Magazine article Gramophone

Robin Holloway: Geraint Lewis Surveys the Music of a Composer Whose Love for the 19th-Century Romantics Gave Rise to a Truly Individual Voice

Magazine article Gramophone

Robin Holloway: Geraint Lewis Surveys the Music of a Composer Whose Love for the 19th-Century Romantics Gave Rise to a Truly Individual Voice

Article excerpt

When Diaghilev handed Stravinsky a bunch of forgotten Italian trio sonatas in 1919--intending to trigger the ballet Pulcinella but resulting also in that unexpected 'epiphany' which made the rest of the composer's work possible--he inadvertendy kick-started an avalanche of musical reinventdon which resonates to this day. What could have been a sterile exercise became instead one of genuine re-creation: 'I looked,' said Stravinsky, 'and I fell in love.' So when the youthful Robin Holloway found himself frustrated and creatively blocked amid the sterility of mid-'60s modernism, he eventually realised that he had a legitimate path for escape.

In Holloway's case he found the music himself without the need of a fairy godfather. Schumann's songs beckoned from the piano and a long period of engagement at the keyboard led to a sudden current of connection which opened the door towards compositional refreshment and enablement. The orchestral score Scenes from Schumann, commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival for performance in July 1970, provoked bewilderment in general but beguiled significant others and led naturally in 1971 to the more intricately evolved Fantasy-Pieces on the Heine 'Liederkreis' of Schumann. The first work remains scandalously unrepresented on commercial disc but the latter has long been available in a marvellous Nash Ensemble performance which properly 'incorporates' the Schumann cycle and captures tenor Toby Spence in full youthful ardour.

Of the varied composers passing the 70th birthday milestone in 2013/14--Brian Ferneyhough, Gavin Bryars, David Matthews, Roger Smalley and the late Sir John Tavener among others--Holloway is easily the most difficult to pigeonhole 'stylistically' and perhaps for this very reason his protean output has been celebrated less comprehensively so far than it should have been. But Holloway has never gone with the grain of shallow zeitgeisty spasms and so we now face the splendid irony that in these generalised, musically unrooted times of seemingly no coherent forward direction, his multifaceted catalogue amounts to one of the most intelligent and coruscatingly articulated commentaries on well over a century of compositional ferment. As an innovative and corrective approach in itself, this remains remarkable enough; but Holloway's time is also to come when the poverty of today's mainstream surely demands an inevitable return to richness and sheer musical substance.

Another reason for passing by the traditional three score years and ten is that Holloway's youthful manner and fecund approach to music belie any sense of venerability or impending summation. The latest major work to be premiered in the UK--the Fifth Concerto for Orchestra at the 2011 Proms was a teeming score full of colour and adventure which might misleadingly be thought a young man's music: youthful in spirit, yes, but masterly in realisation. It is only a few years since Holloway retired after a lifetime's teaching at Cambridge: that was in itself a more meaningful milestone than any arbitrary birthday and one that was appropriately celebrated when and where it mattered. Teaching was just as much a vocation for him as is composition itself and his list of pupils amounts to an encyclopedia of the under-60s in the field--Saxton, Weir, Benjamin, Bawden, Dove, Anderson, Ades and Watkins representing just the outer branches of a burgeoning tree.

Born in Leamington Spa in 1943, Holloway's later output wouldn't immediately suggest a childhood spent as a St Paul's Cathedral chorister in the mid-'50s--but with hindsight, his love of fluid melodic lines, intricately dovetailed multi-voiced counterpoint and an innate sense of sonority as something sensuous can be traced back to this early immersion in music as physical sound. As an undergraduate at Cambridge he read English rather than Music and this explains his fluency in setting texts as well as a voracious engagement with literature as a source for inspiration. …

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