Simon Holt at 60

Simon Holt at 60

On February 21, Simon Holt turns sixty and several performances are planned to mark the occasion. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales will present the UK premiere of an icicle of moon alongside his short orchestral work St Vitus in the Kettle (details here) and Aldeburgh Festival (June 8-24) will host three concerts featuring his music, including the premiere of two new works commissioned by the festival – his fourth string quartet and a new piece for oboe d’amore and string trio. Occasions such as these offer no better opportunity to look back over the contribution to music that Holt has made and revisit the key works which have defined his career.

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.

Kites (1983) 
Orchestration: 1(pic)1(ca)11/hn/str(
Duration: 15 mins

Kites, Holt’s first commission from the London Sinfonietta, following his graduation from the Royal Northern College of Music, came about due to his interest in all things Japanese. It features at its heart a ‘kite fight’. Amid a gentle breezy sky, sforzatos from the flute and oboe erupt as kites swoop in and out. Along the way the O-dako kite (the largest of Japanese kites often requiring up to 40 people to help fly it!) becomes involved. After the ‘climax’ 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. 

Syrensong (1987)
Orchestration: 1.2pic.2.2+bcl.2+cbn/4321/2perc/
Duration: 15 mins

Holt’s first major orchestral work is no traditional seascape but a terrifying evocation of doom as mariners jump to their death on hearing the song of the mythical Syrens. Demonstrating within minutes the typical extremes of his writing, the quiet piano opening with responsive trumpet call lulls listeners into a brief sense of serenity until a deafening chorus of trumpets, horns and percussion, which shakes the hall around you, spells out the true nature of the scene about to unfold.      

The Nightingale’s to Blame (1998)
Orchestration: 2(2pic,2afl).1.1+bcl.0/1100/perc/hp/str(3va.2vc.2db)
Duration: 1 hour 20 minutes

Don Perlimplin (a bachelor of advancing years)          Baritone
Belisa (a young, ravishingly beautiful girl)                    Soprano
Marcolfa (Don Perlimplín’s maid)                                 Mezzo-soprano
Belisa’s Mother                                                            Mezzo-soprano
2 Duendes (like sprites of indeterminate sex)             Sopranos

In Holt’s debut opera, Don Perlimplin, middle-aged yet emotionally and sexually repressed, is bullied into marriage with the voluptuous Belisa by his maid Marcolfa and Belisa’s mother. Watched by two duende, their wedding night is both a sensual epiphany for him and also a revelation of the pain of love; her open infidelity both confuses and excites him. Her particular love for a mysterious stranger wrapped in a red cloak, who sends her notes that dismiss her soul desiring only ‘the trembling whiteness of her morbid flesh’, leads to Perlimplin arranging a meeting between the two lovers in the garden. His emotional awakening and her love are consummated in his final sacrifice.  © Susanna Eastburn 

Boots of Lead (2002)

Orchestration: Alto solo; 1(afl)
Duration: 14 minutes

Boots of Lead is the third installment of his cycle of Emily Dickinson inspired works ‘a ribbon of time’ and won Holt the Ivor Novello Award for Classical Music in 2003. It sets one of Dickinson’s most unsettling poems ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ (c.1861) in which the speaker, retreating into their own mind, contemplates their own sanity as they feel the very fabric of reality slip away, ‘And I dropped down, and down - / And hit a World, at every plunge,’. Dickinson’s words, filled with musical reference to drums, beating, treading, bells, and silence is treated with the most sensitive declamation, almost operatic in its natural theatricality. Not a cue is missed. The score thrums with the tread of funeral mourners. Woodwinds toll. Chinese cymbals, gongs, crotales, harp, flute, and most noticeably cimbalom colour the madness of the character. But it is Holt’s use of silence that is most deafening.    

Read Emily Dickinson’s ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ here.

a table of noises (2008)
Orchestration: Solo Percussion;
Duration: 28 minutes

a table of noises was written for Colin Currie and is based on the composer’s great uncle Ash who was, Holt tells us, ‘amongst many other things, a taxidermist’. It is a percussion concerto in six movements, with five brief instrumental 'ghosts' interspersed. The percussionist is, for the most part, seated on a cajon but at other times plays the xylophone and the glockenspiel – all the other instruments are laid out on a table in front of the soloist; hence the title. The concerto exhibits the typical virtuosity required to play Holt’s fiendish solo works, but turns the traditional idea of a percussion concerto on its head, as Currie states, ‘small is beautiful’. A beautifully nostalgic piece, the final tempo is marked ‘as slow as trees’.

The String Quartets (1989-2018)
Danger of the disappearance of things (1989): 20 mins | Buy
Two movements for string quartet (2001): 15 mins | Buy        
3rd Quartet (2013): 23 mins | Buy

Kaleidoscopic textures, extreme registers and vivid imagery are prevalent in all of Holt’s quartets. In his first, the composer has in mind the image of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, who spoke of how he felt that at any moment there was always the danger that his work in progress could collapse and disappear without trace. Two Movements for String Quartet forms the second part of ‘a ribbon of time’ and won the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for Chamber-scale Composition in 2002. Once again, Holt turns to Dickinson’s darkest poetry, this time her ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –’. A deathly and frantic dance swirls and buzzes about the quartet. As the fly lands, it gives way to perfectly still silences, electrified by the passages gone before. 3rd Quartet also fits within a cycle, Terrain. It’s a seventy-two-minute collection of six chamber works. The quartet in six movements displays what command of instrumental texture Holt possesses. Shifting from agitated solos; to thick and rich chordal writing; to stubborn and dogmatic lines completely independent of material and timing (V: The forsaken cry); to rare glimpses of soothing tonality, it is a perfect work for a quartet looking to delve into the full range of expression.

Simon Holt (b. 1958)

Shortly after graduating from the Royal Northern College of Music, Simon Holt was firmly established on the new music circuit with a series of commissions and fruitful collaborations with the London Sinfonietta and the Nash Ensemble. Influenced by Messiaen, Xenakis and Feldman as well as visual artists such as Goya, Giacometti and Brancusi, his music is complex, dramatic and often enigmatic. The intricate internal structures of his works are concealed by a seemingly impulsive nature. During the 1980s he worked primarily in complex soundworlds, while since the 1990s the dense textures have often been offset by Feldmanesque moments of calm, that Holt refers to as ‘still centres’.

Holt was Composer in Association at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales 2008 - 2014 and during that time wrote a number of successful orchestral works including St Vitus in the Kettle, Centauromachy, The Yellow Wallpaper and Morpheus Wakes.

Read full biography

‘The Music of Simon Holt’, edited by David Charlton – the first full-scale study of Holt's compositions, published by Boydell & Brewer can be purchased here.

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