• Simon Holt
  • walking with the river's roar (1991)
    (Viola Concerto)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the BBC for the BBC Proms

Revised 2006

  • 3(pic:afl).2.2+bcl.0+cbn/2.2+btpt.0.1/2perc/hp/str(0.0.8.6.4)
  • viola
  • 20 min

Programme Note

It is characteristic of Simon Holt’s painstakingly self-critical approach to composition that he abandoned his first attempt at a viola concerto after seven months’ work. He started again in December 1990, and finished the piece last July. One thing which preoccupied Holt at the turning-point between the two versions was the problem of balance between the normally reticent solo instrument and the orchestra – a problem which he solved by deciding to reduce his orchestral forces. Like Hindemith and Schnittke before him, he dispensed with the bright sound of the violin section. He also omitted bassoons, but included a contra-bassoon; left out trombones, but included that marvellously sonorous instrument the bass trumpet; and left out timpani, but made sparing use of two percussionists. The result is a distinctively coloured ensemble which throughout the piece surrounds, comments on and amplifies the almost continuously active – and highly virtuosic – solo part.
A further stimulus at the time Holt was resuming work on the project was a visit he made to an exhibition of works by Richard Long. Long is an artist who carries out long walks in different parts of the world, sometimes in straight lines, sometimes planned according to other logical principles. His exhibitions report on his experiences in a mixture of maps, photographs, text pieces, and geometrical sculptures using organic material from the route of the walk. Holt was struck by one text piece in particular, which had resulted from a walk in the Himalayas. Its first line, ‘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.
But the analogy of the river, and the walker by the river, extends beyond the texture of the work to its shape. The music moves in a continuous flow, without any exact repetition, just as (in the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus) ‘you can never step into the same river twice’. But the river and its surrounding landscape retain a recognisable identity, in the shape of repeated textures and repeated ideas. In particular, there is one recurring motif which always begins with a little flurry of quick notes followed by a downward swoop of a minor sixth, and which is always associated with a metrical pattern of a bar of 4/4 followed by a bar of 3/16.
However, just as Richard Long re-forms the experience of his walks into geometrical constructions, so Holt imposes on his material an overall form. His work is in four main sections, played without a break. The first is a furious accompanied cadenza; the second (which begins with the first appearance of the recurring motif) fluctuates more widely in tempo and intensity; the third resumes the violent activity of the opening; and the last is even more varied than the second. Much of this variety is in texture: it is only in this final section that the viola pauses from it continuous activity, first for a still chorale in wind and harp, and later for a full orchestral tutti; and when the solo instrument does play, it emerges into the open more than before, in passages of lightly accompanied duet with the principal orchestral viola, and even unaccompanied. But any idea that the work might end by fading into the distance is dispelled when the recurring motif makes a final forceful reappearance.
The music’s tone is hardly conventionally elegiac – more that of Dylan Thomas’ haunting line ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’. And it is the combination of this raging state of mind and the raging torrent of the river which results in the work’s distinctive amalgamation of – to borrow a phrase which Simon Holt quotes from Debussy – ‘violence and grace’.

© Anthony Burton