About this Recording
8.573871 - GROVEN, E.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (Kristiansand Symphony, Szilvay)
English  Norwegian 

Eivind Groven (1901–1977)
Symphony No. 1 ‘Innover viddene’ • Symphony No. 2 ‘Midnattstimen’

 

Eivind Groven – Tradition and Renewal

‘If anyone asks the way to Groven’s place, they will receive the answer that they only have to follow their longing. It is to the east of noise, and to the west of today’s insane tempo—just by a forest lake. And on the other side there is someone playing.’

This lyrical greeting from the composer Arne Nordheim on the occasion of Eivind Groven’s 60th birthday in 1961 describes both his personality and also his music.

Eivind Groven (1901–1977) grew up on a farm in the region of Vest-Telemark, located in the centre of Norway, isolated geographically but not culturally. The heritage of folk music was strong. Before Groven was 15 years old, he played over 200 slåttar (folk dance tunes) on the Hardanger fiddle and also composed for this instrument. After training as a teacher he settled in Oslo. His encounter with classical music set his musical origins in relief—it had a liberating effect and spurred him on in three ways:

Folk Music

Faced with audiences, especially in the capital city, who might listen to genuine folk music with reluctance, prejudice or lack of knowledge, Groven felt he had a job to do. He wanted to give them insight into a world of music that, in his opinion, was on a par with art music in terms of complex formal thinking, melodic richness and intrinsic value. He presented Norwegian and international folk music in articles and radio programmes. Groven laid the foundation of the folk music archive at the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and made sure they had modern, high-quality recording equipment. He collected around 2,000 Norwegian folk tunes and preferred to use a transcription method that best reproduced the unique intervals and rhythmic structures of folk music. His notation of Helge Ingstad’s sound recordings (1949–50) of the Nunamiut people, Alaska, was another pioneering piece of work. Groven considered these Eskimo melodies to be a contribution to ‘world music’—long before the concept of ‘world music’ was introduced.

Acoustics

With his background in folk music, Groven soon discovered that the piano and other keyboard instruments cannot reproduce all the harmonies in all the keys pure at the same time, as only twelve tones per octave are available. He learned that folk musicians use acoustically pure intervals and, like Hermann von Helmholtz and others, felt that the twelve-tone equal temperament made the music too smooth. Groven constructed several pure-tuned organs with a minimum of 36 tones per octave, but these always retained a standard keyboard. His unique invention was a tone selection device that is controlled by impulses directly from the keys and ‘tunes’ the instrument while it is being played. The aim was to reproduce pure intervals in all keys and also to recreate the scales that are found in folk music.

Groven’s theoretical and practical preoccupation with the problem of pure tuning attracted international interest. By means of letters and visits he maintained contact for many years with international composers, musicologists and musicians such as Martin Vogel (Germany), Adriaan Fokker (the Netherlands) and Alois Hába (Czechoslovakia). When Albert Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954, he visited the Trinity Church in Oslo to play Bach on the pure-tuned pipe organ Groven had installed there. Schweitzer expressed his unqualified approval. Groven distributed a recording of music played on his pure-tuned organs. The international response was substantial. The American violinist Camilla Wicks wrote in a letter: ‘This work is the greatest “break-through” in reproducing music since the invention of recording sound.’ (8 September 1968).

Compositions

Many interwar composers tried to create a new national music by combining elements of authentic folk music with new techniques. In the 1920s, Groven felt that the music needed, for instance, other harmonic tools. Folk music’s universe of pitches influenced his choice of chord systems. With modal means and musical material from the upper part of the overtone range he created an extended tonality.

Around the time of the First World War, a need was felt for new formal solutions in European music. The continuous variation form, extended to include transformation or metamorphosis technique, appealed to many composers. Among Norwegian composers, Groven was probably the one who most clearly applied developmental principles derived from instrumental folk music. In Groven’s compositions folk music is often encountered as subtly transformed, usually not as direct quotations. Nonetheless, his musical material was related to it, and in symphonic works it demanded a new approach to form compared to that which had previously formed the basis for Norwegian music.

Governed by continuous variations on various levels, the most characteristic Norwegian instrumental folk music, the ‘slått’ tradition, is structured according to a unique asymmetric ‘budding’ technique that was ‘in Groven’s blood’ and which he followed in his symphonic works as well. He perceived a relationship between the Baroque Fortspinnung technique and the ‘development stage’ of the instrumental folk dances. In an article, Groven wrote: ‘Folk dances are like sonata movements with principal motifs, several subsidiary ideas and rich variations of these.’ He himself combined the structure of the dances with familiar formal principles, a type of innovation and adaptation that Béla Bartók also used.

