Dec 1909; d Ramløse, 1 Sept 1996). Danish composer and teacher. He was one of seven children of parents who were amateur musicians. In 1926 he entered the Kongelige danske musikkonservatorium in Copenhagen on Nielsen’s recommendation. At the conservatory he studied principally with Jeppesen (theory) and Høffding (composition); after graduation he went to Berlin for a few composition lessons with Toch. There he met the Romanian pianist Meta May Graf, whom he married in 1933. He spent most of the 1930s teaching privately, studying and collecting various vernacular musics. Then and afterwards he published articles on Balkan and Arabic music and on Danish street cries. His full-length definitive book on the street cries was published in 1988.
In the 1940s he taught at the Blindeinstituttet in Copenhagen as well as privately. From 1947 to 1955 he was a music critic for the Copenhagen daily Politiken, and from 1950 to 1965 he taught at the Royal Conservatory. Among his students were composers who have become prominent in Danish music, including Nørgård, Nørholm and Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. Holmboe was also active for many years in Danish composers’ organizations. In 1965 he left the conservatory to compose full-time, aided by a lifelong annual grant from the state. Of his many other awards and honours, an important early one was first prize (for his Second Symphony) in a competition held by the Kongelige Kapel (Royal Orchestra) in 1939. This brought him almost instant fame in Denmark. Further recognition came with his deeply felt Symphony no.4 (‘Sinfonia sacra’) written during the war under the strong and positive influence of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Having won a Danish Radio prize, the symphony was given its first performance at the inauguration of its new building in 1945. International acclaim resulted from performances of his energetic Fifth Symphony in 1947 at the ISCM festival in Copenhagen and later that year in Stockholm.
Holmboe’s musical maturity emerged in the 1940s, e.g. in symphonies nos. 3–6, concertos nos. 2–11 (for a variety of instruments) and the string quartets nos.1–3, which came after 10 unnumbered quartets, a few of which remained incomplete. In 1951 he began a group of choral works entitled Liber canticorum. These dramatic, colourful, sometimes austere Latin settings of Old Testament texts established and advanced his reputation in Scandinavia for sensitive and noble choral music. Other significant choral works followed, some setting Icelandic, Faroese or English texts.
With the prize money won in 1939, Holmboe and his wife bought land near Ramløse, in rural north-east Denmark, naming the property Arre Boreale, after the nearby Arre lake. In 1953–4 they built two dwellings there and planted thousands of trees and shrubs. For more than forty years they lived in this peaceful area, far from the noise of the capital but close to the lake, Tisvilde woods and the northern coast of Denmark. They regularly received guests at Arre Boreale from all over the world, becoming unofficial ambassadors for Danish music and musical life. In the decade after they moved near Ramløse, Holmboe made three important associations. The century-old Wilhelm Hansen Musikforlag (later Edition Wilhelm Hansen) became the main publisher of his music in 1958. Also in 1958, Holmboe collaborated with the poet Thorkild Bjørnvig on one of many cantatas for ceremonial occasions in Denmark. This led in the mid-1960s to another work setting a Bjørnvig text, the Requiem for Nietzsche, a mighty exploration of artistic conviction and truth in the face of disruption and despair. At the same time Holmboe came to know the Copenhagen String Quartet, then a relatively new ensemble. They gave the premières and recorded many of his string quartets for over 20 years.
Holmboe accepted commissions from many people and organizations, most of them in Scandinavia. But he also wrote music on his own initiative, such as the ten preludes for chamber orchestra dedicated to the English writer Robert Layton, and music for performers he admired, such as string quartets for the Copenhagen String Quartet and the Viola Sonata and Second Viola Concerto for Golani. For more than 50 years of his life, he was one of the best-known composers in Scandinavia. Although his work had been well represented on disc, in the mid-1990s it received more substantial recognition with the first CDs issued in projects devoted to recording all 21 numbered string quartets (Dacapo/Marco Polo), 14 symphonies (BIS), many concertos (Dacapo/Marco Polo) and other orchestral works. In 1993 he was diagnosed with Waldenström’s syndrome, a blood disease similar to leukaemia, and not expected to live much longer. But his inner strength enabled him to write music for three years more. He was revered in Denmark not only for his music but also for his generous spirit, benevolent wit, broad knowledge and rich wisdom.
