Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996)

I've mentioned him as a major influence on my personal style, so I thought I'd throw his name out there to see whether other people here are familiar with his work and what they think of it.

He is from Denmark but spent time in the early 1930s traveling in eastern Europe studying folk music in Romania, Hungary, and nearby countries. His early efforts show the influence of Bartok - or maybe it is more like a stylistic affinity and the fact that he drew on much the same musical materials. By 1940 he was writing in a neoclassical style, but still with a strong folk influence. By the early 1950s his style had grown much more personal and he had developed a technique he called "metamorphosis" that involved taking musical ideas and subjecting them to a process of continual change and evolution. I will admit that this idea does not seem that different to me than organic free fantasia development as used by e.g. Sibelius, but whatever the technique, he used it to produce some strikingly original works throughout the 1950s and 1960s. His style throughout this time is strongly polyphonic and shows the influence of a number of Classical, Baroque, and Renaissance composers including Haydn, Bach, and Palestrina.

After 1970 his style underwent a sea change and became more, not so much diatonic (it was always modal-diatonic) as white-note-y, with more transparent scoring and much less dissonance and chromaticism. He continued to churn out high quality and well-crafted works for the next quarter century, but I find most of them generally less interesting than what he produced between 1950 and 1970.

Some highlights of his output

Chamber Concerto #10 (1946)

Symphony #6 (1947)

String Quartet #5 (1955)

Epitaph (Symphonic Metamorphosis, 1956)

4 Sinfonias for string orchestra (later bundled into a single work called Kairos, 1958-62)

Requiem for Nietzsche (oratorio, 1964)

Symphony #9 (1968) - in my opinion his finest symphony

Chamber Symphony #2 (1968)

Symphony #12 (1988, in his late style, but stirring and powerful)

10 Preludes for Sinfonietta (1986-91, again in Holmboe's late style, short tone poems mostly on subjects related to Nature)

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  • Hi Liz,

    He seems to be on YouTube, perhaps you could choose two or three links from what is there and share?


  • Thanks for the recommendation.  I didn't know about him.  A quick check of Amazon indicates that many recordings of his works are available. : Vagn Holmboe
  • Here's a few:

    A mono recording of an early performance of the String Quartet #3, from 1949. Holmboe had already written 6 symphonies when he wrote his 1st string quartet, and the first three quartets were written in quick succession. It is not his most accomplished quartet, and is still under the influence (if it is influence) of Bartok, but you can already hear hints of his later tendency to intertwine and interlace the string lines.

    This link has a number of different works, including several of his Chamber Concertos and also the 4 Sinfonias for string orchestra, which contain imo some of his finest string writing. I'm particularly fond of Sinfonia II.

    Requiem for Nietzsche:

    A few of the Preludes for Sinfonietta (there are 10 in all):

    Personally I'd start with Chamber Concerto #10 at the second link above, a very approachable neoclassical work, and maybe move on to the SQ #3 and the Sinfonias. It's a pity that the 9th Symphony doesn't seem to be up on YouTube. I was surprised that the 8th Symphony does NOT seem to be up there, since it's his most popular symphony, but IMO the 9th is by far the finer and more deeply imagined work.

  • Thank you for calling Holmboe to our attention Liz, I am enjoying listening to him. I was able to find his 8th Symphony but not the 9th.

  • I'll have to look into this composer when time permits. I'm comfortable with Scandinavian composers (and particularly Nielsen. It was the 2nd movement of Nielsen's No. 3 that inspired me to think of voice as another instrument in an ensemble).

    I'll take time out before beddibies tonight to fire up some of the youtubes. 

  • Ingo,

    Thanks for finding the 8th Symphony when I could not. It contains a lot of wonderful music, a driving septuple-time opening paragraph with lots of metric shifts throughout the 1st movement, a stirring 2nd movement, then a slow movement that IMO is redolent of Shostakovich (a bit too much I think), and then the finale becomes very nearly unhinged. It's very dramatic music but IMO not as musically composed as most of his other symphonies, including the 7th. BTW I had found that recording of the 7th but decided NOT to post it after listening to the first minute or so. Too scratchy and even distorted to my ears.

    Dane, the 2nd movement of Nielsen's 3rd is one of my favorites of his. The wordless vocalise is sheer heaven. I also love the 5th Symphony and most of his string quartets. He's definitely a major influence on me musically as well, and I think I said that his Commotio was kind of a model for my Fugal Variations. Only that I've listened to more Holmboe recently and his style of polyphony has really worked its way under my skin.

    Trivia on me and Holmboe: I was at the premiere of his 10th Symphony in Detroit. I was a high school student at the time. I can't say that his music really grabbed me at the time. I did not really start to appreciate his work until the late 1990s.

  • I just remembered a great example of the interlacing of different voices in Holmboe, though it's not two string lines but a viola and an oboe: the Chamber Concerto #13, also at the second of my links above. The two soloists rarely play individually in this work and seem in places to be almost like conjoined twins, two distinct voices joined together and weaving an intricate web of counterpoint around each other. The only reason I didn't recommend this work outright is that IMO the last movement fails to deliver on its promise and just sort of ends without having resolved anything. Though that may have been the idea. It's an unusual and very attractive, if not 100% satisfying, work.

  • Hi Liz, I pulled the video of the 7th off, if someone really wants to listen to it we can put up a link.

  • Hi Ingo,

    Ok but I wasn't suggesting that it shouldn't be up there, only that I passed it up because of the sound quality. Others might feel differently - that's okay! The music is certainly worth hearing if you can tolerate the sound (well, assuming the performance is a good one - I didn't hear much of it).

  • From the Danish composers I like Nielsen and Niels Gade.

    Listening to Holmboe's 8th wasn't impressed, was too abstract for me and incoherent. 

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