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8.557018 - Norwegian Classical Favourites
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Norwegian Classical Favourites, Volume 2

Norwegian Classical Favourites, Volume 2

Halvorsen • Sæverud • Valen • Tveitt


In the 1920s a radical group of composers began to be influential in the Norwegian Composers Association. There was a proposal to give the young Harald Sæverud a travelling scholarship but the committee saw to it that the grant went instead to an older and more conservative composer, Per Reidarson. The attendant dispute gave rise to such strong feelings that a fight broke out at a concert in the university aula between Reidarson and a journalist. Reidarson, who was later to become a member of Quisling’s Nasjonal Samling, gave the following opinion of his fellow student Fartein Valen: “tones that, having no goal or target, lie in ambush and move up and down like jellyfish in cloudy water (…) nasty, embarrassing, ridiculous”. There were several other fights with modernism in later Norwegian musical life. Norwegian art of the sort that was inspired by the Norse sagas and elemental forces has been in bad odour ever since the last war. This has served to politicize and sharpen the conflict between modernists and traditionalists.


The radical Sæverud was a symbol of the strong originality of Norwegian orchestral music after Grieg. Later Sæverud was to become well respected among Norwegians in general. “My music is wildly melancholic”, he claimed. This, he explained, was because he had been born on what was formerly a place of execution and a graveyard. Sæverud, the individualist from Vestlandet, had a musical style of his own right from the start. “My music has grown out of the Norwegian soil and the landscape – not from Norwegian folk-music.” When the theatre director Hans Jacob Nilsen wanted to create a “deromanticised” production of Peer Gynt at Det Norske Teateret shortly after the war he turned to Harald Sæverud for new music. Sæverud’s initial reaction was: “Do not mention such an idea, they will cut my head off”. This production of Peer Gynt, which used the New Norwegian language, was received with rude whistling and much debate. The drama about the unprincipled but ambitious Peer Gynt was provided with music that was full of irony and coarse moments. Hans Jacob Nilsen was also keen to penetrate the notion of Norwegian patriotism after the war. Sæverud’s Dovreslått (Melody from Dovre) is a caricature of Norwegian folk-music. “Everyone in Norway ought to have a travel scholarship, for it is in foreign countries that you find culture”, the playwright Ibsen remarked. Where Grieg created a morning mood, Sæverud placed the boisterous Blandet selskap (Mixed company). The arms dealer and profiteer Peer Gynt consorts with four bandits from the United States, France, Germany and Sweden. Various types of national anthems are thrown together in a large pastiche bowl. Peer Gynt has the final word with a heroic little verse from Norway’s national song, “Ja, vi elsker” (How we love this country) before the sirens put an end to the discussion. Fa’ens femsteg (The devil’s five-hop) is richly diabolical, outlined by drums of various sorts. In Norwegian tradition it was claimed that the Devil was wont to attend dances and not to stop dancing until his partner had died of exhaustion. In the meeting between Christianity and Norwegian popular beliefs music might express satanic powers as well as the strength to conquer Bøygen. Salme mot Bøygen uses both contemplative quiet and violent force to conquer evil and we can here feel that Sæverud has been inspired by the poetry and serious intentions of Ibsen.


During the German occupation, Sæverud saw his work as a composer as “a struggle on a knife-edge with the occupying power”. His anger made him highly productive. Sæverud visited Oslo in 1943. He wanted to avoid meeting German soldiers on the train back to Bergen so he took a bus to Sognefjord. In Lærdal he saw the German barracks on the hillside. This kindled in him the theme of Kjempevise-slåtten, which is a ardent protest against the occupiers. The piece is subtitled “Til Heimefrontens store og små kjempere” (To the large and small fighters of the resistance) and was originally intended for the piano. In the orchestral version there is a slow introduction in which one can hear the BBC’s call sign (the Morse-code V for Victory) played on the timpani. In the latest printed score Sæverud emphasized that the piece should have both weight and forward movement but without an audible accelerando. The strength of this piece made Sæverud truly popular among his fellow Norwegians.


Another of the radical composers, Fartein Valen, has also produced a piece that has become enormously popular: Kirkegården ved havet (The churchyard by the sea). Numerous conductors visiting Norway have performed the piece: Stokowski, Markevitch, Blomstedt, Salonen and others. The words “churchyard” and “sea” suggest extra-musical associations and have undoubtedly contributed to interest in the piece. A swelling sea-motif starting in the cellos and basses forms a background to several very distinct motifs and themes. The piece demands great concentration and a real will to communicate on the part of the players if the performance is to be successful. Valen’s atonal polyphonic style has points of contact with feelings about nature and mysticism. He himself lived in the countryside of Vestlandet where he cultivated roses and wrote music.


