Jørgen Jersild and chamber music
by Claus Røllum-Larsen
Jørgen Jersild was born in Copenhagen on 17 September 1913. He grew up in a -doctor’s home where music played a prominent role: his mother played the violin, and his father – a great admirer of Wagner – was highly knowledgeable about music and a member of the Chamber Music Society. Jersild graduated from the high school Østre Borger-dydskole in 1931. By then he had already composed several musical pieces, and for a time he had taken piano lessons from Rudolph Simonsen. At the age of 15, while he was still attending high school, he had Poul Schierbeck as his teacher in music theory and composition, and as a piano teacher he had Alexander Stoffregen. The choice of Schier-beck as teacher was to prove indicative of the direction Jersild’s career was to take. After leaving school he taught for a period at a small folk music school run by Schierbeck in Hellerup, but in 1935 an event occurred that was to determine the nature of his further work. The French composer Albert Roussel visited Copenhagen, where a number of his works were to be played, and since Schierbeck was a close acquaintance of Roussel, he urged Jersild to pay him a call and play for him. The results were so for-tu-nate that -Roussel agreed to take the young man on as a composition student. The next spring Jersild travelled to Paris, where he studied with Roussel for three months. Jersild himself has given an account of this stay in Paris, and it is evident from this that Rous-sel’s teaching concentrated on instrumentation. Returning from the journey, Jersild began musicological studies at Copenhagen University, where he took his master’s degree in 1940. In the years 1939-1943 he was a programme secretary at the national broadcasting corporation, and from 1943 a music reviewer on the newspaper Berlingske Tidende and a teacher at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, where he was professor of ear training in the years 1953-1975. After retirement Jersild conti-nued to compose and publish results of his musicological studies, which concentrated mainly on the theory of harmony. In addition he was the -author of a succession of much used textbooks in ear training. In 1952 -Jersild was awarded the grant Det Anckerske Legat, and in 1962 he was inducted as a member into the Royal Musical Academy in Stockholm. Jørgen Jersild died on 6 February 2004.
Jersild’s production includes a number of theatrical works. Particularly worth menti-oning is the music for the play Alice in Wonderland (after Lewis Carroll) (1951) and the ballet Lunefulde Lucinda (Capricious Lucinda) (1954). Besides these he wrote a num-ber of major orchestral works, for example the harp concerto from 1972, and many choral compositions as well as works for chamber ensembles and solo works. It has often been claimed that Jersild occupied a distinctive position among Danish compo-sers, and that is very true. His position as the perpetuator and ‘developer’ of the French-oriented way of writing that was typical of the works of Knudåge Riisager and Svend Erik Tarp is indeed quite obvious. All the same, his works differ strikingly from both Riisager’s and Tarp’s. One hears this clearly in the choral works, for example, which form a particularly important group in Jersild’s oeuvre. The complexity and the some-times radical expression in the choral music does not have its match in Riisager and Tarp or for that matter in very many other Danish composers of the time.
One characteristic of Jersild’s works is the thorough, detailed work on the musical texture that has been carefully invested in the individual instruments. In many of the works we sense the influence of Poul Schierbeck, in the orchestral treatment for one thing; but certainly his studies with Roussel also left their traces on Jersild’s instrumen-tation. Even more so than in Schierbeck’s work we experience in Jersild’s an elegance and technical mastery that have given him the reputation of a ‘Frenchman’ in Danish music. As with many of the French composers of the 1920s and 1930s the treatment of the woodwind is especially admirable. Perhaps this striving for substance or even subli-mity is one of the reasons why Jersild in general did not use the same musical form for more than a single work. From his pen we have one work for wind quintet, a single regu-lar string quartet, one -major piano work, one organ work and one instrumental concerto. This may of course be pure chance, but it is perhaps the expression of an urge to ‘exhaust’ one genre and then move on to a new one. However this may be, Jersild with his ‘isolated’ compositions enriched the repertoire of the ensembles for which he wrote with quite central works. It is noteworthy that he never wrote music in the two ‘big genres’, the sonata and the symphony. Perhaps they held no attraction for the individu-alist Jørgen Jersild, who like many of his contemporaries and slightly older French composers in fact preferred the short, less bound forms.
The compositions for harp enjoy a special position in the work list. They com-prise first and foremost the above-mentioned harp concerto, the third part of the work series Libro d’arpa, which consists of a number of works for harp in various instru-mental combinations. In the concerto Jersild has distanced himself somewhat from the neo-classicist starting-point that had given many of his works a special ‘Gallic’ rigour and energy, in favour of a timbre-oriented style where the interaction of soloist and orchestra makes imaginative impacts throughout the work.
A small group of works is constituted by the film music, in which the colla-bo-ra-tion with the director Carl Th. Dreyer on Gertrud from 1964 deserves special attention, but with popular music too Jersild had his contacts. In 1965 he and the lyricist Poul Henning-sen submitted a song to the Eurovision Song Contest on TV. The song, which bore the title For din skyld (For Your Sake), did not win the competition, but as such is an example of Jersild’s earlier-mentioned willingness to try new genres and new con-figu-rations, but here – as in several previous cases – ‘only in passing.’
Jersild has often been described as an exclusive composer. This contains the truth that he rarely seems to have acceded to requests to compose unless he felt that the task could be accomplished with 100% satisfaction. As a result of this laudable attitude -Jersild’s production is relatively limited in extent; on the other hand it exhibits a sub-stance that has meant, as mentioned, that several works have become classics in their genre – something that is true to a great extent of two pieces on this CD.
