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8.553106 - Scandinavian String Music
Scandinavian String Music
WIRÉN: Serenade in G Major, Op. 11 (1937)
For the Norse peoples, like their Celtic and British cousins, string sound has always been a natural part of the musical psyche. In Norway, land of the famous seventeenth century hardanger fiddle, it was common from Napoleonic times for dance tunes to be busked on the violin. No wandering Danish minstrel of the twelfth century would have been happy without fiddle and pipe. The ancient Kalevala refers to the plucked-string kantele of the dance-songs of Finland, "land of a thousand lakes" - a harp-like instrument made from "birch wood strung with a maiden's hair", and extemporising, orallising village fiddlers used to be central to rural Swedish life: as Hugo Alfvén reminds us so picturesquely in describing his Midsummer Vigi l- where he also likens the "musical laughing", "rippling and foaming" sound of the sea to "the chords of a harp". The harp (literature, wood carvings and artifacts show) was familiar in sixth century pagan Scandinavia, where in an oblong form it was associated with magic and myth, its (instrumental) repertory apparently quite distinct from song or chant. As this album illustrates, the romantic and post-romantic composers of Scandinavia drew on such antique legacy with singular resource, conveying and stylising private ideas and public images of northern sound and saga through a European common market of low, middle and high orchestral strings, bowed and plucked. The odd solo, the repeated drone, gently remind of folk memories still fresh.
The Swedish composer and critic Dag Wirén (1905-86) was a student of Sabaneyev's in Paris, where he came under the influence of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Honegger. Ranging from the neoclassically attractive to the frankly commercial (a 1965 Eurovision Song Contest entry), extreme clarity and formal craftsmanship within tonal boundaries was the distinguishing feature of his output. He used to be fond of saying his first desire was to entertain and please, to create listener-friendly "modern" music. That, however, he could on occasion be serious and weighty is suggested by the profundity and climax of the slow movement of the G major Serenade (1937). A rhythmically joyous work otherwise celebrated for its tricky scherzo and "signature tune" finale. He wrote it for the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra.
The Norwegian violinist and composer Johan Svendsen (1840 -1911) was a contemporary of Grieg and Tchaikovsky, outliving them both. A staunch classicist with German Romantic leanings, he was considered the greatest Scandinavian conductor of his time: it was he who gave the first Norwegian performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in 1881-82 (having already played in it under Wagner in Bayreuth a decade earlier). Of him as composer and symphonist his friend Grieg believed that he had "precisely all that which I don't have". Inventively textured (with plenty of divisi writing), his variation-based folk-song arrangements for strings belong to the 1870s. The two (unspecified) Icelandic ones (1877) are a mixture of modal and diatonic A minor, with the theme of the second expressively decorated by pizzicato quavers to create a suggestive aura of string and quasi-harp sound. In I Fjol gjaett'e Gjeitinn, the Norwegian setting (1874), Svendsen's skill as polyphonist and colourist gives rise to some strikingly intensifying moments - nowhere more expressively so than in the whispered E major drones and pedal-notes of the final page. Always a patriot (witness the four Norwegian Rhapsodies for orchestra published in 1877), he cherished the songs of his people. The second of the two Swedish transcriptions (1876). Du gamla, du friska, du fiellhöga Nord (Thou ancient, unconquered, rock-towered north), is based on a traditional C major tune to words by Richard Dybeck (1844), adopted as the Swedish national anthem in 1880-90.
After Voltaire "the first writer in Europe [of] his generation", the "Molière of the North", Ludwig Holberg (1684-1754) was born in Norway but spent most of his life in Denmark. Apostle of the Scandinavian Enlightenment, his French-influenced comedies and satires are considered especially significant. Originally written for piano during the summer of 1884. Grieg's From Holberg's Time: Suite in the Olden Style was commissioned to mark the bicentenary of his birth. An early example of pastiche, of romantic neo-classicism, its five movements, tonally all in G, consciously parody the clavéciniste style and Bachian dance - suite forms of Holberg's century. Its composer's personality, nevertheless, remains immutable. As his biographer David Monrad - Johansen says (1934), assuming "the garments of the rococo period", he "simply placed himself in the same milieu in which the great satirist lived and worked. He looks at the present through the spectacles of the past". The string arrangement - a repertory standard, idiomatic, richly focused and as brilliant for its massed glories as its testing solos (the closing Rigaudon, for instance, so-called "graveyard of orchestral leaders") - was made by Grieg in 1885.
"If music were to assume human form and explain its essence." Carl Nielsen imagined in his pamphlet Living Music (1925), "it might say something like this: 'I am everywhere and nowhere; I skim the wave and the tops of forests; I sit in the throat of the savage and the foot of the negro and sleep in the stone and the sounding metal. None can grasp me, all can apprehend me; I live tenfold more intensely than any living thing, and die a thousandfold deeper. I love the vast surface of silence; and it is my chief delight to break it. I know no sorrow or joy, no pleasure or pain; but I can rejoice, weep, laugh, and lament all at once and everlastingly"'. Nielsen (1865 - 1931) was Danish. In his youth he was a second violinist in the Copenhagen Royal Chapel Orchestra under Svendsen. Grieg (1843 -1907) was his great mentor and father-figure. The Little Suite, Op. 1 dates from 1888/89. "A remarkably accomplished piece of work" Robert Simpson calls it and rightly so. Its unexpectedly twisting, gracefully waltz-like Intermezzo (shades of Lumbye?) is a refreshing delight, its (sonata) Finale a portent already of a toughness to come in the symphonies. And how hauntingly across time the broken, valedictory tread of its Präludium seems to foreshadow the andante of the Wirén Serenade.
© 1994 Ates Orga
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