Holbein Dances (Little Requiem for Louis Andriessen)
The great Dutch composer, Louis Andriessen, died on July 1, 2021. He was an idol of mine as a young composer whose music inspired a great deal of my own. He also became, through my conducting activity, a friend when I mounted concert versions of two of his “large monsters,” as he called them: De Materie (1988) and La Commedia (2006). Louis was a gregarious, funny, and supremely intelligent man who was conversant in high and low culture. He had a particularly ironic sense of humor (and music), so when it came time to write a piece in his memory, it seemed appropriate that some of that personality shape his “little requiem.”
Holbein Dances takes its name from the early Renaissance German print maker, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), whose early masterpiece, The Dance of Death (1523-26), is a monumental (and sardonic) treatment of the theme of death and its intransigence.
The first movement, “Die Haastige Ronde” (The Hastening Round), consists of two interlocking repeating patterns in the violin, cello and piano played very slowly and very high, over which the clarinet plays a long, developing melody. As the movement progresses, the note values in the round become smaller, giving a sense, much like the passing of time with increasing age, of increasing tempo. The second movement, “Bot” (Bone in Dutch) is an imagining of a piece Louis never wrote: a companion to his “material” pieces, Zilver (Silver) and Hout (wood). I imagine the next material to be bone, in reference to Holbein’s skeletal death dancer. “Una danza con un teschio (Danses Macabres)” (Skull Dance) is a truly maniacal dance piece taking inspiration from two old pieces. The wild dance music (for skeletons missing limbs, I suppose) is based on a 19th century Belgian folk song about a young woman who receives dark omens from a skull (which she believes to be her father’s) she finds at the town charnel house. This itself is a reference to Louis’ “The Last Day”, the first movement of his Trilogy of the Last Day, which also quotes this melody. The dance is rudely interrupted, however, by the carnival figure of Mattacino in a set of variations on a tune from 1598 attributed to August Nörminger and considered the earliest example of a musical “danse macabre” in European music (there’s another famous danse macabre that tries to interrupt the interruption, too). Irony and the macabre are shed with the final benediction, “Eternity’s Embrace,” a serene meditation on the fragility of life which makes allusion to another famous, beloved piece for this combination of instruments.
Holbein Dances was commissioned by SOLI Chamber Ensemble, Stephanie Key, Artistic Director, and was written between July and October, 2021. It is dedicated to the memory of Louis Andriessen.