Simon Holt

b. 1958



Simon Holt was born in Bolton, Lancashire on 21 February, 1958. Educated at Bolton School, Holt immersed himself in organ, piano and visual art during his sixth form years. In 1976, he attended Bolton College of Art for a year where he fulfilled a foundation course in all areas of visual representation. Shortly before achieving a diploma in composition from the Royal Northern College of Music, where he studied with Anthony Gilbert for four years from 1978 to 1982, he received a commission from the London Sinfonietta, which became Kites (1983). He was soon firmly established with a series of commissions and fruitful collaborations including not only with the Sinfonietta, but also the Nash Ensemble and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, resulting in pieces such as eco-pavan (1998), Sparrow Night (1989) and Lilith (1990) respectively. Inspired by Messiaen, Xenakis and Feldman as well as visual artists such as Goya, Giacometti and Brâncusi, his music is innately dramatic and impulsive in nature. His output is diverse, comprising chamber music, concertos, songs, opera, orchestral and piano music. Holt is a composer who demands unusual commitment from his interpreters - the intricate sound-worlds he creates often contain complex, rich textures, offset by ‘still centres’ - for the purpose of making music which speaks with extraordinary power.

From 2000 onwards, Holt has written several concertos and orchestral pieces, including a table of noises (2007), a percussion concerto for Colin Currie. Holt was Composer in Association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales from 2008 to 2014, working closely with the conductor Thierry Fischer on pieces such as Troubled Light (2008) for orchestra and Morpheus Wakes (2011), a flute concerto written for Emmanuel Pahud, both for the BBC Proms. Previously, Holt had been commissioned to write two orchestral pieces for the BBC Proms; Syrensong (1987), his first orchestral piece, written for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the viola concerto, walking with the river’s roar (1991), for Nobuko Imai and the BBC Philharmonic. Recent commissions include the orchestral piece, Surcos (2016), for Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker and co-commissioned by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra who gave the UK premiere with the conductor Ilan Volkov and the basset clarinet concerto, Joy Beast (2016), for Mark Simpson and the BBC Philharmonic as part of the New Music Biennial 2017.

Simon Holt’s music has been recorded on several record labels, most extensively with NMC.

Holt is currently Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music.

Simon Holt is now self-published –
Critical Acclaim
(a table of noises) Holt has produced one of his most likeable and subtly coloured scores. — Paul Driver, The Sunday Times

The way he deploys instrumental timbres and creates mixes of sound conjures up, with his customary imagination, a compact score that is at once multi-faceted, ear-catching and clearly focused. — Geoffrey Norris, The Daily Telegraph
His music is complex, scored with painstaking attention to detail and completely original. - Chris Caspell, Classical Source
He's one of the very few composers alive whose sound - furiously active and glacially calm - is recognisable within seconds. - Ivan Hewett, The Daily Telegraph extraordinary creative talent. - Jonathan Katz,


Simon Holt was born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1958. After completing a foundation course at Bolton Art College, he went on to study composition with Anthony Gilbert at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. He is a Fellow of the Royal Northern College of Music and of the University of Bolton. As a young composer, the late Michael Vyner, then artistic director of the London Sinfonietta, commissioned Kites (1983). In 1985 he was featured composer of the Bath International Festival at which the late William Mann was the artistic director. Holt's relationship with the London Sinfonietta has continued with a steady stream of performances and premieres, including Ballad of the Black Sorrow (1988), eco-pavan (1998) and Sueños (2006) for baritone and ensemble, performed by Roderick Williams and the London Sinfonietta conducted by Thierry Fischer in London and Madrid.

In autumn 2016, Holt’s piccolo concerto Fool is hurt (2015), co-commissioned by the London Sinfonietta with the NOVA Ensemble of Utah, received its premiere performances in Salt Lake City (with Caitlyn Valovick-Moore as soloist) and London (with Michael Cox as soloist). In summer 2017, the basset clarinet concerto Joy Beast (2016), written for Mark Simpson and commissioned by the BBC, was premiered in Hull and London as part of the New Music Biennial 2017, a PRS for Music Foundation initiative presented in partnership with Hull UK City of Culture 2017, London’s Southbank Centre and BBC Radio 3.

Holt’s latest orchestral piece Surcos (2016), co-commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, received its world premiere performances in May 2017, in Berlin and Hamburg, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle; the UK premiere, conducted by Ilan Volkov, took place in Birmingham on June 13, 2018.

