Ralph Holmes, a lifetime inspiration

Posted on March 1st, 2012 by


Ralph Holmes in 1962, in his twenties, and a sculpture made that year by the inventor/sculptor Lewen Tugwell

Nashville-March 1st 2012

I have had the opportunity to work on Delius 3rd Sonata with a very gifted young violinist, Midori Komachi. This is a work which I associated so strongly with Ralph Holmes. The way that he changed my artistic viewpoint very early on in life relates very strongly to the work that I find myself doing now, that I want to write a little about that.

Ralph’s playing was of incandescent humanity. I knew it best very close up, hearing him play in his music studio at home in Kent. My first lessons with him as a 12 year old were musical experiences of such intensity, showing me a standard of artistic honesty which drives me to this day.

However, it was the means which Ralph used to ‘get’ to me which made the long term impact. I think that he recognised that I was unable, at that point, to see a link between my musical existence and the world. He set out to change that, in ways which, initially were bewildering. From the very start, questions of technique, colour, of phrasing would be looked at from the standpoint of all the other arts. He demanded that I find a link between my painting and drawing with the bow on the string. Early lessons involved hunting for the colour looking at a muted seascape by Whistler, using his collection of Native American beadwork to look at questions of articulation, of line by close examination of Leighton sketches hanging on the walls of his work room, which was crammed with antique tools, paintings, art books, 18th ivory carving-for a while, I remember, there were striking oil sketches by Elisabeth Frink propped up against the broken down square piano (a Broadwood) which groaned under the weight of artefacts on one wall.

The works that made the biggest impression on my at the beginning were those which could elicit his uniquely English brand of violin playing. This was not necessarily British music. Ralph taught by performing, and he did not moderate the fervour of his playing in close quarters. Pieces such as Sibelius’s ‘ab mea pectora’, Bach’s E minor (continuo) Sonata  were heard in very close quarters, and the dangerous beauty of his sound lingers.

The young violinist that I am working with here, Midori Komachi, is embarked on pioneering work looking at the link between Delius ad Gaugin. She asked me to work with her on the 3rd Sonata,  which Holmes recorded with Eric Fenby, Delius’s amanuensis. I confess that this brought back these precious memories-and I have been recalling his means of tone production, and the very particular ‘sob’, the soul of his musical expression, which made such an impression on me at the time, and for which I am grateful to this day.

Ralph died tragically young, just before I began at the RAM, his alma mater. Here is a the last recording he made, in the year of his death, the Delius Violin Concerto. He understood and communicated this music like none before or since. This recording can claim to be the supreme example of 20th Century British violin playing.

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Eric Fenby with Menuhin-by Unknown photographer,photograph,1970s-NPG x27595