A concert which sets sound centre stage: music by Christian Eggen, Ragnhild Berstad, Bjørn Fongaard, Lili Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen.
Time appears to freeze during Messiaen’s meditation on the ascension of Christ in his masterpiece, L’ Ascension, which will be performed in Oslo Cathedral during the Ultima Festival this year. The sense of tragedy is palpable in the work D’un Soir Triste by Lili Boulanger, who lost her deserved place as a leading contemporary composer when she died, aged only twenty-four. And finally, the music of Bjørn Fongaard receives a posthumous resurrection after his Uran 235 was scandalously removed from a concert programme in 1965. The concert is crowned with new Norwegian music in the form of Ragnhild Berstad’s Krets (1996) and a new work by the conductor of this concert, Christian Eggen, in a concert placing sound centre stage.
For over a century, French composers have played a critical role in the development of new musical expressions which focus on sound itself. Two leading composers and personalities — which within the context of the patriarchal system of music history were placed in the shadow of Debussy and Ravel — were sisters Nadia and Lili Boulanger. One can only wonder at how great Lili Boulanger (1893−1918) might have become if she hadn’t contracted Crohn’s disease and died, at the age of just twenty-four. In 1913, she became the first female winner of the prestigious composition prize, the “Prix de Rome”, at the Paris Conservatory. Although her name is not so well-known today, Boulanger was a central figure in Parisian music life, and a pioneer for female prominence in a musical environment which at the beginning of the 20th century was mostly dominated by men.
Stylistically, Lili Boulanger drew inspiration from Massenet, Fauré and other French contemporary composers, as well as from Romantic styles and works from earlier times. In the tone poem D’Un Soir Triste (1918), one of the very last works she completed, Boulanger has created a work which is as colourful, elegant and subtle as any written by Debussy or Ravel, but including also very distinct, unique nuances in her musical language, among them some rather harsh dissonances, considering it was 1918. The work has a dark undertone and might in retrospect be seen as a premonition of the composer’s own, impending death. D’Un Soir Triste is composed as a counterpart to another tone poem, D’Un Matin du Printemps, also from 1918.
The French sound tradition from around the turn of the century was a significant starting point also for Olivier Messiaen (1908−1992) when he was developing his highly personal musical language some decades later. Also Messiaen focussed primarily on sound, but his sound was so innovative that he is today, quite rightly, viewed as one of the greatest, most radical composers of the 20th century. Messiaen was also an organist, ornithologist and faithful Catholic, and found inspiration for his musical inventions in birdsong, colours and God. He expressed his faith through creating expansive, colourful and groundbreaking sound, and few works demonstrate this connection more clearly than L’ Ascension.
Messiaen described L’ Ascension as “four meditations for orchestra”, and the work really does have a meditative character. The first meditation, The Majesty of Christ Demanding his Glory of his Father, is a powerful, psalm-like movement where the trumpet plays a slow melody, accompanied by the long sustained sounds of the woodwinds and brass. In the second meditation, Serene Hallelujahs of a Soul That Longs for Heaven, the rhythms are faster and freer. The movement opens with the woodwinds’ unified and almost improvisatory melody before an English Horn plays a long solo with oriental colours. In Hallelujah on the Trumpet. Hallelujah on the Cymbal, the expression again becomes more majestic and mighty as the trumpets introduce their jubilant motives. The music falls back to the meditative calm of the opening movement when the strings play their infintely long legato lines in the concluding Prayer of Christ Ascending Towards his Father.
L’ Ascension exists both in a version for organ and in a version for orchestra, both composed at the beginning of the 1930’s. The orchestra version was completed in 1933 and is today the best-known.
Norwegian composers also started experimenting with sound in the course of the 20th century, especially when Arne Nordheim launched his electroacoustic works in the 1960’s. A contemporary of Nordheim, Bjørn Fongaard (1919−1980) also composed music which focussed principally on sound. In his orchestra work Uran 235 (1963), he uses quarter notes and many gliding transitions between different soundscapes. The work is also distinguished by his use of Morse Code as rhythmical elements. Fongaard has written in words such as “atoms”, “time” and “space”, in Morse Code, and has thereby given the work yet another layer of meaning. Fongaard’s work is not only interesting due to its musical traits, but also for its political undertones. Uranium 235 is a uranium isotope used in the development of nuclear weapons, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 being the most notorious example. The work has something of the same undertone as Krysztof Penderecki’s heartbreaking Threnodi for Victims of Hiroshima (1960). Although Fongaard composed Uran 235 in a completely different time from our own, closer to the second world war and the frostiest decades of the Cold War, it remains chillingly topical.
In 1965, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra had planned to perform a work by the pioneering Fongaard. The composer had won a composition competition organised by New Music and the Oslo Philharmonic with his Uran 235, and the stage was set for an exciting performance of a new Norwegian orchestra work. However, when the musicians saw the music, they were not able to play it. The unusual, complex notation and the many quarter notes provoked the musicians, and Uran 235 was removed from the programme − a move which ignited a heated debate in Oslo’s music circles, and the incident was deemed a scandal. Like Arne Nordheim and other experimental composers in the 1960’s, Fongaard had his own share of angry opponents and fervent adherents. The row ended with Uran 235 not being performed at all before the Norwegian Conservatory of Music’s symphony orchestra performed its world premiere in 1999 − more than 30 years after it was composed.
Norwegian composers remain intrigued by sound as a central element. Two examples of this are Ragnhild Berstad and Christian Eggen. Both are leading figures in the Norwegian contemporary music circles — Berstad as one of the most interesting composers of her generation and Eggen as a prominent composer, conductor and promoter of new Norwegian music through many years. Berstad is particularly known for her use of glass instruments in combination with traditional instruments, and for her experimentation with the sound properties of music; many have pointed out her proximity to the work of French spectral composers in several of her compositions. Berstad says of her own music:
“My work as a composer is about the desire to create a soundscape which insists on a present, listening consciousness. Music has inherent abilities to open up for the extended moment. For me, this has been the impulse towards a series of intimate works, where the closeness to the source of sound is the thread running through it all and the exploration of the inner world of sound forms the works".
In Krets (1996), Berstad makes use of a large orchestral apparatus, and bases her work on sound variation and innovation. When she won the Arne Nordheim composition prize in 2008, the jury wrote about Krets that “the work is built up by a shifting play of colour which might lead the mind to Schoenberg’s “sound-colour melody” in his Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16”, and there is little doubt that the sound itself is a dominant element in this work, as well as many other of Berstad’s compositions.
(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)Read more
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