Simon Holt's output for chamber ensemble is large, including nine pieces written for the Nash Ensemble. The first four of these: Shadow Realm (1983), Era madrugada (1984), Canciones (1986) and Sparrow Night (1989) have been recorded by the Nash Ensemble on the NMC label. After the fifth piece, all fall down (1994), a sixth was commissioned for the 2004 Cheltenham Festival, namely the other side of silence (2004), followed by the string trio, 4 quarters (2005), and String Sextet: the torturer's horse (2009). His most recent work for the Nash Ensemble, bagatelarañas (2010), for wind quintet was premiered in March 2017 at Wigmore Hall. Holt has also developed a hugely successful relationship with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, who recorded a second portrait CD on the NMC label, released in 2004, featuring Kites, Lilith (1990), eco-pavan, Boots of Lead (2002) and feet of clay (2003). To date, Holt has been commissioned to write four major orchestral pieces for the BBC Proms - in 1987, John Drummond commissioned Syrensong for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, later followed by the viola concerto walking with the river's roar (1991), premiered by Nobuko Imai and the BBC Philharmonic in 1992. Latterly, Troubled Light (2008) and the flute concerto Morpheus Wakes (2014), for Emmanuel Pahud, were both premiered by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Thierry Fischer, during Holt’s highly successful tenure as Composer in Association at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales 2008 – 2014. Other works from this period include St Vitus in the kettle (2008), the double concerto for clarinet and flugelhorn, Centauromachy (2009) and The Yellow Wallpaper (2011), for soprano and orchestra. 

Holt has found inspiration in, amongst other things, the world of Greek myth. His cycle 3 for Icarus culminated in 1995 with the premiere of his cello concerto Daedalus Remembers (1995), commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival for Rohan de Saram and Sinfonia 21 conducted by Daniel Harding. In addition, he feels a great affinity for the writing of Federico Garcia Lorca whose dark, passionate and enigmatic texts have much in common with Holt's own sound world. He has set Lorca's texts in his song cycle Canciones and his first opera The Nightingale's to Blame (1996-8). This was a commission from Opera North, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and the Munich Biennale, and the premiere formed the focal point of a major retrospective at the 1998 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Simon Holt's soprano and orchestra piece, Sunrise' yellow noise (2000) for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Lisa Milne under Sir Simon Rattle went on to tour the Cologne Triennale in May 2000, and was the subject of a one-hour South Bank Show TV documentary.

In 2001, Simon Holt received Le Prix de la Fondation Prince Pierre, Monaco for this piece. Sunrise' yellow noise is the first part of the cycle, a ribbon of time, which encompasses five pieces of various genre based on poems by Emily Dickinson. The other four pieces are Two movements for string quartet (2001), which received the Royal Philharmonic Society Award in 2002; Boots of Lead for alto and ensemble, which was premiered by BCMG, Rinat Shaham and Sir Simon Rattle in October 2002 and received the Ivor Novello Classical Music Award; Clandestiny (2000) for soprano and organ; and startled Grass (2001) for female voices, cello, cimbalom and harp. The music theatre piece, Who put Bella in the Wych elm? (2003), commissioned by Aldeburgh Almeida Opera, was performed around the UK in 2003 to great acclaim and judged Best Stage Work at the 2004 British Composer Awards. It led to a further cycle of pieces - The sharp end of night (2005) for solo violin, the other side of silence for flute, viola and harp and The Coroner's Report (2004) for ensemble followed by Who put Bella in the Wych elm?.

Holt's large-scale pieces include the violin concerto, witness to a snow miracle (2005), premiered in London and then played in Bonn as part of the Beethoven Festival by Viviane Hagner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and judged Best Orchestral Work at the 2006 British Composer Awards; and a percussion concerto for Colin Currie entitled a table of noises (2007), which was premiered by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in May 2008 and also won the Orchestral Award at the British Composer Awards in 2009. These two concertos, along with the orchestral work St Vitus in the kettle, appear on the NMC CD recorded by the Hallé, conducted by Nicholas Collon, released in March 2017. Holt’s latest CD recording, also on NMC and released in May 2017, is of the 3rd Quartet (2013) in its world premiere performance by the JACK Quartet at the Wigmore Hall.

Simon Holt celebrated his 60th birthday on 21 February 2018. To mark this occasion, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales performed the UK premiere of an icicle of moon (2014), alongside St Vitus in the kettle and the BBC Philharmonic presented a table of noises with Colin Currie at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (February 17). In June 2018, the Aldeburgh Festival featured Holt’s chamber music in three concerts, including two new commissions: Llanto (para las chumberas) (2017), for oboe d’amore and string trio (June 11) and 4th Quartet: Cloud House (2017), which was premiered by the Piatti Quartet (June 22).

'The Music of Simon Holt', edited by David Charlton – the first full-scale study of Holt's compositions - was published by Boydell & Brewer in September 2017.

Simon Holt is currently Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music. The music of Simon Holt up to 2015 is published by Chester Music Limited. Since July 2016 Simon Holt has been self published.



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  • Discover the music of Simon Holt
    • Discover the music of Simon Holt
    • Discover the breadth and diversity of Simon Holt’s catalogue as we explore both the orchestral and chamber music from his extensive catalogue.