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Vagn Holmboe


At the age of 16 Vagn Holmboe (1909-96) was admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen as a violinist. In the entrance examination he was heard by the national composer Carl Nielsen, who also looked through some of his compositions. The earliest works by Holmboe known today were written the next year, and these include a string quartet. This was the first of no fewer than ten quartets that Holmboe wrote before, at the age of 40, he eventually gave a work the title String Quartet no. 1.

The years at the Academy were typified by studies of the classics and polyphony, and this coloured Vagn Holmboe's music throughout his life. One of his great models was Haydn, whose vitality, elegance, humour and economy with his resources are reflected in his own works. Another model was Béla Bartók. At the beginning of the 1930s, during a study trip to Paris, Holmboe met the Romanian pianist Meta Graf, whom he married, and who introduced him to the folk music of the Balkans. "The direct and emotional, the feeling and the quite clear expression - that interested me greatly. There was something elemental in this music," Holmboe said, looking back.

By the beginning of the 1930s Vagn Holmboe had already composed a large number of works, but had given very few of them the seal of an opus number. His breakthrough came in 1939, when he won the Royal Danish Orchestra's composition competition with his Symphony No 2. With the money prize he bought a country property by the lake Arresø in northern Zealand, where he built his home and lived until his death in 1996, and immersed himself increasingly in the flow of nature. His contact with nature was as strong as his link with music, and over the years he planted 3000 trees on his property with his own hands.

Until 1950 Vagn Holmboe taught at the Danish Institute for the Blind, and then he was engaged by the Royal Danish Academy of Music. He was professor of composition and theory there until 1965, when he retired to devote all his time to composing. He was then at the pinnacle of one of his most concentrated creative periods, and he had long since been recognized as one of the best composers in the Nordic countries. Fortunately he also lived long enough to see himself recognized internationally as one of the most human and acute composers - a classic of the twentieth century.

Vagn Holmboe wrote almost 400 works, especially instrumental music. The works are in all genres; nevertheless there are phases in which particular genres hold his main interest, especially the string quartet and the symphony. That is symphonies for large orchestra, but also variants like string symphonies (sinfonias) and a form that he called symphonic metamorphoses.