Hundrad Hardingtonar: the title has a real ring to it: A Hundred Hardanger Tunes. But with the Norwegian composer Geirr Tveitt, nothings as simple as it sounds. There are not, and maybe never were, a hundred. Four suites of fifteen tunes survive, numbered 1, 2, 4 and 5; fifteen into a hundred doesnt go. Some pieces, including the incomplete Suite no.3 and sketches for nos.6 and beyond, perished in the fire of 1970 that destroyed Tveitts home on his ancestral farmstead in the Hardanger region of western Norway, and with it most of his music. Others may have existed in Tveitts mind but not on paper. And what exactly are \Hardanger Tunes", "Hardingtonar"? Even to Norwegians, that sounds like an authentic dialect word; actually Tveitt invented it himself. He often called the tunes "folktunes", and published piano arrangements as "Fifty Folktunes from Hardanger" (Marco Polo 8.225055-56); but did he invent them too? An even hard[ang]er question.
Folksong played a complex role in twentieth century composition, begging many vexed questions. What is folksong? How is it transmitted? How does it evolve? Whats the least bad way of "collecting" it, by recording or hand notation? Have collectors distorted their findings to meet their preconceived notions of what folksong "ought" to be? Whats its relationship to "art" music? Some composers have seemed content simply to arrange folktunes for concert performance, or slot folk themes into classical forms. The greatest composers inspired by folksong, Bartók in Hungary, Vaughan Williams in England, soon transcended that, synthesising the characteristic rhythms, harmonies and melodic turns of phrase of folk-music into an individual style, and creating, from a kind of distilled essence of folk music, their own themes and forms very far from the vernacular.
Geirr Tveitt was different again. Unlike Bartók and Vaughan Williams, but like Bartoks compatriot and colleague Kodály, Tveitt had roots in a living folk tradition. On childhood holidays in Hardanger he heard folktunes, sung or played on animal horns, flutes, langeleik (the Norwegian dulcimer) or the decorative Hardanger fiddle (with its extra resonating strings and multitude of different tunings). The Hardanger tradition was even more private and personal than most: "you should hear me play when Im on my own and nobody can hear me!" one man told Tveitt. The regions difficult terrain limited intercommunication between scattered communities; some songs were unique to a single locality, even a single family, including Tveitts own. Hardanger people sang of everyday life; not for them the epic ballads sung elsewhere in southern Norway. New words were written to old tunes. Some songs were wordless because the texts were forgotten, others because the singer was brilliantly mimicing a flute or fiddle.
Few Hardanger folktunes used major or minor scales; from the first, modal scales formed the basis of Tveitts own compositions, indeed in his twenties of a whole rigorous theory of music. (He rarely stuck to it, but the Hardingtonar come close.) But as for actual folktunes in his early works, the Variations on a folksong from Hardanger for two pianos and orchestra, first performed in 1939, were exception rather than rule. And Hardanger folksongs were dying out. In 1942 Tveitt settled permanently on his family farmstead above Vik?óy, near Norheimsund, on the Hardangerfjord, and deliberately immersed himself in the tradition, staying and working with the local people, often at their "summer hillfarms" on the high mountain pastures. In time they felt his empathy and opened up to him; he scribbled down over a thousand of their songs, sometimes just fragments of words or music. Sadly, almost none survived the 1970 fire.
But Tveitts notebook also tells how a melody was inspired by a few poetic lines he found on the wall of an empty mountain hut; how, lying in the grass by a mountain burn, a melody suddenly came to him - "probably", he decided, a folktune sent by the hill-dwellers. Romanticised? Perhaps. But people have always been hard-put to tell Tveitts tunes from genuine folk melodies.
So: the "Hardingtonar" include "Folktunes from Hardanger", always songs, in fact, and he credited the singers, and Tveitt-tunes from Hardanger, and most often a mixture: he likened it to finding a fragment of a picture, which he then finished, or made his own picture around. Which begs more vexed questions. But their musical quality isnt in doubt: coloured by Tveitts harmony, counterpoint and orchestration, the tunes are vivid gleams in a unified whole. Influences and affinities abound, especially with Tveitts beloved French and Russian music, often strongest with the Frenchman Charles Koechlin, in the clarity and integrity of Tveitts habitually two- or three-part layered textures. Intensifying the melodies essence, harmony and polyphony grow from their home modes, or from other modes to suggest microtones: two related modes, one including B and one B flat, imply something in between. Ostinatos evoke an accompanying langeleik, or fermenting beer, horses hoofbeats, the whisper of summer breezes or the sun glittering on the waters of the fjord.
Welcome with honour, opening Suite no.1, is a traditional Tveitt family song, a ceremonial greeting to neighbours arriving for harvest festival. Tveitt learnt Flute air from Anna Skeie of nearby Byrkjeland, whose singing sounded "remarkably like a flute". "If I could, I would sing you the most beautiful song on earth," sighs the third tune, "but my poor song will not suffice". Promising Cloudberries and moorberries, a girl entices a shepherd boy to her summer hillfarm. Stave church song memorialises the long-destroyed wooden church at Vik?óy: its bells, Tveitt said, echo "in the unusual intervals and precise rhythm" of the fragment of ancient, probably secular, song: "medieval churches often used folk tunes". An age-old trouble follows: "Alas, my girl, they say she is with child"; while Consecration of the new beer, "one of Norways oldest folktunes", is a solemn rather than celebratory ritual: a visitors song of gratitude after a hard journey over the snow mountains. "Now our brandy keg is empty well have to do some work" laments the next song; the woodblocks in Tveitts orchestra suggest to his daughter Gyri the sad, hollow sound of a small, old (and empty) brandy keg in their Hardanger home. After Langeleik tune comes one the Tveitt family always sang when travelling up to their summer hillfarm - listen for the gunshot they fired to awake the echo from Husaleit crag. Hasty wedding is of course a shotgun one: fathers angry; his stupid sons got his girl pregnant; scandal; all the preparations will delay the harvest; and how can they lay everything out in a barn which is already half-full of hay? The noble religious tune Gods goodness and greatness contrasts with an anti-authoritarian dig at the taxman - with untranslatable wordplay in the Norwegian title - and a braggart boasting of being the best dancer at the wedding... and getting his come-uppance falling downstairs. Is The last farewell "the most beautiful song on earth"? Tveitt - surely wrongly - feared hed "failed to bring out in the harmony the mighty spirit of this folktune": "Now alone I sing the song we sang. Farewell, yes farewell in the last sunset. Tomorrow when the sun comes gently in, it will never again colour your beautiful hair golden."
The "Wedding Suite", no.4, while emulating the variety of the first, marshal