VAGN HOLMBOE – String Quartet No. 3

Danish composer Vagn Gylding Holmboe [1909-1996] wrote 20 string quartets, which I believe is more than any other composer that I have previously discussed, from the 20th century. As one of a number of various Scandinavian or Nordic composers that I possess, I am going to examine a few more in the next 2-3 months. I believe they share a common sound, and work within the same emotional areas. Of course, this is a generalisation but common traits do occur.

I am going to discuss a peaceful SQ No. 3, which is in four movements. The first opens with one of those bleak and introspective moods. A violin attempts to set up a melody to get the piece moving but it remains very static. After a brief cello passage the violin brilliantly paints a longing soundscape. After about three minutes, the atmosphere thickens and the violin jousts with the other voices. This is not sustained and we return to the violin, supported by murky interjections. Finally the violin soars above the ensemble for a moment before concluding the movement as a solo.

The next movement is busy and the sound is of four equal voices scurrying about creating mildly abstract lines and a tempo to match them. Things start to change as the intensity drops with the texture becoming lighter. The constant movement still prevails as each voice makes its contribution. There is a flurry near the end and the mood dissipates. The violin fades out to conclude.

The third movement opens with a gentle atonal fugue. This is another very evocative mood. The composer seems to revel in wandering melodies and so far has not provided anything resembling a tempo. In Holmboe’s world, all voices are equal, with the occasional spirited violin phrase being the exception to the rule.

The final movement begins with a short motif, repeated a few times before launching into a passage which is bordering on chaos. Again, the equal voices propel the movement forward. There are many short segments which incrementally change the mood but the overall sound doesn’t change substantially. A pause signals a slight variation as the ensemble work together for a time. Then it is back to the jousting. There is a flourish and the violin ends with two chords.

This is a fabulous, slightly atonal work. Not all of the composer’s works are this gentle, but I find him very rewarding.

Holmboe’s complete quartets have been recorded by the Kontra Quartet on seven CDs. SQ No. 3 is on Volume 1. They are also available in a complete box set. As some of the CDs are becoming deleted, you can buy the box set on Amazon UK for less than the price of some single CDs! If he appeals to you, go for the box now! You can be sure it won’t be around for long and it’s very reasonably priced both on Amazon US and UK.

The complete boxset is on Spotify (!) and there are many quartets on youtube.

Listenability: A fascinating introspective work.

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3 thoughts on “VAGN HOLMBOE – String Quartet No. 3”

  1. Hi Steve,
    he really gets to you , doesn’t he? I have seven CDs worth.
    I’ve already prepared a review of No. 7 which I believe is on the same disc. I’ll put it up in a few weeks.

    JH

  2. Wow! I had never heard of Vagn Holmboe before, but now I’m just addicted to the densely woven third quartet. This is a really wound-up, dramatic work that should appeal to fans of Shostakovich. The cello work throughout the first movement is phenomenal.

  3. Wow! I had never heard of Vagn Holmboe before, but now I’m just addicted to the densely woven third quartet. This is a really wound-up, dramatic work that should appeal to fans of Shostakovich.

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