Simon Holt: Arnold Whittall Champions This British Composer Whose Unique Sound Embraces Art, Literature, the Sinister-Even the Ghoulish

By Whittall, Arnold | Gramophone, March 2018 | Go to article overview

Simon Holt: Arnold Whittall Champions This British Composer Whose Unique Sound Embraces Art, Literature, the Sinister-Even the Ghoulish


Whittall, Arnold, Gramophone


Simon Holt, who turned 60 last month, belongs to a generation of British composers as celebrated for its distinction as for its diversity. With George Benjamin, Jonathan Dove, James MacMillan and Mark-Anthony Turnage all born between 1958 and 1960, neither avant-garde experimentalism nor wholeheartedly nostalgic conservatism are to be expected. Rather, varying degrees of edginess and incisiveness speak of distinctively contemporary expressive concerns and technical possibilities. Holt's music, too, has a dramatic immediacy and colouristic appeal indicating a healthy scepticism about overtly mechanistic systems at one extreme and pastoral nostalgia at the other. At the same time, the often forceful ruggedness of his materials, textures and processes reveals affinities with an earlier generation of British modernists, of which Holt's fellow Lancastrian Sir Harrison Birtwistle (A 1934) is the leading representative.

Holt studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester with Anthony Gilbert--recent string quartets by master and pupil can be heard on the album 'Bracing Change' (NMC, 8/17)--and had his first professional successes in the early 1980s. At that time, Tippett and Maxwell Davies were especially prominent among contemporary British composers, yet the musical climate also owed much to a determinedly internationalist outlook, especially at the BBC and with such enterprising outfits as the London Sinfonietta and the Nash Ensemble. In this respect, Holt has something in common with another close contemporary, Richard Barrett (M959), who like him has spent long periods living and working on the Continent. On the other hand, Holt has shown less sympathy than Barrett with the rhythmic complexities of Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy and James Dillon; and Barrett's direct involvement in performance (mainly in connection with live electronics) contrasts considerably with Holt's Birtwistle-like avoidance of the performer's role.

Holt also shares Birtwistle's interest in the fine arts, and made these a special study before switching to music. Although the musical results are never simplistically pictorial, visual materials have been vital sources of inspiration, from as early as Maiastra (1981) for solo flute (doubling alto flute), which references a mysteriously bird-like sculpture by Brancusi, and Burlesca oscura (1985) for clarinet quintet, the first of several works relating to Goya etchings. The Goya connection is an indication of Holt's close associations with Spain. He first set Federico Garcia Lorca in Canciones (1986) and used a play by Lorca in his opera The Nightingale's to Blame (1996-8), first performed by Opera North (and which sadly remains unrecorded). Holt's literary sources and allusions--which also include Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson and Antonio Machado--are nevertheless as diverse as his references to painters or sculptors; no artist has been more significant for him than the very un-Goya-like American abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015), linked to the orchestral pieces Troubled Light (2008) and Ellsworth 2 (2012).

The sheer range of such extramusical promptings might suggest a consistent need to find validity for music outside music itself. But that is to ignore the very immediate and compelling sense of musical identity to be heard across the 30 plus years of creative endeavour which are, by now, reasonably well represented on disc. The steady stream of commissions Holt has received from the BBC, the Nash Ensemble, the London Sinfonietta, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the Huddersfield Festival could portray him as a 'niche' establishment modernist, with his roots in early 20th-century expressionism and surrealism, and feeling most at home with the sinister, even ghoulish, prompted by Birtwistle's delight in night pieces and laments. Such an atmosphere is indeed to be heard in works with titles like Black Lanterns (1984), Ballad of the Black Sorrow (1988), Sparrow Night (1989), Banshee (1994), Boots of Lead (2002) and (because of its grisly scenario involving the martyrdom of St Eulalia) Witness to a Snow Miracle (2005). …

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