Simon Holt was born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1958. After completing a foundation course at Bolton Art College, he went on to study composition with Anthony Gilbert at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. He is a Fellow of the Royal Northern College of Music and of the University of Bolton. As a young composer, the late Michael Vyner, then artistic director of the London Sinfonietta, commissioned Kites (1983). In 1985 he was featured composer of the Bath International Festival at which the late William Mann was the artistic director. Holt's relationship with the London Sinfonietta has continued with a steady stream of performances and premieres, including Ballad of the Black Sorrow (1988), eco-pavan (1998) and Sueños (2006) for baritone and ensemble, performed by Roderick Williams and the London Sinfonietta conducted by Thierry Fischer in London and Madrid. In autumn 2016, his piccolo concerto Fool is Hurt, co-commissioned by the London Sinfonietta with the NOVA Ensemble of Utah, received its premiere performances in Salt Lake City and London.
Simon Holt's output for the chamber ensemble is large, including nine pieces written for the Nash Ensemble. The first four of these: Shadow Realm (1983), Era madrugada (1984), Canciones (1986) and Sparrow Night (1989) have been recorded by the Nash Ensemble on the NMC label. After the fifth piece, all fall down, a sixth was commissioned for the 2004 Cheltenham Festival, namely the other side of silence, followed by the string trio, 4 quarters, and String Sextet: the torturer's horse. His most recent work for the Nash Ensemble, bagatelarañas, for wind quintet will be premiered in March 2017 at the Wigmore Hall. Holt has also developed a hugely successful relationship with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, who recorded a second portrait album on the NMC label, released in 2004, featuring Kites (1983), Lilith (1990), eco-pavan (1998), Boots of Lead (2002) and feet of clay (2003).
To date, Holt has been commissioned to write three major orchestral pieces for the BBC Proms – in 1987, John Drummond commissioned Syrensong for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, later followed by the viola concerto Walking with the River's Roar, premiered by Nobuko Imai and the BBC Philharmonic in 1992. Latterly, Troubled Light (2008) and the flute concerto Morpheus Wakes (2014), for Emmanuel Pahud, were both premiered by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Thierry Fischer, during Holt’s highly successful tenure as Composer in Association at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales 2008 – 2014. Other works from this period include St Vitus in the kettle, the double concerto Centauromachy and The Yellow Wallpaper, for soprano and orchestra.
Simon Holt has found inspiration in, amongst other things, the world of Greek myth. His Icarus Trilogy culminated in 1995 with the premiere of his cello concerto Daedalus Remembers, commissioned by the Cheltenham festival for Rohan de Saram and Sinfonia 21 conducted by Daniel Harding. In addition, he feels a great affinity for the writing of Federico Garcia Lorca whose dark, passionate and enigmatic texts have much in common with Holt's own sound world. He has set Lorca's texts in his song cycle Canciones and his first opera The Nightingale's to Blame. This was a commission from Opera North, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and the Munich Biennale, and the premiere formed the focal point of a major retrospective at the 1998 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Simon Holt's soprano and orchestra piece, Sunrise' yellow noise (2000) for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Lisa Milne under Sir Simon Rattle went on to tour the Cologne Triennale in May 2000, and was the subject of a one-hour South Bank Show TV documentary. In 2001, Simon Holt received Le Prix de la Fondation Prince Pierre, Monaco for this piece.
Sunrise' yellow noise is the first part of the cycle, a ribbon of time, which encompasses five works of various genre based on poems by Emily Dickinson. The other four pieces are Two Movements for string quartet (2001), which received the Royal Philharmonic Society Award in 2002; Boots of Lead (2002) for alto and ensemble, which was premiered by BCMG, Rinat Shaham and Sir Simon Rattle in October 2002 and received the Ivor Novello Classical Music Award; Clandestiny (2000) for soprano and organ; and startled Grass (2001) for female voices and cello. The music theatre piece, Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?, commissioned by Almeida Aldeburgh Opera, was performed around the UK in 2003 to great acclaim and judged Best Stage Work at the 2004 British Composer Awards. It led to a number of 'spin off' pieces – The Coroner's Report (2004) for ensemble, the other side of silence (2004) for flute, viola and harp, and The sharp end of night (2005) for solo violin.
Holt's large-scale pieces include the violin concerto, witness to a snow miracle, performed in London and Bonn by Vivianne Hager and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and judged Best Orchestral Work at the 2006 British Composer Awards; and a percussion concerto for Colin Currie entitled a table of noises, which was premiered by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in May 2008 and also won the Orchestral Award at the British Composer Awards (2009). These two concertos, along with the orchestral work St Vitus in the kettle, appear on NMC, recorded by the Hallé, under Nicholas Collon.
In May 2017, Holt’s new orchestral work Surcos, co-commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, will receive its world premiere performances in Berlin and Hamburg, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. In July 2017, the basset clarinet concerto Joy Beast, written for Mark Simpson and commissioned by the BBC, will be premiered in Hull and London as part of the New Music Biennial 2017, a PRS for Music Foundation initiative presented in partnership with Hull UK City of Culture 2017, London’s Southbank Centre and BBC Radio 3.
Holt is currently Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music.
The music of Simon Holt is published by Chester Music Limited.
A full-scale study of Simon Holt's compositions is due for publication by Boydell & Brewer in summer 2017.