Poul Rovsing Olsen's songs
by Teresa Waskowska
Poul Rovsing Olsen (1922-1982) had a special feeling for the human voice – and it did not come from strangers: his mother sang; she was a pupil of Lauritz Melchior, and was also a distant relation of the famous tenor. His father, a company director, played the cello and piano. In the family home there were often musical evenings with programmes with the main emphasis on songs by Mozart, Schubert and Schumann, Weyse, Heise, Lange Müller and Carl Nielsen.
At an early age Poul Rovsing Olsen took lessons in ear training and piano, and his obvious musical talent was ensured a harmonious development. He graduated in piano and music theory from the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, and in law from Copenhagen University, after which he went to Paris and continued his musical training with the renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger and the famous composer Olivier Messiaen. In parallel with this Rovsing Olsen frequented the Parisian Musée de l’Homme, where he could immerse himself in the music of faraway peoples, with which he had been much preoccupied since his high school years; an interest which later in life made Rovsing Olsen an internationally recognized ethnomusicologist who went on research trips to the Persian Gulf, India, Greenland and Egypt. There he studied the local music and song traditions and made recordings of the songs of the pearl divers of Bahrain and the traditional Greenlandic songs.
Rovsing Olsen’s list of works comprises 85 numbers, including songs, piano pieces, chamber music, orchestral works, ballets and the operas Belisa and Usher. Taken together, this oeuvre constitutes a continuous stylistic development with its origins in the stringent neoclassical way of writing and gradually incorporates sonorities and structural experiences from western modernism as well as non-western musical cultures. At first compositional attention is concentrated around the rhythmic profiles. In time the expressive side of melody and dynamics is also strengthened. This is evident for example in songs to texts by William Blake, Pär Lagerkvist, Rainer Maria Rilke and Charles Baudelaire.
To write music for a poem is to mix blood with a poet, said Poul Rovsing Olsen. With his songs he provides proof for the claim. The current release comprises all Rovsing Olsen’s songs with piano as well as Aftonsånger (Evening Songs) to poems by the Swedish writer Pär Lagerkvist for mezzo-soprano and flute. Almost all these songs were composed in the period 1946-1957. In subsequent years Rovsing Olsen increasingly worked with modernist and oriental elements, and the classic song type yielded place to instrumental compositions. Now the singing voice was included in new instrumental constellations and modes of expression. Not until 1981, just one year before his death, did Rovsing Olsen return to the piano-accompanied song with Deux mélodies op. 84, to texts by the French poet Charles Baudelaire. This was to be the last work in the composer’s life.
Light Songs Op. 19 came about as a token of friendship with the nature-lyrical poet Mogens Garde (1917-2005). They were composed in February-March 1951. Of the choice of texts Rovsing Olsen said that after setting two dramatic poems by William Blake to music, he was looking for some lighter verses for his next songs, and the choice fell on the texts from Mogens Garde’s poetry collection The light in the dust.
It was a happy choice which resulted in four lively songs that excel in their supple melodic lines and evocative piano sounds. The composer himself gives them the mood designations ‘roguishly’ (Postcard), ‘tenderly’ (You), ‘floridly’ (Autumn anyway) and ‘poetically’ (Cloud moon), and that is how they are experienced. The press received the composition positively and wrote of “small, fresh, energetic songs in which music and words complemented each other in the best possible way” (Berlingske Tidende). This assessment also persisted with a new performance in 1954, when one could read in the same newspaper that “the slight but young and graceful verses form the starting point for music that gives them fine life and poetry of sound”.
Four Songs Op. 7 to texts by the English poet William Blake (1757-1827) were composed in March 1946 and March-April 1947 and dedicated to the composer’s mother. Blake was a poet, printer and painter. The encounter with his art and reflections on life took on an existential significance for Poul Rovsing Olsen, who described this universal genius as “a revolutionary mystic”. Blake’s poems stand out with unique clarity and succinctly express great, powerful, emotionally charged messages. The four that Rovsing Olsen chose for his songs are My Pretty Rose Tree, The Blossom, Love’s Secret and The Sick Rose. These are not cheerful verses, but painful words about love’s longing and its ruin, which Rovsing Olsen arrays in moving music.
Two Prophetic Songs Op. 16 were composed in 1950 at the urging of the Danish contralto Jolanda Rodio, who gave them their first performance the same year. Here too the composer used texts by William Blake. The poet was a strong opponent of any kind of prescriptive religion. The Garden of Love and Come, O Lamb of God are two dramatic poems about love that is destroyed by religious orthodoxy and the consciousness of sin. With his music Rovsing Olsen writes his way directly into the essence of the poems.
The songs aroused attention. The reviewers wrote that there was “a direct experience of the text and a carefully calculated use of the musical imagination in these songs” (Socialdemokraten), and that the composition “was nothing less than a breakthrough, an unfolding of freedom and feeling” (Berlingske Tidende).
Two German songs Op. 36 comprises the poems O Leben, Leben and Liebeslied by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). They were set to music respectively in December 1956 and October 1955 and received their public baptism of fire in a performance on DR radio on 16 February 1960. It was said of Rilke that his poems were the very essence of poetry. Melancholy thoughts on life, death, love and art, and on the anxiety and rootlessness of modern man, fill the writings of Rilke. There are drama and sadness, intensity and fervency in his verses, which Rovsing Olsen brings to life with expressively charged melodic lines and powerful rhythms.
