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Simon Holt

Publisher: Chester Music

witness to a snow miracle (2005)
commissioned by the BBC
Chester Music Ltd
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
Year Composed
23 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
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Programme Note
Simon Holt witness to a snow miracle (2005)
1. Eulalia of Merida [violin solo]
2. the tearing, the burning
3. flames become birds
4. snowfall on ashes
5. witness
6. torments
7. halo

"witness to a snow miracle" is a violin concerto in seven short movements based around the life of Saint Eulalia, the virgin martyr. The movements are presented as if part of a painting in which we see all the events of her life and eventual martyrdom.

Eulalia was born in Merida, Spain where she was put to death, in what was possibly her 12th or 14th year, by the Romans in 304 A.D. At the moment of her death, a white dove (symbolising her soul) flew from her mouth. Little is known about her but that she refused to worship "false gods" as Christians were ordered to by Diocletian. As a consequence, her judge, Calpurnianus, ordered that her body should be torn by iron hooks revealing her very bones and flames applied to the wounds to increase her suffering. She was dragged by the hair, berating her captors all the while and threatening them with the terrors of the Final Judgement, to the place of execution where she was covered in hot coals. Her hair caught fire and she was suffocated by the smoke. A blanket of snow fell on her ashes, at which point she was declared a saint.

The violin is possibly Eulalia herself or a witness to her torments and martyrdom. Or are we as listeners witnesses to the proceedings?

The concerto lasts approximately 22'.

