The Emperor's New Clothes
The Emperor's New Clothes
Bo Holten is Denmark’s most prolific composer of lyric theatre and an internationally renowned conductor. This newly-recorded retrospective includes three of his most cherished concert works: a charismatic concert opera based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, a touching song cycle to evocative poetry by Sophus Claussen and an oboe concerto inspired by the instrument’s unique lyrical capabilities.
Stories told and untold
by Andrew Mellor
With nine operas in his catalogue, Bo Holten is the most prolific living composer of lyric theatre in Denmark and among the most prolific the country has ever known. He is a practising musician as well as a writing one, who founded two of his country’s most distinguished independent vocal consorts, spent 16 seasons on the conducting staff of the BBC Singers in London and has conducted all of Denmark’s symphony orchestras, often in his own music. He is adamant that a composer’s place is as much among performing musicians as it is in front of the blank sheets of unfilled manuscript paper. But his most partisan stance has concerned the fundamentals of musical language. In a torrid time for tonality, Holten has been one of its most passionate advocates, likening composing without tonal harmony to ‘painting without colour.’
Holten’s musical foundation stones range from jazz to polyphony. In training himself to compose, he made an orchestration of Carl Nielsen’s organ monolith Commotio that became an established test piece in Denmark; the idea of biological survival in the face of overwhelming darkness is a theme in Holten’s music as much as in Nielsen’s (both share an impish sense of humour, too). Holten returns, in conversation as well as in his music, to the fundamental beauty of simple musical ingredients – intervals, tunes, common rhythmic and harmonic devices. Seasoned with his own colourful imagination and acute response to text, those elements lie at the heart of his works.
The Emperor’s New Clothes (2004)
In 2004, Holten was commissioned to write a new score for the bicentenary of Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen’s birth the following year. He opted to set Andersen’s story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, ‘because the relevance of this story is so strong that I always wondered why nobody had done it before – not successfully anyway.’ With librettist Eva Sommestad Holten drawing on Andersen’s own words, he fashioned a ‘concert opera’ designed to be easily presentable by symphony orchestras with added choir and two male soloists. The score was first performed on 21 April 2005 by the symphony orchestra and girls’ choir of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) at their home in Copenhagen, conducted by the composer.
At the heart of Andersen’s story is the deception of the swindlers who fashion the invisible clothes, as well as the delusion of the Emperor and his blindly adoring people. Holten emphasises the former by having one male singer take the parts of both masquerading craftsmen, singing in tenor and baritone registers.
The Emperor is sung by a separate baritone who also narrates, while the ladies’ choir, divided into three, acts as commentator and onlooker (here, the three parts are taken by a small ensemble of adult singers).
The story moves at a pace, but each scene has its dramatic crux, underlined by a score written intentionally ‘in a style that can be understood by anyone, even children.’ The music is full of narrative detail but signals the central transition, in which the deception of the story starts to make itself felt, with a more fundamental shift in mood. Along the way, there are plenty of skilful pastiches – Ravelian in style when the tenor swindler protests his pre-eminence in French, and of an American minimalist lineage when the imaginary looms begin to turn.
Minimalism is referenced at the very end of the work too after the child of Andersen’s story shouts out that the Emperor ‘has no clothes on.’ While the orchestra en masse plays a posturing march, a faction of musicians begins to speed up in a gesture Holten compares to Steve Reich’s phasing techniques. ‘The idea is that the Emperor’s brain actually splits at this point. He is more or less exploding and with that, and the riot of the people, everything goes bananas,’ he explains. The effect could also be compared to the absurdity of oppression conveyed, in a similarly militaristic style, by Dmitri Shostakovich.
Oboe Concerto (1995)
Holten has scored some of the most iconic films in Danish cinematographic history including Lars von Trier’s Forbrydelsens element (The Element of Crime, 1984) and Bille August’s Tro, håb og kærlighed (Truth, Hope and Love, 1984). When working on August pictures in the 1980s, Holten became intrigued by the expressive cinematic power of the oboe, particularly that of Bjørn Carl Nielsen, who then occupied the principal oboe chair in the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. The concerto Holten wrote for Nielsen in 1994-95 is full of the lyricism that marked the oboist’s playing out.
The bulk of the concerto was written in Rome and much of it is thematically linked to the city. The theme that opens the score on second violins and violas is a medieval Roman melody in the Dorian mode; the reel that takes root at the start of the second movement is an Italian Tarantella from the same period. It isn’t just the musical material that is mined from the past. The piece includes a baroque-style passacaglia (music controlled by the looping repetition of a bass line implying certain harmonies) and eventually churns up something like a Lutheran chorale, which is mined by Holten for plenty of harmonic value.
