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ClassicsOnline Home » TVEITT: 100 Hardanger Tunes - Suites Nos. 1 and 4
By Jim Svejda
KUSC Listener’s Guide
"Tveitt's Hundred Hardanger Tunes remain his best known and most approachable works, especially in the recent Naxos series with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Bjarte Engeset. The latest installment features two of the 15-movement suites, including perhaps the most attractive one of all, the so-called Wedding Suite. Full of memorable tunes, distinctive harmonies and wonderful invention, the music should win this brilliantly gifted, relentlessly individual composer many friends; the performances are both skillful and perfectly idiomatic, and the recorded sound is superb. On those days when you're in the mood for one of the Peer Gynt suites but don't actually want to face that particular music, try this maddeningly addictive stuff instead."
Hundrad Hardingtonar: the title has a real ring to it: A Hundred Hardanger Tunes. But with the Norwegian composer Geirr Tveitt, nothings as simple as it sounds. There are not, and maybe never were, a hundred. Four suites of fifteen tunes survive, numbered 1, 2, 4 and 5; fifteen into a hundred doesnt go. Some pieces, including the incomplete Suite no.3 and sketches for nos.6 and beyond, perished in the fire of 1970 that destroyed Tveitts home on his ancestral farmstead in the Hardanger region of western Norway, and with it most of his music. Others may have existed in Tveitts mind but not on paper. And what exactly are "Hardanger Tunes", "Hardingtonar"? Even to Norwegians, that sounds like an authentic dialect word; actually Tveitt invented it himself. He often called the tunes "folktunes", and published piano arrangements as "Fifty Folktunes from Hardanger" (Marco Polo 8.225055-56); but did he invent them too? An even hard[ang]er question.
Folksong played a complex role in twentieth century composition, begging many vexed questions. What is folksong? How is it transmitted? How does it evolve? Whats the least bad way of "collecting" it, by recording or hand notation? Have collectors distorted their findings to meet their preconceived notions of what folksong "ought" to be? Whats its relationship to "art" music? Some composers have seemed content simply to arrange folktunes for concert performance, or slot folk themes into classical forms. The greatest composers inspired by folksong, Bartók in Hungary, Vaughan Williams in England, soon transcended that, synthesising the characteristic rhythms, harmonies and melodic turns of phrase of folk-music into an individual style, and creating, from a kind of distilled essence of folk music, their own themes and forms very far from the vernacular.
Geirr Tveitt was different again. Unlike Bartók and Vaughan Williams, but like Bartoks compatriot and colleague Kodály, Tveitt had roots in a living folk tradition. On childhood holidays in Hardanger he heard folktunes, sung or played on animal horns, flutes, langeleik (the Norwegian dulcimer) or the decorative Hardanger fiddle (with its extra resonating strings and multitude of different tunings). The Hardanger tradition was even more private and personal than most: "you should hear me play when Im on my own and nobody can hear me!" one man told Tveitt. The regions difficult terrain limited intercommunication between scattered communities; some songs were unique to a single locality, even a single family, including Tveitts own. Hardanger people sang of everyday life; not for them the epic ballads sung elsewhere in southern Norway. New words were written to old tunes. Some songs were wordless because the texts were forgotten, others because the singer was brilliantly mimicing a flute or fiddle.
Few Hardanger folktunes used major or minor scales; from the first, modal scales formed the basis of Tveitts own compositions, indeed in his twenties of a whole rigorous theory of music. (He rarely stuck to it, but the Hardingtonar come close.) But as for actual folktunes in his early works, the Variations on a folksong from Hardanger for two pianos and orchestra, first performed in 1939, were exception rather than rule. And Hardanger folksongs were dying out. In 1942 Tveitt settled permanently on his family farmstead above Vik¢y, near Norheimsund, on the Hardangerfjord, and deliberately immersed himself in the tradition, staying and working with the local people, often at their "summer hillfarms" on the high mountain pastures. In time they felt his empathy and opened up to him; he scribbled down over a thousand of their songs, sometimes just fragments of words or music. Sadly, almost none survived the 1970 fire.
But Tveitts notebook also tells how a melody was inspired by a few poetic lines he found on the wall of an empty mountain hut; how, lying in the grass by a mountain burn, a melody suddenly came to him - "probably", he decided, a folktune sent by the hill-dwellers. Romanticised? Perhaps. But people have always been hard-put to tell Tveitts tunes from genuine folk melodies.
So: the "Hardingtonar" include "Folktunes from Hardanger", always songs, in fact, and he credited the singers, and Tveitt-tunes from Hardanger, and most often a mixture: he likened it to finding a fragment of a picture, which he then finished, or made his own picture around. Which begs more vexed questions. But their musical quality isnt in doubt: coloured by Tveitts harmony, counterpoint and orchestration, the tunes are vivid gleams in a unified whole. Influences and affinities abound, especially with Tveitts beloved French and Russian music, often strongest with the Frenchman Charles Koechlin, in the clarity and integrity of Tveitts habitually two- or three-part layered textures. Intensifying the melodies essence, harmony and polyphony grow from their home modes, or from other modes to suggest microtones: two related modes, one including B and one B flat, imply something in between. Ostinatos evoke an accompanying langeleik, or fermenting beer, horses hoofbeats, the whisper of summer breezes or the sun glittering on the waters of the fjord.
