Rhinegold

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (21 November 1932 – 27 June 2016)

2:40, 28th June 2016

‘Uncompromising’ and ‘provocative’ are words frequently used to describe the music of Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, who has died aged 83.

The son of a sculptor, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music with Finn Høffding, Svend Westergaard, Bjørn Hjelmborg, and Vagn Holmboe, making his compositional debut in 1955 at the Music Festival of the Scandinavian Conservatories with Variationer for cello solo.

He spoke of his compositions as ‘a bit of everything, repeated’, and said of his compositional process: ‘What interests me is to combine the most diverse musical ideas, forcing them together, shut them up and push them into a musical ritual.’

Described as ‘at its most affecting when it is at its most absurd’, his music confronted the banal, ugly and everyday; the absurdism of Samuel Beckett and musical concretism were major influences. Works such as Tricolore IV – which uses only three chords – led to his association with the ‘New Simplicity’ movement.

His oeuvre included 14 string quartets and four concertos, as well as a concerto grosso for string quartet and orchestra. 2015 saw the premiere of his first and only opera, Sun Goes Up, Sun Goes Down.

According to Ursula Andkjær Olsen, ‘the intriguing thing about his musical idiom is that, despite its prominent contrariness, it is still able to say yes to being here and being part of the dialogue’.

Often described as the greatest Danish composer since Nielsen, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was also renowned for his wit, frequently appearing on Danish tv comedy panel shows.

He received a number of awards including the Herman Sandby Prize (1971), the Carl Nielsen Prize (1973), the Nordic Council Music Prize for Symphony/Antiphony (1980) and the Wilhelm Hansen Prize (1996).

‘Earlier in my life I made some pieces which I regret a little, which I think are too rude, too rough, lacking a little,’ Gudmundsen-Holmgreen said in 2014, in an interview with CM contributor Andrew Mellor. ‘Generally speaking, the pieces I’m rather happy about – you say that because you’re never completely happy – are the pieces in which the concept and the way of doing it has been clear to a high degree: knowing what to do and doing it.’

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