Svend Westergaard - Freedom and logic
The story of the composer Svend Westergaard (1922-1988) begins like many other stories of Danish composers: he trained as an organist at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copen-hagen, continued with private composition studies with Finn Høffding and abroad, became a reviewer in the press and later a theory teacher, and for a period was principal of the institution at which he had taken his diploma. But unlike most other composers, when the mode of the music changed and Denmark too acquired a modernist-coloured musical establishment, he remained true to his tonal, traditional idiom, and despite unmistakable composing skills and a clear aesthetic agenda, he was consigned to the oblivion reserved for composers who do not fit in with their times.
When modern music - and the avant-garde experiments - came to Denmark in earnest at the beginning of the 1960s, Svend Westergaard was strongly critical of the new currents, and his pen and tongue were particularly sharp when it came to the uncritical absorption of the new foreign, systematic ways of composing. For Westergaard, modern music was something unheard-of, and he clearly had great difficulty understanding why familiar harmonic rules and what was euphonious to the ear could or should be replaced by pseudoscientific tables in serial music - or for that matter happenings and aleatory procedures inspired by the visual arts.
These views, and even more so opposing ones, emerge very clearly from the debates in a musical journal like Dansk Musiktidsskrift in the 1960s. And it is equally clear that Westergaard quickly joined the minority: instead of preserving Danish music in its then traditional form, he had to concede that his agitation - which was about aesthetics - was met with ridicule, biting sarcasm and accusations that he wanted to freeze Denmark in a state of inconsequential, provincial conservatism. So it is tempting to believe that because Westergaard insisted on and practiced his aesthetic convictions, the number of performances of his music declined, thus decreasing his desire to compose, after which, in the last twenty years of his life, he wrote only eight works.
Later, though, a great deal has happened in Danish musical life which means that music is not disqualified out of hand on ideological grounds, which is why Westergaard's music too can find a space to sound in so that its indisputable qualities can be heard and discussed without prejudice.
For throughout his oeuvre Svend Westergaard's music retained a number of ear-pleasing characteristics that are worth listening to. As the first and most important, all his music is marked by a well developed sense of form that gives it clarity and audible rigour from first to last. Secondly, his music is always thematically/motivically structured such that the works, in various ways, are built up as variations, elaborations and experimental treatments of recognizable material, giving the music cohesive power and comprehensible logic. In that sense Westergaard's music is based on long-standing principles involving independent parts that are twisted and turned, moved and varied with and against one another, not just as one melody with accompaniment. Although Westergaard is not avant-garde, nor does he experiment for the sake of experiment, his music develops quite audibly over the years. While the early works are based strictly on classical principles of form, filled out with contrapuntal work with a clear tonality in mind, over the years Westergaard seems to have moved more and more towards an overall freer structure in which the individual sections are rounded-off and independent, rather like tonal cells, while retaining the individual parts and the compositional dexterity.
Frydenlund Variations op. 34 A
This chamber work is Svend Westergaard's last composition, written in 1982, and bears the subtitle Theme with variations for piano, two violins, viola, cello and double-bass. Although it is a chamber work, the music is on the grand scale in eight wide-ranging variation movements, ending with a virtuoso finale. This makes up a good third of the overall duration of the work, and with its independent formal idea and thorough treatment of the material, could well have functioned as a work in its own right.
That the music is borne up by the idea of variations on a theme is both correct and slightly disingenuous; the theme is so simple - in its most Spartan version no more than a rising semitone - that it is really a natural element in tonal music, and therefore present in most music which like this uses the ordinary tuning of the piano. All the same Westergaard is able to stress the little interval throughout the music such that its inherent drama - there is a huge build-up of tension in the little note change - permeates the various sections of the work.
As suggested above, the Frydenlund Variations range wide in many ways, and of course it is unproblematical for Westergaard to shape the material in varied ways, inasmuch as the theme in all its simplicity is so flexible. As examples one can mention fundamentally different stages like the fourth variation's taut, delicate transparence, the second variation's dramatic andante or the seventh variation's pointed allegro. However, what seems more interesting than the shifts in tempo and character, which belong naturally to an exploration of the potential of musical material, is the striking polarities in what one could call overall musical temperament; the work begins and ends with injunctions to play as if one is improvising, that is without a fixed tempo, freely and elaboratively, while the central movements are to a greater or lesser degree tightly composed in relatively fixed forms. In other words for Westergaard a musical conception of several ‘modes' lies at the basis of the work, which at the highest level is about the wish to let both freedom and system become musical spaces for the material, regardless of the fact that the music, paradoxically, is entirely composed and thought through.
