GUSTAV HELSTED – LATE ROMANTICISM AND THE WILL TO EXPRESSION
by Bjarne Mørch Jensen
“Drily humorous” and “bizarrely sarcastic” are phrases that the Danish Encyclopedia uses in a description of Gustav Helsted’s personality. The striking, the awkward, the categorical and the will to push things to the extreme were indeed typical of Helsted as a composer. At least so his music was perceived in his time. In his book from 1917 about Danish composers Gerhardt Lynge writes for example that Helsted is “a questing artist who chooses his resources with extremely discerning taste and who swears blindly to his ideals; and may therefore seem odd and unapproachable, and is indeed unapproachable for all those who cannot immerse themselves in his extremely meticulously wrought and fastidiously purified art”. In Copenhagen musical life at the end of the nineteenth century Helsted was a radical and a champion of the Late Romantic currents as they came to expression in the works of among other composers Richard Wagner, Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler.
Gustav Helsted (1857-1924) was a pupil of among others Niels W. Gade, who had dominated Danish musical life for many years since the middle of the 1800s, and with inspiration from Schumann and Mendelssohn had taken out a patent on a distinctively Danish sound that typified many of the Danish composers of Romanticism. However, like the eight-years younger Carl Nielsen – who dissociated himself from what he called “pale” Danish Romanticism, Helsted had a need to do something new and different. He wanted to break down the boundaries and extend the expressive possibilities of music beyond what could be described as a particularly Danish Romantic “romance tradition” with the focus on singable, direct, straightforward expression. Along with among others Carl Nielsen, Fini Henriques and Louis Glass, Helsted therefore established the “Music Society of 14 March 1896”, which put the new symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler on the programme – often in versions for two pianos – and made it possible to find one’s bearings among the newest musical tendencies.
Although Gustav Helsted was born into a family of musicians – as a son of Carl Helsted, who was a composer and singing teacher and a musician in the Royal Danish Orchestra – the young Gustav, at the wish of his father, began his career as a trainee in a commercial office. But this did not succeed in stifling his son’s interest in music, and at the age of 23 he therefore began studying piano, counterpoint and composition at the Copenhagen academy of music. After his training there Helsted worked for a period as an orchestral musician and opera repetiteur at the Royal Danish Theatre, but it was first and foremost at the organ that he aroused attention. At the consecration of the Jesus Church in Valby in 1891 Helsted was thus appointed as organist, and had a new, modern organ, built by the French organ-builder Cavaillé-Coll, at his disposal there. It was therefore possible for Helsted to play the new, harmonically sophisticated organ works of the French composer César Franck in particular. With his popular organ recitals Helsted thus introduced, in both words and music, the French composer to the Danish musical scene.
After 24 years at the Jesus Church Helsted had established such a reputation that in 1915 he was appointed to the prestigious post of organist at the Church of Our Lady (Copenhagen Cathedral). In 1892 Helsted was also employed by the Academy of Music as a teacher of music theory, and in 1904 of organ-playing. As a composer Helsted produced among other works a decet, the opera The Storm Bell, the orchestral pieces A Walking Tour on a Summer’s Day, Gurre Songs for choir and orchestra, Erotic Songs for voice and piano, a violin concerto and a number of symphonies and organ works.
Gustav Helsted was an assertive personality, but he was more modest when it came to putting his own works on the programme. At the first concert on Sunday 2 February 1902 at the “Danish Concert Society” – of which Helsted was Chairman – he did however conduct his own new symphony, which Gustav Hetsch described in the following words in the Swedish periodical Ord och Bild: “Mr. Helsted on the other hand conducted the performance of his own symphony, a work on the grand scale, bristling with compositional skill – questing and as a result often odd and awkward, which was heard with unfailing interest if not always with aesthetic pleasure. This new work from the peculiarly fine artistic personality that Helsted is was anticipated with no little excitement by the audience, who however seemed more amazed than enthusiastic over it”.
The reaction of the audience was probably characteristic of the perception of Helsted’s music at the time, and after Helsted’s death his music has in fact only been played very sporadically in the Danish concert halls. The Danish Sinfonietta played Helsted’s decet for the first time in 1991 – later several ensembles have had the work on the programme – and the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra recorded Helsted’s violin and cello concerto in 2001, but these may well be all the performances in recent times.
In his book about Danish composers from 1917 Gerhardt Lynge offers this assessment of Helsted’s Decet, Op. 18 for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn and strings: “The Decet too has the effect of a work conceived with great seriousness, diligence and knowledge, but it is, if one might put it so, more Helsted-like in its intransigence, in its absolute lack of accommodation to the requirement that music should appear to advantage and follow the established path in sound and the progressions of its harmony”. So in 1917 Helsted’s Decet, from 1891, was still ‘modern’ and inaccessible, while today to our ears its seems directly appealing with a decidedly Romantic expression, and despite the Continental inspiration has an indefinable Danish tone as its basis.
As far as we know there is no programme for Helsted’s Decet. At the beginning of the first movement of the Decet one does however get a clear sense that Helsted wanted, with light pastel colours, to paint the picture of a morning mood in which nature awakens as the sun gains in power. The strings play a gentle dolce accompaniment, while the woodwinds, with the execution instruction espressivo, introduce a small fanfare that wanders through the various instruments and gives the impression of the morning twittering of the birds. Out of this fine, quiet introduction grows the movement, until the clarinet takes hold of a new theme. In the course of the first movement, with an assured sense of the melodic potential, Helsted unfolds an imaginative dialogue between the separate elements of the themes, and at the same time explores how far he is able to stretch the harmonic bow in what Gerhardt Lynge would call a bold journey away from the original D major key. After an extended progression, however, the movement ends as it began, in D major and in a gentle, pastoral pianissimo.
