Peter Heise: The Song Edition
Peter Heise: The Song Edition
Peter Heise didn’t give much attention to his songs. He didn’t perform them, give them opus numbers or attempt to have them published outside Denmark. The songs lived their own lives, spreading amongst the Danish public because of the strength of their beauty and their artistic quality. With time they have been acknowledged as the best of their kind written by a Danish composer. This edition presents nearly every song, almost 300 songs in all, for the first time.
'Album of the year', DR P2 Prize 2022
Heise’s songs — a poetic life’s work
By Jens Cornelius
He didn’t give much attention to his songs. He didn’t perform them, give them opus numbers or attempt to have them published outside Denmark. The songs lived their own lives, spreading amongst the Danish public because of the strength of their beauty and their artistic quality. With time they have been acknowledged as the best of their kind written by a Danish composer.
Peter Heise’s reputation in Denmark as a song composer grew after his death in 1879, but on an international level, his songs have so far remained a hidden treasure. This is, first and foremost, because of the difficulties non-Danes have with the Danish language, for Heise composed nearly exclusively to texts in Danish and the other Nordic languages. There have, too, been few recordings of his songs, but with this edition we can hear nearly all of them for the first time, nearly 300 songs in all. It is Heise’s whole life in poetry and song that Christian Westergaard has collected and edited for this edition.
‘Heise’s songs are a great musical treasure, which deserve to be presented complete. I hope this release will succeed in making them more widely known and respected. There are many grounds for bringing his songs into the light, for Heise was master of melody, and his songs are the best art songs in Danish’, explains Christian Westergaard.
Peter Arnold Heise was born in 1830 into an academic family in Copenhagen. He began to write songs when he was only 13, and at 17 he began lessons in composition with the idealistic A.P. Berggreen, who brought together classicist and national Romantic folk styles. Heise’s melodic talent was evident, as we can hear, for example, in the charming Agnetes vuggevise (Agnete’s lullaby) to a text by Hans Christian Andersen, written in 1849. Heise himself thought that he needed a stronger theoretical grounding, so in 1852-53 he undertook further studies in Leipzig, the city in which his older contemporary, Niels Wilhelm Gade had made his great breakthrough in the 1840s. Gade had also been a student of Berggreen’s, and he became both a friend and mentor to Heise.
In Leipzig Heise learned composition and theory from Moritz Hauptmann, cantor at St Thomas’s Church. Heise studied counterpoint and fugue, played Bach’s organ and engaged fully with the town’s vigorous concert life. The music offered in Leipzig, from the Baroque to Wagner’s latest operas, was entirely beyond comparison with that available in contemporary Copenhagen.
Heise took on his teacher’s simple strophic form and formal transparency. The first songs he had published were Fire digte (Four poems) to texts by Christian Winther and Adam Oehlenschläger, which were published while he was still living in Leipzig. Thereafter he produced a steady stream of finely polished songs, continuing for the rest of his life. Most unusually, this industrious, dedicated song composer had no great ambitions for his career. It is interesting to compare Heise with his Norwegian contemporary, Edvard Grieg, who came to Leipzig a few years later and had his songs widely distributed in German editions with translated texts. That did not happen for Heise, perhaps because he didn’t think of his art as a career for life. His own descriptions of his songs were unusually modest, and in his letters he often speaks of them using the disarming term, ‘ballads’.
Instead of using his German contacts and building up a career as a composer, Heise attached himself to the academic community in Copenhagen as soon as he had graduated from high school. In 1854 he was appointed conductor of the Studentersangforeningen (the Students’ Singing Society), the university’s male choir. In fact he never became a lawyer as planned, but broke off his university studies after just one year. In 1857 he took on the only secure post he ever held, as music teacher and organist at the fine old boarding school at Sorø. He wrote choral songs, vocal quartets and cantatas for the university choir and for the students at Sorø Academy, and he became a sought-after composer of songs for theatrical performances in Copenhagen.
