Holı the Composer
Although known to his contemporaries for the beauty of his playing and his incomparable musicianship, Alfred Holıs enduring legacy to the music world and the harp world in particular are his compositions. Holı studied theory with Bedrich Kirchner until he entered the Prague Conservatory where he studied harmony with Josef Bohuslav Foerster and composition with Franz Zdenko Skuhersky. The inspiration and impetus to serious composition was provided by the birth of his first child in 1893. The result was that over the next four years he composed 15 pieces contained in nine works for solo harp. These were published by Carl Simon of Berlin in 1896 and 1897. By the turn of the century Holıs music had reached such popularity with the general music public that it was outselling all other harp music three to one. A shrewd businessman, Simon counseled Holı, "If you want to be a rich man, Mr. Holı, write trash." Fortunately Holı never succumbed to this temptation. However he did, at times, allow Simon to supply fanciful titles for some of his pieces. In all, Holı composed over 50 pieces for solo harp, four harp and organ pieces, three studies and numerous transcriptions and arrangements. He also composed a comic opera, Das Märchen vom Glück, which premiered at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg, Germany on December 7, 1909.
Caught between Romanticism and Post-Romanticism, Holı's works exhibit the influence of each genre. He was neither an innovator nor a formalist, but a superb artist-craftsman whose work can be defined by its broad lyric content. Writing what can be undeniably described as some of the most beautiful music composed for the harp, his undulating lines and soaring melodies often create the illusion of the harp as a legato instrument. The wealth of his melodic invention, his harmonic and rhythmic diversity, his subtlety with dynamic nuance and absolutely superior craftsmanship made Holı the most salient of all harpist-composers of his era.
The complexity of much of his music required mental effort and artistry of the highest caliber to recreate its delicate distinctions, submerged passions and bursts of exhilaration. What at first glance appeared to many harpists as a piece of manageable proportions, often became overwhelming in detail and was either put aside or received a lusterless performance. This led some harpists to seek quicker and easier rewards with other music. This combined with the destructiveness of both World Wars, which made his music almost unavailable and thus unfamiliar to postwar performers and audiences, plus the rush to leave Romanticism behind, were some of the reasons why Holıs music has languished unperformed.
For all practical purposes Holı stopped composing by 1922. When in 1935 his former student, Artiss de Volt, urged him to start composing again, his reply was, " from disgust and disappointment I have sworn not to compose anymore, and nowafter ten yearsI ought to get inspired and write for harp again discontent as I am, and overcritical of myself? Oh, Artiss, desist from your desire!" However, in the late 1930s a new generation of harpists rediscovered Holıs music and a revival began. Buoyed by this budding phenomenon Holı started to compose again. He wrote a new work in early 1940 called Gedicht (he reworked it in 1946 into Opus 34, Ballade). Unfortunately, the vicissitudes of the following years stunted the revival and the horrors of war stymied his energy and will to create. Finally, when the war made his personal tragedy most acute, he flared up for one last glorious moment with his Opus 33, Miniaturen.
Opus 33, Miniaturen [Miniatures] was composed in 1944. Inspired by the tragic war death of his only grandchild, a boy not yet 19 years old, these five short pieces for solo harp are five jewels in the crown of harp literature. No. 1, In memoriam the final farewell that evokes the kind of pathos that only great music literature can. No. 2, Intermezzo the resignation and acceptance of what life brings. No. 3, Reigen [Round Dance] the classic celebration of what was. No. 4, Abendstimmung [Evening Song] the caressing affections of what could have been. No. 5, Scherzetto the whimsically optimistic view to the future.
Opus 17, Elegie [Elegy] was composed in 1911 as a tribute to Franz Poenitz, Holıs colleague at the Royal Orchestra in Berlin. Poenitz was a man who could have been an artist in almost any field he chose Holı admired him and cherished his friendship. The two versions, 17A for harp solo and 17B for harp and organ, are unmatched for sheer beauty of line and expression, possessing some of the most harmonically rich and melodically pleasing passages in harp literature.
Opus 12, Drei kleine Stücke [Three Little Pieces] composed in 1901 was given this title by its original publishers, a misnomer, since there is nothing little about these pieces other than their length. No. 1, Notturno [Nocturne] is one of the finest examples of this type of Romantic character piece written for the harp. The composer also supplied it with an organ ad libitum part. No. 2, Ständchen [Serenade] modeled on its Classical operatic counterpart, is the essence of charm. No. 3, Canzonetta [Melody] a piquant melodic dance, is beguiling in its simplicity.
Opus 11, Impromptu was considered by Holı to be his greatest and most demanding work. Dedicated to Alphonse Hasselmans, the preeminent harp teacher of the time, who was an ardent admirer of Holıs works, it was completed in 1902. The wealth of details, colors and textures and the absolute control necessary to bring them out can take a harpist a lifetime to master. To some it was better known as Frühlingslust [Joy of Spring], a programmatic title suggested by Carl Simon for marketing reasons to which Holı agreed, since he realized that most purchasers of the score would use it in a lighter fashion than he had intended.
Opus 7, Drei Vortragsstücke [Three Recital Pieces] was written between 1895 and 1897. The three pieces were not necessarily intended to be performed together. No. 1, Arabeske [Arabesque] a character piece a la Schumann but with more poignancy and charm. No. 2, Herbstlied [Autumn Song] another character piece, deceptive at first glance but requiring a high degree of artistry to be truly effective. No. 3, Spanischer Tanz [Spanish Dance] the piece that, to Holıs chagrin, was to define him to both artists and audiences for the first thirty years of this century and sometimes beyond. Performed many more times than all his other pieces combined (Salzedo alone performed it over three hundred times), it is a virtuoso piece of flash and bravura. Holı composed it for himself as a concert finale number. Generally played too fast as a show of technical agility, it benefits greatly by a less speedy and more expressive presentation, that brings out its innate elegance.