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8.557017 - Norwegian Classical Favourites
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Norwegian Classical Favourites

Norwegian Classical Favourites

Grieg • Halvorsen • Sinding • Svendsen

 

At the end of the nineteenth century almost all Norwegian composers had studied the German romantic style of composition in Leipzig. Some, like Christian Sinding, continued to compose within the German tradition without developing a personal, Norwegian style. Inspired, however, by the likes of Ole Bull, Halfdan Kjerulf, the collector of folk-music, Ludvig M. Lindeman, and the ever-enthusiastic Rikard Nordraak, many Norwegian composers began to look for a specifically Norwegian style, a cultural reflection of the country’s independence from Denmark, granted in 1814.

           

Edvard Grieg’s Morgenstemning (Morning mood) was composed as the introduction to Act IV Scene 5 of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. The scene is not the Norwegian countryside but dawn on the coast of Morocco, indicated by Grieg’s use of a pentatonic theme. In the theatre version of I Dovregubbens Hall (In the Hall of the Mountain King) the little trolls chase after Peer, threatening to plague him. In the incidental music for Peer Gynt there are several such burlesque passages that suggest a barbarism that was to appear later in European music with figures such as Stravinsky and Bartók. The two suites give a more lyrical and romantic impression. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson thought that the lyrical Grieg should keep his hands off the play. Bernard Shaw is not alone in having been irritated by Grieg’s ‘romanticization’ of Ibsen’s text. Grieg himself was aware of the problem. He characterized Peer Gynt as ‘the most unmusical of all subjects’.

 

The first performance of Frühlingsrauschen (Rustle of Spring) by the pianist Erika Nissen was not a great success. It is one of the Six Piano Pieces, Op.32, written by Christian Sinding in 1894-96. Ten years later it had become one of his most played piano pieces. It was particularly popular in the United States, and was also performed at the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s first transmission in 1925, appearing too in several films. Both Delius and Grieg were among Sinding’s friends and advisors, though he never chose to use Norwegian folk-music, being rooted in German romanticism. For a long time he was regarded as Grieg’s heir, but his support for Nazism lost him this position in Norwegian musical life.

 

Agathe Backer Grøndahl studied in Berlin and later with Hans von Bülow in Florence and with Franz Liszt in Weimar. Her music is much influenced by the German tradition. She was a close friend of Grieg and meant much to him. She was interested in folk-music but to a lesser degree than many other people at the time. She wrote only two smaller pieces for orchestra, but was a central figure in many areas of Norwegian musical life. The piano piece Sommervise (Summer Song) is taken from her collection Fantasistykker, Op.45, and conveys the mood is of a bright summer’s day.

 

The manuscript of Johann Svendsen’s Bryllupet på Dovre (The Wedding at Dovre), a piece long neglected, was deposited at Norway’s National Library in 1939. The score indicates that it was not written before his time in Leipzig, nor later than 1890. In 1884 Svendsen took charge of the orchestra at the Opera in Copenhagen. He was a friend of Richard Wagner, and spent long periods in Germany and in Paris. Grieg reckoned him the finest conductor in Europe, and also admired him as a symphonist and orchestrator.

 

The final decades of the nineteenth century brought a sense of nationalist celebration, population increase and, not least, numerous meetings between poets, composers and other artists. Svendsen had become a member of the Society of Artists and wrote the festive Norsk Kunstnerkarneval (Norwegian Artist’s Carnival) for a carnival in 1874. The theme for the year was ‘Prince Carnival’s Betrothal to the Daughter of the Old Man of Dovre’. Pilgrims on their way north to the cathedral at Nidaros (Trondheim) had to cross the Dovre Mountain, a typically Norwegian symbol of the realm of trolls. Now the warm-blooded south was to meet the chilly north. The composition was performed accompanied by clowning. The climax unites the two principal motifs, a spring dance in 3/4 time and a popular Neapolitan song in 6/8 time. The equally effective Fest-Polonaise (Festive Polonaise) was composed for a ball for the leading citizens of Kristiania (now Oslo) in 1873, an event attended by King Oscar II (of Norway and Sweden) some weeks after his coronation in Trondheim.

 

Johannes Hanssen was playing the tenor horn in the military band when his new march received its first performance at an open-air concert in 1904. It is claimed that only two people applauded, his best friends, but when he showed the piece to Ole Olsen the latter commented: ‘This is … damn me, the finest march that I have heard’. Later the Valdres-Marsch gained an international reputation, and was included by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a 1964 recording, ‘The Ten Best Marches in the World’. It starts with an old fanfare of the Valdres Battalion, while other motifs in the march are from Hardanger fiddle-tunes. The march is generally performed as a ‘slow and noble Norwegian march’.