In 1859 Heise married Vilhelmine ‘Ville’ Hage, daughter of Alfred Hage, one of Denmark’s richest men and a leading liberal politician. In 1865 the pair left provincial Sorø and settled in the centre of Copenhagen. During the summer they lived in a large country house in Taarbæk, north of the capital. The Heises were well off enough not to need secure employment. Even though Heise was a skilful pianist, played the violin and composed a number of excellent chamber works, he had no career on the stage and took little part in concert life or Copenhagen’s musical community. He never became a public celebrity, although his songs were printed and distributed more as the years passed. Heise’s life was played out in the intellectual circles of Copenhagen, where he felt himself ‘at home’, and amongst which he was valued for his gifts, sociability and his lively sense of humour.
The most significant interruptions to Heise’s steady path came from three long journeys to Italy in the 1860s. He loved his encounters with Italian culture, art and people’s lives, but they had relatively little impact on his music. One of the few exceptions was ‘Sydlandske sange’ (Southern songs) (1874), settings of texts by H.P. Holst and B.S. Ingemann, who had taught at Sorø Academy since 1822 and died there in 1862. Heise included a quotation from Rossini in the tarantella, ‘En ritornelsanger blandt dansende landfolk’ (A ritornello singer amongst the dancing country folk).
While in Italy, Heise became part of the Scandinavian artists’ colony there. It included the Norwegian poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, whose long poem Bergliot was constructed on the basis of an old Nordic saga about King Harald Hårderåde, who murdered Bergliot’s husband, Einar, and their son, Eindride. It was written especially for Heise. He set the text to music, in a fusion of a song cycle and a solo cantata (there is a better known version with music by Grieg, composed 10 years later, which employs recitation). Bjørnson was delighted with Heise’s music for Bergliot, which he thought ‘hard to hear without tears’.
Heise also wrote music for Solveigs sange (Solveig’s songs) from Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, some years before Grieg, and songs for Bjørnson’s play, Arne. At that time, Danish and Norwegian were officially the same language, though they were pronounced differently. ‘Heise had a sensitivity to folklore and local colour. There were particular musical phrases he could use in his Norwegian songs’, explains Christian Westergaard.
Bergliot was just one of the distinctive female figures that Heise worked on, and who led him to write some of his best music. He heard Schumann’s song cycle, Frauenliebe und Leben (A Woman’s Love and Life) in Leipzig in 1852, and it made a powerful impression on him. ‘This is absolutely the best song-music I have heard until now’, wrote Heise, calling the cycle ‘a complete masterpiece’. Heise’s interest in the psychology of women was certainly the outcome of the central, tragic circumstance of his life: that his mother had died at his birth. This event may have opened his eyes to the fate of women and impacted, too, on a special group of his works, lullabys. ‘Heise never missed an opportunity, if it was possible for him to write a lullaby’, explains Christian Westergaard. ‘Amongst his unpublished manuscripts is one called, “From My Mother’s Grave” — it is significant that he composed such a song’.
The musical portraits of women that Heise wrote are often based on real people from history. In Dyveke’s songs it is Dyveke, the lover of the unpredictable king Christian II, whose dream and anxiety Heise describes, in a way that is both nuanced and gripping. In his national historical opera, Drot og Marsk (King and Marshal), we meet two contrasting women, the burdened noble woman Lady Ingeborg and the intuitive, independent Aase from a humble background. Aase has three songs in the opera, and they became a popular part of Heise’s output. InGudruns sorg (Gudrun’s grief), with text taken from the old Nordic Edda (Gudrunkvadene), it is Sigurd Fafnerbane’s widow who, like Bergliot, expresses a woman’s reaction to men’s unthinking violence. Heise sets the saga text’s brief, raw verse in sound, lines and sombre harmonisation, while the song is held together by a mournful march motif.
‘There are a wealth of complex female figures in his music’, says Christian Westergaard. ‘Female psychology interests him most, and leads him towards hybrid musical forms. Bergliot is formed as a high drama around a core of song, whilst Gudrun’s grief works from the inside while maintaining the external form. It is the most psychologically profound of his works.’
Heise’s choice of texts tells the story of his life-long work on songs accompanied by piano. He looked fastidiously for new texts, and his choices can be seen as an anthology of good Danish poetry. Amongst the older poets, Christian Winther was one of his favourites. The collaboration can be compared with better known partnerships between composers and poets. Winther’s poetry has a core and an ambiguity which captivated Heise for many years, whereas poems by the better known Ingemann and Oehlenschläger only engaged him for a shorter period. Later he became interested in Emil Aarestrup’s ardent love poetry, and in the 1870s he collaborated with Holger Drachmann, who emerged as an important Danish author in this period. Heise was one of the first composers to acknowledge the poetry of Steen Steensen Blicher, who wrote in the Jutlandic dialect.
