An idea of North/ Exploring the interplay between the Spillemænd tradition and art

Posted on February 16th, 2021 by


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An idea of North/ Exploring the interplay between the Spillemænd tradition and art

Ice formations under my desk, tide on the Ebb. Adventfjorden 23 4 17

I have been closely involved with the interweave between Danish and Norwegian traditional and art musics for violin solo  since my late teens. These explorations began with my discovery of Johann Halvorsen’s pioneering transcriptions of Slåtter (Peters-Verlag 1900/1), initiated by Edvard Grieg. These have been a touchstone of my approach to the violin alone ever since.

Soon afterwards, with my first opportunity to perform in Denmark, and spend time in the artists community there, I became fascinated, with the links between the sound and aesthetics of the Danish Spillemænd (Carl Nielsen’s father was most celebrated of these on their native Fyn), and the radical solo works which Nielsen ( a life-long violinist_ wrote between 1922 and 1925 for his son in law, the Hungarian born Emil Telmányi (after the iconic sonatas and the Violin Concerto) .   My study of the virtuoso late works always went hand-in-glove with exploration of the enormous available source of ‘Spillemændermelodier’ and the aforementioned Norwegian ‘Slåtter’. It was clear to me that there are deep links.

A decade ago, I spent a summer, working on the the two volumes of Danish ‘Spillemaendmelodier’ know known as the ‘358’ (there are over 700 of in the collection, arranged by region. I made ‘at the desk’ recordings of over 200 of them, alongside Nielsen’s earliest work (reported in his Min Fynske Barndom), a Polka, which, whilst coming from this tradition, is not ‘of’ it: the piece aroused the ire of his acclaimed Spillemand father, Niels. I draw a direct line from the apparent failure of this little piece, to Nielsen’s late masterpieces for violin alone. More recently, this work has been complemented by systematic technical work on the violin volumes of the Norsk Folkemusikk collections.

My wife’s research on Hans Christian Andersen in my home made me ever more aware of the cultural importance of shared notions of ‘Spillemænd’ for Nordic culture and music. Andersen’s two eponymous poems and  memoir, Kun et Spillemand , combined with his exchanges with Ole Bull (who had brought the Hardanger virtuoso Torgeir Augundsson/Mylargutan to international attention) would help lay the ground for much of Edvard Grieg’s incorporation of the idea and actuality of traditional string playing into the fabric of his music: his String Quartet, based on Andersen’s Spillemand spil paa Strænge, is exemplar of this. Grieg’s encouragement led to of Johan Halvorsen’s extraordinary work, Slåtter, which became the basis of his own Op 72..

The publication of Halvorsen’s Slåtter (1900/1), the most public first airing of un-bowdlerized realisations of the minutiae of traditional string players performers, had a noticeable impact on the work of composers in Eastern Europe, working as transcribers or not, in the two decades following, which has largely been overlooked. The arrival of Emil Telmányi in Scandinavia, just before the outbreak of World War One, started to close this circle, particularly as this brilliant student of Jen? Hubay brought his energetic collaborations with Bartòk, Schoenberg, Stravinsky etc. to bear on his new life as a Dane and his work with his father-in-law, Carl Nielsen.

A central part of my work on this drawn-out project has been an increasing awareness of a much discussed idea emerging in the first half of the 20th century, of a shared artistic, cultural identity of a new notion of the ‘North’. This stretched  from the English Channel to the south, the East Coast of the United Kingdom to the West, North to Iceland and Svalbard, and to the East, the whole  Nordic region and the Low Countries. It’s worth noting that Halvorsen, in his early life as a violinist, was concertmaster of the Aberdeen orchestra (1885-9).  The chance afforded me, a few years ago, to build a project around the work of Danish painter, Sven Havsteen-Mikkelsen, at ‘Schæffergaarden’, outside Copenhagen, introduced me to his work on this endeavour, and made me realise how it underlaid so much of the work of the composers, musicians, artists and writers who fascinated me, and my own identity as an East Londoner whose family worked historically in the North Sea fishing fleets – then married to a Dane.

A vital driver of such ideas, in the modest living spaces of the north, has always been the salon and the interchanges it afforded, between art, science, music, philosophy and political thought. This stretched from the leaky-roofed soirees of ‘Golden Age’ Copenhagen, through the music rooms of Valestrand and Lysoen outside Bergen, to the increasingly cosmopolitan Scandinavian get-togethers of the early 20th century, where international player/composers such as the Dutch/German Julius Röntgen played quartets with Carl Nielsen at ‘Fuglesang’ or with Grieg and Halvorsen in Bergen and Christiana (Oslo). Röntgen’s long association with both Nielsen, Halvorsen and Grieg also enabled his successful introduction of works based on traditional Dutch folk music to these Nordic circles.  His cycle of Suites & Sonatas Op 68 date from 1921-2,  the years of his closest association with the Nielsen/Telmányi circle: they are closely linked to the Nielsen late solo works.

Naturally, as an interloper myself, I identify and draw inspiration from Röntgen’s work within these milieux. It’s paralleled by the arrival of the young Percy Grainger in the Grieg circle in 1906, and his long involvement in the Danish folk-music/collecting community following his relationship with Karen Holten from 1908. Indeed, Grainger’s -breaking solo viola work Room-music Tit-bits Nr.7 Arrival Platform Humlet (1912) was written on Liverpool Street Station whilst waiting for the boat train from Denmark, bring into Holten to London.

Instrument technology is a vital part of this. It is not difficult to see the links between the revival of interest in the Hardanger violin, and, for instance Telmányi’s experimentation with the Vega bow, which has more than an echo of Ole Bull’s work on polyphonic violinism using flattened bridges.

The grit in this oyster is the most modest of demands: The first page of Nielsen’s 1925 Prelude and Presto’ (for Telmányi) includes instructions as to how to purchase a ‘patent mute’ from the Hjørth & Co Luthiers in Copenhagen. In 2003, I followed these instructions, and was told that I was the first violinist to ever come in to enquire about Nielsen’s instruction over 80 years earlier… and then they sold me the mute. Indeed, a few years later, when the firm folded (after over 200 years in business), they sent me a box of the patent mutes, in thanks for my interest. When this piece was published in the Carl Nielsen Critical Edition, I was surprised, to find all reference to the ‘patent mute’ mute stripped from the score, and relegated to the critical commentary, where, despite being depicted, it was dismissed as impractical: I have been playing this work with the patent ‘automatic mute’ for some years. This project will include the first recording following Nielsen’s instruction.

The relationship between the folk music revival of the late 1800s and these early 20th century adventures came full circle after World War 2. In his Af en Musikers Billedbog, Emil Telmányi reportedhe was asked to give to technical help to the great Norwegian Hardanger player Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa, to advise him how to deal with his fear of the microphone. He gave him lessons, and they became friends. So here the great Hungarian/Dane finds a way back to the other end of the story, to great living heir of Torgeir Augundsson, the ‘Miller’s Son’. The lessons, according to Telmányi, took place at ‘Schæffergaarden’, outside Copenhagen, one of the locales that has been key for, and supported, my exploration of these ideas over the years.

Any individual artistic response to such a vast area as this will be, by definition, individual, inconsistent. My areas of enquiry and exploration over decades are the definition of over-personal.  It might be asked, why, having worked on this project, these ideas for so many years, I chose to keep them private, until now? The answer is, that I did not, but that caution proved necessary, as an Udlænding in the Nordic communities. At various times, it was pointed out to me, that whilst this project was fascinating, an Englishman was not the person to explore it: I was treading too many toes. But now it seems time to put temerity to one side and make the work public.