 

In 1893 Johan Halvorsen was offered a post as professor in the Rumanian capital of Bucharest. His study of the country and its people led him to write a march about the Boyars, Bojarenes Indtogsmarsj (Entry of the Boyars). He turned down the position but in a single day he completed the march, a work that greatly impressed Grieg, who arranged for its publication by Wilhelm Hansen. Halvorsen’s most performed work, it is mentioned by Strindberg in The Dance of Death, where the captain’s wife speaks of it as that ‘terrible entry of the Boyars’. In Norway it was, for many years, the signature tune for a radio classical request programme. Halvorsen, too, had studied in Leipzig and he spent many years abroad before becoming music director of the National Theatre in Bergen for six years and then for thirty years at the National Theatre in the capital. His most important models were Grieg, Svendsen and Norwegian folk-music.

 

Ole Olsen wrote his Sørgemarsch (Funeral March), Op.41, on the death of his brother-in-law Olav Hals (1857-1883). It bore the inscription ‘May our final thanks, borne on the wings of song, accompany you on your journey to the new spring’s life of joy’. Olsen composed several funeral marches but Opus 41 has a special place in Norwegian affections, and was played at the funerals of both King Håkon VII and King Olav V. The melody from the trio section was later used in Mads Berg’s song-book for schools for a setting of a poem by Arne Garborg, ‘Yes, let us fight and let us be steadfast’. Olsen came from Hammarfest in the extreme north of Norway and used jokingly to refer to himself as the ‘world’s most northern composer’. After studying in Leipzig and elsewhere he lived mostly in Oslo, but felt that he belonged in northern Norway, making use of Sami yoik or chant in some of his compositions. Much of his work remains neglected.

 

At the end of his short life, Rikard Nordraak was working on music for his nephew Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s play Mary Stuart in Scotland, the score completed and published by his friend Grieg for a performance in 1867. The stately dance, Purpose, introduces a ball at the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh. Valse Caprice is a piano piece that later became theatre music, described by Bjørnson as ‘one of Scandinavia’s numerous offerings to Eros’. Nordraak, an important influence on Grieg, died of tuberculosis, alone in Berlin.

 

Det lysnet i skogen (Forest Clearing) by Sigurd Islandsmoen was originally composed in 1902 as a song with words by Jørgen Moe, famous as a collector of folk-songs. Islandsmoen later arranged the melody for string orchestra as he did with various other of his songs. In the poem the author longs to escape from the town to the countryside and his native district. The piece was printed in Leipzig in 1912 while Islandsmoen was studying with Max Reger. From 1916 onwards he was a central figure in the cultural life of Moss where he was the organist.

 

Arne Eggen was also a Leipzig student. He wrote the music to the play Liti Kersti by Hulda Garborg in 1915, but the piece Bjørgulv Spelemann (Bjørgulv the Fiddler)  was probably added later. Liti Kersti is in love with the fiddler Bjørgulv, who is too poor to marry. Her father, a goldsmith, has lost his ability to create and he sells Liti Kersti to the Mountain King in order to regain his powers. This once popular piece of music has now disappeared from concert programmes and recordings.

 

Grieg composed Norsk Dans No.2 (Norwegian Dance No. 2) for piano four hands in Hardanger in the summer of 1881. It is one of Four Norwegian Dances Op. 35. The dance is based on a halling motif from Østerdal that Grieg found in Lindeman’s collection. Grieg did not orchestrate the piece himself. When Peer Gynt was performed in Copenhagen in 1886, three of the dances were included as ballet music for the scene

I Dovregubbens Hall. The orchestrations were by Grieg’s pupil and friend Robert Henriques. Grieg had proposed numerous changes in the other dances but in No. 2 he had no comments. Some years later Hans Sitt (1850-1922) made a new orchestration, of which Grieg was critical, suggesting Edouard Lalo as a possible orchestrator. It was Sitt’s version that was published, however, and that remains in current repertoire. Grieg was very popular in France and influenced French music in many ways, though he never really orchestrated in the French manner. When his Slåttar were performed in Paris after the turn of the century several composers and critics spoke enthusiastically of the new Grieg, but in Norway few composers built on the forward-looking elements in his music.

 

In the spring of 1880 Grieg set twelve of Vinje’s poems to music as Opus 33. Two of the songs he orchestrated for string orchestra shortly afterwards, Hjertesaar and Vaaren (Last Spring), pieces that he frequently conducted on his concert tours. The Vinje songs and the Haugtussa cycle (Garborg) have a special place among Grieg’s songs. In a letter to Garborg, Grieg wrote that it was to the New Norwegian language (Nynorsk) that he owed some of his finest and most intimate inspiration.

 

 

Bjarte Engeset


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