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ClassicsOnline Home » HOMS: Music for Chamber Orchestra
A pupil of Roberto Gerhard, the Catalan composer Joaquím Homs developed a style that, after
experiment with atonality, led to a full use of serialism. His music, however, remains expressive
and approachable. Apart from the early Suite, written at fifteen, the other works included here
follow the development of Homs’s musical language from the Piano Concertino of 1946 through
serialism to the expressiveness of his String Soliloquy and Piano Diptych of the 1970s.
Joaquim Homs (1906–2003)
Music for Chamber Orchestra
Joaquim Homs was born in 1906 in Barcelona, where he studied the cello and taught himself piano and composition. In 1931 he met the composer Roberto Gerhard, whose pupil he was to be until 1938. Gerhard, who was to be his friend for many years, had studied with Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna and Berlin, and initiated the young Homs into the world of twelve-note music (although Homs was not to use this system of composition until the 1950s). Those were the years when music flourished in republican Barcelona, as is evidenced by the fact that Schoenberg stayed for several months there (facilitated by Gerhard himself), and the celebration of the Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISMC) in 1936 (where Berg's famous Violin Concerto was first performed). The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) put an end to this golden age in Catalan music and the gruelling post-war years made it extremely difficult for any new music to be heard beyond the Spanish borders. Joaquim Homs, who had studied engineering at university, was to work his whole life as an engineer, although his musical output never suffered from this double professional life and he turned out to be a very prolific composer (his catalogue contains more than 200 works). This enormous output can be divided into three main periods: the first up to 1954, characterized by considerable eclecticism and the search for a personal language; the second period begins in 1954, with the adoption of the twelve-note system; and the third main period begins in 1967, a year marked by the death of the composer's wife, the painter Pietat Fornesa – an event which was to leave its mark on many of the works he composed.
The Suite for Piano, Op. 1 is the earliest of Homs' work that we have. Written in 1921, when the composer was fifteen, it originally consisted of six pieces, one of which remained unfinished. The Suite never saw the light of day in the composer's lifetime and, although it is clearly an immature piece, it allows us to get a glimpse of the characteristics of the later Homs: intimacy, simplicity and lyricism were to be elements commonly found in his music, although here they are dressed in French clothing – on occasions, almost Impressionist – according to the dominant tendency of many other Catalan composers of the time (we must not forget that Frederic Mompou and Manuel Blancafort were achieving great success in those years in Paris, where their music was being published).
More personal, while still belonging to Homs' first creative period, is the Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra written between 1946 and 1947. Like the much earlier Op. 1 Suite, the Concertino was also never performed during the composer's lifetime. Written for the Belgian pianist Pauline Marcelle, who had given the first performances of some of Homs' solo piano works, the work is divided into the classical four movements, although its structure cannot in any way be considered 'classical'. The first movement, energetic and contrapuntally dense, acts as a prelude, and does not follow the traditional 'sonata form', nor does it have the grandiloquence which could be expected of the first movement of a concerto. The intense second movement, Largo, expressively the real central core of the Concertino, makes continuous use of canon, confirming the impression that the two first movements are not far removed from the spirit of a 'prelude and fugue'. The third movement follows the form of a Beethovenian scherzo, while the fourth brings together the material of the preceding movements and, in spite of the forceful final part – which includes an elaborate fugato and some exaggerated tutti – the Concertino ends with a staccato chord, enigmatic and decidedly sardonic.
Of contrast is the suite Between Two Lines written in 1948, only one year after the Concertino. While the latter is thick in texture and contrapuntally complex, Between Two Lines is characterized by clarity, transparency and a certain naïveté, features which perhaps stem from the origin of the suite: a collection of seven easy piano pieces which Homs dedicated to his ten-year-old daughter Pietat, who was beginning to study this instrument. Following the common practice of the composer – who liked to transcribe some of his piano works for different instrumental groupings – in the same year he wrote an attractive version for chamber orchestra, to which he added one more movement (the third piece, a waltz, which also started off as another piano piece from his youth, the short Suburban Waltz, written in 1931). The orchestral version accentuates the neoclassical character of the original piano piece, approaching the world of Stravinsky (to whom open tribute is made in the last piece, Tempo di marcia), although the influence of Béla Bartók is also very obvious (in pieces 2, 5 and most especially 7) and the French composers of "Les Six" (in the two Tempo di vals).
Written over a period of almost forty years (between 1938 and 1975) the eight string quartets are among the most significant works in Joaquim Homs' catalogue. The String Quartet No. 3 was written in 1950, and two years later he revised the second of its three movements for performance with string orchestra, with the title Adagio for Strings. An extraordinarily dramatic piece, in the dark key of B minor, it shows Homs at his most Expressionist, although still tied to the use of tonality: it was not to be long before his first twelve-note works – the Polyphony for strings of 1954 and the Sonata for Piano No. 2 of 1955 – were to mark the beginning of a new creative period for the composer. In the climax of the Adagio, Homs quotes himself with his melody The Sorrow of My Heart (1931), which originated from the song cycle Stray Birds based on poems by Rabindranath Tagore.
In 1954, Homs embarked upon a new period in his music, characterized by the use of twelve-note series. The cycle of lieder composed for voice and piano in 1962 El caminant i el mur (The Walker and the Wall) based on texts by the great Catalan poet Salvador Espriu, is, without doubt, one of his most outstanding pieces. In this work, the most characteristic elements of Homs' music from the 1950s come together: concision, brevity, bare textures, and a striving to achieve maximum expressiveness with the minimum of means which is not far removed from the aphoristic compositions of Anton Webern. The series of twelve notes on which the work is based are presented at the beginning (a peculiar and extremely lyrical series formed only of intervals of seconds and thirds) and each of the songs develops this series, giving it a very different character. Homs wrote the version of this piece for voice and chamber orchestra in 1976.
In 1967, with the death of the composer's wife, a new period began in Homs' music: much darker, more intimate and elegiac, and, although continuing to use the twelve-note system, he progressively incorporated tonal chords. The Two Soliloquies of 1974 were among Homs' favourite works, as is evidenced by the multiple versions he wrote. As the composer wrote, "The two soliloquies were written originally for piano, but I soon felt the wish to make full use of its timbric expressiveness by writing a series of versions for different instruments and instrumental groupings, culminating in the piece for orchestra". The version of Soliloquy II for string orchestra was composed in 1974.
To the same period belongs Diptych I for Piano, written in 1974 originally for harpsichord, but Homs himself also wrote a piano version. It consists of two very contrasting pieces: the first – Adagio – opens with numerous dissonant clusters which culminate in a violent climax. The second piece – Allegro – is a delicate two-part invention, with an almost neoclassical lightness. Diptych I, the Suite for Piano, Op. 1 and the Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra receive their première recordings on this disc, which makes it an excellent addition to the complete piano works by Joaquim Homs released on Marco Polo (8.225099, 8.225236, 8.225294).
(Translation by Paul Jutsum)
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HOMS: Music for Chamber Orchestra