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An introduction to Holloway’s music by Julian Anderson

Recent British music has largely avoided settling into predefined schools and factions,
exhibiting instead a positive relish of diversity and personal idiosyncrasies. In this
sense the trajectory of Robin Holloway’s output over the last thirty years, with its
many detours, unexpected sidepaths and often contradictory stylistic leanings, is typical
of the musical culture out of which it has grown, although the sheer persistence with
which Holloway has chosen to follow up and even combine all his various musical tastes is
surely unique.

As a young composer, Holloway absorbed and quickly mastered the then fashionable
techniques of serial and post-serial composition in a sequence of taut, strictly composed
1960s works such as the remarkably fluent opus 1, Garden Music for nonet, the Concerto
for organ and wind
and the first two Concertinos. Although Holloway nowadays
recalls this style somewhat dismissively as "constructivist, atonal Hindemith",
this phase did produce at least one powerfully expressive piece, the First Concerto for
of 1969; part of the singular impact of that work arises from the tension
already evident between rigorously consistent serially-derived techniques employed and the
almost neo-Romantic abandon of the music itself, which can even incorporate massive
quotations from songs by Brahms. Things eventually came to a head the following year in Scenes
from Schumann
, a free paraphrase on six Schumann songs in which Holloway passionately
reclaimed "all that was forbidden by the Zeitgeist" – an
affectionate embrace of middle-period German Romantic harmony which subjects the original
material to all manner of distortion, free-association and reharmonising. This seemed to
be a conscious reaction against all that his early music represented, a permanent move
away from constructivism towards spontaneity and freedom of expression.

As usual with Holloway, things did not turn out to be nearly so simple. Scenes
was followed by two further Schumann-derived works which expanded upon the new-found
euphoniousness of that first work - the Fantasy Pieces and the large orchestral
work Domination of Black, relating to the master’s Heine Liederkreis
and his Kerner Lieder respectively. The latter work, indeed, shows just how far
Holloway’s mastery of the orchestra had progressed since the abandonment of
constructivist austerities, ranging as it does from the gossamer delicacy of the first
movement, Summer Rain, to the wild rampage through late Romantic Waldmusik of the
third, Night Hunt, each managed with complete fluency and self-confidence. But the
work also incorporates a blackly dissonant polyrhythmic adagio (itself entitled Domination
of Black
) which shows that the lessons of modernism have not been forgotten, and the
previous year a colourful London Sinfonietta commission entitled Evening with Angels
suggested that Holloway might return to the modernist vein whilst keeping his personal
harmonic style intact.

Such turned out to be the case "but now", as Holloway has commented,
"the music had something behind it like harmony, direction, volatility of movement, a
sense of instrumental colour." Indeed, some of Holloway’s most striking and
successful achievements have been the most complex and conscientiously constructed,
notably the mammoth Second Concerto for Orchestra (a richly elaborate tapestry
incorporating fragments of Chopin and popular tunes English and Italian, making
constructivism manifestly audible by using material familiar to all) and the
recently-completed Third Concerto, an athematic essay in pure texture and possibly
Holloway’s most extreme work to date.

But such achievements do not mean that Holloway has any desire to abandon his innate
love of tonal harmonic practice, particularly in its late-Romantic manifestations; this
side of his creative personality perhaps reaches its peak in his first opera Clarissa.
Composed without commission in a single intensive compositional burst in 1976 (it was
first staged at the English National Opera in 1990), this is a heart-felt personal
testament vividly conveying the claustrophobic fatality of the relationship between the
heroine and her would-be lover, later violator Lovelace in music of almost Bergian
intensity and lushness. Holloway’s Romanticism is on equally frank display in such
openly warm and immediately appealing orchestral works as Seascape and Harvest, Panorama,
the three Idylls for small orchestra and the choral-orchestral The Spacious
, a valuable contribution to the British choral tradition.

Holloway has, however, shown himself eminently capable of exquisite music on the
smallest scale, as evidenced in the large number of Divertimentos, Serenades
and the sequence of five Concertinos. This is music written out of the sheer
pleasure of composing, to be appreciated and enjoyed on the most direct levels of
music-making and -loving. Indeed, ensembles looking through Holloway’s output will
find therein a multitude of witty and skilful chamber pieces which will prove valuable
additions to many a repertoire. Much the same might be said of the ongoing series of
concertos for horn, violin, harp and other instruments, all idiomatically composed and
full of capriciously unpredictable forms and turns of phrase.

If there seems to be a long way between such music and the complexities of the three Concertos
for Orchestra
, then one suspects that Holloway positively relishes the contrasts
between his various musical manners to the extent of actually seeking to make each piece
as contrasted as possible with the previous one. He himself has admitted: "One turns
like a grateful plant towards all kinds of very contrasted composers who excite and please
one, and pays them for what one takes in the form of a stylistic or technical
homage." On closer acquaintance, however, what strikes one beyond the superficial
differences of style is that the rich harmonic language, the feeling for long, arching
lines and clangorous instrumental colours remain consistently characteristic of Holloway
from one piece to the next; and it is this striking ability to preserve a highly
individual musicality throughout this most diverse and multifarious of outputs that gives
every Holloway work, large or small, constructivist or Romantic, the vivid imprint of a
voice as quirkily personal as it is unmistakable.

Julian Anderson, 1995

(Composer, broadcaster and writer on music)

All quotations are taken from the interview with Holloway in Paul Griffiths’s New
Sounds, New Personalities
, Faber Music, 1985.

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