Per Nørgård: The Will-o'-the-Wisps-in-Town
18 January 2013
In 2005, the bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth was celebrated with much pomp and circumstance by the Danes, with events and homages ranging from the trivial to the inspiring. Among the finer tributes to the great author were 10 commissions by the Society for Publishing Danish Music
to Danish composers for works to celebrate the writer's fairy tales. Per Nørgård contributed a cantata based upon Andersen's little known 1865 story Lygtemændene ere i Byen, sagde Mosekonen
(The Will-O'-The-Wisps are in Town, said the Marsh Woman
). In it, the protagonist, a once prolific writer of fairy tales, has lost the will to write. He is taken into the confidence of a marsh witch, who first promises fairy tales by the bottle. Instead she warns him that a dozen will-o'-the-wisps, determined to win special favors from the devil, will move into the town for a year to each seduce a person a day to some evil. The story ends with the witch enthusing over the anticipated corruption of the clergy, the government, the voters, and the artists, while the writer, aware of the danger, bemoans the fact that everyone will dismiss any warning from him as nothing but a fairy tale. Reflecting as it does the deep despair that gripped Andersen and all of Denmark after its territorial losses to Germany following the disastrous Second Schleswig War of 1864, it reveals a dourer side of the author of The Little Mermaid
and The Ugly Duckling
Andersen's contemporaries would have had little trouble inferring the consequence of the evil spirits' mission, but it is mostly lost on those unaware of Denmark's history. So Nørgård asked poet Suzanne Brøgger
to finish the work for modern audiences by making explicit what happens in the town. She plays the amusing but pointed trick of suddenly moving the action to 2005, where the spirits find that today's world is already so corrupt and shallow that, as the composer states in the included video interview, "It's worse than what they could do, so they go into retirement.
" So, in a marvelously layered retelling of the story, we have Andersen's sardonic dig at the perpetrators of Denmark's humiliation, as well as a commentary on the demise of the fairy tale as a moral force, plus Nørgård and Brøgger's own trenchant critique of the state of the modern world.
Nørgård's response to the commission was a work for orchestra, mixed chorus, children's chorus, student percussion ensemble, and several soloists, including a narrator, tenor-the voice of Andersen-and a mezzo-soprano marsh witch. A recording of that version has been released by Dacapo. Nørgård was subsequently approached by the Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen
to produce a chamber version of the work with five instrumentalists and a single mezzo-soprano soloist. That is the version offered in this release, performed by the commissioning artists. Obviously this is, in many ways, a new work. The roles of narrator, poet, and witch are now merged in the single soloist, who sings as well a number of the choruses reworked into arias. She even plays crotales and a pair of metronomes. All is scaled to the chamber ensemble, with a more compact prelude and a more austere and text-focused presentation. The story and the setting's conceits remain the same. The instrumentalists, besides providing superb accompaniment for the telling of the tale, help out with assorted shouts and cries, and represent the evil sprites with a falsetto chorus. Helene Gjerris
, who performed as the witch in the premiere of the original version, is simply stunning in her much larger speaking and singing role. The text is provided in English translation, which is essential as much of the work is spoken, though Gjerris is so good that it is a pleasure simply to listen to her perform. The musical idiom itself is fairly lyrical for Nørgård, and perfectly expressive of the subject, but listeners who are wary of modern scores should probably sample the music before buying.
Included with the CD is a DVD offering a 25-minute interview with the composer and librettist, produced by Denmark's TV Glad
, a television station run for and by persons with intellectual and functional disabilities. Two TV Glad reporters accompany Nørgård and the musicians on a train trip to Aalborg for a performance of Will-o'-the-Wisps in Town. During the trip he explains the work and its genesis to the reporters in a clear and completely non-condescending way that is as helpful to the unchallenged viewer as to its intended audience. It might be the best place to start, and can be seen as well on Dacapo's online listing for the recording.
The accompanying work Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
(2008) was inspired by the Walt Whitman poem of the same title, though it is the title itself that seems the only connection. It is a tribute to Hawaii, where it was first performed. It uses the sea and the rocking waves as a metaphor for the layered sound Nørgård employs, and ancient Hawaiian war chants as melodic and rhythmic material. It is thornier, but no less fascinating for that. As always with Dacapo, production values and presentation-designed by Glad Design, a sister organization to TV Glad-are first-rate.