Discover the music of Simon Holt

Discover the music of Simon Holt
© Madeleine Alldis

Simon Holt is a composer whose music demands unusual commitment from his interpreters - his intricate sound-worlds often comprise complex, rich textures, offset by ‘still centres’ - for the purpose of making music which speaks with extraordinary power. So distinct are the individual characters of his works that describing a unifying ‘Holt’ sound is often a tricky undertaking. However, it is fair to say Holt’s music is one of incredible extremes: fierce and full of fire in moments of overwhelming emotion, but delicate and beguiling in its most intimate passages. His work is steeped in the language and imagery of other art forms – especially poetry, where his settings of Lorca and Dickinson are treated with incredible deftness, ingenuity and theatrical timing.

Discover the breadth and diversity of Holt’s catalogue here as we explore both the orchestral and chamber music from his extensive catalogue. Contact your local Wise Music Group office for more information. 



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), which was premièred by Nobuko Imai and the BBC Philharmonic in 1992. In this work, modifications to the traditional orchestral line up result in a distinctively coloured ensemble which throughout the piece surrounds, comments on and amplifies the almost continuously active – and highly virtuosic – solo part.
From a text piece by Richard Long - 'Walking with the River's Roar' provided a metaphor for the relationship he wanted to achieve between the soloist and the orchestra, in which the viola represents an individual figure in the orchestral landscape, travelling along a similar but not exactly parallel course.

Latterly, Troubled Light (2008), which explores colour and impurities of light through discomfiting, strange and extreme sounds, and the flute concerto Morpheus Wakes (2014), for Emmanuel Pahud, were both premièred by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Morpheus Wakes is a flute concerto in 2 movements. For the first 11' movement, the flute solo plays only alto flute. Initially the music seems to be thawing out of a slow, dark-hued and quite sparse permafrost-covered landscape. The player will change to flute for the second 4' movement, which will be, by contrast, wild and unleashed, bordering on the chaotic; bright and vividly awake. The soloist could be seen to represent the god of dreaming, Morpheus himself, as if slowly waking from a deep, troubled sleep.


Further orchestral works include several concerti and a selection of shorter works:

Written whilst he was Composer in Association at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Holt's Centauromachy is a double concerto for clarinet and flugelhorn in five movements, is inspired by centaurs, their dual nature and unpredictability.

a table of noises
A percussion concerto in 6 movements, with five brief instrumental 'ghosts' interspersed. For the most part, the soloist is seated on a cajon (drawer in Spanish), a box used in flamenco performances. At other times they play the xylophone and finally the glockenspiel, but all the other instruments are laid out on a table in front of the soloist; hence the title. The work is based on Holt’s memories of his great uncle Ash who was, amongst many other things, a taxidermist.

witness to a snow miracle
Based around the life of Saint Eulalia, the virgin martyr, witness to a snow miracle is a violin concerto in seven short movements. The movements are presented as if part of a painting in which we see all the events of her life and eventual martyrdom.

Joy Beast – (self-published) is a concerto for Basset Clarinet written for Mark Simpson with the BBC Philharmonic. Inspired by paintings by Cecil Collins which point to the contrasts present throughout the work.

The following four works - two of which are still in progress and will be self-published by Holt - are shorter works for the orchestra which work well together as an orchestral suite.

St.Vitus in the kettle 
St. Vitus is the patron saint of actors, comedians, Czechoslovakia, epileptics and dancers; he protects against snake and dog bites, lightning and storms, and is renowned for the nervous disease commonly associated with his name which causes a kind of delirium. The piece is scored for wind, brass, percussion and harp with 6 double basses and lasts about five and a half minutes.

an icicle of moon 
The title 'an icicle of moon' is a phrase from the great poem of Garcia Lorca, Romance Somnámbulo: ‘Un carámbano de luna la sostiene sobre el agua’ (An icicle of moon suspends her above the water). Scored for a small, essentially classical orchestra, the piece lasts about 6½ minutes and was part of an encore project instigated by the Bamberger Symphoniker.

Surcos (self-published) was a commission from the Berliner Philharmoniker and CBSO conducted by Simon Rattle in Berlin and Hamburg at the Elbphilharmonie and then with Ilan Volkov in Birmingham.

Bobalicón (self-published) and orchestral piece which is a work in progress lasting possibly 12’. This will be the final part of a set of all four orchestral pieces lasting about 32’ in total.



Holt's output for chamber ensemble is large, including ten pieces written for the Nash Ensemble and a fruitful relationship with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

His latest work for the Nash, the self-published Serra-Sierra, is a cello and piano piece for Adrian Brendel and Alasdair Beatson which will be premiered on the March 26 2024 at the Wigmore Hall as part of their Harrison Birtwistle memorial day.

Maïastra (solo flute) 
The title comes from a sculpture of the same name by Constantin Brancusi: Maïastra is a magic golden bird in Romanian folklore, noted for its marvellous song which had miraculous powers. The piece is of approximately 10 minutes duration.

the other side of silence
The piece is scored for alto flute (doubling piccolo), harp and viola. The first movement is called waiting for hummingbirds (a quote from the music-theatre piece, 'Who put Bella in the Wych elm?' as are all the movement titles), and is for the full compliment of 3 players. The music derives in part from the setting of these three words, and this movement is dedicated to my Mother at 71. The second movement: the scratching twigs is scored for harp and viola only. The harp has a wildly extrovert part, whilst the viola turns their back to the audience and plays spare, introverted phrases like somebody sleeping but with troubled dreams. The final movement is sickle moon, and is scored for viola solo with distant, offstage piccolo at the end, as if from Bella herself. This movement is dedicated to Peter Maxwell Davies at 70, with much affection. The whole piece should last approximately 16 minutes.

are three Spanish songs: a love song, a setting of Cancion de Jinete by Lorca, and a lyric. The two outer poems are anonymous but are cited by Lorca in his essay on Duende which could be roughly translated as the Creative Spirit.

feet of clay 
At approximately 15’ minutes long, there's a strong sense of the heroic about feet of clay, and it unfolds like a dramatic scena: a hero returns and tells the tale of how the battle was won. Originally written for Ulrich Heinen and intended to stretch his playing as far as possible, the work attempts to redefine the cello’s association with being similar in sound to the human voice. feet of clay is now on the Associated Board diploma list.

“Lilith was a serpent; she was Adam’s first wife and, according to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, gave him: ‘Shapes that coiled in the woods and waters, Glittering sons and radiant daughters.’
Throughout the Middle Ages the influence of the word ‘layil’ (Hebrew for night) gave a new turn to the myth. She becomes an apparition of the night and at times a demon who assaults those who sleep alone or those who travel lonely roads – a tall, silent woman with long black hair.”


Kites (scored for wind quintet and string quintet) came about due to Holt's interest in Japanese things, and features a kite fight preceded by an introduction of fragile, slow and serene "scene-setting" music. Along the way the O-dako kite, the largest kite in the world often requiring up to 40 people to help fly it, is involved. After the "climax", at which one of the kites has its flying line cut (the point of the competition), the music becomes extremely static due to the time-stopping nature of the act of kite flying; a feeling expressed in Buson's haiku:

A kite-
in the same place
in yesterday's sky.

The kite plummets into the river (over which the competition takes place) and the painted "washi" paper dissolves leaving the kite bones to be dragged out and used again.

The piece closes as it began with a light breeze blowing shoreward from the ocean.