The second movement is a variation form with a total of seven variations based on a melancholy theme which is presented with restrained power in oboe and clarinet, accompanied by the strings. The subsequent variations turn and twist the theme through all lightings and moods from the sorrowful to the graceful, from rhythmic and contrapuntal variations to sophisticated ornamentations and from the faintest nuances to full-blown fortissimo. A more serious mood grows up in the sixth variation for strings without winds and with the cello as the focus. After the fresh, forward-looking energy of the first bars the seventh and last variation ends quietly and calmly.
An ingenious, rather subtle theme in the solo cello introduces the scherzo in the third movement. The theme gradually appears throughout the ensemble in a contrapuntal, undulating process which, over a long crescendo, moves from pianissimo to fortissimo. As a contrast, the middle section has a more lyrical mood, after which the theme and the movement structure from the first part return.
After the slow, expressive introduction to the final movement, which is based on the theme from the variation movement, a unison semiquaver motion sets in with a forward-thrusting energy. Over four bars a little rustic figure is drummed out in the strings and moves from piano to forte, after which the winds, in the next four bars, present parts of the thematic material of the movement. The energetic thrust continues until a temporary halt, after which a small fugue in the strings over the recurring theme sets the movement in motion again. Later the introductory mood and the theme from the variation movement return; the process is repeated and Helsted then brings the whole work to a close with a melodically and formally sweeping, luxuriant and flourishing ending.
STRING QUARTET IN F MINOR
The String Quartet, Op. 33 in F minor is the last of what may have been five string quartets. In several places it is stated that the work was composed in 1922, but that is more likely to have been the year of its first publication in print. According to the Royal Library in Copenhagen the original manuscript is dated 23 September 1917. The quartet was played on among other occasions 14 January 1942 in Copenhagen for the Royal Danish Academy’s celebration of the founding of the Academy, which may have been the most recent performance of the work. The obstinate and categorical nature that characterized Gustav Helsted as a person can also be found in the first movement of the string quartet, which has the movement name Allegro con fuoco – ‘quick and fiery’. With a highly economical feeling for the exploitation to the limit of the thematic and motivic material, the whole movement is built up around a single, short but clear-cut motif of four quick descending semiquavers that is heard for the first time as run-up to the first bar in the movement, and which also rounds off the movement in the last bar. Helsted’s main introduction to the Late Romantic style was the French composer César Franck, who in the wake of Wagner and Liszt developed the harmonic basis for his music with particularly many modulations – changes from one key to another – which in the listener creates direct uncertainty about the tonal and harmonic foundation; and this is also a recurring feature of the first movement and the rest of Helsted’s quartet.
A conversation between Carl Nielsen and Gustav Helsted might suggest that Helsted’s feeling for the contrapuntal – the equal interplay of several voices or instruments – was minimal. Indeed, in connection with Mogens Wöldike’s first concert with the Palestrina Choir, Helsted’s comment on the performance of Palestrina’s Marcellus Mass was that the music was boring, unmelodious and just sounded like a long succession of triads, to which Carl Nielsen replied, “My dear Helsted, you obviously can’t see the wood for the trees – it’s all melody, all the time, and in all six voices”. Although the composers of Late Romanticism often sought the so-called Schmelzklang, in which the different instruments are all united in a single fused sound, Helsted does work to a great extent, despite his possible misunderstanding of Palestrina’s counterpoint, with the contrapuntal play among the four string instruments, which comes to expression in several places in the course of the first movement of the string quartet.
With the movement name Presto appassionato – fast and passionate – the second movement in Helsted’s string quartet is also fiery and highly temperamental. The movement is in triple time and functions as the scherzo of the quartet with two contrasting intermediate sections with a slightly calmer atmosphere. In purely melodic terms the movement is based on long, emphatic and dramatic interval leaps, while the notes in the intermediate sections more or less cling their way from one note to the next. In the third movement Helsted suggests a slightly mysterious, anticipatory mood. Like a funeral march the movement moves along over a monotone rhythm in the cello, which in the first bar plays a so-called empty fifth, which with the E flat of the viola in the next bar turns out to be a minor chord – C minor. The descending melody in the two violins, with its very quiet volume (pianissimo) and the expression mark dolce – gentle – suggests a wistful, melancholy mood that runs through the whole movement. Towards the end a modulation to D flat major does offer hope of resolution and comfort, but the movement ends as it began in C minor. The fourth and last movement begins quickly and resolutely with a series of short, almost abrupt melodic fragments which however quickly come together in longer phrases. The mood changes when the second subject enters with the opposite character – friendly, expressive and accommodating. The whole movement thus becomes a struggle between the abrupt and hectic on the one hand and the bright and friendly on the other. The quartet is in the overall key of F minor, but in the very last bars of the last movement its tangled and in some places almost impenetrably darkened character is finally and definitively resolved in a concluding F major cadence.
© Bjarne Mørch Jensen, communications officer at The Danish Sinfonietta