The Planets — music for voice and instruments
The Planets — music for voice and instruments
This CD features Rovsing Olsen's last composition, a string trio named a Dream in Violet, as well as four world premiere recordings: two other instrumental works and two pieces for voice and instruments, including The Planets, based on an illustrated block book from the 15th century.
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The Planets – music for voice and instruments
by Teresa Waskowska
The composer Poul Rovsing Olsen (1922-1982) was educated at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and subsequently in Paris, where he studied under the highly regarded teacher Nadia Boulanger and the renowned composer Olivier Messiaen. Alongside his studies of classical music, Rovsing Olsen cultivated his passion for Oriental music, and at the Parisian Musée de l’Homme, with its extensive collection of tapes and records with the music of peoples from far-off countries, he was able to steep himself in the musical languages. This interest was to have great importance for his later life and work.
In 1958, Poul Rovsing Olsen was on the team working under the Danish professor P.V. Glob on archaeological excavations near the Persian Gulf, which enabled him to realise his great wish to experience Oriental music in its authentic environment. This marked the beginning of his professional work on ethnomusicology. Apart from numerous trips to Arab countries he also carried out research assignments in India, Egypt, Turkey and Greenland. Rovsing Olsen gained international recognition within this field, and on the basis of his acquired competence he was in 1960 appointed archivist of the Danish Folklore Archives, where he worked for the rest of his life. He also came to teach ethnomusicology at the universities of Lund and Copenhagen and was entrusted with the post of chairman of the International Council for Traditional Music.
Rovsing Olsen’s oeuvre includes a number of ethnomusicological publications and record issues. He was the originator of the first recording of music from the Persian Gulf area (including songs of the pearl-fishers from Bahrain) that appeared on record in the West (Pêcheurs de Perles et Musiciens du Golfe Persique, Disques Ocora, OCR42, 1969). He wrote the book Music in Bahrain. Traditional Music of the Persian Gulf with accompanying three CDs (Jutland Archaeological Society, 2002).
His work on the music of distant countries also left its mark on Rovsing Olsen’s own music, which comprises 85 opus numbers. As a composer, he was neither traditionalist or a highly experimental avant-gardist. It is by allowing elements of Western and Oriental music traditions to interact that he develops his own extremely personal mode of expression, one that brings the sounds of the Orient into Danish music. This applies to all the compositions in the present publication.
Poul Rovsing Olsen, who was also a music critic, was a highly reflective and literate person. He made a number of descriptions of his own compositions. Some of them are reproduced here:
The string trio A Dream in Violet, op. 85 is Poul Rovsing Olsen’s final composition. He died on 2 July 1982, just over a month before its first performance, which took place at the Lerchenborg Music Days on 10 August 1982. The composer left this world without ever having heard his work played. He did, however, manage to write a note about it for the concert programme at Lerchenborg. It is reproduced here in its entirety:
“Rovsing Olsen’s string trio, A Dream in Violet, was written in spring 1982. It was commissioned by Lerchenborg Music Days for Københavns Kammertrio. The composer experienced the writing of this music, in which all three artists play on muted strings, as a ‘dream in violet’. The trio is one long sequence. A fairly large number of sections develop out of each other as if they were episodes in a short story. The longest of these occur in the middle of the work. In it, an elegiac melody is heard in four versions, based on a fixed rhythmical pattern. Like a lute-player from the Middle East will start his improvisation in one key only to quickly modulate into others and only finally return to the original key, Rovsing Olsen has at the beginning of his trio used an eight-tone scale that he gradually modulates far away from and only returns to in the final minutes of the music. The very last note to be heard is an A, a tone that has a central significance for the entire trio. But when it is ultimately heard, it is heard for the very first time.”
The composition made a strong impression: “Rovsing Olsen’s opus ultimum is a very beautiful work, warm and intimate with its richly varied and strongly sensed muted sound,” the daily newspaper Politiken wrote after the first performance. Over the years, superlatives have rained down on this moving work which “makes a deep impression seldom rivalled by other works of contemporary Danish music, enchantingly beautiful and close-woven in its musical logic as it is” (Weekendavisen). Today, A Dream in Violetis one of Poul Rovsing Olsen’s most played compositions. A Dream in Violetis dedicated to Louise Lerche-Lerchenborg.