Welcome with honour, opening Suite no.1, is a traditional Tveitt family song, a ceremonial greeting to neighbours arriving for harvest festival. Tveitt learnt Flute air from Anna Skeie of nearby Byrkjeland, whose singing sounded "remarkably like a flute". "If I could, I would sing you the most beautiful song on earth," sighs the third tune, "but my poor song will not suffice". Promising Cloudberries and moorberries, a girl entices a shepherd boy to her summer hillfarm. Stave church song memorialises the long-destroyed wooden church at Vik¢y: its bells, Tveitt said, echo "in the unusual intervals and precise rhythm" of the fragment of ancient, probably secular, song: "medieval churches often used folk tunes". An age-old trouble follows: "Alas, my girl, they say she is with child"; while Consecration of the new beer, "one of Norways oldest folktunes", is a solemn rather than celebratory ritual: a visitors song of gratitude after a hard journey over the snow mountains. "Now our brandy keg is empty well have to do some work" laments the next song; the woodblocks in Tveitts orchestra suggest to his daughter Gyri the sad, hollow sound of a small, old (and empty) brandy keg in their Hardanger home. After Langeleik tune comes one the Tveitt family always sang when travelling up to their summer hillfarm - listen for the gunshot they fired to awake the echo from Husaleit crag. Hasty wedding is of course a shotgun one: fathers angry; his stupid sons got his girl pregnant; scandal; all the preparations will delay the harvest; and how can they lay everything out in a barn which is already half-full of hay? The noble religious tune Gods goodness and greatness contrasts with an anti-authoritarian dig at the taxman - with untranslatable wordplay in the Norwegian title - and a braggart boasting of being the best dancer at the wedding... and getting his come-uppance falling downstairs. Is The last farewell "the most beautiful song on earth"? Tveitt - surely wrongly - feared hed "failed to bring out in the harmony the mighty spirit of this folktune": "Now alone I sing the song we sang. Farewell, yes farewell in the last sunset. Tomorrow when the sun comes gently in, it will never again colour your beautiful hair golden."
The "Wedding Suite", no.4, while emulating the variety of the first, marshals its fifteen tunes into a highly coherent structure, pivoting symmetrically around its central movement (No.53) to tell the story of a wedding. Ironically, after its premiere in 1958 it has hardly ever been heard as a unified whole - through a concatenation of circumstances: the 1970 fire; Tveitts many revisions - surviving full scores and orchestral parts often disagreed; perhaps even conductors nervousness about the more risqué movements! This first complete recording uses Bjarte Engesets recent edition, reconciling the differences. The seven-movement build-up to the wedding is launched by a total Tveitt-tune, You
, seemingly a homage to his wife Tullemor: they met and married in Hardanger in 1944. Harmony resolves and courtship begins: the boys Going a-wooing, on horseback by the sounds of things, to see his sweetheart at her familys summer hillfarm, in the old hut. By local tradition a respected community figure acts as Matchmaker, addressing the girls parents on the boys behalf: twice he asks for her hand, twice they reply doubtfully, finally he beats his fist on the table! Success: in no.50, guests are Off to the country wedding. The toastmaster leads a tribute to the bride, her traditional costume and Bridal crown. The grooms rowdy mates arrive, lugging his boat: theyd sunk it (with a cymbal crash?) when he rowed across to visit his sweetheart at night, so he had to walk all the way round the fjord to get home! As their racket dies away, the silent rowboat comes carrying the bride on the glittering waters of the fjord, at the still centre of the whole suite and its emotional heart, representing the wedding itself (another of Tveitts own tunes?). Then the Toastmasters song kicks off the party. No.55 mirrors no.51: now the Hardanger girl is married she exchanges her bridal crown for a "skaut", a white kerchief [see photo rear page of booklet]. But Tveitt tempers this poetic veneration of the wife with the tale of the legendary strong woman Rich Ragna, who stranded her husband on a reef so he drowned when the tide came in; "Bright prospects for the bridegroom!" Tveitt wrote in the score. Dancing follows the wedding feast: in Hardanger, gatecrashers were welcome so long as they were silent and wore weird masks, disguised as supernatural creatures; it was no compliment to the bride and groom if no such "Guisers" turned up. Is it one of them - a rejected suitor? - who slips something into The brides drink? Bassoon trills belch out the laxatives effect on the brides stomach; substituting the songs "unprintable" words. A drunkard slips under the table, taking tablecloth and glasses with him, and sleeps, snoring; Tveitt seals his testimonial to atonal music by marking the tubas final note "Fis!" - Norwegian for F sharp, or "Fart!" Hardanger ale is a fizzing celebration of the local homebrew - drunk for quality ("it tastes so good!") rather than quantity; wisely, if its strength was anything like Tveitt suggested by adding an oblique line to his usual heading (number: colon) - 60%!
Like many Tveitt tunes, Hardanger ale was a hit. Today some singers treat even his own like genuine folktunes - varied in the singing. So much for copyright; though Tveitt didnt help himself by blurring the boundaries. But its a kind of compliment. The Englishman Edward Elgar said "I write the folk music of this country!" Tveitt, whose sympathy with genuine folksong was immeasurably deeper than Elgars, might have found more consolation than him in that thought.
 This very scene is illustrated in Bridal voyage on the Hardangerfjord by Hans Gude and Adolph Tidemand, which is the cover of Naxos 8.550881, Grieg Piano Music Vol.1
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TVEITT: 100 Hardanger Tunes - Suites Nos. 1 and 4