Today’s Advent Calendar piece is an example of what may well prove to be a substantial body of work that we might call ‘Covid music’, composed during the pandemic. Hold, by Northern Irish composer Elaine Agnew, is a short work for string orchestra responding to the experience of lockdown in December 2020, when Agnew was “mindful of the word ‘hold’, and all that it suggests. That need of wanting to support each other, to hold and to keep ourselves and our families secure and safe, was foremost in our minds. We globally needed to hold each other and to hold ourselves up.”
That sentiment, though positive, is nonetheless driven by necessity in what were difficult, trying and upsetting circumstances. As such, Hold primarily exhibits a great deal of tension and discomfort. Throughout the opening minute, while a couple of soft, harmonically ambiguous chords move below, the violins sustain a high note overhead, something of an unsettling presence. That note is subsequently extended into a slow-moving line during what follows, a cautious, tight kind of lyricism, as if all the strings were moving in a confined space. The resultant, slightly gnarly, harmonies have a whiff of Berg to them, lending the music a conflicted blend of warmth and anxiety.
That ominous high violin line finally slides downward, leading to a brisk sequence filled with rhythmic pizzicati, a burst of movement that turns out to be short-lived: the high violin note returns, triggering a repeat of the work’s opening chords, a lyrical moment followed by another brief stab at energy. The aftermath of this is a beautiful though even more constricted upper string sequence that suddenly finds itself at a rich D major tried. The opening chords return, and the piece enters its most oblique episode, not merely slow and cautious but rather lost and forlorn. The D major triad and the opening chords return again but, as they repeat, their blurred major / minor tonality brings Hold to a close as a soft, poignant triadic mess.
The world première of Hold was performed by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Jac van Steen.