Holý Ballade op. 34, ed. D. Piana
Among harpists-composers, Alfred Holý was considered the “last of the romantics”. He continued to write in a late-romantic idiom uniquely his, well into the 20th century. In one his last works, Ballade, he attempted to add some modern ideas based on tone production (PDLT for ex.), but most of his compositions stand out for their melodic invention and unique “turns of phrase” rather than technical innovations.
Holý was born in Oporto, Portugal where his Czech father was hired as a bandmaster, but grew up mainly in Prague. After studying violin and piano from childhood, he chose the harp as his main instrument for professional training at the Prague Conservatory. Soon he distinguished himself as an orchestral musician, first in Prague, then in Berlin where he joined Poenitz and Posse at the Imperial Opera Court Orchestra. He became known as “Mahler’s favorite harpist” when the composer-conductor pursued him to join the Vienna Court Opera under his directorship. Always eager for new musical adventures, Holý later moved to the United States to play with the Boston Symphony (under Muck) and teach at the New England Conservatory. Upon retiring, Holý and his wife reluctantly moved back to Austria, because their two sons were never able to join them in the New World. While, as a Czech national, he safely escaped the shunning of the German musicians during World War I in America, the Second World War (and its aftermath) was not kind to him and his family, and he spent his last days in Vienna in dire circumstances.
Holý’s musical style is rooted in the esthetics of the late 19th century Austro-Hungarian Empire. Those esthetics were surprisingly cosmopolitan, while rooted in the best of what the many ethnicities contained within the Empire’s borders had to offer, and encompassed a wide range of music, from high-minded or even academic styles to accessible popular music like waltzes and operettas. The famous operetta composer Franz Lehár was Holý’s good friend from his Prague Conservatory days.
Despite the hardships of his youth, Holý always maintained a sunny outlook on life. He thirsted for more sophisticated music than the Oberthür diet served by his teacher Staněk, and ended up composing according to his own “inner necessity”. Even his simplest pieces exude fancy musical ideas of impeccable taste, with delicate, free-flowing melodies supported by an original mix of savvy rhythms and refined harmonies. Although his compositions may have been relegated to the salon music realm, they shine through their highly personal, sparkly expression.