  • Ensemble
    Halle Orchestra
    Chloë Hanslip, violin; Colin Currie, percussion
    Nicholas Collon
    NMC Recordings:
It is for my money the greatest violin concerto of the past 30 years.
Ivan Hewett, The Daily Telegraph,15/04/2017
witness to a snow miracle... is not only one of Simon Holt’s finest achievements to date, but one of the most memorable British orchestral scores of the last 30 years.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,23/03/2017
Holt uses instruments in a way which challenges all preconceptions, yet also creates passages magically distilling their essential character. That duality is particularly true of the solo violin writing in the concerto entitled witness to a snow miracle, depicting the martyrdom of the young St Eulalia of Merida torn apart by iron hooks. The music has an extraordinary immediacy, and soloist Chloë Hanslip did indeed play with the conviction of one possessed.
Rian Evans, The Guardian,01/11/2009
…not until witness to a snow miracle has Holt found so distinctive or distressing a female voice. With a shimmering canopy of harps, vibraphone, glockenspiel and celesta, brute pizzicato, and a lowing alto flute, the seven short movements of the concerto depict not only the horror of Eulalia’s martyrdom but also the ecstasy of her faith. The soaring, skittering, radiant figures of the solo violin speak in tongues, sob, laugh like a child and sing. Hagner’s performance was technically faultless, musically mature, and doubtless aided in its dramatic impact by her girlish appearance … this is one of the most delicately crafted new concertos I have heard in years.
Anna Picard, The Independent on Sunday,26/02/2006
Holt’s richly imagined score evokes the virgin martyr St Eulalia, whose story involves her smouldering ashes being blanketed in snow. Holt describes the violin as ‘possibly Eulalia herself’, a characterisation easy to believe when it is played with such silvery tone as supplied by Viviane Hagner. The rapid-firing, high-tension solo flourishes of the opening set up a work full of contrasts: gaudy, jangling percussion suggests Eulalia’s lurid sufferings, yet in the central panel (‘snowfall on ashes’) delicately shimmering strings act as a cushion to the sweet intensity of the solo part. Holt’s luminous piece burns itself out beautifully, with the soloist turning away from the audience as the music fades into nothingness.
John Allison, The Sunday Telegraph,26/02/2006
The score is a meticulously devised collection of images that one wants to isolate and relish for themselves. Not that continuity is lacking – least of all in the headlong “torments” sixth movement – and nor does the music fail to evoke its subject matter. The strangely scored, jabbing tuttis of the second movement, “the tearing, the burning”, hit home; while the upward rushing scales for harps, celesta and silvery tuned percussion in the third movement, “flames become birds”, are onomatopoeia at its most thrilling. The tutti strangeness is that of an orchestra without violas and cellos, but in which double basses, contrabassoon and piccolos are prominent. The soloist, who, as Holt says, can symbolise Eulalia, tends to stand musically apart from the rest, as though disdaining her punishment. The first movement is, unexpectedly, a solo cadenza, and in the fourth, “snowfall on ashes”, she plays completely independently, a disembodied spirit. At the end, she is instructed to turn her back on the audience. The German violinist Viviane Hagner fulfilled the score’s requirements to the letter – oh, to the punctuation mark – and, more than that, she caught the music’s soul.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times,26/02/2006
Simon Holt’s hugely impressive new violin concerto, a BBC commission premiered by Viviane Hagner with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Jonathan Nott, bears little relation to conventional ideas of what a violin concerto should be. In his recent works, Holt has explored the possibilities of building large-scale forms from a sequence of miniaturised movements, and the new concerto, witness to a snow miracle, continues that trend, consisting of seven movements adding up to just over 20 minutes of music. As the title suggests, the piece is programmatic – though Holt leaves the precise perspective of that programme to the audience’s choice. It is based upon the life of the fourth-century Christian martyr St Eulalia, who was tortured and killed by the Romans in Spain for refusing to worship their gods. She was burned and, when a blanket of snow fell on her ashes, she was declared a saint. The solo violin, says Holt, is “possibly Eulalia herself, or a witness to her torments and martyrdom (or are we as listeners witnesses to the proceedings?)”. The titles of the individual movements – from the opening violin solo depicting Eulalia herself, through The Tearing, the Burning, to Torments and Halo – seem to plot her path towards sainthood. But throughout the work, both the solo and orchestral writing are so vivid that their precise correlation with the programme seems to matter less and less, and the whole adds up to far more than the sum of the individual parts. Holt sets the violin against a strangely skewed orchestra lineup that includes two piccolos, two harps, a piano and celesta, but no trumpets. Used sparingly, it conjures a series of haunting, vivid images and creates a delicate, bright sound-world against which the violin’s nervous, hyperactive lines stand out sharply. In that one respect at least witness to a snow miracle is a conventional concerto, for the solo violin part is fearsomely difficult; Hagner had mastered it exceptionally well.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,22/02/2006
…all this has inspired Holt to write a violin part of jagged intensity and stupendous demands. There aren’t many violinists who could get their fingers around the fierce unaccompanied cadenza that opens the piece, let alone execute it with the finesse of the young German Viviane Hagner. And under that solo line Holt assembles an appropriately weird array of sonorities: elephantine brass thuds, garish percussion jangles, double basses playing chords in harmonics, and finally a sour chorale on low woodwind as the violinist symbolically turns her back while ending the piece in whimpers and whimpers.
Richard Morrison, The Times,21/02/2006
Simon Holt has never been one to enslave himself to the odious notion of simplifying his language for the sake of appealing to a wider audience. Yet appeal to wide audiences his music does, thanks to an individualistic imagination often ignited by the fantastic, the dark, the miraculous. His latest work, witness to a snow miracle, a violin concerto given its world premiere in last Saturday’s BBC Symphony Orchestra concert, is no exception. The subject of the new concerto is the life and death of St Eulalia, a Spanish saint who suffered a gruesomely slow martyrdom at the hands of the Romans at the age of 12 or 14 in 304 AD, her flesh torn with hooks, flames applied to the wounds, and her body buried in hot coals. A white dove flew from her mouth at the moment of death, and a blanket of snow fell on her ashes. The piece takes the form of a series of seven more or less convulsive, explosive, often uncomfortably descriptive movements, full of garish colour and extreme textures, though there are moments of repose. Sometimes the soloist – the magnificent Viviane Hagner – seems to tear herself away from what’s going around her, as if seeking some ecstatic beyond.
Stephen Pettitt, Evening Standard,20/02/2006
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