Music of the Deep North:
Songs from Scandinavia

January 1997

Program Notes

THE CHANT TRADITION
 

 

Victimae pashali laudes                                                                             
Refrains in Danish; remaining test in Latin, from Easter sequence
Mogens Pdersøn, Denmark (c. 1580-1623)
Ave maris stella (1976) Trond Kverno, Norway (b. 1945)
TWO OLD STORIES                                                           

 

Et verbum caro factum est (1959) Sven-Erik Bäck, Sweden (1919-1994)
Rakastava (1892) Jan Sibelius, Finland (1865-1957)
ACROSS THE MEDITERRANEAN
United States premiere:
 
 
Solhymne, Op. 77 (1960)                                                                                  
Egyptian sun-worship prayer c. 1360 B.C., sung in Danish
Vagn Holmboe, Denmark (1909-1996)
JUST FOR FUN, PART 1
 
 
Chili Con Carne Anders Edenroth, Sweden

INTERMISSION

 
LEGENDS, TROLL STORIES, AND SUCH
                                                                                                           

 
Norse Lullaby (1948) Leo Sowerby (1895-1968)
Aglepta (1969) Arne Mellnäs, Sweden (b. 1933)
Hill-Song (Haugelåt, 1977) Edvard Grieg, Norway (1843-1907),

Arr. Øistein Sommerfeldt

JUST FOR FUN, PART 2
From Frise (Cantata profana), Op. 103b (1981):                                                                                 

Vagn Holmboe
Grave con metamorfosi  
Allegro vivace  
FINNISH VIRTUOSITY
Suite “de Lorca,” Op. 72 (1976)                                                                                                  
                                          

Einojuhani Rautavaara,

Finland (b. 1928)

i. Canción de jinete (Song of the Horseman)  
ii. El grito (The Scream)  
iii. La luna asoma (The Moon Rises)  
iv. Malagueña  

 

NOTES AND INTRODUCTION

“Where do you find this stuff?”
I am frequently asked this question by members of our audience (and the other singers).

There is no simple answer.  Every concert of ours begins with an idea, theme, or experience.  With the basic theme in place, a range of things can happen.  Sometimes the repertoire comes to me instantly.  At other times, it is more like a jigsaw puzzle, whose pieces only reveal themselves over months of years.  This one took two years.

Because the typical American doesn’t often get to hear Scandinavian music, I thought you might like to know some of what went on behind the scenes.

Here’s how “Music of the Deep North” unfolded:

PERSONAL NOTES

In 1991, my wife and I took our first of two trips to Scandinavia, to visit an American friend who had married a Danish software engineer.  They live in Århus, Denmark’s second largest city.  We arrived in Århus by train—at the peak of spring, in early June, when the rapeseed blossoms made the lush, green lowlands burst with yellow as far as one could see.  Over the following week, we learned much of Danish ways, from dessert parties to Legoland; from our friend Chris;s reaction to the combination of food I put in my sandwich (some things are just not done in Denmark) to the good humor underneath a sometimes gruff exterior; from church and national history to the amazingly good care the country takes of its children and everything in between.

In 1993, we flew to Oslo, Norway, where the same friends drove us deep into the region of the Sognefjord, Norway’s largest fjord.  Several ferries and winding mountain roads later, we made camp on the side of a hill, across the fjord from a crashing waterfall.  This tent would be our second home in the North, for a week, with the cleanest air I have ever breathed.  Daily treks took us to glaciers and mountains of astounding beauty and quiet.  The sky never really got dark at all.  It was July; while we weren’t quite far north enough for endless sunlight, the sun dipped below the horizon at 11:30pm and was back up at 4:30am.

Since returning from Scandinavia, I’ve wanted to capture in music the flavor of the region.  Friends and helpful contacts got the ball rolling.

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DETECTIVE NOTES

I first learned the Trond Kverno “Ave maris stella” in early 1995, as part of a Scandinavian program I sang with the Lafayette (Indiana) Chamber Singers.  My experience in the concert led me to seek more treasures of Nordic choral music.  I found out that this repertoire has until recently suffered in the USA, mostly due to lack of good distribution.  So I went on a mission of sorts.

The name of the great Vagn Holmboe came to me by accident.  He appears just before “Holst, Gustav” in the New Grove dictionary, which I was consulting for a Christmas concert.  I quickly learned that Holmboe was a force in choral music whom I could not ignore.

A few faxes to my friend in Denmark landed four scores by Vagn Holmboe on my desk within a few weeks.  One of these was the phenomenal Solhymne, which we are proud to present in its American premiere this weekend; another was the playful Frise (Cantata profana).

When one pursues any project with intense interest, unexpected resources pop up, and new paths reveal themselves.  As if on cue, luck soon came my way.  Walton Music Corporation in Florida recently acquired American rights to the Wilhelm Hansen line, the largest publisher of top-quality Scandinavian choral music.  Walton made available dozens of works to me, with delivery in days instead of weeks (and at great prices).  A layover day in New York last summer gave me five delicious browsing hours at Carl Fischer in Cooper Square.  I was so engrossed that I forgot to eat lunch.  Before long I had more than enough music for this program, an unexpected luxury.

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HISTORICAL NOTES: THE CHORAL SCENE

Choral music in Scandinavia has a long history, in part due to the role of the Lutheran church in encouraging food congregational singing.  Late in the nineteenth century, several things happened to galvanize the choral scene.  First was the “Palestrina revival.”  This was part of the Cecilian movement, which championed both Gregorian chant and a cappella singing—especially the music of Palestrina—as aesthetic and religious ideals.  Mixed-voice music took on new prominence, as an alternative to the male choirs which had predominated in prior generations.