The four works recorded here span just under half a century, from the early Quartet for Violin, Viola, Clarinet and Bassoon from 1934, through the two ‘break-through works’, the piano suite Trois pièces en concert from 1945, and the wind quintet with the by-name At spille i skoven (Music-Making in the Forest) from 1947 to the late string quartet from 1979-80. The quartet for violin, viola, clarinet and bassoon was composed while Jersild was studying with Poul Schierbeck, and it is coloured by the sober, objec-tive style that was prevalent in Danish music at the beginning of the 1930s. Slightly older composer colleagues such as Knudåge Riisager (1897-1974), Jørgen Bentzon (1897-1951) and Franz Syberg (1904-1955) were greatly preoccupied with chamber music, and in those years composed significant works for mixed ensembles. Syberg’s Quintet for Flute, Clarinet and String Trio (1931), Bentzon’s Racconto no. 1 for Flute, E-flat Saxophone, Bassoon and Double-bass (1935) and Racconto no. 2 for Flute, Violin, Viola and Cello (1936) as well as Knudåge Riisager’s Serenade for Flute, Violin and Cello from 1936 are examples of such works; and indeed the style in Jersild’s quar-tet has spiritual affinities with these. Nevertheless, Jersild situates himself some way from both Bentzon and Riisager. In Jersild’s work, for example, one does not find the melodic variation that typifies Bentzon’s Racconti, nor the lightness and elegance found in Riisager’s work.
It was in the spirit of the time to write for small ensembles, but this did not necessarily mean that the music was simple or easily accessible. The objective style could be -coupled with a spiky, unrelenting treatment of dissonance of the kind one not rarely meets in Syberg, but it could also be ‘hummable’ and gentle, like Bentzon’s -Racconto no. 1 in particular. Jersild probably placed himself somewhere in between these extremes. There is consistency in the musical lines, but one also senses a rounded-ness and warmth that was later to be a hallmark of Jersild’s music. In fact everything indicates that Jersild regarded his quartet as a study work; at any rate it has never been printed, and it is not included in the standard lists of Jersild’s works. It is questionable whether it was played at all in public before the present CD recording.
On 25 April 1945 the pianist Egil Harder gave Trois pièces en concert its first per-for-mance. Jersild himself has said that the work was written during the final weeks of the Occu-pation, but we cannot hear this from the dazzling character of the three movements, for it was Jersild’s express purpose to write a work full of optimism as a counterweight to the serious events of those days. The work was received with fine reviews; it has achieved great popularity, and as such is one of the most frequently played Danish piano works from its time. Jersild himself pointed to French models for the three movements. Maurice Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin and works by François Couperin and Domenico Scarlatti can be mentioned as sources of inspiration. The title of the work may have been taken from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin en concert. In the middle movement a distinctive theme is varied by means of among other things piano figures derived from the harpsichord pieces of the French Baroque compo-sers. The set of variations is superbly arranged in an elegant and effective piano texture.
Less than two years later Jersild was able to present yet another telling work, the wind quintet At spille i skoven (Music-Making in the Forest). The first performance took place at the Odd Fellow Palæ in Copenhagen on 15 February 1947, and the performers were the chamber quintet Kammerkvintetten – an ensemble that had been founded in 1943 by solo wind players from the Royal Danish Orchestra: Erik Thomsen (flute), Mogens Steen Andreassen (oboe), Palle Nehammer (clarinet), Wilhelm Lanzky Otto (French horn) and Aage Bredahl (bassoon). The beautiful title of the work was taken from a serenade by J.A.P. Schulz, and the mood of the quintet is redolent of exuberant optimism and the sheer joy of music-making. In the wake of Carl Nielsen’s wind quintet several Danish composers had felt inspired to write for this ensemble type, which until then had led a quiet existence for many years. Jersild’s contribution to the genre is with-out exaggeration one of the most virtuosic. His works are in general very well scored for the instruments, but they do make great demands on the players. This is also the case with At spille i skoven. As in Trois pièces en concert, he operates with quick tempi, and a quite crucial feature for the realization of these works is the technical mastery of the musicians, which makes it possible to form the texture elegantly. In these works Jersild is Gallic to a degree in his expression.
The leap from the fundamentally classical feel and artistic and spiritual expres-sion of the two preceding works to the string quartet of 1980 may seem great. For here we stand before a work that does not to any great extent express, nor does it have direct origins in, the French tradition. The work, over half an hour long, alternates between quite, intimate passages where the harmony is strongly developed, and violently erup-tive passages with a harshness of expression that had not hitherto been common in Jersild’s works. In several passages the listeners may be reminded of his stylistic star-ting point in French Classicism, but the quartet still represents an incipient reorientation in Jersild’s production. A few years later he wrote his only organ work, Fantasia per organo, which moves within a similar highly expressive universe.
Although the works recorded here span a long period of years and demonstrate great development in the musical expression, there are unmistakable features that leave the listener in no doubt of the composer’s identity. These are especially small melodic phrases of a modal character, or they are long festoons to beautiful figurative effect. Jersild thus continues to be himself, regardless of whether, as in the early quartet, he operates in a 1930s universe coloured by the Neue Sachlichkeit, or he composes the more neoclassicist works from the 1940s – not to mention when he seeks out new areas as in the late string quartet. The works as such confirm Jersild’s special position in the -Danish music of his time.
Claus Røllum-Larsen, Ph.D., is a senior researcher at The Royal Library, Copenhagen.