Songs for Male Voices
Songs for Male Voices
The Danish composer Peter Heise (1830-79) was a master of writing for singing voices. In his quartets and choral songs for male voices we meet Romanticism in its clearest form with songs about women, art, nature and his native country. The gentle, pure tone of the music is excellently handled by the male voices of the Danish National Vocal Ensemble and Choir and not least by the conductor Michael Schønwandt, who has cherished a lifelong love of Danish Golden Age music.
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Heise and the male choir by Anne Ørbæk Jensen
Even though Peter Heise is best known for his many fine romance compositions and dramatic music, there is no doubt that his songs for male-voice choir also occupy a prominent place in his oeuvre. The underlying reason for mainly providing a cappella works for such a choir and not, for example, for mixed male and female choir lay in his entire social circle as well as in an obvious target group for his compositions. The academic environment, with the Student Choral Society as its musical centre, was a place where he particularly felt at home.
The present collection of songs for choir and for quartet also reflects this affiliation to a great extent. At the same time, it can at selected points be compared to the romance compositions, where the fine interaction between the singing voice and the piano is transferred to interplay between various song voices that complement each other in the best possible way. The fine, almost filigree adaptation of some of the texts is also found in the choral works, where one suddenly experiences large shifts in the dynamics, quick tempi, complementary voices and a melody that corresponds closely to the text. They are songs that place considerable demands on those performing them, especially when it comes to articulation. But Heise often knew who he was writing for, and that the singers were able to fulfil these requirements.
Heise and the students
Peter Arnold Heise was born into a civil servant’s family in 1830. He had a good schooling and at this early stage formed a number of lasting friendships that included such authors as Chr. Richardt and Gotfred Rode, who occupy a prominent place in his choice of text-suppliers. His social circle was characterised by an academic environment, and originally the idea was for Heise to read law. Soon after completing his school education, however, it proved possible for him to devote himself to music, and in 1852-53 he studied in Leipzig, which was one of the great musical centres of Europe at the time.
On returning home, he soon became a member of the Student Choral Society, which came to exert a considerable influence on his production and musical activity in subsequent years. He firmly established a position for himself by composing part of the choir’s Ruskantate (Freshmen Festivities Cantata), which scored a considerable success in October 1854, and that same year he also became the choral society’s conductor. This made it possible for himself to determine a large part of the repertoire, and it also provided him with an exceptionally motivated group of users for the compositions he supplied. At the same time, he brought a somewhat fresher style of conducting to the choir, also participating in the social life of the society – as can be seen from a number of the compositions. All of this made him a popular figure among the students.
So it is hardly surprising that – especially in the 1850s and 1860s – he makes most of the contributions to the choir, a number of them being performed on various occasions. Sometimes the songs are highly topical, as when he writes for gatherings in connection with the Nordic student meetings, and he also makes several arrangements of folk songs. One of his major compositions with accompaniment is Volmerslaget (The Battle of Valde-mar) from 1868, written for the Central Association of Copenhagen Choirs, which was, however, also performed by the students.
In the late 1850s, Heise moved to a position as singing master at Sorø Academy, which meant saying goodbye to his job as conductor of the Student Choral Society. This did not in any way mean that his connection with them ceased, as the students continued to retain a minor selection of Heise’s works on their repertoire. Some of the songs were, however, linked to particular events, which meant that they only had a few performances.
The works on the CD show many facets of Heise’s work for choir and quartet. He appears for the first time on the programmes of the Student Choral Society at the spring concert in May 1854 with two numbers – Danmarks Kæmpegrave (Denmark’s Giants’ Graves) for the whole choir, and Borgjomfruen (The Castle Maiden) performed by a small choir – both are included in the selection on the CD. In precisely the 1850s, the vocal quartet came back into -favour, after a period of several decades with more emphasis on works for fairly large choirs. Gradually, elite ensembles were established, as is also reflected in the fact that a number of the songs selected feature a small choir, or an alternation between a quartet and choir.
If one was to find a word to sum up the introductory group of songs in the selection, it would be the concept ‘cheerful’. Many of the songs are especially composed with young singers in mind and deal with such popular though also highly uncomplicated subjects of the age as the coming of spring, love, the delights of alcoholic beverages and the forest – or birds in particular, as a symbol of freedom in nature. Many of the songs go off at great speed, with a great deal of text and dynamic range – but they are extremely rewarding numbers to present.
