The String Quartets
The String Quartets
★★★★★ »Incredibly exciting composer. A great, great discovery« Sveriges Radio
Nominated for the DR P2 Prize 2020
Danish composer Nancy Dalberg (1881-1949) wrote three string quartets, each of which occupies a bit of a unique position among her works. The first was the very first instrumental she presented at a public concert. The second was the work she was first released and played abroad, while the third – despite being unveiled 20 years before her death – failed to materialize in her lifetime. Here, the acclaimed Nordic String Quartet presents the first complete recording of Dalberg's quartets – as a conversation with great statements and good arguments.
© Dacapo Records
Being a woman in a man’s world
by Lisbeth Ahlgren Jensen
Nancy Dalberg’s compositions consist of orchestral works, chamber music and songs. In total, however, her production is not large, and since it came into being within a relatively short period of time, from around 1909 to the late 1930s, there is hardly any reason to distinguish between early works, mature works and late works. But the three completed string quartets have nevertheless something of a special place among her compositions. The first one was the very first instrumental work she presented at a public concert. The second was the first one she got published and played abroad, while the third – despite the fact that it had its first performance 20 years before her death – was not published during her lifetime. So, in a certain sense one can even so say that we are being presented here with an early, a mature and a late quartet.
Nancy Dalberg, née Hansen, was the daughter of the enterprising pharmacist and manufacturer Chr. D.A. Hansen, who established a technical-chemical laboratory in the 1870s and became an extremely wealthy man. She was born on her parents’ Zealand estate Bøstrup near Slagelse in 1881, but grew up on her family’s other estate, Mullerup, in Gudbjerg on the island of Funen. As a child she learnt to play the piano, and after marrying the engineer officer Erik Dalberg at the early age of 20 and settling in Copenhagen she continued her advanced piano studies with the pianist Ove Christensen. This did not, however, lead to a career as a concert pianist, as she was unfortunate enough to contract chronic tenosynovitis. At a private concert she gave for charity in 1907 she played demanding works by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, which underlines her ambition to make her mark within the traditional classical-Romantic repertoire – if only her physique had been able to cope with this.
Her marriage to the artistically gifted Erik Dalberg remained childless and was not a happy one, despite the fact that they shared a passion for music, which, among other things, was expressed in texts he wrote and which she set to music. In 1909, Nancy Dalberg began to study the theory of music and composition under the Norwegian composer and kapellmeister Johan Svendsen. After his death in 1911, she continued her studies under the composer Carl Nielsen. Here she gained a thorough grounding not only in harmony and counterpoint but also a practical one in musical analysis and orchestration. Nielsen required her, for example, to orchestrate a piano adaptation of Mozart’s G minor Symphony, K.550, and after a while she became so familiar with his way of orchestrating that she was able to assist him. Parts of Carl Nielsen’s Fynsk Forår (Springtime on Funen) were actually orchestrated by Nancy Dalberg during a summer stay at Mullerup, where Nielsen himself was a welcome guest.
The Dalbergs are known to have travelled widely, but the only trips that can be documented in the sparse personal material Nancy Dalberg left behind is a conducted tour in Spain in spring 1920, in which Carl Nielsen also participated, a trip to Helsinki together with Carl Nielsen in 1921 and a six-month stay in the city of Biskra in Algeria during the winter of 1922-23. The prolonged stay in the mild North African climate was first and foremost motivated by a hope that it would alleviate Nancy Dalberg’s recurrent problems with bladder, kidney and rheumatic afflictions.
But she also utilised the stay to ride out – on a camel – to the oases of the Sahara and to write down folk music which she later made use of in the trio Arabic Music from Sahara (1928) for oboe, viola and drum. Erik Dalberg, had decided to let himself be put on the reserve list of the army, and having become increasingly interested in painting and etching he spent the time in Africa painting. On the home journey, which began in May 1923, the couple spent a few weeks in Paris. Erik Dalberg gradually suffered increasingly from a nervous disorder, and he spent the last years of his life at various psychiatric clinics. A few years prior to his death in 1945, the marriage was annulled.
String Quartet No. 1 in D minor is the first work Nancy Dalberg composed while studying under Carl Nielsen, and he actually took part in its first performance at a music evening in her home in December 1914. It was a completely overwhelming experience for her to hear her own music played, she wrote, when cordially thanking Carl Nielsen for his contribution:
‘It was with nothing less than an unalloyed feeling of bliss that I sat listening to how my notes came alive – particularly in the Adagio and the Finale. I had not believed such a beautiful performance was possible after just one rehearsal. It was an evening I will never forget – and it was quite overwhelming for me to experience such great happiness.’
