When, in his late 20s, Robin Holloway shocked the establishment with his twin challenges to the prevailing zeitgeist of musical complexity, Scenes from Schumann (1970) and Fantasy-Pieces (1971), there was little of the sound of the previous psychedelic decade in them, but plenty of free love for the Schumann songs that he paraphrased.
And although in their use of pre-existing material as a springboard for invention these works showed Stravinskyian leanings - in the manner of the master's The Fairy's Kiss, some critics of the time, equating a fondness for the past with a reactionary fondness for tradition, thought these backward-looking glances conservative, a mistaken view of their radical posture which the later tributes to high and late romanticism - Domination of Black (1974), the opera Clarissa (1976), Seascape and Harvest (1984) and Wagner Nights (1989) - loftily dispelled. Further exploring romantic terms of reference, Holloway has also produced an ongoing sequence of concertos, three idylls for small orchestra, song-cycles, the oratorio The Spacious Firmament (1990), and two works after Ibsen, the symphonic ballad Brand and the concert-opera Peer Gynt, all flowing in a mighty delta from the source of his music of the 1970s.
A private pupil of Alexander Goehr, a student first of English and then of music at Cambridge University, and afterwards a University lecturer there, Holloway (born in Leamington Spa in 1943) has occupied a unique role in British music for the past three decades. To each of his pieces he brings an unparalleled range of aesthetic concerns, yet each one is unmistakably Holloway in the flavour and fluency of its language. The resulting corpus, both protean and fixed in its artistic aims, is among the most original in British music, and with every addition reveals new aspects of its composer's unique creative persona.
Essential to that artistic personality for all its varied manifestations is a contemporary view of the past which sees it neither as a body of practice conveyed from teacher to pupil, nor as an inheritance which, in Darwinian fashion, must be altered and improved for later generations, but as something almost tangibly to be desired, whether darkly, playfully or passionately.
If Holloway's penchant for writing divertimento-like works in his own version of 20th-century neo-tonality has also confounded the critics over the years, then his periodic returns to a modernist constructivism (nowadays a conservative gesture?) in three concertos for orchestra and several ensemble works, including The Rivers of Hell (1977), is a complementary aspect of the dialogue of desires so characteristic of his achievement. That the Second Concerto for Orchestra (1989), the NMC recording of which won a 1994 Gramophone Award, can surely be numbered among the dozen or so outstanding works by British composers of the last 30 years is a further testimony to his singular position in our cultural life, one ultimately defined by the force of his unique creative sensibility.