The Planets, op. 80 for mezzo-soprano, flute, viola and guitar, was composed in spring 1978 and given its first performance on 30 July the same year at the Lerchenborg Music Days. The occasion which led to the composition of the work was the 50th anniversary of the finding of a block book from the second half of the 15th century with texts on the planets. The inspiration came from Louise Lerche-Lerchenborg, who organised the Lerchenborg Music Days, and the work is dedicated to her. In connection with the concert at Lerchenborg, Poul Rovsing Olsen wrote the following about his opus:
“The Planets derives from the block book found in Lerchenborg’s library in 1928. Seven fine, coloured drawings tell of the seven celestial bodies which in many European languages have given the weekdays their names. Each drawing is accompanied by a Latin text, under which there is a two-line dictum that briefly – though very concisely – gives an account of the characteristics of the children who belong to that particular celestial body. And these concentrated portrayals form the basis for the music. In the music I have attempted to give indications of my own experience of the particular power and nature characterizing each one of the heavenly bodies, just as I have allowed this cycle of planet songs to pass like a journey through the ethereal realms with motifs that appear, are repeated, are varied and disappear (but only so as to be replaced by new ones), until we finally return to the point of departure. The introduction – Aether – is purely instrumental. Two of the planets – Venus and Luna – are female; in the music written for them small (Indian) cymbals are used that are also present in Aether.”
This musical journey through space was sent on its way with these words in the daily newspaper Berlingske Tidende: “Using few effects, Rovsing Olsen has created a highly evocative little masterpiece.” In 1928, Count C.C.L. Lerche-Lerchenborg sold the block book to The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, where it still is to be found.
Rencontres, op. 67 for cello and percussion was written in April-May 1970. The first performance was at a concert organised by DUT (The Young Composers’ Association) on 1 September 1971. Since then it has been performed on several occasions in both Denmark and abroad.
The French word rencontres means meetings. In Poul Rovsing Olsen’s composition, it is the cello and percussion that meet. They approach each other, strike up a conversation, collide, and then everything starts to develop. “It is a pre-programmed thunderstorm,” a German reviewer wrote. Rencontres is a work that is brimful of vigour and energy, but inside the strong forward thrust, there are also warm-sounding passages in the cello and delicate sound tendrils in the percussion. It is with a great inventiveness that the composer works here with rhythms, sounds and emotions, creating a virtuoso and gripping composition.
Pour une Viole d’Amour, op. 66 was written for the viola d’amore, a string instrument that as well as strings that are played on is provided with sympathetic strings. The instrument, which had its heyday in the 18th century, is known for its gentle, ingratiating sound. Pour une Viole d’Amour was composed in autumn 1969 for the Royal Danish Orchestra viola player Knud Aage Larsen (1917-2012). On 7 July 1970, he gave the first performance of the first part of the work at Lyngby municipal library, and on 16 February 1971, he gave the first performance of the whole composition at the Danish Music Museum in Copenhagen. The composition consists of two halves. Poul Rovsing Olsen’s involvement in Oriental music can particularly be noticed in the quiet, slightly melancholy, almost yearning first section. The second section is more buoyant, containing more chords and closer to European modernism.
After the concert at LUT (Lyngby Youth Music) in May 1973, the daily newspaper Information wrote that Poul Rovsing Olsen’s Pour une Viole d’Amouri s “a solo work that, with considerable feeling for the lyrically decorative, delves down into the distinctive nature of the instrument: its warm, soft sound in the lower register, the fine potential for rich chords, the particular silvery sound in the upper register and – slightly demonstratively – the resonance of the sympathetic strings that allows the music to seem to straddle the many pauses.”
It was the Danish singer Jolanda Rodio (1914-2000; particularly remembered for her interpretations of modern music), who wished for a piece for mezzo-soprano and drums and passed on this idea to Poul Rovsing Olsen. This resulted in Alapa–Tarana, op. 41 for mezzo-soprano and percussion. The vocal part is wordless (vocalise). The name Alapa–Tarana has been taken from Indian music. In Alapa a raga is established that forms the basis for Tarana.
“The raga in the work is completely my own invention,” Rovsing Olsen stated in a radio interview in 1960, and he went on to say: “A raga normally consists of various sections, the first of which, unaccompanied, is called an Alapa. In the Alapa, the distinctive characteristics of the raga are demonstrated in a lightly improvised way without any fixed rhythm. After this comes a section where the drums start and which can assume various forms. I have chosen to make use of a type of variation known as Tarana.”
So, it is not a question of an imitation but of an independent work, one that is inspired by and has a conceptual link to Indian music. Or, as one reviewer wrote: “With his new work, Poul Rovsing Olsen had created a piece of music that is just as distinctive as it is impressive” (Berlingske Tidende), and in the same newspaper a couple of years later one could read that Alapa–Tarana is “a beautiful, warm and intense inspiration from Oriental music.” Alapa–Tarana was composed in 1959, and it was Jolanda Rodio, together with the percussionist Børge Ritz Andersen, who first performed the work on 10 March 1960 in the Danish Broadcasting Corporation series “Music of Our Time”.
Teresa Waskowska, 2018