Norwegian Classical Favourites, Volume 2
Halvorsen S?ªverud Valen Tveitt
In the 1920s a radical group of composers began to beinfluential in the Norwegian Composers Association. There was a proposal togive the young Harald S?ªverud a travelling scholarship but the committee saw toit that the grant went instead to an older and more conservative composer, PerReidarson. The attendant dispute gave rise to such strong feelings that a fightbroke out at a concert in the university aula between Reidarson and ajournalist. Reidarson, who was later to become a member of Quisling's NasjonalSamling, gave the following opinion of his fellow student Fartein Valen: \tonesthat, having no goal or target, lie in ambush and move up and down likejellyfish in cloudy water (...) nasty, embarrassing, ridiculous". There wereseveral other fights with modernism in later Norwegian musical life. Norwegianart of the sort that was inspired by the Norse sagas and elemental forces hasbeen in bad odour ever since the last war. This has served to politicize andsharpen the conflict between modernists and traditionalists.
The radical S?ªverud was a symbol of the strong originalityof Norwegian orchestral music after Grieg. Later S?ªverud was to become wellrespected among Norwegians in general. "My music is wildly melancholic", heclaimed. This, he explained, was because he had been born on what was formerlya place of execution and a graveyard. S?ªverud, the individualist fromVestlandet, had a musical style of his own right from the start. "My music hasgrown out of the Norwegian soil and the landscape - not from Norwegianfolk-music." When the theatre director Hans Jacob Nilsen wanted to create a"deromanticised" production of Peer Gynt at Det Norske Teateret shortly afterthe war he turned to Harald S?ªverud for new music. S?ªverud's initial reactionwas: "Do not mention such an idea, they will cut my head off". This productionof Peer Gynt, which used the New Norwegian language, was received with rudewhistling and much debate. The drama about the unprincipled but ambitious PeerGynt was provided with music that was full of irony and coarse moments. HansJacob Nilsen was also keen to penetrate the notion of Norwegian patriotismafter the war. S?ªverud's Dovresl?Ñtt (Melody from Dovre) is a caricature ofNorwegian folk-music. "Everyone in Norway ought to have a travel scholarship,for it is in foreign countries that you find culture", the playwright Ibsenremarked. Where Grieg created a morning mood, S?ªverud placed the boisterousBlandet selskap (Mixed company). The arms dealer and profiteer Peer Gyntconsorts 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 nationalsong, "Ja, vi elsker" (How we love this country) before the sirens put an endto 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 thatthe Devil was wont to attend dances and not to stop dancing until his partnerhad died of exhaustion. In the meeting between Christianity and Norwegianpopular beliefs music might express satanic powers as well as the strength toconquer B?©ygen. Salme mot B?©ygen uses both contemplative quiet and violent forceto conquer evil and we can here feel that S?ªverud has been inspired by thepoetry and serious intentions of Ibsen.
During the German occupation, S?ªverud saw his work as acomposer as "a struggle on a knife-edge with the occupying power". His anger madehim highly productive. S?ªverud visited Oslo in 1943. He wanted to avoid meetingGerman soldiers on the train back to Bergen so he took a bus to Sognefjord. InL?ªrdal he saw the German barracks on the hillside. This kindled in him thetheme of Kjempevise-sl?Ñtten, which is a ardent protest against the occupiers.The piece is subtitled "Til Heimefrontens store og sm?Ñ kjempere" (To the largeand small fighters of the resistance) and was originally intended for thepiano. In the orchestral version there is a slow introduction in which one canhear the BBC's call sign (the Morse-code V for Victory) played on the timpani.In the latest printed score S?ªverud emphasized that the piece should have bothweight and forward movement but without an audible accelerando. The strength ofthis piece made S?ªverud truly popular among his fellow Norwegians.
Another of the radical composers, Fartein Valen, has alsoproduced a piece that has become enormously popular: Kirkeg?Ñrden ved havet (Thechurchyard by the sea). Numerous conductors visiting Norway have performed thepiece: Stokowski, Markevitch, Blomstedt, Salonen and others. The words"churchyard" and "sea" suggest extra-musical associations and have undoubtedlycontributed to interest in the piece. A swelling sea-motif starting in thecellos and basses forms a background to several very distinct motifs andthemes. The piece demands great concentration and a real will to communicate onthe part of the players if the performance is to be successful. Valen's atonalpolyphonic style has points of contact with feelings about nature andmysticism. He himself lived in the countryside of Vestlandet where hecultivated roses and wrote music.
He wrote a programme note for the first performance of thework:
The inspiration for Kirkeg?Ñrden ved havet came while I wason Mallorca and was reading a translation of Paul Valery's famous poem in thenewspaper El Sol for the 8th of May 1933. 'Le cimiti?¿re is Paul Valery'smasterpiece', claimed the foreword to the translation, 'and it is one of thegreatest poems ever written, both in our own time and throughout the ages. Itis a philosophical meditation on the cemetery at Cette.' This caused me tothink of another graveyard at home in Norway, old and no longer in use, wherethe victims of a cholera epidemic were laid to rest, right by the sea in thewest, not far from Valestrand. The music does not follow the poemprogrammatically, but it seeks to give expression to the reflections that cometo mind as one stands face to face with death.
After the first performance, critic Hans J?©rgen Hurum wroteecstatically in Norsk Handels- og sj?©fartstidende:
"Le Cimiti?¿re Marin" is a picture of eternity that receivesa 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 theeye can reach. Between these two fixtures man conducts his struggle and isforced back on his own yearning; we gaze up to heaven and the sea breaks uponthe sand and the graveyard.
It was not composers like Valen and S?ªverud, however, whodominated the period after Grieg's death. Johan Halvorsen was a central figurein Norwegian orchestral life. He wrote music for more than thirty plays at thistime. Some of this music he later collected into suites for concert use, forexample "Norske Eventyrsbilleder" (Scenes from Norwegian Fairy Tales). Thismusic was originally conceived for a children's comedy by Adam Hiorth "Peik ogstortroldet" (Wink and the great troll). A story about King Valemon forms thebackground to Prinsessen ridende p?Ñ bj?©rnen (The Princess riding on the bear).Theodor Kittelsen's painting of the subject has made it popular in Norway. Theburlesque Trollenes inntog i berget det bl?Ñ (Entry of the trolls into the bluemountain) leads directly into Dans av sm?Ñtroll (Dance of the little trolls).Halvorsen often introduced exotic elements into his theatrical music and heclaimed that Arabic and Norwe