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Will-o’-the-Wisps in Town; Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Per Nørgård

Will-o’-the-Wisps in Town; Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Helene Gjerris, Athelas Sinfonietta
The Will-o'-the-Wisps in Town is an extraordinary fairy tale cantata created by the Danish composer Per Nørgård (b. 1932) and his close friend, author Suzanne Brøgger, on the basis of a little known fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. This world premiere recording of the chamber version focuses on the charismatic Marsh With\, sung by mezzo-soprano Helene Gjerris who also premiered the work in Birmingham, UK, at the international celebration of the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth.

The CD is accompanied by a half-hour documentary following Nørgård, Brøgger, Gjerris and the Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen's work with The Will-o'-the-Wisps produced by TV GLAD, a Danish national TV station for and featuring people with intellectual disability / functional impairment.

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"Fascinatingly approachable."
Andrew Clements, The Guardian (UK)
"Superb performance and recording, as usual from Dacapo."
David Fanning, Gramophone
"Gjerris is so good that it is a pleasure simply to listen to her perform... As always with Dacapo, production values and presentation are first-rate."
"The performances are first rate and the sound is magnificent."
Rob Haskins, American Record Guide
Total runtime: 
49 min.

The Marsh Witch, a well-known (and notorious) figure in Danish popular superstition, suddenly appears before the poet who is longing for fairy tales, and besides showing him various paraphernalia (bottles and the like) for making fairy tales and poetry, she warns him and the town inhabitants about the big threat: The will-o’-the-wisps (or at least twelve of them) will come to town and stay for a whole year and each of them will attempt to seduce 365 humans and use their magic blue lights to lead them into moral bog holes (And falling down is endless, the falling never stops, because there is no bottom!\)

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ends with the warning from the Marsh Witch, but Suzanne Brøgger takes the will-o’-thewisps for a ride by letting them try their mischievous tricks in the present – but things are so bad in our times that their tricks fall flat.

However, The Marsh Witch does take revenge on behalf of her supernatural allies by telling us that things are just as bad for the famous fairy tale characters – not even the ugly duckling can look forward to a happy ending!

At the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth, The Society for Publishing Danish Music commissioned works from ten Danish composers, myself among them, to be based on fairy tales of our own choice. I chose the fairy tale \\The Will-o’-the-Wisps Are in Town, Said the Marsh Witch\\, and composed a fairy tale cantata for mezzo-soprano, actor, mixed choir, children’s choir, drummers and orchestra.

Artistic director of the Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen, Anders Beyer, commisioned a version for only one singer (Helene Gjerris who sung at the premiere of the large-scale version in Birmingham, England, on Andersen’s 200th birthday, April 2, 2005), and five instruments of my choice: trumpet, trombone, violin, cello and piano. This limitation meant that the chamber version would necessarily become a re-composed, in parts a wholly new work, rather than a mere arrangement of the larger work. Thus, the absence of large orchestral forces (including percussion and siren) meant that instead of the 'ironic', programmatic ouverture (“The 1864 Ouverture”), hinting at how the Danish Romantic devotion to nature and nationality deteriorated into hubris and national catastrophe – the chamber music version attempts, in a manner which is actually just as programmatic, to express the deterioration and ultimate petrification of the creative imaginaton. This is actually the 'inside' of the initial words of the fairy tale, about the man who \\used to know any number of new fairy tales, but now he had run out of them.\\

The absence of adult and children’s choirs did not mean that I had to leave out every scene they take part in. Instead, I have recreated some of these movements from the large-scale version in the form of arias. Therefore the part of the soloist is significantly more demanding in the chamber version. In the large version, she remained the Marsh Witch (bare-foot, following Helene’s own idea – self-evident, when you come to think of it), whereas in the smaller version, not only does she have extra arias to sing, but she also takes over the part of the narrator, as well as that of the poet (Hans Christian Andersen himself!), both of them speaking Andersen’s own words. As before, the wild Marsh Witch-text of Suzanne Brøgger alternates with the words of Andersen, but in the chamber cantata the words are spoken by the same lips, those of the mezzo-soprano!

A couple of the choir movements have been reworked (reduced!), so that the great \\Here they are now\\-culmination has been replaced by a short instrumental fight scene. At certain points in the score, the musicians must express themselves vocally in talking and shouting choirs, and in one instance as a falsetto choir of will-o’-the-wisps.

