HANS HOLEWA - an intimate lyricist

Published: 2001-09-14 by Stellan Sagvik

By Stellan Sagvik (transl. Sven Borei) (Published in Nutida Musik no. 2, 1992)

When composer Hans Holewa died during in the spring of 1991, we lost an unusual and for a long time rather overlooked artist. Unfortunately he did not live to see the release of Phono Suecias CD containing important parts of his later production.

Composer and journalist Stellan Sagvik uses this CD as a point of departure for a portrait of Holewa.

As a composer, Hans Holewa opened a window on an intimate, tender, romantic and lyrical music, far from being an end unto itself or a desk design. “Music is seriousness, is will and design, and strict solemnity.”

Throughout life, Hans Holewa was an uncompromising champion for an avant-garde movement that at last passed him by, making of him a passé traditionalist. He could have been Alban Berg’s disciple if that giant had not died ahead of his time. Holewa had direct contact with the pioneers of the Vienna School, but was forced to leave central Europe in 1937, when both political and artistic winds began blowing from the brown right. He fled to Sweden and was active his whole life as score writer, pedagogue, pianist and more, as well as composer, of course.

For me, as for many, Holewa represented a strict twelve-note technique, a rather un-sensual and unemotional music whose sole ambition was seriousness. Still, his mastery, his urgency and solemnity has never been questioned once he’s gained recognition after some 20 years of neglect.

The picture many had of his music was based on lack of knowledge. He had not benefited from the same concert exposure as many of his contemporaries, for which reason many opinions about his music were based on single, not always very successful performances.

I remember how I went to a concert performance of the opera Apollos förvandling (Apollo’s transformation) at the Cirkus Theatre in the early 70s. The piece was very long and stylistically extremely ponderous, heavy on text and leaving a pretentious impression. Throughout the concert the audience drifted away. As I sat obliquely behind the composer and his family, I could observe his reaction – the emptier the hall, the more lost and naked his glances around it. I will never forget the questioning pain in his eyes, how his family held his hands tighter and tighter as more and more of the audience left, how the grandiose music importunately accompanied his suffering. And in front of me in the other direction sat two of our better known conductors with the giant score open in front of them and their foreheads furrowed. “Well ... it has to be tried ...”, said one to the other during the intermission between the second and third acts. Even I left at that time, something I’m ashamed of.

Holewa exiled himself into Uppsala’s modernist circles, composing quite a bit in the spirit of Alban Berg until the 50s, when he chose a self-imposed compositional silence. He experimented apart with what later became his signature – an expressive, technically driven music that often addresses the listener’s intuitive experience, rather than his analytic sense. In Holewa’s own words: “Whoever listens, finds meaning in what I want to say – those who find nothing, will find no help in counting tone series and interval structures.” The comment is aimed at those the composer saw as “chatterboxes and charlatans,” to use Göran Bergendal’s words from the excellent article in the booklet accompanying the newly released Phono Suecia CD (PSCD 49) featuring Holewa’s music. Unfortunately, the release wasn’t completed before the composer died in 1991.

The text is much the same on the jacket of Holewa’s Caprice LP in 1983 (with Symphony no. 4, Concertino no. 4 and Chamber Music no. 2), though in parts rewritten and supplemented with comments on the works themselves.

A great artiste
Everything I’ve said above about prejudices concerning Holewa’s music falls away when you listen to this CD. Unlike Bergendal in the article mentioned above, I find a wholly sensitive composer, one I see as a great artiste and musician. To my thinking, his tonal language has truly arrived and I think that in the works presented on the CD, he can be considered one of the greats of Swedish musical art. Here I discover an extroverted, exceedingly serious, but communicative and sensitive person behind the music. It is a man who has lived, who isn’t afraid to show it, who doesn’t hide himself behind constructs and who dares to a romantic in Mahler’s spirit and an emotional lyricist in the sense of an elaborated Berg.

The CD covers a broad spectrum, ranging from the broadly designed, dark, fresco-like piano concerto (José Ribera, RSO/Segerstam), which with its lovely, lighter sections reveal Holewa to me, to the small, elegant ‘entertainment’ music titled Duettino II for flute and guitar, performed playfully and simply by Stig Bengtsson and Magnus Andersson.

The Piano Concerto isn’t a virtuoso work in the traditional sense, but rather a serious meditation with a very rich colour palette, discovering that even solemnity can have many faces. That the recording was made as early as in 1977 is of no consequence. Even then Segerstam is revealed to be a superb accompanist for an intuitively playing Ribera.

The outstanding Magnus Andersson plays in three additional works: Duettino for violin and guitar from 1983, Concertino VIII from 1985 and Concertino IX written in 1987 by an exceedingly vital 82 year-old. The last work belongs to the sound painting category, in this case using an ensemble including a vocalising soprano, percussion, flute, clarinet, violin, contrabass and guitar. Most of the players double up, playing percussion and other sizes of their own instruments. The soprano soloist Åse Enhamre is a new acquaintance in a recording context and seems almost congenial in this piece. Her very special vocal timbre works exceedingly well in this piece, constructed as it is on spectral sounds, on coolth and warmth, harsh and silky, or other metaphors. An ensemble from the Strängnäs Sinfonietta plays airily and sensitively under Claes Merithz, though since they are so few, it is a mystery why they aren’t named.

In the Concertino VIII on the CD, Magnus Andersson plays with the same Sinfonietta, this time conducted by Miklós Maros. This Holewa is a recumbent one, leaning backwards pensively. It is music of waiting, a happening in time, with luscious instrumentation – all thoughtfully handed over to us to sink into. But again: why no musician credits?

Together with the above named duet for flute and guitar, the Duettino for Violin and Guitar with Emil Dekov is the kind of piece that makes me claim that Holewa truly is a musician, a performer. He plays, improvises with full control and teases. It is a work that’s easy to listen to, a deep work with several levels.

To my thinking the most rewarding work is the first one, the String Trio with Leon Spierer, Ulrich Fritze and Jörg Baumann. That it is the oldest on the CD, written in 1959 and recorded in 1978, can be heard by the somewhat disturbing hiss. But it is also the first work of Holewa’s ‘return’ after the self-imposed silence during the 50s. I have seldom heard so dense and quartet-like trio. It encloses so much frustration, so many years silent battle, but still an avowed striving towards the future, a light in all the drama and density, all of which allows the notes to cut through the most obstinate opposition. It ought to be something to learn from.


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Mika Takehara, also composer,

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