Symphony No. 1, Op. 26 ‘Innover viddene’ (‘Towards the Mountains’) (1937, rev. 1950)

The subtitle Innover viddene (‘Towards the Mountains’) of Groven’s First Symphony refers to a literary source of inspiration, the play Driftekaren (‘The Cattleman’, 1908) by Hans E. Kinck. In particular the third movement (a Largo with the opening theme in the tuba—‘the heavy death motif’) captures some of the drama’s atmosphere. The protagonist Vraal stands on a mountain one spring night and ‘feels pain about the world’s seemingly random governance, that mankind cannot grasp’, the composer wrote.

Groven worked on music associated with this drama as early as the 1920s. The first version of the Symphony won Second Prize in a competition organised by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation in 1937. The work was broadcast on the radio (6 December 1938), but only performed once in the concert hall, in New York (1948). Formally it was unconventional, and the Symphony was revised after the first performance of the Second Symphony. The third and fourth movements in folk music chain forms (springar and gangar) were omitted, and were later incorporated into Symfoniske slåttar I (1956). Groven expanded and reworked the remaining material and organised it in four movements. The first performance of the revision was given by the ‘Harmonien’ Orchestra in Bergen (2 November 1950), conducted by Olav Kielland.

The First Symphony is characterised by asymmetric folk dance form. From one level to the next, the principle of transformation can be followed—in individual themes, within the sections, in interludes, on several layers at once, and also from one movement to the next. The third movement has a rondo character with elements of folk dance form, and also exists in a version for organ. In the other movements, Groven combines the ‘budding’ technique of the instrumental ‘slått’ tradition with elements of sonata form.

The well-known main theme in the first movement is related to so-called ‘lalinger’ (calls used for recognition over long distances, for example in the mountains). In 1937, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation announced a competition for interval signals and station idents for use on the radio. Groven won in both categories. Kjenningssignalet (the station ident) is identical to the opening theme of the First Symphony (composed as early as 1933) and was used for over half a century to identify radio broadcasts in Norway and abroad. The First Symphony is therefore often called the ‘Signal Symphony’.

Symphony No. 2, Op. 34 ‘Midnattstimen’ (‘The Midnight Hour’) (1938–43)

When Groven’s Second Symphony was premiered by the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra conducted by Olav Kielland (24 October 1946), the press reviews were overwhelmingly positive. The composer was honoured with a torchlight procession. The symphony’s subtitle Midnattstimen (‘The Midnight Hour’) leads our thoughts to the heavy war years, but Groven stressed that the work should not be understood programmatically. The composer hired and conducted the Oslo Philharmonic himself in order to get the work performed in the capital (4 November 1946).

Four themes form the basis of the first movement, and movement structures from different stylistic areas are combined. Associations with sonata form may have some relevance—but at the same time, the organic formal thinking and rhythms of the folk dances make themselves felt: motifs emerge and are constantly varied. Fragments of motifs are combined in new ways; their interaction helps to blur the dividing lines between the sections of the movements, and a structural ambiguity arises.

A process of transformation also characterises the second movement, which assumes a ritornello-like form, mainly in 5/8 time. Moreover, polyphonic elements are prominent in the texture. Before the onset of the elegiac main theme (in F Phrygian mode)—an idea that in abbreviated, varied or modified form permeates the whole movement—the contrabassoon and fateful timpani strokes create a bleak atmosphere. Still, there are signs of a shift towards a brighter conclusion.

The third movement has been called a ‘peace finale’. It was written at Groven’s childhood home, during ten days in the late winter of 1943. Like a spring dream, it swirls forth out of a dark background. It is based on sonata form. The development section is not a stormy reworking of the thematic material, but a lyrical passage where the second subject is illuminated in a new musical context. The music then moves forward towards a jubilant climax in C major.

Three Life Goals

As a composer, collector of folk music and scientist, Groven bridged the gap between Norwegian urban and rural cultures. At the same time he was part of a wider European trend. His folk music transcriptions are some of the finest Norwegian examples of their kind. The knowledge he acquired in the field of acoustics resulted in the pioneering work he undertook in the development of pure-tuned organs. As a composer he contributed to musical renewal in terms of both sound and form.

Many of his colleagues appreciated Groven’s uniqueness. In a radio interview, Arne Nordheim highlighted the beginning of the third movement of the First Symphony. He regarded Groven as an ‘avant-gardist’ in his day because he did not apply ‘garnish’ to folk music, but was deeply rooted within it: ‘While others made instrumentations of folk tunes, Groven created sounds, for example in his symphonies, which in my opinion are quite unique’ (1 November 1978).

Anne Jorunn Kydland
English translation: Andrew Barnett


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