Friday, 12 August 2011

Springtime on Funen

“Finally, everyone’s talking about Nielsen” is the witty title of an article by Andrew Mellor in the September issue of the Gramophone. It includes contributions from Daniel Grimley whose recent book, Carl Nielsen and the Idea of Modernism, will certainly help nudge along any Nielsen revival. The BBC Proms included a Nielsen symphony alongside one from Sibelius and the Grieg Piano Concerto on August 8th, so perhaps the revival is already underway. Here, in a second extract from Daniel Grimley’s superb study, is an evocative look at Nielsen’s pastoral cantata, Springtime on Funen.

One of the recurring tropes in Nielsen reception, both at home and abroad, is his association with the Danish landscape. Repeatedly presented as a true and faithful son of the soil, Nielsen is held to have captured some elemental quality of the Danish landscape in sound, just as the landscape seems somehow to have determined the texture and grain of much of his musical work.

The pastoral cantata, Fynsk Foraar (‘Springtime on Funen’), is emblematic in this respect. It is here that Nielsen’s evocation of the Danish countryside, and the island of Funen where he was born, appears most powerful and explicit. But Nielsen’s response to the idea of landscape, and to the construction of Funen as specific place and sensibility in music, is more ambiguous than it first seems. In a brief, illuminating moment towards its closing bars, the whirling round dance with which Springtime on Funen concludes unexpectedly gives way to a hushed cadenza for tremolo violins, solo voices, horns, and bassoons. Marked molto adagio, the seven-bar passage is canonic: the soprano’s ornamental melodic arabesque is imitated first by the tenor and then by the baritone (doubled by the woodwind), beneath a shimmering inverted pedal in the upper strings.

Texturally, dynamically, and harmonically, the cadenza is an exceptional and striking event: its Ab minor orientation is a sharp diversion from the round dance’s final tonal goal, a radiant E major (the transition pivots on the enharmonic transformation Eb/D#), and the sudden drop in dynamic level and textural weight is in sharp contrast to the finale’s prevailing fortissimo tutti. The cadenza marks an abrupt change of direction that seemingly brings the whole work momentarily to a stop at the line: ‘Se, Æbleblomster drysser over vejen’ (‘Look, apple blossom scatters down upon the road’). The three soloists repeat the words hypnotically, as though held in rapt attention as they watch the white petals slowly falling to the ground, until the chorus re-enter in the final bar, whispering ‘Natten er vor egen, Æbleblomster drysser’ (‘The night is ours, apple blossom scatters down’). As the words slip silently away, the round dance returns, swiftly cranking up speed and volume once again so that the poignant memory of the spring night, and its associations of vernal love, are breezily blown away as the cantata spirals towards its celebratory final cadence.

On closer inspection, the cadenza might be heard simply as a moment of modest reflection, the brief calm before the uplifting storm of the cantata’s energetic final pages. It can also be understood generically as a closing curtain call for the three soloists who appear, partly in character, earlier in the work, alongside a children’s choir and an adult chorus. Springtime on Funen opens with a gentle sunrise heralding the turning of the season. The soft contours of the landscape are feminised, the spring blossom flowering upon ‘the gnarled apple tree/behind hills as rounded as young girl’s knees’ [det knortede Æbletræ/bag Bakker, der rundes som Pigeknæ]. The soprano solo enters as a spring goddess – Demeter or Persephone, or perhaps a local Nordic deity (Freya) – followed by the tenor, a young sap-filled hero, who greets ‘the gentle day, so mild and long/and full of sun and birdsong’ (‘den milde Dag [så] lys og lang/og fuld af Sol og Fuglesang’). The baritone appears twice: first as the earthy voice of experience, an ‘old bachelor’ whose dark lower register grounds the passage in the rich tilth of the Funen fields, and then later as the melancholy blind musician, ‘Blind Anders’ in Nielsen’s autobiographical account of his childhood, whose mournful clarinet solo provides the cantata’s greatest moment of pathos: ‘small hands seek my old hand/it is as if I touched the spirit of spring (små Hæder søger min gamle Hånd/ det er, som rørte jeg Vårens Ånd’).

In contrast, the cadenza has the feeling of withdrawal and abstraction, a liquefaction or draining away of meaning, as though the characters who enter elsewhere in the work suddenly lose their individual identity and drift from view. The cadenza’s haziness thus assumes the quality of a dream sequence, a hallucinatory episode that seems in some ways emblematic of the act of remembrance itself: the sudden unexpected lighting upon a forgotten image that is simultaneously familiar and strange. The shimmering string tremolo suggests the acute tingling of nerve endings, of a state of heightened awareness, the soprano arabesque appearing almost imperceptibly and then reproducing itself canonically as each stage in the process of recollection generates a further image in turn. The falling apple blossom hence becomes a Proustian key that momentarily unlocks a privileged domain of sensory experience and temporal projection backwards, or rather inwards, towards a hitherto inaccessible level of imagination. And, as swiftly as it emerged, the vision vanishes once more, swept aside by the inevitable return of the closing Dansevise.

Memory, the cadenza reveals, is as much about letting go as about recollection; landscape here is more concerned with erasure than with recording the permanent mark of dwelling and occupation. Nielsen’s springtime is a festival of celebration and rebirth, but it is also merely a seasonal stage in a larger cycle of growth and decay, of flowering and dissolution – it is the trace of landscape’s mutability and constant capacity for change and renewal.

Carl Nielsen and the Idea of Modernism by Daniel Grimley is published by the Boydell Press and is available from all good booksellers, as is Grimley’s earlier book on Grieg. Dan Grimley will be appearing at the Bard Music Festival which starts this weekend. Andrew Mellor's Gramophone blog post on Nielsen can be found here.