Nordic Sounds
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Hamlet, Fantasy Overture, Op. 67

The plays of William Shakespeare were one of the major literary influences on the composers of the Romantic era, from Mendelssohn at its beginning, to Tchaikovsky at its end. The latter wrote fantasy overtures based on three of them. The first, Romeo and Juliet, has become one of the most popular orchestral compositions in the classical repertory, while the other two, The Tempest and Hamlet, are infrequently heard today.

Tchaikovsky composed Hamlet in the summer of 1888, at the same time as the Fifth Symphony. He had already composed his two other fantasy overtures over a decade earlier but had been toying with the idea of music to Hamlet during the same period. A request for incidental music for a performance in St. Petersburg that he failed to fulfill in time finally inspired him to write the overture.

Tchaikovsky did not attempt to narrate the story of Hamlet, but rather present atmospheric sketches and the emotional states of the main characters. There is no back story to the composition of the work as there is for Romeo and Juliet and its various revisions, and Tchaikovsky was not as accommodating as Dvorák, who supplied “cheat sheets” for his tone poems that specified the correspondences between musical themes and narrative elements. It is, therefore, impossible to identify such important figures as the ghost of Hamlet’s father or even Claudius and Gertrude. But Ophelia emerges from all the Sturm und Drang, predictably, as a mournful oboe solo, and a love scene was de rigueur in the nineteenth century, despite the fact that in the play, Hamlet treats his beloved only with sarcasm and real, or feigned, manic disdain.

Like all such overtures of the period, Hamlet is written in sonata form. It opens with a long, mournful introduction with funereal timpani, marked Lento lugubre. Example 1 The Allegro is fraught with tension and frenetic anxiety, which could stand for anything from the Ghost to Hamlet’s erratic behavior to the general rotten state of Denmark under a usurper, etc. Example 2 The requisite contrasting second theme seems to represent a very Russian-sounding Ophelia. Example 3 There’s follows the probable love motive. Example 4 Suddenly a military march interrupts, obviously Fortinbras eager to set the shiftless kingdom to rights and incidentally snap up more real estate for Norway. Example 5 After an increasingly stormy development, Tchaikovsky returns to the narrative with a coda, the timpani now beating out a funeral march for Shakespeare’s antihero and the rest of the cast. Example 6
Niels Gade 1817-1890
Niels Gade
Niels Gade
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 56

Danish composer, violinist and conductor Niels Gade was a protégé of Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn, who made him assistant conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. With Mendelssohn’s sudden death in 1847, Gade took over the conducting post. But as hostilities flared between Denmark and Prussia in 1848, Gade had to return to Copenhagen, where he remained for the rest of his life.

In the early 1840s Gade, an arch-Romantic, emerged on the Central European music scene; Robert Schumann, prone both to overripe prose and condescension, was impressed: “A compelling, distinctive Nordic character emerges for the first time in his music; however, Gade himself would certainly be the last to deny just how much he owes to German masters.”

Gade was a prolific composer, but he never wrote an opera, and only one concerto, this one for violin. It is a relatively late work, composed in 1880, and sent as a Christmas gift to famed violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim premiered it in Berlin two months later.

The public’s appetite for violin concerti had waned after the Baroque period, but picked up again for the Romantics, especially after Beethoven’s transformation of the genre and the awe-inspiring technical displays of Nicoló Paganini. Gade was a relative latecomer and composed in an accessible melodic style that demonstrated the capabilities of the instrument throughout its range, as well as relatively challenging technical complexity. The concerto’s overall form was relatively conservative: the conventional three movements in fast-slow-fast order and sonata structure. Perhaps as a response to the taste for violin virtuosity, Gade’s concerto is a real endurance challenge for the soloist, who seldom gets a chance to rest throughout the work.