The same openness to new ways of working can be seen in Heise’s musical style, culminating in the three outstanding collections he composed in his last year: Erotiske digte (Erotic poems, Aarestrup), Farlige drømme (Dangerous dreams) and Dyvekes sange (Dyveke’s songs, Drachmann). Dyveke’s songs employ through-composed forms, an expressive harmony and a lively, interactive accompaniment which adheres closely to the text, in a direction which Heise did not have the opportunity to develop.
‘Heise’s choice of texts grew broader with the years, at the same time as his musical expression became more varied. It was a really interesting symbiosis, and it is sad to think what he might have gone on to write if he had been blessed with better health, and had not died at the age of only 49’.
Shortly before Heise died from kidney disease in 1879, a three volume edition of his songs began to appear in print. They were purchased by many musical homes in Denmark in the years which followed his death, and Heise was acknowledged as the nineteenth century’s leading Danish composer of songs. When the first biography of Heise was published in 1926, the author, Gustav Hetsch, wrote that the book did not need to go into detail about his songs, because all the book’s readers already knew them all beforehand! ‘When one’s music has won a whole people’s ears and hearts — so is one on a good path to immortality’, wrote Hetsch.
Individual songs became especially popular, for example, ‘Næppe tør jeg tale’ (I hardly dare speak), ‘Skovensomhed’ (Loneliness in the woods), ‘Vågn af din slummer’ (Wake from your slumber), ‘Der var en svend med sin pigelil’ (It was a lover and his lass), ‘Vårsang i høst’ (Spring song at harvest), ‘Han gynged på havet’ (He rocked on the sea), ‘Højt over bøgens top’ (High over the beech’s top), ‘Den unge lærkes forårssang’ (The young lark’s spring song) and ‘Gold er den jord’ (Barren is the soil). Some of the songs became an established part of Denmark’s communal singing repertoire, including ‘Jylland (mellem tvende have)’ (Jylland, between two seas).
Peter Heise composed around 300 songs in all. 187 of them are included in the old three volume set published after Heise’s death, while the scholarly edition published in 1990, edited by Niels Martin Jensen, contains 226. This recording is the first to collect virtually all his songs. Around 100 of them have never been recorded before, so this is the first time that it has been possible to achieve such a comprehensive view of Heise’s art.
Christian Westergaard has divided the songs into groups which show the main themes in Heise’s work and are gathered in the principal printed collections. Some of the themes which characterized Heise’s time found relatively little place in his work, so for example, nationalism can only be traced in the six Krigssange (War songs), written as a response to Denmark’s disastrous encounter with Prussia in 1864, and once the war had ended, Heise stopped setting German poetry. Heise was much more interested in setting poetry about love and the erotic, for example in his settings of Emil Aarestrup’s sensuous love poems. In ‘Skovensomhed’ (Loneliness in the woods) he captures the magic of love in Aarestrup’s poetry with ecstatic harmony and a weightless melody, while in ‘Til en veninde’ (To a lady friend) he points towards the depths of desire and obsession.
‘Heise had a special capacity for controlling his musical expression so that he could be precise in representing a particular text’, says Christian Westergaard. ‘We can always hear that it is Heise, at the same time as we hear his music shaped around the text, as could only happen with the greatest of lieder composers.’
Heise himself said that he was ‘the only Danish composer who understood the art of reading’. This applies not only to his skill in the musical embodiment of poetry, but also reflects his understanding of how to use French, Italian, German, English and the Nordic languages. He did, however, use Danish translations of texts by non-Danish authors, including Shakespeare, Byron, Heine and Goethe. Only one collection, Lenau’s Schilflieder (Reed songs) was published with both German and Danish texts, and only one of the many unprinted songs was composed using both the original text and its translation.