The more national songs have also been included in the selection. In particular, Heise’s setting of Hans Christian Andersen’s Jylland mellem tvende have (Jutland, bounded by two Oceans), which is still well known today, but now as a community song from the Folk High School Song Book. Some of the songs can display folk song characteristics, as this was a genre that was very much in the mind-set of the age, and one in which Heise was interested. Finally, there are a number of more hymn-like works that could almost have been religious in nature and represent his more serious, heavy compositions.
It is not, however, easy in a number of cases to date Heise’s compositions with precision. Some of them were performed at concerts or more informal evening entertainments among the students, and one must assume that the time of composition was immediately prior to such a performance. The pattern of publications, on the other hand, is very mixed. In some cases, we are dealing with songs collected and published by Heise himself, as for example Six Songs for four Male Voices from 1863, which are directly dedicated to the Choral Society. But it is not, as with the romances, a question of song -cycles where the individual songs are mutually interdependent – here it seems to be more a collection of popular and relevant recent numbers. Other songs have been collected and published posthumously, and a great many appeared in the comprehensive series Collection of Part-Songs for Male Choir, which the choir published in booklets.
A particular treat on the CD is the inclusion of probably Heise’s most popular works for quartet and choir for mixed choir/quartet (two sopranos, contralto and bass) with piano accompaniment, the collection Spring and Summer. Several of the songs were composed earlier in other versions, but Heise arranged and collected them in 1879 for a publication dedicated to his beloved wife Vilhelmine, known as Ville. Here one can to a greater extent talk of a cycle, and the collection as a whole is also still very much a live part of the present-day Danish choral repertoire.
The recording also presents a wide range of the writers of texts that Heise often took from his circle of close acquaintances. School friends such as Chr. Richardt and fellow-students such as Carl Ploug appear side by side with more established contemporary names such as Hans Christian Andersen and Chr. Winther. Some of the texts were probably written for the occasion, while others are independent poetic works in their own right.
The individual songs in their collections
Between 1845 and 1860, the Student Choral Society published just over 30 booklets with works taken from its repertoire, Collection of Part-Songs for Male Choir. The booklets were published by ‘the executive committee of the same’, so it seems obvious to assume that Heise, as conductor of the choir in 1854-58, was consulted in connection with the selection. At any rate, no less than five of the compositions on this CD were published in these booklets. The Castle Maiden, which was on the programme at Heise’s first concert among the students in May 1854, is a subdued and strophic, slightly folk-song-like composition that was later included in Denmark’s Music Book for song and piano. It was also printed in 1854, and the following year the other song from the concert appeared, Denmark’s Giants’ Graves. Neither of the songs, however, had more than this sole performance with the students. The latter is an example of the more national, slightly heavy composition – here with a special rhythmical twist – but also of a textual motif that was very popular at the time. The old Norse monuments were one of the -obvious national symbols made frequent use of, not least on the cover of the students’ later songbook of 1873.
It’s Autumn also appeared in 1856 in one of these booklets – half a year after the first performance in the Students Choral Society. Here one can hear the alternation between quartet and choir, with the former outlining the sad autumn and winter, after which the choir comes in with considerable power, for now sun and the spring are on their way. The song directly addresses the students in the last verse, and it also became extremely popular, regularly being included in the programmes for decades afterwards. In 1858, To Bacchus was added, an example of the extremely refined quartet composition – one that placed great demands on the singers. And it was also dedicated to Carl Høegh-Guldberg, who had the finest quartet in the choral society at the time, so Heise was well aware who he was writing for. It begins as a pure fugue and later contains rapid dynamic shifts and solo-like sections with accompaniment. It was a good composition to impress the Swedes with, for it was introduced at a concert given together with the Lund student choral society, held in November 1856.
Finally, Jutland, bounded by two Oceans appeared in the series in July 1860. Heise composed the song both for song and piano and for male-voice choir, and it appeared for the first time in Illustreret Tidende in March. Heise writes in November 1859 to Hans Christian Andersen that he has tried out no less than four melodies before arriving at the right one, which preferably had to be ‘a simple, plain, lively tune’. The male-voice choir version does not differ much from the version for song and piano, although it does underline the conclusion’s repetition of the text and melodic climax. The song was subsequently included in a host of songbooks and is today regarded as part of the Danish treasury of song.
