Symphony No. 8, “Sinfonia Boreale”

Symphony No. 8, “Sinfonia Boreale”

By Larry Wallach, Simon’s Rock College

Written for the concert Scandinavian Romantics, performed on May 10, 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

As a memorial to his brother who died in a concentration camp, Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996) wrote a “Sinfonia Sacra” (Symphony No. 4) in 1944, in which he set his own words, in Latin, to music, including these: “We desire peace. /I see God in all things, / In good and in evil. / Peace in my heart/ Peace on earth.” Two components of this vision remained crucial to Holmboe: an amoral God, responsible for both life and death, who resembles Nature itself; and a micro-/macro-cosmic relationship between the human heart and the natural world. These approach the thinking of Nietzsche, which Holmboe would explore in a major work of the 1960’s, his oratorio “Requiem for Nietzsche.” Holmboe immersed himself in the natural world and studied it with intensity similar to that of Bartók, with whom he also shared an intense interest in folklore. In the early thirties, Holmboe traveled to Rumania to collect folk music and later published a compendious ethnographic study of Danish street-cries. [1]

All this suggests a temperament unblinkingly curious about the world and the human condition, but staunchly opposed to sentimentality and Romantic self-inflation. Born in 1909, he emerged in the 1930’s as a symphonist subsequent to the completion of the symphonic oeuvres of Sibelius and Nielsen. Each of these highly individual composers moved away from Wagnerian subjectivity and developed powerful versions of the symphonic process that helped form the basis for a Scandinavian symphonic school, which remains vital into the twenty-first century. Holmboe was a crucial member of the middle generation, providing the developmental model of thirteen symphonies as well as mentoring important currently active composers.

In the title of his “Sinfonia Boreale” (Symphony No. 8) of 1951, Holmboe offered a clue to his source of inspiration, which can be viewed as both a musical and an extra-musical one. The title seems to have no specific programmatic intent; it indicates a more abstract and internalized (hence a musical) sense of “north” in the way that Varèse intended his title “Déserts.” On the other hand, Holmboe described the work’s genesis in a single moment: while turning over in his mind one thematic cell he unexpectedly experienced a powerful intuition of the shape of the whole work. This suggests his faith in a link between the human creative process and the larger processes of nature of which the composer is a part. [2] We can see the symphony, and the particular mode of symphonic development it employs, as an expression of the human spirit confronting and confronted by that which is “northern.”

Although divided into four familiar-seeming movements of moderate dimensions, Sinfonia Boreale achieves power and monumentality through cumulative development across four movements. These share basic motivic and submotivic materials, a process and result comparable to Beethoven. Holmboe calls his method “metamorphosis,” by which he indicates a process of gradual modification of material with emphasis on continuity, de-emphasis of contrast. To be sure, each movement ramifies the underlying impulse in its own way, with the last section achieving culmination by gathering together all previous threads.

Fundamental motivic particles heard in the first movement include: an emphatic two-note motto of a semi-tone which spins off countless metamorphic descendants, notably the opening and closing theme played by the bass clarinet; and a seven-beat, seven-note ostinato subjected to diverse strict transformations that generate irresistible momentum barely brought to a halt by the end of the first movement. When this ostinato resumes in the last movement, it does so with ease and inevitability. The second movement, with thematic ideas that can be programmatically connected to Northern weather conditions, might serve as the twentieth-century’s answer to Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman,” in which the human presence is subsumed by a Nature, which it can neither evade nor dominate. At the climactic moment of the last movement, this world of natural sound returns in stunning outbursts of percussion: thundering tympani and crackling xylophone.

The third movement opens with a heartbeat-like motive that combines the semi-tone motto with tone-repetitions. These grow to an expression of stubborn persistence, a suggestion of that most fundamental human motivation, the will to survive. True to its nature, this idea serves as a dialectic foil for volatile forces that swirl against it all the way to the final moment of the symphony, where this sense of opposition, far from achieving resolution, finds its clearest moment of definition.


1. Danish Street Cries (Copenhagen, 1988)

2. Experiencing Music: A Composer’s Notes, ed. P. Rapoport (London, 1991). It is worth adding that Holmboe’s rural home was called “Arre Boreale,” which he settled permanently two years after completing this symphony.