Choral singing in Sweden was changed forever in 1897, when the madrigal choir of the Danish Caecilia-Foreningen took the Nordic Music Festival in Stockholm by storm.  As Carl-Gunnar Åhlén notes, “Such a homogeneous and finely balanced sound had never been heard from a choir [in Sweden] before.” Blend became the order of the day and the new standard to which Nordic choirs would aspire.

This influential choir had an assistant conductor, Mogens Wöldlike, who in 1922 had founded the Palestrina Choir in Copenhagen.  While in Stockholm to escape the Nazis, Wöldlike mentored a young conductor named Eric Ericson.  Ericson’s name may be familiar to you.  At age 77 he is Sweden’s premier choral conductor, known worldwide for his choirs’ blend.  Ericson has commissioned many of the great Scandinavian composers, especially Ingvar Lidholm, whom he credits with accepting the a cappella choir “as an expressive vehicle of equal validity to the symphony orchestra.” Early in his career Ericson also ensured that Stravinsky, Dallapiccola, Frank Martin, Webern, and other important composers from outside Sweden and Scandinavia would be heard.  Ericson notes: “We realized early on that Sweden was a peripheral country and that, in order to stand any chance at all at keeping abreast of new developments, we needed to extend invitations to all the great composers of the day.”

Ericson’s Chamber Choir gave its debut in 1945 with a combination of Renaissance madrigals and Hindemith’s Eight Canons.  Ericson notes: “When we gave our first concert in 1945, it marked a complete change of tack after the total isolation of the war years. In place of Swedish national romanticism and the idea of massed choirs [which also were the rage in nineteenth-century America], we sought inspiration in Renaissance music and the sonority of the chamber choir.”

Sweden’s new sound found its counterpart in gathering of composers, known as the “Monday Group.” They met once a week to discuss compositional issues in a wide variety of music.  The Monday Group is represented on today’s concert by Sven-Erik Bäck, whose sense of form, balance, and counterpoint is heavily indebted to Palestrina, though he puts the pitches together with a colorful tonal palette of unusual stark beauty.

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Choral music in Finland and Norway took slightly different turns.  Finland had seceded from Russia in 1917, and for some time had been searching for a musical identity all its own.  One of the ways to accomplish this of course to use your own language, but in the case of Finnish this is not a simple matter.  Finnish is notoriously difficult.

Jean Sibelius was the first to incorporate his country’s declamation into choral music.  Earlier Finnish choral composers had used German or Scandinavian models to set text to music, which did the language poor justice.  But Sibelius researched the Finnish epic poem, Kalevala, in detail.  He was finally able in 1892 to create a symphonic poem for male chorus and orchestra that fit the bill, and he continued the compositional practice in the “Rakastava” suite on today’s program.  We’re meeting him halfway, singing the piece in English; we’ll have to wait until “Deep Norht II” to tackle another Nordic language.

The Finnish professor Harald Andersén, of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, set out in the late 1950s to create a new Finnish choral sound and culture.  He had met Eric Ericson a few years before (Ericson says it was “to show off some of the new repertoire we had acquired”), with whom he set up a decades-long exchange of repertoire and conducting of each other’s choirs.  Andersén and the editors at Fazer, the Finnish publisher, pioneered a style of new music in which the a cappella choir provided a deliberately flexible instrument.  Andersén also founded the Finnish Radio Chamber Choir, which has given numerous world premieres and gone a long way toward achieving his long-term goal.  Helsinki is now one of the great music centers of the world, with a unique and eclectic flavor combining classical, folk, jazz, and many other world-music elements.

Norway, a medieval political power through the end of the fourteenth century, was taken over by Denmark in 1380.  Norway achieved its current independence in 1905, when it dissolved its union with Sweden.  Music there has depended on its folk music—its unofficial music, if you will—for much of its distinctive character.

A new flavor in Norwegian music started to emerge in 1930, at the 900th anniversary of the death of St. Olav, the Norwegian patron saint.  At first composers favored a more nationalistic music, but turned to neo-classicism in the 1950s and avant-garde music in the 1960s.  Symphony and chamber music in postwar Norway have predominated over a cappella choral writing, partly because of Grieg’s influence as well as Norway’s strong fiddle tradition.  Yet new writers, such as Trong Kverno and Hildor Lundvik, are composing world-class choral music now.  The signs for future work from Norway are promising indeed.

As collected by Grieg and others in the nineteenth century, the Norwegian folk tunes are catchy, often based on instrumental motifs.  The Grieg work which you’ll hear today was originally composed as part of an instrumental suite, the “Norwegian Peasant Dances,” and arranged by a contemporary composer.  We will sing Grieg’s fiddle lines to fiddle-like syllables: “da du dei,” and the like.

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With the exception of the Rautavaara suite and the Kverno piece, few of the works on this concert have made the rounds of choral-director conventions.  I hope that this concert will have a small part in making these Nordic works more popular.  I predict that in a few years Holmboe, Lidholm, and their cohorts will be much more well known in the USA as choral composers than they are today.  (Holmboe, for example, is already gaining strong support here for his symphonies.)  In addition to live and recorded singing, the Internet is making possible a new kind of musical cross-pollination.  We’ve got searchable databases on the Web, and e-mail lists covering a whole host of topics.  To wit, you’d better clap after the Rautavaara cycle, or we won’t get to do the encore folk song from Iceland, which was faxed to me by Hildigunnur Rúnarsdottir, a composer I met recently on the Internet!

This performance is our first foray into the sound-world of Scandinavian choral works.  It is a privilege to perform such fascinating, unusual music.  With deepest respect, I dedicate these concerts to the memory of the late Vagn Holmboe, by all accounts one of the gentlest of men and a towering composer—the greatest symphonist of this century, according to many—who died in September 1996 after a long illness, only four months before the American premiere of his Solhymne. Requiescat in pace.
        

-Jonathan Miller