Poul Rovsing Olsen
by Teresa Waskowska
Equipped with a diploma in musicology and piano from the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, and with a law degree from Copenhagen University, Poul Rovsing Olsen (1922-1982) went to Paris, where he continued his musical training in 1948-1949 with the acclaimed music teacher Nadia Boulanger and the famous composer Olivier Messiaen. It was an enriching time for the young Dane, who sometimes took a break from his composition studies and spent his days at the Musée de l'Homme, where he could immerse himself in the music of remote peoples that he had been so fervently interested in since high school; an interest which later in life made Rovsing Olsen an internationally recognized ethnomusicologist and left traces in his own compositions.
Back in Copenhagen Rovsing Olsen spread out the whole fan of his talents. He worked as a lawyer in the Ministry of Education, and as a music critic, first on the newspaper Information and later on Berlingske Tidende, did research in ethnomusicology and - not least - composed. His opus list comprises 85 numbers, including songs, piano pieces, chamber music, ballets, operas and orchestral works. However, it was not until the beginning the 1950s that he began writing for orchestra and subsequently produced striking works like the Symphonic Variations op. 27, the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra op. 31, Sinfonia I op. 40, Sinfonia II "Susudil" op. 53 and "Au fond de la nuit" op. 61.
Although Rovsing Olsen never made an impact as a highly experimental avant-gardist, he was a man of his time and was fond of drawing on the musical storehouse of modernism. His works are typified by clear-cut rhythms, expressive melody lines and colourful tonal effects contributing to distinctively formulated moods with room for the witty and the wistful. Hence the talk of his ‘French inspiration'.
Symphonic Variations op. 27 was Poul Rovsing Olsen's first major work for orchestra. It is dedicated to the composer's first wife, Solange. The composition work extended from October 1952 until May 1953. The first performance, on Danmarks Radio on 11th October 1954, was played by the DR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erik Tuxen.
In the years when the work was being written Rovsing Olsen began trying out the twelve-tone technique, and this has left its traces in Symphonic Variations, where the introductory theme is gradually transformed into a whole twelve-tone row. Beyond that the twelve-tone technique is only used sporadically in the work, which glides freely between traditional and modern tonality.
Symphonic Variations takes the form of an organic progression with the phases slow-fast-slow. There is great vigour and drive in this music, but also a great deal of inwardness. Dramatic ascents are resolved in calm lyricism, and the exquisite instrumentation gives the changing moods just the right expression.
Over the years Symphonic Variations has been played several times both in Denmark and abroad. At the Nordic Music Days in Helsinki in 1956 Symphonic Variations won a reputation as one of the festival's best, most fruitful works, written by a tonal artist who "really has something to say" (the newspaper Ilta-Sanomat, Finland).
After the first performance in Denmark the composer Niels Viggo Bentzon delivered a joyous bouquet to his colleague: "Rovsing Olsen's Symphonic Variations op. 27 was an exceedingly fine work," Bentzon wrote in the newspaper Politiken. "I do not remember hearing earlier orchestral works by him, but it still seemed as if a number of precedents had paved the way towards this fine orchestral sound and the restrained expression. His profile is clearer in this work than in earlier piano and chamber music! New delights from the oven are on offer! The fuel has been gathered!"
Concerto for piano and orchestra op. 31 is Poul Rovsing Olsen's second composition for orchestra. It was written in the years 1953-1954, immediately after Symphonic Variations. The concerto was given its first airing on 26th April 1956 in a closed studio performance broadcast live by the broadcasting corporation Danmarks Radio (DR). The performers were the composer's good friend the pianist John Winther, the DR Symphony Orchestra and the conductor Eifred Eckart-Hansen. Two days later one could read in the newspaper Berlingske Tidende: "It can hardly be overlooked that this concerto is to no small degree indebted to the French spirit".
Just three years later, on 22nd January 1959, Rovsing Olsen's piano concerto was played for the first time in a public Thursday Concert in the DR Concert Hall in Copenhagen. Again the press raised the French issue, and since then the French associations have been brought up almost every time the work has been played.
Rovsing Olsen's three-movement piano concerto begins with a slow introduction that forms the starting point for a lively course of events where the composer makes his playful way through the score. This is music with strong drive and great wit, and with clear roots in the stringent neoclassical style.
In this work the composer departs from the usual concertante alternation between solo instrument and orchestra and puts the two sides on an equal footing. In his own words the composition was meant as "a symphonic piece with piano".
The piano concerto was mainly well received in the first performance and garnered much praise later too. One could note a certain reservation among the reviewers about the piano part, which "seems somewhat spartan" (Politiken). On the other hand the orchestral part went straight to the hearts of all the press. The instrumental imagination of the orchestral writing and the sophisticated tonal shadings aroused particular attention, and Politiken noted that Poul Rovsing Olsen's op. 31 was "the budding symphonist's game with colourful soap bubbles".
Au fond de la nuit (In the depth of the night) for chamber orchestra op. 61 is dedicated to the Danish conductor Lavard Friisholm and the chamber orchestra Collegium Musicum, which was headed by him. The first performance was on 3rd February 1969 as part of the celebration of Collegium Musicum's 25th anniversary.
The work invites us on a journey out into the universe. In "L'espace" (Space, first movement) we rush through "the space of our galaxy with its pulsating stars, its radio signals, the comets of its suns," Rovsing Olsen writes in his note on the work. En route we pass the giant red star called "Bételgeuse" (second movement), then we see a dead, dark planet, "L'astre mort" (third movement), which "turns in majestic calm and with mechanical inevitability around its own axis", and finally in "Retour" (fourth movement) the voyage returns to the Earth.
Composed in the autumn of 1968 and played for the first time just six months before man took his first steps on the Moon in July 1969, the work belongs to a time when we were learning to talk about astronauts, space walks and satellites, and when we could see a world-picture taking shape. From these both remote and close events Poul Rovsing Olsen drew the inspiration for his musical voyage into outer space.
The four movements of the work unfold as a poetic mosaic of inciting rhythms, delicate sounds and instrumental subtleties. It is a piece of astral music and yet so close to reality. Moods change with situations on the voyage, the music quivers and lingers, incites the imagination and gives food for thought. "A voyage into outer space becomes at the same time a voyage into inner space," as the composer himself put it.
Poul Rovsing Olsen wrote Au fond de la nuit at the urging of Lavard Friisholm and the orchestra Collegium Musicum, but "one does not write so beautifully just on commission," said a review in the newspaper Aktuelt after the first performance.
Teresa Waskowska is a musicologist. For several years she has been a music critic on the news-papers Berlingske Tidende and Politiken.