Paul Hillier and Ars Nova Copenhagen continue their exploration of Danish vocal music. The main work here, Line Tjørnhøj’s ‘Vox Reportage’, was composed in close cooperation with the artists, and weaves various sources together – including 1981 Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, Chelsea Manning, and Rabi’ah al Adawiyya (8th-century Iraq) – to create a ‘reportage’ on the nature of humanity over the past thousand years. In Carl Nielsen’s ’Three Motets’, Renaissance polyphony and the composer’s more personal style are molded into something fresh and powerful; the Swedish Romantic composer Wilhelm Stenhammar sets Danish texts, while Vagn Holmboe sets British border ballads. Everything about this album crosses borders of one kind or another!
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by Paul Hillier
Whether tribal, cultural, linguistic, or merely social, the act of setting physical limits is an expression of power and fear that always ends up limiting those on both sides of whatever divide is created. The works collected here refer to very different borders, some heavy, some light, some almost like an afterthought: but each one showing in its own way that what we do reflects the boundaries that we or others set up.
This idea only emerged as a ‘theme’ after we had first performed Line Tjørnhøj’s Vox Reportage, and indeed as a result of the texts that are used in that piece. When we commissioned her to write us a new work, Line visited me in our summer house to ask what kind of work we wanted. She already had some ideas in mind, but wanted to share the process of mapping out the work she would make, so that it would reflect a community of interest beyond herself.
I suggested Elias Canetti (1905-94), to whose writings I am somewhat addicted, and we agreed that I would make a selection of passages from his masterpiece Crowds and Power, from which she would then choose what she wanted and weave it into her final ‘libretto’ for the work.
She also had sessions with several of the singers in which she experimented with techniques of singing that imitated some of the affects obtained with electronics. (And just to be clear, there are no electronics in the work itself!) The libretto and music therefore were shaped in the normal way by the composer, and yet using built-in links to the artists performing it.
I will briefly sketch here what can be seen as liminal about the other works, taking them in CD order.
Nielsen, Gade, Stenhammar and Holmboe
Carl Nielsen was not a religious man. He wrote his three motets in admiration of the ‘Palestrina style’ and only added words later—that they were in Latin perhaps made the task easier. I would say that the motets move back and forwards across the invisible border between the objective manner of the traditional sacred style enshrined in Palestrina’s music, and Nielsen’s more assertive subjective style familiar from his symphonies. I include more about the motets below.
Niels W. Gade was Denmark’s greatest composer in the late Romantic tradition. A friend of Mendelssohn and Schumann, he moved to Germany in the 1840s and took over the conductorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra after Mendelssohn’s death in 1847. But the following year, when war broke out between the Prussia and Denmark, Gade was obliged to return home to Copenhagen. Gade wrote quite a substantial amount of choral music, some of which is included on our CD ‘The Golden Age of Danish Partsongs’. Unlike its composer, however, the only border this harmonised psalm tune crosses is from the minor to major mode. It is based on selected strophes from N.F.S. Grundtvig’s funeral psalm Som markens blomst henvisner fage and uses two different melodies. For the first three strophes, Gade used Georg Neumark’s Hvo ikkun lader Herren raade, while composing a new melody for the last two strophes.
In response to the migrant refugee crisis, Sweden recently created a ‘security’ barrier on the famous Øresund bridge between Sweden and Copenhagen. Several of our singers are Swedish, and Wilhelm Stenhammar was a Swedish composer perhaps best known for his symphonies (though his string quartets are also very fine), and – among Swedish choirs – for these lovely partsongs. His texts are by the Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-85), a poet and scientist whose writings also furnished texts for Schönberg’s Gurrelieder and Delius’s opera Fennimore and Gerda. This Swedish music is sung in the original Danish of course.
The choice of Vagn Holmboe’s two settings of ‘border ballads’ probably needs no explanation in the present context. The border region between Scotland and the counties of Northumberland and Cumbria has been a site of contest for centuries. The Romans built a wall from one sea to the other, to keep out the unruly Picts and Scots, but in the end poetry would have none of it. Many of the ballads are difficult to date and indeed many of them are from further north or south; but as a genre truly crossing borders, it is one of the miracles of Anglo-Scottish poetry. Vagn Holmboe (his first name rhymes, nearly, with ‘town’) is little known outside Denmark, though he was a composer of great imagination, as illustrated in these two settings. He also wrote an extensive variety of Latin church music that deserves to be better known. Of considerable interest too is his book Danish Street Cries—collected in the 1930s, but only published (with a long essay conveniently in English) in 1988.
I will add that Holmboe was also a mentor to Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, a composer with whom we have been closely involved, and whose death last year is deeply regretted. There is furthermore something of a line of tradition represented on this CD: from Gade to Nielsen to Holmboe, and even (via Holmgreen) to Tjørnhøj.
And now to Line Tjørnhøj, who writes:
Vox Reportage, composed for Ars Nova Copenhagen in 2016, is an abstract flowering of serious, existential themes inherent in contemporary life. Its textual collage is an attempt to build a poetic bridge as a reportage on ‘human’, spanning more than eight centuries of time. In it I strive to confront tangible, human-caused pain, and transform that energy into a reconciling musical expression: a breathing space where to reflect and deal with impossible life situations and unsolvable dilemmas. Human expression can take so many forms, and the only ‘instrument’ that is truly capable of displaying this wide spectrum of emotions is the human voice—here also imitating electronic sounds, staging a drama, forming the words and simultaneously bringing comfort and healing.
