The Landscapes and Metamorphoses of Vagn Holmboe’s World

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The music of Danish composer Vagn Holmboe hums with the sounds and metamorphoses of the natural world. The penman of nearly 400 works, Holmboe’s neoclassical stylings are marked by incessant transformation (his compositions are sometimes cataloged with “M,” or metamorphosis, in place of the more standard opus number) and draw strongly from both folk traditions and the flora and fauna of his surroundings. On “Vagn Holmboe: Chamber Symphonies,” conductor John Storgårds and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra presents three such works that have never before seen the light of day.

In 1939, Holmboe won first place at Royal Danish Orchestra's composition competition for his Symphony No. 2 and he used the money to build a retreat on Denmark’s island of Northern Zealand, a place where he became increasingly inspired by the processes of nature (he reportedly planted 3000 trees during his time living on the property). Those processes, mirrored with/by a compositional style driven by thematic variation, are defining aspects of Holmboe's musical voice, offering a textured view of both his inner and outer worlds.

The spiraling clarinet descent at the opening of Chamber Symphony No. 1 (1958) seemingly mimics the circling of a bird in the unsure light of dusk. The sky opens to a seesawing counterpoint of violins fluttering nimbly across the sky. When the music bursts to a full-fledged chase, you practically hear a David Attenborough narration: “the sparrow’s only choice is to level the playing field by leading the hawk into the labyrinth of the forest.”

The even more dramatic Chamber Symphony No. 2 (1968) alternates dreamlike currents of mallets and flute with violent clouds of strings and percussion that swarm the landscape like locusts. Written in the solitude of Holmboe's secluded home, the work, subtitled “Elegy” functions as strongly as a musical counterpoint to the island’s stormy waves as it does a dense psychological study: ever-mutating themes unwind mournfully in isolation; romantic swells of strings ebb and flow, but never quite settle; the music wanders aimlessly (with purpose), wringing material from themes, but never fully constrained by musical architecture. 

Holmboe’s third and final chamber symphony is the most fragmented of the three. With movement titles like “Sereno con variazioni” or “Serene with variations,” and “Chiaro” or “clear,” the work is also the least aggressive. Its final Allegro movement conjures images of beating wings and the ever mutating landscape of the natural world. Yet otherwise, the music is largely built on quiet subtlety, functioning as a series of breathtaking, if chilly sonic landscape portraits viewed through a lens of solitude.

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