Finn Høffding: Orchestral Works
10 August 2012
Paul A. Snook
Among the many post-Nielsen Danish composers whose names would probably be unfamiliar to most music lovers worldwide is that of Finn Høffding (1899–1997). Yet Høffding was one of the crucial figures in his country’s rich unfolding of 20th-century modernist music. In fact, he can be considered as a kind of missing link between his mentor Carl Nielsen and his most illustrious pupil, Vagn Holmboe.
And here at last Dacapo has acknowledged his importance with this premiere recording of one of his strongest works, the Third Symphony of 1928. This 35-minute masterwork exemplifies the many virtues of this not-too-prolific composer’s solidly founded neoclassicism: an instinctive grasp of symphonic narrative and architectonics, based on clearly outlined contrapuntal textures and ostinato patterns whose relentless forward motion is highlighted by an intermittently prominent piano line. Underlying this technical expertise is a flawless sense of dramatic contrast. For example, the first movement’s dark and forbidding aura is dispersed by a slow movement that achieves tragic grandeur after absorbing two sudden outbreaks of violent agitation. The scherzo emphasizes Høffding’s quirkily grotesque sense of humor, with all of these varied elements comprehensively assimilated in a finale of enormous energetic summation. Without a doubt this is one of the most powerfully realized Danish symphonies produced between the Nielsen cycle and the postwar flowering of Holmboe and Bentzon, as the gracious testimonial from his pupil Per Norgaard in the booklet underlines. It is a much more impressive accomplishment in symphonic terms than the eccentric and near-contemporaneous First Symphony of his almost exact contemporary Riisager, recently issued on Dacapo.
As a result of a chance meeting with Hindemith at a German youth conference, Høffding was to devote a large portion of his long life to educational concerns in the form of choral works that also served as teaching materials. But in addition during the ’30s and ’40 s he found time to produce a series of what he called “symphonic fantasies,” four single-movement pieces embodying his conception of organic growth, examples that would have tremendous influence on younger composers such as Holmboe, inspiring his well-known principle of metamorphosis and even the prodigious Nils Viggo Bentzon and his free-form extravaganzas. To quote the composer: “Evolution … is written as the development of a germ that, in contact—or even in conflict—with its surroundings, grows up through intermediate stages to a definite shape. During this development, which is not dissimilar to a vital process, the germ can undergo alterations though it never disappears.”
Two of these fantasies open this program—the aptly named Evolution (1939)—about as implosively compact a quarter-hour of music ever written—and the lighter, shorter It Is Quite True (1943), inspired by the Andersen tale about a prickily determined hen, which sounds like a kind of Scandinavian Sorcerer’s Apprentice and is Høffding’s most-recorded work.
The German Frank Cramer offers more nuanced accounts of these two scores than earlier and perhaps more tension-filled versions by, respectively, John Frandsen and Herbert Blomstedt on Danish EMI vinyl or an especially frenetic reading by the great Thomas Jensen (originally on 78 but now available on a terrific two-CD Danacord). But Cramer’s Third Symphony is as magisterial as this great score demands and deserves.
Now that Dacapo has acknowledged Høffding’s stature, perhaps we could also hear one of the earlier symphonies as well as the later Symphony Concertante, plus the two fantasies never recorded— Summer–Autumn and The Arsenal at Springfield (which calls for a chorus).
Meanwhile, this release is essential to anyone interested in 20th-century Scandinavian repertoire.