There are two layers in the narrative. The first layer consists of Hans Christian Andersen’s own words, describing a strange incident: Andersen himself meets a real fairy tale character, none other than the Marsh Witch! It is evident that the \\man\\ of the story is Andersen himself, and that it takes place about a year after 1864, the fatal year of war where a third of Denmark was lost to the Germans because of Denmark’s short-sighted nationalistic policy. The understandable misery of the Danish people was shared by Andersen. He felt that he had run out of inspiration and creative impulses. Now – at the beginning of the fairy tale – he feels the loss of his creative powers, and he goes to seek out the Fairy Tale. The Marsh Witch willingly offers the distressed poet fairy tales (\\in bottles\\), but abruptly, she stops paying tribute to her own \\Marsh Witch brew\\, and warns the man and the townspeople: The will-o’- the-wisps are in town and will lead people astray for a whole year! \\Be on your guard, humankind!\\ she ends her dramatic disclosure, \\the will-o’-thewisps have gone to town!\\

This is where Andersen’s fairy tale ends – some might say: Just as it is about to begin! At least that was my thought as a composer: This story is a fantastic torso. But to be able to set it to music, I needed a continuation of the story: What are the will-o’-the-wisps actually doing in town? – and how do the townspeople react? – what happened? I asked the writer Suzanne Brøgger this question, and the second – and equally imaginative – layer of the narrative consists of her writing. She takes the poor will-o’-the-wisps to our own time and lets them loose in a modern city in the year 2005, and compared to the amount of seduction and deprivation of the modern world, the temptations the will-o’-the-wisps of 1865 have to offer seem quite harmless in our time. So they fail miserably, while the audience get an insight into the moral decay of our time.

When I was going to meet Suzanne and ask her to do the job, I was thinking of the Marx Brothers who were always given a very thin screenplay before shooting a scene, something like: \\Rich American comes to town, you appear and trick his money out of him in various funny ways.\\ In various funny ways, that’s not an easy task! But it was this kind of task that I gave Suzanne. I told her: \\The will-o’-the-wisps come to town and you show what they do to pull the wool over people’s eyes.\\

Suzanne was once asked to describe what characterizes our times. She answered that we are living in the age of deliberate blindness. It is understandable and natural that we are blind in the sense that the universe is endless and we cannot be expected to be able to see it all. But deliberate blindness means that we know e.g. that the oil reserves are running out, but we pretend that we cannot see it. This characterisation of our age could be used as a motto for the work: The age of deliberate blindness. But at least it’s a comfort that we brought the deliberate blindness upon ourselves, rather than being the victims of sorcery – so we can actually choose a different and better path. Suzanne presented me with 12 pages of poetry. I was happy and overwhelmed, but I discovered that there were words that I did not want to use in my music, so I left out certain passages and asked for additional lines in other passages, and I couldn’t even begin to compose before I had found the right words. The task for me was to be 'co-creative' with Suzanne, and at the same time preserve the clarity and special qualities of her writing. I couldn’t bear the thought of writing descriptive themes as in \\Peter and the Wolf\\ where the music is subservient to the narrative. No, in my case, the music and the libretto needed to be equally important. Fortunately there was no need to worry about Suzanne’s reaction, because she agreed to take part in an editing process before the actual composing of the music started. I am sure I don’t have to tell you that Suzanne is a witch herself who digs into what is considered taboo – from the very beginning I wanted her to take part in this project!

There are two points of intersection in this period of Hans Christian Andersen’s life: The first is his experience of the war of 1864, the second is the crisis in his own life, as the Romantic era has come to an end and the Modern age has begun. The so-called Modern Breakthrough in Danish literature is about to happen, and it is as though there is an expectation of a modern breakthrough in Andersen’s writings as well. In his last years, he attempts to write for the future. Therefore, this is a meta-fictional fairy tale, a fairy tale about how to write fairy tales when society has changed. In a sense, it was the same task that was handed over to me: Is it possible to continue the story in our own time?

The will-o’-the-wisps have been made redundant by me, so to speak. Because all the places where I wanted to send the will-o’-the-wisps, things had already deteriorated so that there wasn’t anything for the will-o’-the-wisps to do – their tricks would seem so innocent and harmless compared to the consequences of modernity. The libretto is ambiguous in the sense that in spite of all that has deteriorated, and in spite of all the traditions of the life-affirming kind that have disappeared (I am not talking about fossilized traditions), it turns out that after all the fairy tale cannot be defeated.