In a Molto lento intermezzo shortly before the Tranquillo section towards the concerto’s end, solo flute, clarinet, violin and viola join the oboe in a dreamy passage with a notable structure. Playing ad libitum and very gently, those instruments offer versions of the concerto’s main theme – itself founded on the consecutive spelling out of a perfect fourth, perfect fifth and major sixth from the same starting note – that reference moments in iconic scores by Händel (‘Rejoice Greatly’ from Messiah), Schumann (‘Träumerei’ from Kinderszenen) and Strauss (‘Beim Schlafengehen’ from Four Last Songs). ‘The brain is pondering on this all-European, all-times theme that exists in every sphere,’ explains the composer.
More fundamental is a persistent tonal argument between the major and minor modes that sets the tone of the work even up to its final bar when the music appears to have settled on a major third, until the soloist slips unsettlingly down into the minor. All this gives the concerto the feeling of a haunted pastoral to which we sense the horn section holds vital secrets (two horns join in one of the concerto’s cadenzas, while the oboe slides up and down in painful glissandos). ‘It is the basic truth of being a human being,’ says Holten; ‘that comedy and tragedy are the front-side and back-side of everything. All of human life and animal life has to face this constantly, however privileged a life we lead.’
Songs of Dusk (1987)
After studying musicology at the University of Copenhagen, Holten trained as a bassoonist at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. In the mid-1980s, he was commissioned to write a bassoon concerto that he sketched at length, before concluding that the expressive possibilities of a bassoon concerto ‘last around 8 minutes’ and abandoning the project. At the same time, he was keen to write for a soprano he was drawn to and decided to develop the unused sketches into a new song cycle for high, lyric soprano with obbligato bassoon.
Another catalyst was a creative artist with whom Holten appears to be something of a kindred spirit. Sophus Claussen was a neo-romantic Danish poet whose birth and death occurred in the very same years as Carl Nielsen’s. His poems combine the archaic with the modern, the expressionistic with the opaque and the flippant with the poignant. ‘I find his poetry deeply moving but it is basically always about women and sex,’ says Holten; ‘however you read it there are enormous erotic leanings in there.’
In the score that sets eight Claussen poems, the bassoon represents the poet and the female voice the object of his sensual affection. That idea is encoded right at the start, as the soprano sings a wordless reference to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and the bassoon responds immediately by recalling the opening high C and the downward peal of the solo that opens Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (the gesture returns later on). It is, for Holten, ‘the woman and the man: the inner violence and crudeness of the human mind on the one hand, and the eroticism of the poems and longing for eternal love on the other.’
The cycle takes the form of a continuous piece in which the songs are linked, ‘a series of atmospheres with recurring themes,’ in Holten’s words. The eight poems take in absurdity, heartbreak and fleeting joy, sometimes at the same time – a vital attraction for the composer who states that ‘the whole idea of all this stylistic variety is to mirror human life in the best sense.’ As in The Emperor’s New Clothes, there is no lack of thematic or dramatic signposting.
The song ‘Kærlighed’ (Love) talks of the painful futility of abandoning to love but Holten sets it as an uptight neo-baroque dance, placing the tongue in the cheek. He sets the tale of Dingle-Dangle’s wayward son ‘like a pop song but with some refinement,’ while the moto perpetuo feline tread of ‘Du som en lille Kattekilling er …’ (You are like a little kitten …) manipulates the rhythmic emphasis of a Danish nursery rhyme by moving its tune a quaver to the left, across the bar line.
Those devices create depth and duality but elsewhere Holten gives it to us straight. He responds to the ‘soft silk’ of the snowy avenues in ‘Maanens Tungsind’ (Spleen of the moon) with dreamy impressionism and reptilian harmonies. Like the jazz-baroque ground bass of ‘Nocturne’, the love song ‘Sagtelig ...’ (Quietly ...) gets its gentle intimacy from the language of jazz, with ‘a sort of Bill Evans harmony.’ The emotional damage of ‘Vaarsang ved Jul’ (Spring song at Christmas) is writ large in Holten’s dusky, doleful setting that appears to sit on a knife-edge of tension as it contemplates life in the empty beauty of dusk with harmonies stripped bare. ‘It is a question mark,’ says Holten: ‘is there anything good coming or is all hope lost? Somehow, I have a little hope.’
Andrew Mellor is a journalist and critic with a particular interest in the culture and music of Denmark and the Nordic countries