Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 September 2018
THE PAINTING Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (Figure 4.1, p. 84), attributed to Pieter Bruegel the elder, has inspired numerous ekphrastic responses, including poems by William Carlos Williams and Michael Hamburger and, musically, Brian Ferneyhough's La Chute d'Icare (1988). W. H. Auden's account of the painting in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts (1938) provided both stimulus and titles for Simon Holt's everything turns away for piano quintet (2010) and expensive delicate ship (the fourth movement of 3rd Quartet, 2013). But Holt's most sustained engagement with the Icarus myth and the art it has inspired can be found in his earlier trilogy 3 for Icarus: Icarus Lamentations for chamber ensemble (1992), Minotaur Games for orchestra (1993, rev. 2008) and Dædalus Remembers for solo cello and chamber ensemble (1995, rev. 1997). Though the titles of these three works might appear to signal a return to mythic origins, Holt's response to the Icarus legend was nevertheless mediated significantly by Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. In the way that the individual works respond to extramusical stimuli, along with the compelling, fantastically detailed and concentrated designs that emerge through this musical engagement, the trilogy surely ranks among Holt's most significant achievements.
In common with Holt's many titles inspired by the other arts, those given to the individual pieces comprising 3 for Icarus ‘only partially illuminate the truth of the music’. In this context, Holt's brief programme notes for the component pieces in 3 for Icarus are revealing. For the first, his account of the Icarus tale is prefaced by the comment that ‘[t]he shape of the piece doesn't necessarily follow the exact line of the myth but attempts to shed light in an almost cinematic way on various aspects of the story using a kind of “jump cut” technique’. For the second and third, there is even less apparent connection between mythical plot and musical design: Holt's programme notes pithily summarise the legends to which the titles refer, with no mention of the actual music. Titles and programme notes alike thus serve not as explanations, but as opening gambits in a narrative act in which composer and listener are complicit.