An Interview With Composer Brian Holmes

composer Brian HolmesBay Area composer, horn player, and recently retired SJ State physics professor Brian Holmes talked with SFBC Board member and singer Kelsey Menehan about his new piece, The Contest of Holly and Ivy, commissioned by San Francisco Bach Choir for our December 2018 program.

The Contest of Holly and Ivy is drawn from an old English carol, which, I believe, predates the Holly and the Ivy that most of us have sung at Christmas time. How did you discover this piece and what attracted you to it?

In 1974, my brass quintet started playing in the Christmas Revels in Cambridge, MA.  Revels celebrates the Winter Solstice, the death of the old year and the rebirth of the new.  These ancient, pagan themes underlie the more recent celebration of Christmas.  (After all, the Bible says nothing about the time of year that Christ was born.)  When I started writing annual carols in 1983, I looked up medieval carol texts and found several that show Holly and Ivy as rivals.  One of these texts I modernized and set as an a cappella chorus piece.  Bits of this carol show up in The Contest.  Two other carols, one sung by women and the other by men, also appear.  To be precise: my source was Greene’s Early English Carols.

What attracted me?  The fact that the treatment of holly and ivy was so different from modern texts; rather than holly and ivy being bland companion, they were serious rivals.  A second thing that interested me is that it is clear from the texts that the carols were danced; if I were to write this piece for the Christmas Revels, I would modify it so that the choruses danced and acted out their rivalry.

For most people, the word “carol” means a song sung at Christmas.  Medieval carols, however, cover a much wider range of topics; and they have a stricter form; each verse is followed by the same burden (or refrain).  They were danced, with the dancers singing the burden and a leader the verses.  In The Contest of Holly and Ivy, the burdens are the parts that include a little French.

The Contest of Holly and Ivy has a sense of humor, whereas the other Holly and Ivy carol has some darker Christian symbolism (holly representing crown of thorns, red berries, drops of blood, etc.). How does a sense of humor inform you as you compose music?

Humor matters to me. My compositions include a concerto for toy piano; another for seven double basses and orchestra.  Another piece treats the suppression of tuba playing in China during the Cultural Revolution at the hands of Jiang Qing, the notorious leader of the Gang of Four, and the wife of Chairman Mao.  And one of my short operas is based on the book fun with Dick and Jane.  Humor is as valid a human emotion as any other.

The original Holly and the Ivy is a British folk song. Your version of The Contest of Holly and Ivy is in the style of a madrigal, with men and women alternating in telling the story. And then, a little French as a nod to the SF Bach Choir’s “Mostly French” Christmas concert. Tell us what decisions you made in writing this piece. What musical themes or elements should the audience be listening for?

At its heart, the piece is a setting of two carols, one for the men (holly) and one for the women (ivy).  The carols are set in contrasting styles.  Solemn and self-assured for the men; dance-like and mocking for the women.

It took me a while to assemble the different texts into a suitable form.  It took me a while to figure out how to put in the French; there are medieval carol texts which include some French, but none of them deal with Holly and Ivy.  Eventually, I figured out how to replace the Latin in the original burdens with French.   

You have said that your composing is energized by the emotional connections between words and music? How does that manifest in The Contest of Holly and Ivy?

I think that statement reflects how much easier I find it to write vocal music than instrumental music.  Text makes it easy to choose the manner and style of a piece.  My long-term engagement with Christmas music and carols helped make writing this piece easy.

How did you approach writing for SATB choir, The Whole Noyse and percussionist Peter Maund? 

Actually, there is very little writing for the full choir, since most of the piece is for the men and women separately.  My approach was to make the piece tuneful, easy to learn in the rehearsal time available, gratifying to sing, and pleasing to listen to.  I am a brass player, so I have some familiarity with repertory that The Whole Noyse plays.  I wanted to write music for the instruments that was lively and independent of the vocal parts.  I must admit that I listened to a lot of music by Giovanni Gabrieli during the week I started the piece; that informs some of the style of my writing.

I understand that you write a new Christmas carol every year and send it out as a musical Christmas card. Abby Betinis, the Minnesota composer, also has this tradition. When and how did your carol-writing tradition get started? What inspired you?

Alfred Bert, who wrote a significant series of annual carols, was Abby Betinis’ grand-uncle.  I started my series of carols in 1983.  I was inspired by my involvement in the Christmas Revels, by my exposure to medieval carol texts, and by a desire to send something less ordinary than cards at Christmas time.  Many of the annual carols have been reworked as more elaborate choral pieces; eight of them have been published.  At this point, I have written over sixty carols; I wrote this year’s carol last July.  It’s called The Carol of the Fugitive and sets a poem of Henry Van Dyke.

Is there anything else we should know about The Contest of Holly and Ivy?

I am quite grateful to Magen for the chance to write this music.

You most recently taught the Physics of Music at San Jose State University. What, in a nutshell, is that?

The nature of sound; simple oscillating systems; the analysis and synthesis of complex sounds; the physics underlying musical instruments; the structure of the ear; the physics and psychology of hearing; the mathematics of tuning and harmony; recording and reproducing sound; room acoustics.  The course was an upper division general education course, taken by a variety of different majors, though music majors predominated.