He wrote a programme note for the first performance of the work:

The inspiration for Kirkegården ved havet came while I was on Mallorca and was reading a translation of Paul Valéry’s famous poem in the newspaper El Sol for the 8th of May 1933. ‘Le cimitière is Paul Valéry’s masterpiece’, claimed the foreword to the translation, ‘and it is one of the greatest poems ever written, both in our own time and throughout the ages. It is a philosophical meditation on the cemetery at Cette.’ This caused me to think of another graveyard at home in Norway, old and no longer in use, where the victims of a cholera epidemic were laid to rest, right by the sea in the west, not far from Valestrand. The music does not follow the poem programmatically, but it seeks to give expression to the reflections that come to mind as one stands face to face with death.


After the first performance, critic Hans Jørgen Hurum wrote ecstatically in Norsk Handels- og sjøfartstidende:

“Le Cimitière Marin” is a picture of eternity that receives a visionary perspective through the composer’s free and linear composition. above us is the vault of heaven and beyond us stretches the sea as far as the eye can reach. Between these two fixtures man conducts his struggle and is forced back on his own yearning; we gaze up to heaven and the sea breaks upon the sand and the graveyard.


It was not composers like Valen and Sæverud, however, who dominated the period after Grieg’s death. Johan Halvorsen was a central figure in Norwegian orchestral life. He wrote music for more than thirty plays at this time. Some of this music he later collected into suites for concert use, for example “Norske Eventyrsbilleder” (Scenes from Norwegian Fairy Tales). This music was originally conceived for a children’s comedy by Adam Hiorth “Peik og stortroldet” (Wink and the great troll). A story about King Valemon forms the background to Prinsessen ridende på bjørnen (The Princess riding on the bear). Theodor Kittelsen’s painting of the subject has made it popular in Norway. The burlesque Trollenes inntog i berget det blå (Entry of the trolls into the blue mountain) leads directly into Dans av småtroll (Dance of the little trolls). Halvorsen often introduced exotic elements into his theatrical music and he claimed that Arabic and Norwegian music were related. The central section of Dans av småtroll, influenced by the Spanish habanera, supports Geirr Tveitt’s similar theory that there were direct and ancient links between Spanish and Norwegian folk-music. Halvorsen’s colourful instrumentation makes this suite one of the finest Norwegian pieces of troll music.


The romantic nationalists approached folk-music with a German technique of orchestration and were not always at home in the sounds and ideas of the deep roots of this music. Geirr Tveitt turned to the ancient sources – both musical and ideological – and he was inspired by a French style of orchestration. Tveitt shared the view with Grieg that French music was the solution for Norwegian music and he was better able to borrow from the French than Grieg had been. There were some intimations of impressionism in Norway in the 1920s but these composers did not receive much support for their ideas (e.g. Alf Hurum, Pauline Hall, Arvid Kleven). Tveitt’s highly personal and fascinating orchestral style grew out of his realistic approach to nature and his mysticism. He has been called a nationalist, but, in his own way, Tveitt was also a radical. His expression of nature was more direct and unrefined than it was impressionistic. Vestlandet can be very grey and stormy and he wanted his scores to give expression to this. Thus there is a barbarism in his music. There is an unemotional mysticism and wonder in his Vélkomne med æra (From Hundrad Hardingtonar) which is one of his most popular pieces. This song has links with the Tveitt family farm and was sung as a welcome to the guests at the traditional gatherings of good neighbours. It is at once ceremonious and broadminded. His mysticism was based on a close and realistic understanding of nature. In Haring-øl (Hardanger ale) and Langeleiklåt (‘Langeleik’ tune) every imaginable sound is included: the fermentation bubbling of the ale, the sound of glasses breaking against the walls and ceiling, or the sound of a plectrum plucking the ‘langeleik’. He frequently wrote in a manner that purposely made difficulties for the player of an instrument in order to achieve a special effect as the musician struggled to perform the notes. Haring-øl is No. 60 of the Hardingtonar that Tveitt orchestrated. According to Tveitt’s notes on the score this must have been a powerful ale that tasted very good. Tveitt could not refrain from portraying the brewing and the drinking. The percussionists in this recording have bundled together numerous sticks in order to play on as many of the xylophone’s bars as possible to meet the requirements of the final measures of Tveitt’s score. At the same time, the orchestral pianist throws his or her body alternately at the black or white keys. Tveitt produced several versions of Haring-øl for both piano and orchestra. In the piano version he was wont to improvise the conclusion. The ascent towards an ecstatic conclusion is something that we recognize from certain traditions of folk-music where the fiddler seems unstoppable. This is certainly Tveitt’s model, even if Haring-øl can be also be seen as a Norwegian version of Ravel’s Boléro with its ostinato and its long crescendo.