The quartet is traditionally constructed in four movements, the two outer ones of which have a quick tempo. The first movement, Allegro appassionate, is characterised by a number of small motifs that are subjected to meticulous contrapuntal elaboration. The second movement is cheerful Scherzo in A major typified by a Haydn-inspired staccato motif, while the third and fairly short Adagio movement is in G minor and initially builds on motif material from the first movement. The lively final movement, Vivace, is in 5/4 and is more characterised by rhythmic than by motivic significance. The first public performance took place during a compositional concert which Nancy Dalberg held on 8 November 1915 in the Odd Fellow Palæet. It also featured two shorter pieces for cello and piano, Andante serioso and Fantasia, an orchestral piece with the title Scherzo for string orchestra as well as some songs. The reception was positive on the whole, as most of the reviewers were impressed by the fact that she, as a woman had composed a string quartet: ‘Simply the fact that a lady can write a string quartet, is a rarity – and, in addition, it was not half bad.’ the critic Hedevig Quiding wrote in Folkets Avis on 10 November 1915. Another reviewer praised her for having a flair for ‘the particular demands of chamber music’ and for her ability to get the maximum possible out of the sound of the four instruments.
After the successful debut, Nancy Dalberg’s ambitions grew, and when she once more held a public concert in 1918, it was a purely orchestral one. As the first woman in Denmark, she presented herself via a symphony (F minor/C sharp minor) and a single-movement orchestral work, Capriccio, which also was orchestrated for a symphony orchestra.
String Quartet No. 2 in G minor,op. 14, was given its first performance by the Breuning-Bache Quartet at her third compositional concert on 13 January 1922. The rest of the evening’s programme featured Two Fantasias for violin and piano as well as a number of songs. Once more, the composer was praised for her command of the craft of composing and for her ‘taste and culture’, but at the same time there was disagreement as to the extent to which she drew on earlier composers. The reviewer for Politiken remarked: ‘It is either thematically speaking too vague or too dependent on her forebears, probably mostly on Carl Nielsen,’ while a critic for the newspaper København was of the opposite opinion and declared that she was not influenced by any particular composer, but ‘completely herself’. Although, as he added:
‘the physiognomy one perhaps can make out in, for example, the String Quartet is not particularly characteristic. The motifs are short, and the treatment is hardly more than satisfactory. The lady is not sure what she wants.’
The quartet begins with an expressively highly charged movement (Moderato – Allegro vivo) and ends with a spirited finale ( Allegro molto e con spirito). In between the two outer movements one hears a Scherzo that is teeming with merry touches and an Andante that balances between intensity and pent-up passion. While the D minor quartet remained unpublished, the G minor quartet was printed in 1926 by the German publisher Tischer & Jagenberg in Cologne, which paved the way for further dissemination. During the following years, it was played at a Nordic music festival in Oslo as well as by radio stations in Hamburg and Prague. It was also played relatively frequently by the Breuning-Bache Quartet, to which it is dedicated, and later by the Erling Bloch Quartet.
String Quartet No. 3, op. 20, composed in 1927, differs from the first two quartets by being in only three movements and also, generally speaking, is more tightly composed. The quartet is highly experimental harmonically and contains a great many chromatic movements in the melody, whole-tone melodics and altered chords that are not resolved in a traditional manner. The first movement, Allegro con passione, is based on a rhythmically pithy motif that is presented with increasing dynamism on the basis of ever higher intervals. The subsidiary theme is more introverted and expressive by nature, and the gradually descending movement of the melody, which alternates between whole-tone and semitone steps, gives plenty of occasion for refined polyphonic play and imitation between the voices. The movement concludes in an immense ascent that, among other things, is created by the instruments playing in pairs and in unison. The final chord is in F major, but the music has no fixed key signature and can neither be related to F major nor to A minor.
The second movement is a lively Allegretto semplice which is mainly in D minor. The instruments change roles during the movement, and just as in the first movement the cello part is pitched extremely high. In a central section marked Andante sostenuto, there is a fugue between the two outer voices at a distance of only one octave. The third movement is once more at a quick tempo, and the introductory motif is characterised by a repetition of notes and staccato with unequal emphases. The 2nd violin reinforces the 1st violin in a descending chromatic passage in demisemiquavers, after which the main motif is repeated a note higher. When the motif is taken over by the viola, the violins come in with a new motif idea that consists of a string of large descending intervallic leaps. In a middle section in Presto, the time signature changes from 4/4 to 3/8, the key changes to D major, and a triplet figure is carried out in pairs by the instruments. After a repeat of the first section of the movement, there comes a coda in which the subsidiary theme and the introductory motif from the first movement of the quartet are repeated, although now transposed into a kind of D tonality.
The musical idiom conveys the impression that Nancy Dalberg was inspired by Central European modernists such as Kodály and Bartók, but more than anything else the quartet is an example of her pleasure at writing polyphonic music. The quartet is dedicated to Carl Nielsen, but neither he nor Nancy Dalberg got to see the printed score. Despite a positive reception at the time, she was clearly unsure about the quality of the music, and only after several unsuccessful attempts to get it published in the Association for the Publication of Danish Music’s series of modern compositional music did she decide around 1942 to pay for its publication herself. The economic situation during the war, however, made this a costly affair, and when the process became prolonged and her health began to fail, she inserted a passage in her will stating that the quartet had not been published on her death, the trustee was to have it printed. Her friend, the pianist and composer Beate Novi, took on the task of reading the proofs and it was published one year after Nancy Dalberg had died in 1949. Since the printer’s copy (Druckvorlage) has not been preserved, it is impossible to know if the composer had revised the music during the many years between its composition and publication.
Lisbeth Ahlgren Jensen, 2019