To experience soundscapes is a very different state of mind from reading a text. Text addresses the intellect and can create wonderful images, emotions and mental associations. But to be in sound is a much more complex experience. As listeners we freely create our own meanings, our own sense of space and distance, and by association evoke in ourselves feelings and images – and all instantly moment by moment. You don’t need a full text or a correct pronunciation, even small fragments can suffice to make it all subjectively meaningful.
This is the spirit of Vox Reportage. It is not created by logic: I have trusted my intuition when sampling text and ideas, my fascination for sounds and language, my longing for meaning and spirituality, and in this way letting the work unfold itself from the discussions with Paul (the Canetti texts) and the research sessions with the singers.
For me this is reportage, communication that combines impressions of the present with the addition of other (historical) information. So the text and the work are two different things. The text could be read before or after listening; the work should be heard by itself! Both complete the other, and each makes its own strong expression.
In conclusion, some more thoughts about Carl Nielsen’s Three Motets:
In the summer of 1972, when I visited Denmark for the first time, I was given a book of Nielsen’s songs and learned to sing some of them in Danish. This experience led me to listen to his symphonies and, later, to enjoy his chamber music as well. Nonetheless I remained unaware that his motets even existed until I began guest conducting Ars Nova Copenhagen in the late 1990s. Even today I would say that, as a choral composer, Nielsen remains practically unknown outside Denmark. The reason for this is obvious enough: most of his surprisingly numerous choral compositions are for amateur choirs, setting Danish texts for the most part as simple harmonised melodies. They fulfil their purpose admirably enough, but they don’t normally seem to travel. It is the motets—in singing’s universal language, Latin—that can therefore more readily represent him as a choral composer internationally.
It is not just that the motets are fine music. They were composed in 1929 for Denmark’s Palestrina Choir and its conductor Mogens Wöldike, both then at the height of their renown. What first interested me about them was to see what such a ‘symphonic’ composer would do with the so-called Palestrina style, which we know he deliberately and carefully imitated ... at least, up to a point. It turns out that one of the pleasures of these motets is the way in which the symphonic side of Nielsen keeps peeping through the imitation-Gothic windows. The Palestrina style has been with us ever since the 17th century, gradually becoming enshrined as an eloquent if somewhat marmoreal relic from the past, to be imitated and learned from by all worthy composers, and sometimes offering the excuse for works that lack any personal characteristics (talent) of their own. The results in Nielsen’s case are wholly positive: the motets are a fascinating hybrid in which Nielsen’s own unmistakable style is blended with the imitative textures of the 16th century, and produces, not pastiche, but something unique and precious. Two things in particular distinguish this music from many paler imitations of the old style: the harmonic migrations in the first and third motets, and the counterpointing of different motifs one against the other. As with Debussy and Ravel, who also composed only one significant work of a cappella vocal music in the form of a set of three pieces, one comes away wishing to goodness Nielsen had written more such works!
It is odd then that this masterpiece of Danish choral music exists in a rather unsatisfactory edition full of questionable phrase markings (breath commas in the strangest places), and with numerous differences (mostly in underlay, but also in actual notes, tempo markings etc.) from the only surviving manuscript source in the composer’s own hand. The reason usually advanced for this (e.g. in the recent Nielsen collected works) is that the motets were revised for performance by Wöldike – and naturally this was in accordance with Wöldike’s own tastes and ideas about Renaissance performance practice – and that Nielsen undoubtedly acquiesced in their use. But ideas about Renaissance performance practice have changed hugely since the 1930s, and Wöldike’s ideas now come across as mannered and certainly outmoded. So whether the new (but in fact old) edition should be allowed to stand as the final word on the musical text is, to put it mildly, a moot point. This short note is not the place to go into details, but suffice it to say that we are performing a version that goes some small way back towards Nielsen’s original manuscript – and yet not the whole way, because I do accept that some of the changes in underlay were for the better and most likely would have been incorporated into an authoritative published edition.
A further detail in the story of these motets is that in a letter to his wife, dated May 22 1929, we read (in my case, with surprise) that Nielsen began composing the music without having yet chosen the texts:
I am already working on my new work (without text, which can always easily be found and underlaid in Latin). It is just a question of a few words for each piece, because it’s the fundamental mood that counts:
1) Anxiety and Lament
2) Peace and Well-being
3) Thanks and Jubilation (Hymn).
... and elsewhere (on the back of a letter) he noted down the following slightly different set of titles:
I I call to you in the night
II You give me peace
This process runs entirely counter to the normal practice of composers in the 16th century! Compare William Byrd’s famous comment that “there is a certain hidden power, as I learnt by experience, in the thoughts underlying the words themselves; so that, as one meditates upon the sacred words and constantly and seriously considers them, the right notes, in some inexplicable manner, suggest themselves quite spontaneously.” While on this occasion Nielsen seems to have proceeded in the opposite direction, he fortunately selected his words wisely. Just as Byrd always strove to compose music framed to the life of the words, so we might invert that phrase and say that Nielsen found words framed to the life of his music. Of course it is just possible that he had at least some of the words in mind all along …
© Paul Hillier, August 2017