The Concerto has a Mendelssohnian cast. The violin introduces every theme in the entire concerto, following each of them with elaborate passagework. Although relatively brief, the first theme of the opening movement easily lends itself to expansion. Example 1 The second theme is a more cantabile melody stressing the lower range of the instrument. Gade specified that it should be played only on the G-string. Example 2 There are no cadenzas in the first movement, but the violin develops both themes so thoroughly with rapid arpeggios, long passages in double stops, etc. that it shows off most of its capabilities. The orchestra has little to do, much as in Schumann’s Cello Concerto; Gade give it one big passage to close the exposition and lead into the development. Example 3

While the first movement concentrates on only two themes, the Romanze is a string of new melodies. After an orchestral introduction that introduces a little motive that recurs as an accompanying figure throughout the movement, Example 4 the soloist comes in with the main melody. Example 5 Gade spins out three more themes, all accompanied by the little orchestra motive, before returning to the first idea. Example 6 Example 7 Example 8

Gade structures his finale much like the Romanze with a string of melodies, all by the violin, allowing the soloist to expand them and add flourishes. It’s something like a rondo minus the refrain. After a perky first theme, Example 9 Gade brings out the “big tune,” a device used my so many Romantic composers. Example 10 There follow more melodies Example 11 Example 12 before the return to the “big tune,” but it is clearly meant to be the emotional heart of the movement. Surprisingly, there is no cadenza.
Arvo Pärt b. 1935
Arvo Pärt
b. 1935
Arvo Pärt
Wenn Bach Bienen gezüchtet hätte (Had Bach raised Bees)

Arvo Pärt possesses one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary classical music, the product of eclectic influences from the “official” Soviet aesthetic to Renaissance polyphony. Born near Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, Pärt began his formal musical education in 1954 at the Tallinn Music Secondary School, suspending it a year later to fulfill his National Service obligation as an oboist and side-drummer in an army band. He entered the Tallinn Conservatory in 1957 while working as a recording engineer with Estonian Radio. Although still a student, he composed music for the stage and film. By the time he graduated in 1963, he was already considered a professional composer.

Immediately preceding World War II, Estonia had been bloodlessly annexed by the Soviet Union, leaving the young Pärt with only limited access to the musical developments in the West. His early compositions, including his first two symphonies, employed serial techniques, but he soon tired of the rigid rules of twelve-tone composition. After studying French and Flemish choral music from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, including the great composers of this period, Guillaume de Machaut, Johannes Ockeghem, Jakob Obrecht and Josquin Despres, Pärt began incorporating the style and spirit of early European polyphony into his own compositions, beginning in 1971with his Symphony No. 3.

After a lengthy period of silence during which he attempted to develop his personal voice, Pärt emerged in 1976 with a technique he called tintinnabuli (little bells), to which he has mostly adhered to this day. He describes the technique as follows: “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.” The guiding principle behind the technique involves composing two simultaneous voices as one line – one voice moving stepwise to and from a central pitch, first up then down, and the other sounding the notes of the triad (chord) containing that pitch. The first products of Pärt’s new voice were the popular Fratres, Tabula Rasa, and the moving Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten.

Pärt has a penchant for titles with puzzling meanings. He composed Wenn Bach Bienen gezüchtet hätte in 1976, for piano, string orchestra and wind quintet; later he added percussion to the ensemble. Its minimalist melody, persistent rhythm and underlying buzzing by the strings, creates an onomatopoeic effect. The following example from the beginning of the work illustrates the underlying triad in the string accompaniment, the melodic interweaving around the tonic and, as well as instrumental buzzing and whirring. Example 1 Were it not for the fact that much of Pärt’s music employs plodding march rhythms, one could image the militaristic ambience might represent the regimentation of hive organization. But the increasing loudness begins to sound ominous, much like a human army. Example 2 The dirge-like conclusion expands the harmonies of the piece with brief hints of Bach’s musical language. The final cadence, however, is still a surprise, a slightly varied quote from Prelude No. 24 in B minor from Book One of The Well Tempered Clavier. Example 3

The forced isolation behind the Iron Curtain and the endless struggle against Soviet bureaucracy forced Pärt to leave Estonia in 1980, settling in West Berlin. Since then, the majority of his compositions have been settings of religious texts. Around 2000 he returned to Estonia, and is now alternating between Berlin and Tallinn. Pärt’s compositions have been used as background music in more than 50 films and TV programs.
Carl Nielsen 1865-1931
Carl Nielsen
Carl Nielsen
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7

The most important Danish composer after the Romantic period, Carl Nielsen, influenced the course of Scandinavian music in the last century. He was a versatile composer, writing in nearly all genres, but is best known outside Denmark for his symphonies and concertos. In Denmark, his choral works and simple songs are also extremely popular.