Holmboe’s outstanding achievements, among nearly 400 compositions in all the traditional genres, lie mostly in orchestral, chamber and choral music. He wrote sonatas or concertos for all the standard non-percussion orchestral instruments except bassoon and horn, and, from 1972 onwards, several solo and other compositions for instruments previously marginal or absent in his work: organ, recorder, guitar and accordion. Impressive solo songs include Moya (Japanese poems in Danish translation), two sets of Three Inuit Songs (in Danish translation) and Zeit (to a German text by Renata Pandulová). His major solo piano work is Suono da bardo. His stage works, however, were little known; one was unsuccessful and three composed earlier were not produced.
His music owes much to the balance and subtlety of Haydn, the clarity, colour and immediacy of Nielsen, the developmental strength of Sibelius, the restraint and mastery of Stravinsky and the spontaneous and straightforward qualities of the folk music he so admired. The range of his melodies is often narrow; melodic rhythms are smooth more often than irregular. His harmony is primarily modal, frequently with chromatic inflections or clashes on a diatonic base. Atonality and serialism only appeared in limited ways, chiefly in the early 1960s. At that time he was criticized by younger colleagues for distancing himself from various avant-garde trends. Notably, the Requiem for Nietzsche, which contains his technically most advanced writing for both voices and instruments, is from this period.
The basis of Holmboe’s music is free counterpoint. More fixed procedures such as melodic imitation and distinct formal designs such as structured variations are uncommon in his work. His phrasing is very flexible, while the interplay of many melodic shapes of considerable variety sometimes creates long spans of music with no conspicuous cadences or pitch centres. In this respect, a probable influence is Renaissance vocal polyphony as taught by Jeppesen. His music is often considered neo-classical. But he showed little interest in objectivity, intellectuality, or theory as such. He often spoke of the need to balance reason and emotion, create cosmos out of chaos and combine tradition and innovation in an artistic totality. He welcomed both spontaneity and control and acknowledged music’s mysterious qualities as much as its formal properties.
Holmboe identified strongly with nature, about which he knew a great deal. Its obvious influence may be found in titles and certain musical details of some works, e.g. his best-known symphony, no.8 (‘Sinfonia boreale’), and his ten preludes for chamber orchestra. The latter have titles and some sounds or gestures referring to natural objects or phenomena. He did not feel inspired by scenic details in nature but stressed deeper things: life rhythms of plants and animals, change of weather and seasons, the power and peacefulness of the sea. Through these, nature had a bigger influence on his music, especially on his formative musical principle of metamorphosis. Although it is found in music he admired by other composers, he related the concept more to life cycles and the environment. Artistically he characterized metamorphosis, in his book Mellemspil [Interlude] (1961), as ‘a process of development that transforms one matter into another, without it losing its identity, its basic characteristics’. In Holmboe’s music, metamorphosis is not strictly thematic. It draws on melody, harmony and rhythm primarily, but also other elements (colour, texture, etc.) for its comprehensive realization. It entails multi-level contrasts which are complementary rather than dualistic, and a blending of statement with development in music which is often in constant flux.
Metamorphosis is prominent in major works from about 1949 to 1972, including choral music, many string quartets, symphonies nos.7–10, Sinfonia in memoriam and four orchestral works specifically subtitled ‘symphonic metamorphosis’. Traces of the principle are found outside this period, e.g. in Symphony no.6 (1947) and String Quartet no.15 (1977–8). In his later music, the principle has less direct effect. But it is felt in the elusive elaboration of ‘submotivic’ particles – intervals, scalar fragments and other figuration – along with the thematic materials they may turn into or accompany. Metamorphosis notwithstanding, most of Holmboe’s music depends little on exact repetition and reveals wondrous generative processes mostly unrelated to traditional formal patterns.
Holmboe was a composer of uncompromising integrity. His techniques grew out of expressive need in the context of life experiences. The apparent reserved nature of his music disguises ‘a fine heat at the heart of it, a severe yet intensely human concentration that itself is a passion far outstripping self-consciousness’ (Robert Simpson, in his foreword to Holmboe’s book Experiencing Music: a Composer’s Notes, 1991). His best music is powerful as well as subtle, both disciplined and passionate, and profoundly moving in its psychological drama.