In 1863, Heise published a collection of Six Songs for four Male Voices, dedicated to the Student Choral Society. It contained a number of either recently performed or completely new compositions that soon became part of the choir’s repertoire, including the extremely popular Drinking Song. Three of the songs from the collection have been included here, the first of which is Farewell to Winter, which is one of the popular spring songs with lots of text and sung at a rapid tempo. Here one can really hear the sweeping wind and waves dancing in the music. The composition was included in the choir’s repertoire in March 1864, while both the other two songs were already included just before the collection was published. These are The wild Rose-Bush, which is a quite subdued composition that is outshone by the version for mixed choir, and Romance, which is a narrative but also melancholy composition. Heise thus demonstrated in this collection a great breadth in the compositions with which he still supplied the Student -Choral S-ociety.
Heise’s second collection from the 1860s, Three Songs for Male Voices from 1867, is included in its entirety. It too shows the wide spectrum of his compositions for this ensemble. Once again, number one and number three were already known to the choir, while the middle work only had a single performance in the late 1870s. Dirge from Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’ was probably inspired by the collection of romances to texts by the English writer that Heise published in 1868, and probably worked on at the same time as he wrote this song. As a dirge, it is hardly surprising that the work has a hymn-like quality to it. The song In the Forest was not immediately popular with the students, even though it has the popular forest theme. But it is also a sad song, with the young man walking along the narrow forest paths and calling for his beloved repeatedly in the -music – but alas, in vain, for nobody answers him. Finally, there is The Beauties, which is a fantastic bravura number – a highly demanding eulogy of women, in which one can hear all the kisses swirling through the air to all the girls the students wish for themselves. The composition is much used at entertainments and more informal concerts and is always greeted with great enthusiasm.
The Gypsies’ Song at their Queen’s Grave was published in the first real songbook published by the Student Choral Society in 1873. It had already been performed in 1870 and is quite distinctive because of its highly dramatic mode of expression, one that really calls for a large choir. It appealed to the choir, however, which performed it several times subsequently.
Also in 1873, C.C. Lose’s publishing firm came with a collection of part-songs for male voices, but now without any connection to the Student Choral Society. The editor was A.W. Lanzky, who was conductor of the Copenhagen male choirs. It included Heise’s Wedding Song, which can also almost be described as a hymn, partly to spring, partly to love. The song was probably composed for a particular occasion, and it was not immediately included by the students. The following volume, edited by Lanzky, appeared in 1879 and also included a Heise composition, Introduction and Waltz, which had a sole performance in 1874 by the students. It is a quite long, festive composition that, once again, exploits the many possibilities of the quartet, the waltz section being introduced by a clear melody that is accompanied in the lower voices.
Finally, four songs are presented from Six Songs for Male Voices (previously unprinted), which were published after Heise’s death in 1879 – as late as 1895. Most of the songs are connected with the students, but there is no definite unifying element in the collection, which also comprises compositions from various decades. The song For Denmark does not have a student connection – it is a subdued nationalistic song. The Flight of the Notes was performed just once by the students, with its blend of quartet and choir that depicts the migratory birds and their longing for warmth and freedom, which can also be applied to the students. Three Cats became part of the repertoire in 1857 and was popular for several decades. It is an immensely festive composition in which the cats give a concert that wakes up the master of the house. He comes out in order to chase them away, and the crack of his whip can constantly be heard in the music. An obvious number for more entertaining occasions. The wakening Spring was sung on a couple of occasions in 1874, but it is otherwise more of a conventional, gay spring song.
As mentioned, the series of part-songs for male voices is interrupted on the CD by a section with the four lovely songs from the collection Spring and Summer from 1879. Only the first song In Spring was composed for the collection – the others are arrangements of former songs. The songs exude the scents of flowers and summer activities, and Heise himself was well pleased with the result. The ensemble comprises two sopranos, contralto and bass as well as an extremely demanding piano accompaniment that also plays a great part in creating the mood. Among other things, one can hear a completely different arrangement of the text ‘When the oak trees are budding’ than the much more recent and now better-known version by Oluf Ring.
There can be no doubt that Heise felt very much at ease in student circles, so it is not surprising that to a great extent a large number of the fine choral compositions were written for them and inspired by them. With many writers among his close friends, Heise has also always had suitable texts at his disposal and thus – together with J.P.E. Hartmann – his production represents the very best of songs for male voices in 19th century Denmark.
Anne Ørbæk Jensen is Head of the national collections at The Royal Library, Copenhagen.