The Two Lagerkvist songs Op. 15 were written in August-September 1949, and had their first performance in October the same year. As is evident from the title, two poems by the Swedish writer Pär Lagerkvist (1891-1974) were chosen by Rovsing Olsen as the basis of his songs. The first, Dina Ögon (Your Eyes), is characterized by despondency and loneliness. The world is so cold and harsh, you must not see it, says the text. In the second poem, which is titled Som ett blommande mandelträd (Like an almond tree in blossom), everything seems bright and wonderful, love and beauty go hand in hand. But the darkness falls heavily all around, and fear comes stealing in. “She who is dear to me, can she live here?” the poem asks. These expressive verses are borne up sensitively by Rovsing Olsen’s music, where the singing voice and the piano engage in harmonic interaction and the contrasting moods are depicted with a powerful feeling for the spirit of the texts.
The work aroused different reactions in Swedish and Danish newspapers. All the reviewers, however, seemed to agree that the piano part in Som ett blommande mandelträd was “superb” and “magnificently done”.
Deux mélodies op. 84. It all began with Poul Rovsing Olsen being captivated by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Through him he discovered Poe’s French translator Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), himself an eminent poet. The texts in Deux mélodies come from Baudelaire’s poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), considered a milestone in the history of poetry. The work – with its central themes of depravation, the erotic, desolation and death – was quickly seen as immoral and brought both writer and publisher major problems. In Deux mélodies Rovsing Olsen used the poems Parfum exotique (Exotic perfume) and De Profundis. Two poems and two different moods which for the composer become two different worlds of sound.
In Parfum exotique it is the erotic scent of the beloved’s warm breasts that conjures up dreams of enchanting faraway places and “happy shores”. The text is clad in gentle, melodious music with the dream-image borne up by the delicate tones of the piano.
De Profundis borrows its title from Psalm 130, which gives the text a religious tinge. It is a cry for mercy in a cold, comfortless world. And it becomes a dramatic song where the powerful chords of the piano underscore the sombre mood.
Deux mélodies were written for and dedicated to the Danish bass Ulrik Cold. They were performed for the first time on 13 December 1981. Afterwards the newspaper Berlingske Tidende gave this summary of the songs: “The tonal basis which many young composers have been struggling to find in recent years is for Rovsing Olsen firmly rooted in melody. Many different scales – pentatonic, hexatonic or chromatic – provide the foundations for his songs and give power to an expressive singing voice and material for the sound of the piano.”
Aftonsånger (Evening Songs) Op. 30, is yet another Lagerkvist setting from Rovsing Olsen. This time the texts have been taken from the writer’s poetry collection Aftonland (Evening Land). The four songs were composed in the period January–February 1954 and intended for a mezzo-soprano with a flute as the only accompanying instrument. The composer writes of the work: “The music seeks neither the brilliant nor the virtuosic, but unfolds with subtle expressive nuances within the framework of an intimate language. Övergiven (abandoned), öde (desolate), tomhet (emptiness) are core words in these texts about human loneliness. And from these words the music has drawn its inspiration.”
We are dealing with highly depressive songs here. The torches all go out, there is emptiness everywhere. Bare peaks, empty valleys, a land without birds – who lived here once? Everyone has fled. “I am all alone” says one of the texts. With his original configuration of voice and flute Rovsing Olsen strikes the tone of gloomy hopelessness.
With Three Danish songs Op. 39, written in 1957, we are back with Danish poetry. Mogens Garde appears here again, and he is joined by Paul la Cour (born Poul la Cour, 1902-1956) and Frank Jæger (1926-1977). All three represent the generation before modernism. Mogens Garde’s poem Under Måneskåret (Beneath the moon’s swath) is from the collection Opbrud (Departures). Poul la Cour’s poem Havens Morgen (Morning of the garden)is from the poetry collection Levende Vande (Living Waters). Frank Jæger is represented here by a poem En ublodig sang om hærvejen (A bloodless song of the military road) from the collection Dydige digte (Virtuous poems). These are three situation poems whose different moods the composers is able to give suitable musical clothing.
Little songs Op. 37 are intended for various purposes, and their composition was scattered over a long period from 1941 to 1956. They have no more in common than that their texts are written in Danish. Mis Kræsenkat (Puss Particular) and Hua-hua (both from 1951) with texts by Anne Jacobi, are children’s songs that are included in a book about language learning with the title Læs med det samme, en ABC (The Read Right Away ABC). Marias vuggesang (Mary’s Cradle Song)(1956) for soprano solo was written for Preben Thomsen’s radio play Maria og Magdalene (Mary and Magdalene) and performed for the first time in the Radio Theatre programme of 23 December 1956. Pjerrots vise (Pierrot’s song) has a text by Gustav Lehrmann and was composed for the TV play Drømmemageren (The Dream-Maker), which was premiered on DR TV on 16 April 1953. Heden (The heath) was composed in 1941 to a text by the Danish poet Steen Steensen Blicher (1782-1848). In both words and music it is the most classical song on this release.
© Teresa Waskowska is a musicologist and was for several years a music critic for the newspapers Berlingske Tidende and Politiken
English translation: James Manley