ClassicsOnline Home » Norwegian 20th Century String Quartets
String quartets occupy a relatively central position in the musical
literature of Norway. Most of the leading Norwegian composers have written one
or more works in this genre, although relatively few have come to be regarded
as masterpieces. Grieg's great String Quartet in G minor is a shining
example from the nineteenth century, a work that has won considerable acclaim
internationally and been recorded by several renowned ensembles, including the
Oslo String Quartet. This recording presents two of the best works from the
first half of the twentieth century together with two quartets by leading
Fartein Valen and Klaus Egge were great innovators in their day and
their quartets are some of their finest work. The two composers were quite
dissimilar in temperament, Egge being lively and outgoing, whereas Valen was
quiet and cautious. Between the two world wars each was at the forefront of
opposing stylistic movements; Egge with a nationalist style based on folk-music
and Valen with a more European twelve-tone polyphony.
Since those days the stylistic diversity between Norwegian composers has
increased greatly, yet there continues to be an interesting tension between the
national style and international currents, represented on this disc by the
great traditionalist Johan Kvandal and the all-embracing Alfred Janson.
Fartein Valen's development towards a personal style represents one of
the most fascinating chapters in Norwegian music history. He studied
composition first at the Conservatory in Oslo from 1906 to 1909 and then at the
Musikhochschule in Berlin. Whilst in Berlin and subjected to a number of strong
influences, Valen composed his first published works, among them his great Violin
Sonata, Op. 3. The works composed in Berlin are in a mature, late-romantic
vein and use quite a different musical language to his later works. From 1917
to 1924 Valen struggled to develop as a composer, a struggle which resulted in
the Song for orchestra Ave Maria, Op. 4 and the Piano Trio, Op.
5, the only two works to emerge from these years. Independently of the Second
Viennese School Valen continued to push back the frontiers of tonality until
they ceased to exist. For the next twenty years after he produced systematic
exercises in counterpoint, both in the style of Bach and his own strictly
executed dissonant polyphony.
During the 1930s and 1940s Valen composed a series of large-scale
orchestral works, including his four symphonies, the Violin Concerto and
the symphonic poem Kirkegården ved haver (‘The Churchyard by the Sea’).
During his lifetime Valen's music was unfortunately little understood, but he
has subsequently come to be regarded as one of Norway's most important
contributions to twentieth-century music. Despite all opposition he never lost
faith in his chosen path as a composer, drawing strength from a deeply held
Fartein Valen's String Quartet No. 2 is representative of his
mature style. It was composed during a summer Valen spent as the family retreat
Valevåg in 1932. The beautiful landscape of western Norway has clearly
left its mark on the quartet. On one of his evening walks Valen had gone down
to the harbour for a breath of fresh air and to look at the stars. When he got
down to the water he stood watching the reflection of the stars in the gentle
waves. He was captivated by the atmosphere, which inspired the first movement
of the quartet, a fugue. Its theme contains all twelve notes of the twelve-tone
scale although the movement is not strictly executed in twelve-tone form.
Interval leaps together with dynamics create the impression of gentle waves,
and the extended lines can suggest a feeling of solitude. The second movement
is a contrast with its elegant dance rhythms (Tempo di minuetto), but
the tonality is 'twisted' in true Valen style, this combination giving the
music a swaying feeling and at the same time a slightly burlesque flavour. The
final movement is in sonata form and is both full of contrasts and dramatic,
displaying much of the introspection and power of expression that Valen is
Klaus Egge was Fartein Valen's direct opposite as a person, yet their
music displays certain similarities, especially in the treatment of polyphony.
Just like Valen, Egge was determined to pursue the 'path of greatest
resistance' through strictly executed counterpoint. In all his compositions
themes undergo detailed development, often resulting in a mêlée of motivic
imitation. Yet folk-music remained Egge's main source of inspiration and
defined him as a composer.
Egge grew up in Telemark, in south-western Norway, coming into contact
with the folk-music of the province as a child. His first published
compositions feature folk-music as an integral part of his tonal language, such
as the sombre Draumkvedesonate, Op. 4 (‘Dream-Song Sonata’). Right up
until the expansive Symphony No. 1 of 1942 Norwegian influences
predominate, whereas in later works Egge's style is more abstract, moving
towards twelve-tone form, although without losing the national element
Egge's String Quartet has a unique genesis. In the summer of 1933
a friend of Egge's, the poet Hans Reynolds died. Egge was inspired to write a Largo
funèbre which was played at the funeral and which became the first movement
of the String Quartet. The second movement is lively and contains both
running figures and fragments from the traditional Draumkvede music,
while the third movement returns us to the initial melancholy of the Largo and
towards the end of the movement Egge quotes elements of an eskimo lament. Egge
included the lament because Reynolds had studied the culture of the Greenland
eskimos and had sung the lament for Egge. Legend has it that it was originally
sung by an eskimo who was starving to death in the icy wastelands. Egge
captures the atmosphere with an icy sound. The final movement follows
immediately, brushing the tragic aside with lively folk rhythms.
Johan Kvandal occupies a unique position among composers in Norway
today. Not only is he the last representative of the great Norwegian-inspired
tradition, but his works enjoy an unusually great popularity among musicians
and audiences alike. With great insight he composed for virtually all
instruments, and his best work, have already achieved the status of classics.
He grew up in a highly artistic environment. Kvandal's father, David Monrad
Johansen, was a composer and encouraged the boy, whilst his mother Lissa opened
his eyes to literature. Kvandal's first period as a composer was heavily
influenced by this, although his works from this time show clearly that he had
also studied the Viennese classicists in depth. In an effort to renew his
musical language during the 1960s Kvandal was influenced by modernist trends,
which led to a coarser use of dissonance and more experimental form. In the
1970s there was another shift of style, a return to a more moderate style which
nevertheless retained some of the daring he had acquired during the 1960s. Some
of his best works followed, including the hypnotic orchestral work Antagonia.
Kvandal again avails himself of Norwegian folk-music as the very building
bricks of his composition. He died in February 1999.
Johan Kvandal's String Quartet No. 3 begins with a theme taken
from the mediaeval ballad De to søstre (‘The Two Sisters’), and this
theme is used as a leitmotiv throughout the work. The original ballad is
highly dramatic, describing a conflict of the worst sort between two sisters.
The elder sister drowns the younger so that she may marry the latter's
bridegroom; however the corpse is found and a harp is fashioned from the dead
sister's body. When someone begins to play the harp it tells the story of what
has happened, and the elder sister is forced to pay for the grotesque murder
with her own life. Kvandal has attempted to capture the sombre atmosphere, and
in the central section of the second movement it is as if we can hear the harp
telling of the dark pool and the tragedy that happened there. The quartet
follows classical sonata form and is firmly tonal throughout.
Alfred Janson enjoys a much freer relationship with tradition. He has
guaranteed himself a place in modern Norwegian music history with several
outstanding orchestral works and has displayed an extraordinary ability to
adapt his style to the situation. Jazz elements form the basis for many of his
works, although Janson's most important influences are drawn from so-called
neo-expressionism. A strongly lyrical element pervade, Janson's work and gives
his music human warmth and expressive power.
The String Quartet is a prime example of this. It is a reworking
of music originally written for radio theatre. In 1976 Alfred Janson's close
friend, the dramatist and director Sverre Udnæs, had the idea of a work
comhining poetry and music for several actors and a string quartet, based on
Tarjei Vesaas's collection Liv ved straumen (‘Life by the water’) of
1970. Text and music emerged as two separate elements, and as such the music
suited further re-working. The Quartet is introspective in mood,
unassuming and full of intensity.
English version: Andrew Smith