I have tried to reflect on the nature of fairy tales. I discovered that, in the spirit of Andersen, something 'evil' has to be introduced. Some kind of destructive force is needed – a kind of darkness or something that one is afraid of. The fairy tale takes place at the crossing over the stream where a troll might turn up. It takes place in a period of transition where one is vulnerable and it is uncertain how things will turn out, although it’s in the nature of the fairy tale that there is a happy ending. Therefore, my task was to find out: What is the evil that you can write about today? One could also ask where Andersen’s fairy tales stem from. It has something to do with the magic of the four-leaf clovers that Andersen writes about which grow on the exact spot where a butterfly touches a tombstone. It is right there between life and death that the magic occurs.

The reason why the will-o’-the-wisps must do mischief, and the reason why one has to introduce evil or destructiveness, is that the \\poetry in bottles\\ or discount poetry which we are offered, isn’t good enough. You have to have the courage to explore those areas where it hurts. I have entered into the language and disorganized the fairy tale from the inside by turning all the messages upside down.

In his own age, Hans Christian Andersen was criticized for writing the way people spoke. He wrote: \\The sun sinks ... and so on\\. It did not fit in with the pompous poetry that was expected at the time. This is perhaps the only area where I emulate Andersen stylistically, in trying to write the way people speak.

Actually, I think that there are several ear-catching tunes in this work. When you have heard these tunes several times, you keep 'singing' them in your imagination. I like the fact that there are so many singable passages that appeal to people of all ages. It was quite overwhelming the first time Per Nørgård played the whole work to me on the piano. The music becomes a different time dimension where you can unfold a mood or an emotion. A statement that amounts to two lines in a text can unfold in the music and gain in depth and spaciousness and last several minutes. That is why you move into a different time dimension when listening to music – and in this work, Per Nørgård has managed to change the mood for each new scene from the fairy tale: A whole new world begins in each and every scene.

Per Nørgård and Suzanne Brøgger were interviewed by Anders Beyer. The interviews are quoted from the article \\Når månen står på slem – interview med Per Nørgård og Suzanne Brøgger\\, in Danish Music Review no. 1, 2005/2006


The work was commissioned by the Ebb and Flow Ensemble for premiere at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, Kahului, Hawaii, 23 November 2008. The title is borrowed from the magnificent first poem in American poet Walt Whitman’s suite of poems, \\Sea-Drift\\, a tribute to the sea. The suite also forms part of Whitman’s magnum opus \\Leaves of Grass\\, which he revised, extended and worked on practically all his writing life. I had previously drawn some lines from the poem for another work of mine, a work likewise entitled \\Seadrift\\ (1978), for soprano and ensemble.

In this present, new piece I did not set out to depict in music 'the soul of the sea' or anything like that. I did, however, have an intention of making the piece a sort of outstretched hand from one small country with a multitude of islands and a lot of water around it (I am referring, of course, to my native Denmark) to another country with many islands: Hawaii, with its far-away exotic appeal (at least for a Scandinavian), and its remoteness, thousands and thousands of nautical miles away.

Folkloristic Hawaiian chant (alluring samples of which were kindly forwarded to me from the commissioner of the work) fascinated and impressed me so much that my melodic repertoire in the new piece sometimes echo these Hawaiian chants.

A latent wave-character is characteristic of the piece, hence the subtitle. You will hear a simultaneity of different 'wavelengths', and often a dense and complex melodic and rhythmic multi-layering. In the third movement, a driving, metamorphosing acceleration is built up towards the end.

When I looked back at the music I had composed, there was no doubt in my mind as to the title; this was certainly a music \\Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking\\ – in my own rocking and waving way.

It is out of this endless, rocking cradle for everything, called the sea – that the music emerges. The work was to have the same instrumentation as Messiaen’s \\Quartet for the End of Time\\ – clarinet, violin, cello and piano – and I chose as my point of departure that which unites Hawaii and Denmark: The sea!

It has been very inspiring for me to become absorbed in something that has always been at the core of my music, the wave forms. It is a deeply fascinating aspect of music that it actually is wave forms, because of the way that music reaches our ears in the form of oscillations. Music is a multilayered world of oscillations.

The form of waves is determinated by the grooves in the sand as we all know from our trips to the beach in the summer. It makes one wonder, what is it that determines the form of the grooves? It is the waves! It’s wonderful how existence is ordered in that way: One thing determines the other, but this in turn determines the first. There is a constant interrelatedness where the size of the waves depends on what they find on their way, but at the same time the intensity of the waves can influence the shape of what they roll across. It is this mutual influence that inspires my music.

In the first movement, the various instruments play different rhythms which sort of overlap each other, but if you listen to it several times, you will recognise something which gets more apparent later on – for example, there is a certain rhythm, 5-4-3 – or an encompassing 3 beat rhythm which can be subdivided into smaller measures. I consider these arcs to be very concrete, and it is this kind of wave formation which interests me – it is related to the cosmos.

