Music: Metaphysics Set to Music

Several years ago in The New York Times, critic Richard Taruskin spoke of Danish composer Vagn Holmboe, who was born in 1909, as “possibly the greatest living traditional symphonist.” I wish I had written that. In fact, I had intended to, but it was too late, as Holmboe died in 1996. However, I believe that Holmboe’s music will secure for him a place as the finest Danish symphonist since Carl Nielsen and as one of the great European composers of this century. This has become increasingly clear now that so much of his work is available on compact disc. The BIS label has issued a complete set of Holmboe’s symphonies, played by the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra under conductor Owain Arwel Hughes. In its Da Capo series, Marco Polo is releasing complete traversals of Holmboe’s string quartets, played by the Kontra Quartet, and his chamber concerti, played by the Danish Radio Sinfonietta under Hannu Koivula.

You probably have not heard of Vagn Holmboe (pronounced Vaughn HOLM-bow-a). That should come as no surprise, since the key word in Taruskin’s description of his symphonies is “traditional.” Someone forgot to tell Holmboe that tonality was exhausted and the symphony dead. After his studies at the Royal Danish Conservatory (accepted on the recommendation of Carl Nielsen), and with composer Ernst Toch in Berlin, Holmboe went on to compose 13 symphonies, 20 string quartets, 13 chamber concertos, various solo concertos, 14 motets, and several operas. He was still at work at the age of 86 when he passed away on September 1, 1996.

Of all the attributes that could be ascribed to Holmboe, the one most suited to him is “integrity.” The man seemed incapable of writing a note that was not honest. There is no sense of artifice, the gratuitous, or the superficial. Everything that is said needs to be said. His work exhibits a combination of toughness, lyricism, and rhythmic vitality; it is rooted and real, though the source of that reality may be somewhat unfamiliar. The music reflects nature, but not in a pastoral way. It is not a musical evocation of bird song or sunsets. Neither is it nature as the 19th century understood nature—principally as a landscape upon which to project one’s own emotions. Holmboe’s impulse was to move outward and upward. His music reveals the constellations in their swirling orbits, cosmic forces, a universe of tremendous complexity, but also of coherence. To say his work is visionary would be an understatement.

What do Holmboe’s symphonies sound like? The strongest influence is Carl Nielsen. Anyone who loves Nielsen’s music should be drawn to Holmboe’s. From Nielsen, Holmboe acquired the orchestral means to generate cataclysmic power, including Nielsen’s devastating tympanic eruptions. Holmboe also learned from Nielsen how to delicately intertwine rich woodwind lines of great contrapuntal beauty. One also hears traces of Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Sibelius. In spirit, Holmboe seems situated somewhere between Sibelius’s total absorption into nature and Nielsen’s fierce humanism. He shares Sibelius’s otherworldliness but blends it with Nielsen’s human passion for the inextinguishable forces of life.

The first five of Holmboe’s 13 symphonies, written between 1935-1944, are more conventional than his later works, but none the less fine for that. They are in the mainstream of other tonal and somewhat neoclassical works of the period. The Second, Third, and Fifth Symphonies are particularly good. The only symphony that is not thoroughly convincing is the Fourth, subtitled Sinfonia Sacra. I find the stridency of parts of this wartime work a bit grating and tire of the echoes of Carl Orff in the choral sections. Holmboe did a much better job commemorating the war years with his moving Sinfonia, In Memoriam, written after the Eighth Symphony (and once designated by Holmboe as the Ninth Symphony). By the time of the Sixth Symphony, Holmboe had found his unique voice, though it was through a process of evolution rather than radical change. The Sixth through the 13th symphonies are extraordinary works that are among the century’s best. The Eighth Symphony, Sinfonia Boreale, is especially noteworthy. I first heard this tumultuous, heaven-storming piece on a Turnabout recording more than 20 years ago and was stunned that such a masterpiece had not swept the world before it. Though written in Holmboe’s old age, the last three symphonies remarkably show no diminution in his visionary powers, though they employ somewhat lighter textures.

Holmboe found his symphonic voice through a technique he called metamorphosis, “based on a process of development that transforms one matter into another, without it losing its identity” Holmboe explained that contrasts, however strong they may be, are always made of the same basic material and are complementary rather than dualistic. This kind of development, Holmboe said, “must be characterized by the strictest logic, so that each strand in the process of change stands out clearly as an inevitable necessity, pointing in ever-increasing measure toward the final change.” (As inevitable as the transformations may seem after hearing them, they never sound predictable as they are developing.) Most importantly, metamorphosis “has a goal; it brings order to the process and enables it to create a pattern of the same perfection and balance as, for example, a classical sonata.” Holmboe’s meta-morphosis is something like Beethoven’s method of arguing short motives; a few hammered chords can generate the thematic material for the whole work.