Secondo Quintetto op. 15
This wind quintet was written in 1949 and belongs at the end of what was absolutely Wester-gaard's most productive period; of Wester-gaard's 37 registered works the first twenty were written in the period 1945-51, after which the remaining 17 came at regular intervals over the next 30 years. The style in the early works is characterized by a kind of Neoclassical composition of the kind Béla Bartók could write: music consisting of simple, folk-like motifs that are systematically and dexterously worked into a classical form. The wind quintet is extra-ordinarily clear in its form, and in that sense is a concise picture of this process.
In the first half of the first movement, the distinctive sound of each instrument is introduced in long, elaborated melodies that begin characteristically with augmented intervals and ebb out in woven melismata. The central feature appears to be an alien mood - of eastern European folklore or perhaps some Arabian shawm's song; simple but completely succinct music. As a contrast in many ways we have the scherzo of the second half which, with a quick, even tempo and small aggressive motifs entering in close succession, produces an unambivalent music with a tight, skilful compositional technique.
So with these two poles of the introduction, wafting folklore and the entirely classical form of the scherzo - the fiery 3/4 time in two parts with regular repetition of the first - the first movement becomes in an abstract sense an image of two utterly different sound-worlds. On the one hand an Arabian warmth and physicality and on the other the western world's systematization and demand for logical stringency.
The second movement is an adagio which, like a chorale, feelingly works one melodically tense motif into a contrapuntal latticework which proceeds slowly from sound to sound. The music has clear reminiscences of the exotic-sounding melodies of the first movement and, inasmuch as the tempo is forced all the way down and the individual parts can be followed closely and unproblematically, it is a kind of microcosm of the poetic potential of this exotic music. The third movement, on the other hand, is an elaboration, in rondo form, of the scherzo from the first movement, where the trickling motifs and persistent staccato rhythms approach a grotesque version of the rigorous classical landscape composition.
In this way Westergaard is able at the overall level, thanks to his precise ideas of form, to allow the first movement's sounding image of the two kinds of music unfold in two independent movements and to compose music that ranges for the ear between delicate poetry and an inherent logic.
Sonata per violoncello solo op. 33
Whether the model for the cello sonata of 1979 is J.S. Bach's famous cello suites is hard to tell, but in form and character it recalls them in several ways. The five movements - prelude, improvisation, intermezzo, improvisation and finally rondo - are not, it is true, the same stylized dances that formed the five fixed formal elements of the suites, yet especially in the improvisations there seems to be a certain affinity with the uniform use of (internal) polyphony, note against note. In the same way Westergaard uses the improvisation as the Baroque form it is, where motivic material is worked out in a wealth of large and small variations, most of all with the effect of a series of experiments that are permitted to sound one by one in unfinished form.
One special feature of this work, which must be said to be fundamentally different from Westergaard's earlier works, is the richness of detail in every single little phrase, and sometimes even every single note. The music specifies a wealth of special playing methods, tempo changes and extraordinary character description throughout the work, such that what emerges at the overall level is a highly fragmented and almost cellular music. It is as if every single phrase, while being motivically linked to the context, is independent and distinctive.
Quartetto per archi op. 28
This is Svend Westergaard's only string quartet, and was written in 1966. The 17 years that had passed between this and the wind quintet are audible. In the first place, the strict classical idea of form has been replaced by a far freer treatment of the notes. In fact the quartet sounds most of all as if the form has ‘only' emerged along the way, once the path from one entry to the next has been heard and known. In other words the logic that the music seems to possess has probably to a far greater extent arisen from the connections between A and B and C which the composer considered right along the way, than as the result of a predetermined formal schema to be filled out. The other palpable change from the early works - it may sound banal - is the distances between notes. The intervals have simply become smaller, more chromatic; and probably for that reason the music has become far more compact and expressive than classical and clear.
Westergaard's string quartet, in other words, expresses a special kind of unity of form and content, which a review of these three movements can illustrate. The first movement, andante, is for example built up from a number of imperceptible transitions between different characters - perhaps like a metamorphosis: from the delicate imitative counterpoint of the beginning through a staccato allegro of telling rhythmic figures over long legato notes and shimmering tremolo motifs with a deep underlying pedal point in the cello to a long cadencing culmination. And the only thing that binds all these characters together is a long ascending curve of intensity. The second movement instead increases in tempo, while it undergoes several stages - from free counterpoint to dramatic unison and in the end a tapestry of hasty entries - but is otherwise structured in exactly the same way. The interesting thing is that the music seems to be highly varied, despite the fact that throughout the two movements it is more or less the same melodic fragments that make up the material.
In the last movement of the work, however, we have a fundamental change. Like a kind of coda and under the character marking Grave (serious) an almost scenic drama is played out, which most of all - as a result of among other things the small motif of note repetitions - resembles a funeral procession which is so slow that it constantly seems to be coming to a halt.
Henrik Friis, 2004