Another composer who sought to penetrate deep into folk-music was Eivind Groven. He was also a musicologist and a folk musician, playing the Hardanger fiddle and the willow flute. The advanced rhythms and the melodic cadences were part of his blood, and he found it rather problematic taking folk melodies out of their context and orchestrating them. Groven claimed that he had long resisted using such melodies and that it was with a heavy heart that he harmonized folk-tunes. The love poem Om kvelden (At evening) by Arnulf Øverland was set in 1937 to a folk-tune from Hornindal. Eivind Groven had received the melody from his friend and colleague Alfred Maurstad. Groven has harmonized the song with the help of parallel triads as well as adding his own prelude and interlude. The introductory bars on the flute are related to the call sign used by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation since 1937. The same motif also appears in the principal theme of his first symphony from the same year. He produced the orchestration a few years later for the Radio Orchestra.


Groven composed his festive overture Hjalar-ljod for the opening of the new town hall in Oslo in conjunction with the city’s 900th anniversary in 1950. It was first performed in a competition together with pieces by Ludvig Irgens-Jensen and Karl Andersen. ‘Hjaling’ is a vocal technique used in the forest or on the mountainsides especially by dairy-maids looking after the cows or goats on the summer pasture. A tune from Tinn forms the basis of the rhythm of the overture while the melody is based on a herding call from Gudbrandsdalen. These two contrasting elements lend a particular force to the overture.


With his piece Ut mot havet (Out towards the sea) Edvard Fliflet Bræin represents a side of the Norwegian identity that hardly found a home in romantic nationalism when the farmer from the interior of Austland was the prototype of all things Norwegian. Norway has a strong, frequently outward-looking coastal culture. Originally the piece was a song to a text by Henrik Straumsheim that was part of a cantata proposal for a competition in connection with the town of Ålesund’s jubilee. In 1948 Øyvind Bergh asked the composer for an orchestral song that would express the longing that coastal folk feel to be at sea and their longing to come home to the girl who is waiting for them. Stylistically this popular work is not particularly representative of Fliflet Bræin. He studied in Paris with Jean Rivier and established his reputation as a composer with the advanced and forceful Concert Overture, Op. 2. Burlesque humour and sudden flashes are typical of his style, but in his important opera, Anne Pedersdotter, based on witch trials, we find a deeper and more serious musical language that is typical of him.


Gunnar Gjerstrøm originally wrote Sagn (Legend) for the piano as one of a series of piano pieces for domestic use. This is a work which used to be performed very regularly, especially on the radio, but that has been ignored in recent times. The elegiac style has parallels in such Scandinavian composers as Sibelius and Atterberg. Gjerstrøm studied in Vienna with Richard Strauss. He wrote primarily for the piano including two piano concertos.


Øistein Sommerfeldt had deep roots in the Norwegian tradition. Norwegian folk-music was important to him, especially religious songs. Øistein Sommerfeldt studied composition with Fartein Valen for a brief period but it was primarily Nadia Boulanger’s tuition in Paris that was influential in his development. Sommerfeldt quoted Boulanger’s opinion that “Grieg was national, European and humanist”. The same can be said of Øistein Sommerfeldt. His first orchestral work, Liten ouverture (Little overture) is full of force and energy but in a musicianly style. Friends describe Sommerfeldt as “homo ludens”, a person given to playing. He was influenced by many styles but he most usually wrote a sort of Norwegian neo-classicism with a particularly strong melodic element. Asked what art really is he replied: “A continuation of organic life”.


Ludvig Irgens-Jensen’s Bols vise (Bol’s song) was originally written as a song for a play by Hans E. Kinck called “Driftekaren” (The animal dealer). It recurs throughout the play and is played at the final curtain. This is a song about Bol’s unhappy love for the Peer Gynt-like Vrål. Irgens-Jensen has grasped certain poetic elements such as the young man listening to the song and the black bird ascending. The orchestral version of Bol’s song is taken from the suite Partita sinfonica. The animal dealer is one of the few works by Irgens-Jensen with a folk-like nationalistic colouring. The final four bars alone show that this is a powerful and original composer with a vision both as regards instrumentation and harmony. Irgens-Jensen is both original and bound by tradition. In an unobtrusive manner Irgens-Jensen succeeded in finding a powerful musical language at a time of conflict between folklorism and modernity. He was himself, yet not merely himself.


Bjarte Engeset

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