Holmboe’s approach is Aristotelian: The thematic material defines its own development. What a thing is (its essence) is fully revealed through its completion (its existence), through the exploration of the potential of its basic materials. The effect is cumulative, the impact powerful. This is music driven by a real sense of purpose.

Holmboe’s technique also has a larger significance. Composer Karl Aage Rasmussen observes in one of the BIS liner notes that Holmboe’s metamorphosis has striking similari-ties with the constructive principles employed by Arnold Schoenberg, father of twelve-tone music. However, says Rasmussen, “Schoenberg found his arguments in history while Holmboe’s come from nature.” This difference is decisive since the distinction is metaphysical, and music is essentially the “sound” of metaphysics. The argument from history leads to creation ex nihilo, not so much in imitation of God as a replacement for Him—the Nietzschean will to power. Schoenberg’s systematized dissonance eviscerated the world of nature and resulted in noise. The argument from nature leads to creation in cooperation with the Creator.

Rasmussen shows the theological implications of Holmboe’s approach:

The voice of nature is heard … both as an inner impulse and as spokesman for a higher order. Certainty of this order is the stimulus of music, and to recreate it and mirror it is the highest goal. For this, faith is required, faith in meaning and context or, in Holmboe’s own words, “cosmos does not develop from chaos without a prior vision of cosmos.”

Holmboe’s words could come straight from one of Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God. Holmboe’s remark reveals both his metaphysical grounding and his breathtaking artistic reach. This man was not simply reaching for the stars, but for the constellations in which they move and beyond. Holmboe strove to show us the cosmos, to play for us the music of the spheres.

Holmboe’s music is quite acces-sible but requires a great deal of concentration because it is highly contrapuntal. Its rich counterpoint reflects creation’s complexity. The simultaneity of unrelated strands of music in so many modern compositions (as in the works of Charles Ives and John Cage) is no great accomplishment; relating the strands is. As Holmboe said, music has the power to enrich man “only when the music itself is a cosmos of coordinated powers when chaos does exist, but [is] always over-come.”

In other words, chaos is not the problem; chaos is easy. Cosmos is the problem. Showing the coherence in its complexity is the greatest intellectual and artistic challenge, because it shares in the divine “prior vision of cosmos” that makes the cosmos possible. As Holmboe wrote, “In its purest form, [music] can be regarded as the expression of a perfect unity and conjures up a feeling of cosmic cohesion.” Arising from such complexity, this feeling of cohesion can be, he said, a “spiritual shock” for modern man.

Holmboe’s contrapuntal fabric is fascinating. From disparate strands, Holmboe stiches together, through the force of his musical vision, the cosmic and the sublunary, the human and the divine. One moment his music seems to be tracing some celestial movement, the next it is magically transformed into a child’s tune. Holmboe employs what sound like musical pinwheels—musical motifs that whirl around in their own orbits. As expressions of human passion, these swirling arabesques might seem obsessive; used to portray human endeavor, they would sound mindlessly motoric; but in depicting nature, they are stellar. Danish lyricist Paul la Cour caught this aspect of Holmboe’s music when describing the Eighth Symphony. Holmboe’s great polyphonic passages, he said, seem to be “closely related to the majestic monotony of nature.” (Listen, too, to the opening of Chamber Concerto No. 9, or five minutes into Chamber Concerto No. 7; is this a tune from a calliope or a solar system?) It is no surprise that Holmboe spoke of true musical art as a microcosm, “like the structure of atoms, or the galaxies of the universe.” He moves from cosmos to microcosm and back again with ease. Its great polyphonic complexity makes Holmboe’s music inexhaustibly interesting. Because of its thematic unity, the music is easy to follow, but one never gets the sense of having fully mined its riches. Each audition supplies fresh revelations.

Space does not allow for an exploration of Holmboe’s chamber concerti and string quartet, this time. Marco Polo’s Da Capo series is one compact disc shy of a complete set of the chamber concerti, and is more than halfway through the string quartets. The chamber concerti show a lighter, less turbulent, very beguiling side of Holmboe, with a more pronounced strain of long- lined lyricism. The complexity of Holmboe’s contrapuntal thinking lends itself naturally to the string quartet. It is no wonder that he composed 20 of them. The quartets are perhaps Holmboe’s most difficult music to appreciate at first hearing. They display little surface charm, are very tightly argued, and require repeated acquaintance to reveal their considerable treasures. Anyone who appreciates Bartok’s or Shostakovich’s quartets should have no trouble with them.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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