Friday, June 10, 2005

Pride and Prejudice in Music

June 4, 2005

For his opening lecture, Dan Dressen, professor of music, introduced Viking Study Travelers to Norwegian composers not known well outside Norway. To the group’s credit, we named several composers other than Grieg.

Employing what he has learned from his own study and performance of Norwegian music, Dan is developing a pan-Nordic library of song at St. Olaf. As Dan played excerpts, I scribbled stars next to titles of pieces I can’t wait to recommend to repertoire committees so I get to play them and more Minnesotan get to hear them.

In preparation for this lecture, Study Travelers had read “Pride and Prejudice,” an article about composers who were the equals of the major, known composers, but who are still little known outside (and even inside) the Nordic countries.

Here’s Dan’s list, and a few notes, that you can use to discover some of these gems for yourself. In some cases, it may be hard to find recordings through commercial outlets. Given Dan’s growing resource of Nordic music at St. Olaf, he’s just the person to contact for help!

Farten Valen, 1887-1952. A recluse, Valen’s genius has been overlooked as one of the first neo-romantics. He is known for fugues that, in perfect counterpoint, allowed the dissonances for which Bach adjusted.

Ludvig Irgens-Jensen, 1884-1965. The excerpt Dan played from “The Drovers” suite was one I checked for “must play someday!” Irgens-Jensen was a neo-classicist, who like Bartok and Stravinsky, fought the “beast of Romanticism.”

Harald Sæverud, 1897-1992. Dan calls Sæverud the most distinctive composer since Grieg. The creator of nine symphonies, he “played” with tonality. The St. Olaf Orchestra has been performing one movement, "Five Hop Dance," of Sæverud’s non-romanticized setting of Peer Gynt (Op. 28, No. 1). Both orchestra and audience are having a good time with the angular energy of this witty piece. Gotta get this suite on my music stand soon…

David Monrud Johansen, 1888-1974

Eivind Groven

Geirr Tveit, 1908-1981

Pauline Hull, 1890-1969. A cultural tour de force, Hull was in her day the grande dame of Norwegian artistic society. She wrote neo-classical music – and devastatingly honest reviews of fellow musicians’ performances.

Alf Hurumb, 1882-1972, and Bjarre Brustad, 1895-1978. Neo-classical

Knut Nystedt, 1915. One of the greats of choral and church music, Nystedt’s works often appear on St. Olaf Choir programs. "Be Not Afraid" is soothing many a soul as part of the choir’s program in Norway. The choir has also been winning hearts with "Norge, mitt Norge" (Norway, my Norway) by Alfred Paulsen in a Ken Jennings arrangement, and drawing delighted laughter with their spunky performance of "Pål på haugen" (Paul on the Hill) arranged by choir alumnus Bradley Ellingboe.

Egil Hovland, 1921. The St. Olaf Band is playing Hovland’s 1966 "Fanfare og koral" on tour. In 1977, trombonist and now conductor Timothy Mahr and I played this as students under the direction of Norwegian guest conductor Odd Lysebo, who has helped with this and other St. Olaf tours. To boot, at least three Study Travelers, plus the band’s present manager, were members of the St. Olaf Band during the 1966 tour of Norway – which also included "Fanfare og koral." Music and Norway and St. Olaf connect many of us across time.

Arne Nordheim, 1931. The recording of his violin music, performed by Peder Herresthal, won Norway’s equivalent of the Grammy Award.

Pat-Olin Thommason, 1946, won the Nordic Prize in the 1990’s and, according to Dan, is Norway’s most important composer today. Thommason considers all sounds available in the palette of music, especially in today’s culture of random access to any and all things.

Dan summarized by saying that in the diaspora of Norwegian-Americans in the Midwest the view of Norway is about a century old. He set out to debunk the myth that Norwegian music is Grieg and to show that the Norwegian musical palette is much broader and very modern in use of techniques and cultural perspective. He succeeded!

Viking Study Travelers will hear the Norwegian works the band, choir and orchestra are performing with greater understanding of their cultural context and importance beyond Norway.


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