Vagn Holmboe: Obituary

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The Independent Online
"His genius truly generates - in his music things are born and they grow. In it, continuous metamorphosis is not merely ingenuity; it is life, it is tingling proliferation." Thus Robert Simpson on the music of the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe.

Holmboe was a master of world standing, one of the great symphonists. His reputation in Scandinavia has been secure for decades; it took the recording of his 14 symphonies on the Swedish label BIS (a cycle begun in 1992 and finished only in March this year) to alert the wider musical public that here was a composer of the widest international significance.

Vagn Holmboe was born in 1909, in Horsens, the fourth of five brothers (the eldest of whom was the writer and Arabist Knut Holmboe, whose promising career was brought to an abrupt end when he was murdered by Arab brigands in 1930; while his younger brother, Ebbe, active in the Danish resistance during the Second World War, was put to death in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944). In 1926, on the recommendation of Carl Nielsen, Vagn Holmboe was admitted to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen, where he studied with Knud Jappesen and Finn Hoffding, who, a frail but alert 97- year-old, survives him.

In 1930 Holmboe went to study in Berlin, where he had some informal study sessions with Ernst Toch. More important than his contact with Toch was his meeting with Meta May Graf, a Romanian pianist then studying with Hindemith; they were married in Romania in November 1933. It was a marriage that was to be blissfully successful: 63 years later the Holmboes were as obviously in love as they must have been at the beginning.

Holmboe's first successes with publication and performance came in the early 1930s; he survived in the interim through teaching. His career began in earnest in 1939, when he was 30, thanks to a pan- Scandinavian competition for an orchestral work held by the Royal Danish Orchestra.

Holmboe's Second Symphony had not made it through to the final round. The orchestra's conductor, Egisto Tango, had been absent for the Preliminary rounds of adjudication and on his return asked to see all the scores that had been submitted. Tango obviously realised that the driving energy in its outer movements signalled that something very important had entered Scandinavian music, and Holmboe's symphony won first prize.

It was the launch of one of the most productive careers of any 20th-century composer - and among recent prolific composers perhaps the only one of such consistently high quality. The Second Symphony is already the 107th work listed in Paul Rapoport's chronological catalogue of Holmboe's compositions. Rapoport went to press, in January this year, with his list at a total of 368 works; Holmboe meantime kept going.

The prize money from the competition allowed the Holmboes to buy a large plot of land, near Ramlose and Lake Arre, about 30 miles outside Copenhagen; there they built a house, cleared the land, planted literally thousands of trees with their own hands (Holmboe was very proud of that), and there they lived for almost half a century.

Holmboe's early compositions show almost nothing of the ethos of Carl Nielsen, whose successor he was soon assumed to be: Holmboe was a very different kind of humanist. Instead, one hears something of the influence of his close study of various folk musics, not least the Hungarian and Romanian traditions he encountered during the year-long Balkan field-trip undertaken at the time of his wedding; he also closely examined Arabic music.

His interest in folk material endured; in 1988 he published (in English) Danish Street Cries, based on research he had begun over 60 years earlier. The effect of such studies on his own work was indirect, as he absorbed objectively from folk music the elements that he wanted: the effects of rhythmic and melodic repetition, for instance, and of the movement of dance. Indeed, Holmboe's music of the period reveals just a passing affinity with Bartk.

From the early 1950s Holmboe began to perfect the technique he referred to as "metamorphosis": his musical material - a tiny motif, a rhythmic pattern - was now in a state of constant evolution, being developed as soon as it hit the page, generating symphonic momentum on a generous scale. This method of continuous metamorphosis reflected precisely how Holmboe drew the music from within himself: it poured from him, it grew in him as buds grow on trees.

Commentators writing about his music are often thrown back on organic metaphors drawn from natural images, but for the best of reasons: the abiding impression that Holmboe's music leaves is that of a living thing, of something growing, exploring, expanding. Hans Keller once defined the symphony as the large-scale integration of contrasts. Holmboe disagreed: "Immediate contrasts must be subordinated, as the symphonic line should not be blurred or destroyed." Simpson described Holmboe's style with his customary elegance: "Elements that seem similar assume myriad new shapes, flying around, about, and amongst one another like birds, and as they mingle, so they change again, constantly, organically."

One can trace the evolution of metamorphosis as a structural principle in the symphonies Holmboe composed in the mid-1940s and early 1950s, particularly from No 5 (1944) until its perfection in No 8 (1951). There then came a break in his symphonic output: No 9 was composed only in 1967-68, and the last in the series, No 13 (the 14th of the official canon, since the Sinfonia in Memoriam of 1954 carries no number), was premiered only in March this year. In these later works, Holmboe's orchestral palette became gradually lighter, more transparent; the power, the sense of movement, of growth, is still there but the pile-driving enthusiasm of the earlier symphonies has been replaced by a freewheeling motion that is at times almost weightless.

Concurrently with his composing, Holmboe was also one of Denmark's most important teachers. After holding a post at the Institute for the Blind in Copenhagen from 1940 to 1949, he moved to the Royal Conservatory in 1950 and in 1955 was appointed Professor of Theory and Composition, at that point relinquishing his eight-year position as a review-er for the daily newspaper Politiken. His pupils included Per Norgard and Ib Norholm. In 1965 Holmboe gave up his chair and became a full-time composer, supported by his pension and a state grant. In his "retirement" he wrote close on 150 more works, as well as completing three books and contributing essays to a number of publications.

Composing was the essence of Vagn Holmboe. It fuelled him through the series of illnesses that beset his last years. I last rang him around a week before his death. His wife, Meta, answered the phone. "Vagn is very ill," she said, "but he is still composing." He had all but finished a string quartet, No 21 in the numbered series (since there are 10 quartets before the official No 1), and the ideas were still blossoming in him.

He leaves a corpus of work so large that it is difficult to take adequate stock of it. Besides the symphonies and quartets, there is a handsome number of other orchestral pieces, including 29 concertante works for one or more soloists, a large quantity of chamber and instrumental music, two operas and a ballet and around 60 choral works, several of them of some scale.

Vagn Holmboe was one of the most lovable of men - generous, soft-spoken, utterly unpompous, always solicitous for the welfare of others. When, at the beginning of March, in the concert hall of Danish Radio, his frail figure stepped gently forward, supported by a stick, to take a bow after the premiere of the Thirteenth Symphony, the audience rose to pay homage. There was, of course, the respect that is offered to a national figure on such an occasion. More than that: one sensed, very clearly, that this man was loved.

Vagn Holmboe, composer: born Horsens, Denmark 19 December 1909; married 1933 Meta May Graf (one son, one daughter); died Ramlose, Denmark 1 September 1996.

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