In the first movement I make use of unfamiliar sounds, as the pianist must put her left hand on the lowest strings of the piano while playing on the corresponding keys with her right hand. This creates a strange, copper-like sound, which can be dry as dust, like a wasp buzzing close to your ear, but if she uses the pedal, the sound becomes a humming, sea-like sound, so it’s almost there as an image, but it’s purely musical just the same.

The second movement has the Hawaiian chant as its centre, but there are many other layers there as well. I wrote to the Hawaiian chamber ensemble which commissioned the work, saying that I’d be interested in hearing the original Hawaiian folk music. I am very fond of ethnic music, having had Vagn Holmboe as a teacher, and early on I came to love the different worlds of expression which are like really different universes. But I had never before made use of folk music in my own music, so I didn’t really expect that I would do so in this case. But then this disc arrived in my mail, with ten chants accompanied by a small drum – and compared to what I can do with percussion in my music, this seemed very modest, for it was just a small stone drum. But this drum and the singing – it was quite fascinating! What fascinated me was the sound of their voices which wasn’t like any voices I had heard anywhere in the world before. It was the sound of feeling physically at ease. It is a kind of rhythmic chanting where the intensity and pitch slowly increases. When they sing with their vibrating voices, a great feeling of being physically at ease is transmitted to our bodies. The experience of this ancient music culture which is called Huna, was so strong that it influenced the work.

What interests me about waves is that they seldom have a regular pulse. They are not strictly periodic, they don’t just say splash, splash, splash against the beach, it is a much more sophisticated phenomena. But the way the Hawaiian chant repeats itself becomes a counterpoint to the eternally new wave rhythm – this is my central concern in the second movement. Already at the end of the first movement, the rhythm of the chant is hinted at in the cello – the repeat of one note which increases slightly in pitch and intensity. But otherwise the inspiration from the chanting is in the second movement as a rhythmic contrast to the wave forms. It mirrors a certain aspect about Hawaii which interests me, so I have included it as a tribute to Hawaii.

What excited me when I finally chose the title by Walt Whitman, was the rhythm of that sentence: \\Out of the Cradle endlessly rocking\\. That line was music to me, not just rhythmically, but also because of the vowels – so the title of the work is integrated in the music at the start of the third movement, in the way that the vowels are used as notes. Because all humans have the same pitch when they whisper identical vowels, I let the musicians whisper the title, leaving out the consonants, and then the piano and the other instruments take over that rhythm, so that the verbal part leads straight into the instrumental part – I never tried that before. I never came across a title as inherently musical before, either: \\Out of the Cradle ...\\

The third movement is like a single acceleration towards the fastest possible tempo. There are some minor intermezzi, but then it goes on, and at the end it is whirling, accelerating like a storm, the wave forms are really taking over. And then, at the very end, there is just an infinity tone, which I composed from several layers in the strings, and then the piano playing a certain phrase, endlessly, and at the same time there is a whistling sound – originally I wanted the sound of a crystal glass, but it can be hard to find in a concert hall, so I accepted the sound of someone whistling – which interferes with the clarinet which plays at a slightly lower pitch. The way it is done is that at the same time as we hear the combination of piano and strings, the clarinet plays a high pitched, effortless note, and it can also make a slight glissando without changing the position of the fingers. Simultaneously, it is possible for the pianist, while playing her phrases, to whistle a note which is close to that of the clarinet. The musicians have prepared how to vary their tones so that the distance between them alternately increases and decreases, which means that the number of beat tones is constantly changing. This results in a vibration in the listener’s ear which I think is something quite wonderful and cosmic which is integral to our sense of hearing: We are directly connected with the cosmos in our physical experience! And this tone is then endlessly fading away into the distance ...

Interview by Rune Kühl

Release date: 
April 2012
Cat. No.: 
Track count: 


Recorded at the Royal Danish Academy of Music on 30 March-2 April (Will-o'-the-Wisps in Town) and 26-27 November 2009 (Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking).

Previously released in 2010 by TV-Glad

Dramatic consultant: Jan Maagaard
Recording producer: Preben Iwan
Executive producer: Peter Tulinius Krarup

Artistic director and general manager, Athelas Sinfonietta: Anders Beyer

Illustrations: Daniel Poulsen, Glad Design
Graphic design: Glad Design

Libretto translation: Svend Ravnkilde

This release was made possible with generous support from the Danish Composers' Society/KODA's Fund for Social and Cultural Purposes, and the Beckett Foundation.