This release takes a step forward by presenting Heise’s songs in new translations in German, English and French. ‘The Danish respectfulness towards Heise can weigh heavily’, says Christian Westergaard, ‘but if what we say is that Heise is so good, it is time to share Heise’s glorious songs with the rest of the world.’
Travelling through Heise’s songs
By Christian Westergaard
When Peter Heise died at the age of 49, he was at the top of his artistic game. He was the foremost composer of songs in Denmark, and his life’s work stood as a beautiful if brief peak in Danish art song, with few predecessors and even fewer successors.
This boxed set containing 11 CDs includes all of Heise’s published solo songs, a small group of unpublished songs and a larger group of newly translated songs. It is presented as a series of 11 journeys through Peter Heise’s works, each CD having its own programme and making a distinctive contribution to our understanding of Heise’s work. The ambition of the set is to encourage steady listening, deepening our familiarity with the well known works while introducing those which have not been heard before. Each disc’s programme is built upon a thematic focus designed to draw out both conscious and unconscious strands in Heise’s output. For those of us who have travelled on this journey through Heise’s contribution to Danish song, these 11 CDs represent a unique experience of coherence and contrast, variety and unity, from a composer who, more than any other in his period, wrote his songs in ‘a Danish tone’.
Heise is always unmistakable in his art, especially because of his empathetic identification with his texts, which is in the same class as the greatest of composers of vocal music. Like a good character actor, Heise uses his musical language to create rich poetic worlds. His literary outlook was broad, and his choice of texts stretches from the most recent developments in contemporary writing to the world of the old Nordic sagas, always in a search for psychological authenticity. Through this wide range in the selection of texts we discover how Heise’s always recognisable musical language is conditioned by his reading of each text. This musical development and working out has formed the basis for the thematic grouping of each of the 11 CDs.
From first to last, we are aware that Heise’s songs express a perceived opposition between female humanism and male destructiveness. Few of the well-known composers of songs, mostly male, have chosen to write from a woman’s perspective as often as Heise, but we look through his songs in vain for a corresponding depth of description in his handling of male psychology and character. Heise’s male characters usually embody a masculine world’s power, violence and the failure to feel, and a few songs, like those to texts by Ernst von der Recke about the knight Bertrand de Born or Edvard Lembcke’s about the giant Samson, are two-dimensional clichés. By contrast, in his portraits of women Heise seeks to achieve psychological realism and a level of nuance that he teases from the old Nordic sagas as well as his own time’s ‘modern breakthrough’. The clash between the masculine world’s raw, infantile masculinity and destruction, and the ‘female’ world of sensitivity and care, are easy to find: Dyveke’s prince Christian; Bergliot’s final rejection of blood-revenge; Gudrun’s absorption in mourning and vulnerability; Solveig’s sensitivity and motherly care for Peer Gynt. Men are slaves in a world they have made for themselves, where women, on the contrary, gain strength through their insistence on human interdependence.
The highest possible achievement for a composer working in Copenhagen during the nineteenth century was to have a success at the Royal Danish Theatre, so it was natural for a composer of vocal music like Peter Heise to aim for a musico-dramatic production on the national stage in their quest for public recognition. The culmination of Heise’s effort in this regard was the opera, Drot og Marsk (King and Marshal), but Heise’s dramatic sense also found expression in song cycles likeGudruns sorg (Gudrun’s grief), an integrated cycle, and Dyvekes sange (Dyveke’s songs), a collection of individual pieces, during his final decade.
Like his Danish predecessors, Heise was brought up to admire the poetry of a number of German poets, especially Goethe and Heine, but he did not publish a single song with a text by them. This is surprising, as their poetic quality might have produced, with a corresponding musical energy, pearls amongst Heise’s output.
During the nineteenth century, Copenhagen was the cultural centre of the North, and Heise was in close personal contact with a number of the leading Nordic intellectuals of his day, amongst them the Norwegian national poets Ibsen and Bjørnsson. These contacts developed into a series of practical collaborations which might have led to a great many other projects, but sadly they came to nothing. What did emerge was a series of ‘Norwegian’ songs. Heise’s skill in presenting national identity in music is never overplayed, and their Norwegian character is discreetly and subtly rendered in the harmonic and melodic word settings. These traits have been recognised in a few instances in this edition by presenting these songs with Norwegian texts and ornamentation.