Nielsen was a poor child, the son of a house painter and amateur musician, from a proud but poor country trying to recover from the debacle of its war with Prussia in 1864. While he always expressed love for music during his childhood, he never amounted to much as a performer, playing signal horn and trombone in an amateur band until he was 14, at which point he took up the violin. He received his first professional instruction only at 19 when he entered the Copenhagen Conservatory, a fancy education than landed him the undistinguished job as a second violinist with the Royal Danish Orchestra. He remained in this position until 1914 while continually developing his skills as a composer.

Nielsen’s limited education, however, only spurred him on to learn everything he could about European culture, philosophy, aesthetics and psychology. This informal but intense self-improvement was a lifelong pursuit that resulted in a broad humanistic approach to life and is reflected at various stages in his works. Gradually, he achieved recognition in his native Denmark as composer, teacher, conductor and essayist, although he was virtually unknown elsewhere in Europe.

Nielsen’s early works, including the first three symphonies, were strongly influenced by Brahms and Dvorák. But his comfortable Weltanschauung (world-view) was shattered by the outbreak of World War I and the ensuing slaughter. The war changed his musical language radically, making it more austere and somber. Nielsen believed that a composer reveals his essence as an individual in his music, “…If he aims high, it helps him…But if he’s stupid, conceited, commonplace or sentimental, the fact will be revealed with almost brutal clarity.”

Composed in 1891-92, the Symphony No. 1 was premiered in 1894 by the Royal Danish Orchestra, with the composer sitting in the second violins – from where he had to rise to acknowledge the applause. The work is traditional in structure and is strongly influenced by Brahms’ Fourth and Dvořák’s Eighth, both still new works at the time. The slow movement, especially, is full of Romantic heart-on-sleeve effects.

Despite the increasing austerity of his music, Nielsen retained a penchant for writing terse themes that frequently “revolve” around a single note or “toggle” back and forth in a limited range around a particular pitch. Listening to the continuation of a passage until he reaches his second theme, it is the toggling motive that dominates. One can hear this effect in almost every theme in the entire symphony.

The opening of the first movement represents a case in point with the repetition of the rapid, staccato toggling six-note figure. Example 1 The whole theme progresses as follows. Example 2 Nielsen also likes to introduce secondary themes with solo woodwinds; in this movement, the oboe, followed by the flute. Example 3 Here, as well – with the exception of the opening two notes – we have a theme constrained within a limited range with the same toggling effect. The young Nielsen’s admiration Dvorák and Brahms, to whom he sent the manuscript (unacknowledged) for the older composer’s comments, can be heard in the recapitulation and re-harmonization of the main theme. Example 4 The coda re-emphasizes the toggling idea to conclude the movement. Example 5

At the premiere in Copenhagen, the second movement Andante received the most positive response. Unsurprisingly, it is the most lyrical of the movements, its principal melody spanning a wider range than any other in the Symphony. Both the first Example 6 and second parts of the theme Example 7 are noteworthy in that they exemplifies a melodic/harmonic progression that was original to Nielsen and represents a piece of the composer’s creative DNA. Example 8 That it was much later a common progression of the blues is irrelevant. The second theme, again introduced by the oboe, sees the return of repetitive, melodically constrained motives. Example 9

Nielsen was adamant about not calling his third movement a scherzo – although its breezy triple meter apparently raised questions about nomenclature in the first reviews of the Symphony. Once again, the main theme unfolds in a narrow range, the repeat of small motives and including the melodic idea mentioned above. Example 10 The accompanying figures again illustrate the melodic toggling quality. For the second theme, Nielsen switches from triple to duple time and toggles between minor and major mode. The little clarinet solo at the end is another example of his characteristic melodic signature. Example 11 Around the middle of the movement, He suddenly shifts the lilting momentum with a kind of “scolding” outburst of the full orchestra, Example 12 and suddenly the mood becomes serious with a horn solo remarkably like the second theme from the slow movement of Dvorák’s New World Symphony. Example 13 The curious thing is that Dvorák’s symphony was composed one year after Nielsen’s, and Dvorák, residing in the United States at the time, could not have heard a performance.

But Nielsen certainly knew Dvorák’s earlier symphonies, and the opening of his finale owes much to his Bohemian older contemporary. Example 14 The more reserved secondary themes, however, have the particular characteristics toggle effect already discussed. Example 15 Example 16

As Nielsen developed as a composer, his music became more somber and, at times angry, but he never lost many of the signature qualities first presented to the world in this Symphony.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2014