Music: The Music of the Waterfall

Before he died, a great music-loving friend of mine, Phil Nicolaides, said that he would regret departing this life because of the wonderful melodies he would never hear. He was wrong. The best melodies are in heaven. This is especially so in the case of the music of Norwegian composer Geirr Tveitt (1908-1981).

Tveitt lived in the Hardanger region of western Norway on a farm that had been in his family for more than six centuries. He was extraordinarily prolific, producing some 400 compositions. July 12, 1970, is a day of infamy in the history of 20th-century music. On that day a fire consumed Tveitt’s wooden house and all the musical scores stored in it. Because Tveitt did not bother with the publication of his works, close to 90 percent of his life’s output was lost to this world. What remains is so good that one reason I want to get to heaven is to hear the rest of it.

Tveitt’s work was completely rooted in the folk music of Hardanger. Like Bela Bartok in Hungary, Tveitt scoured the countryside of his district, notating about 1,000 folk tunes—alas, also lost in the fire. We have some idea of the worth of these treasures because Tveitt adapted 100 of them in an orchestral work, A Hundred Folk-Tunes from Hardanger. They were grouped into suites, roughly 15 folk melodies in each. Four of the suites have survived. Another 50 of the tunes were arranged for piano. The Bis label has released a splendid recording of the first two suites with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, under Ole Kristian Ruud. In addition, the Marco Polo label has issued two CDs containing Fifty Folk-Tunes from Hardanger for Piano, played brilliantly by pianist Havard Gimse.

In either guise, these works are aphoristic tone poems, or musical haiku, most of them lasting under three minutes, and some only one. The melodies are instantly memorable. Their expressive range is extraordinary, encompassing exquisite tenderness, raucous humor, and a kind of barbarian splendor. They are little lightning flashes of music that illuminate the landscape of life and nature.

The titles of the tunes give some idea of the subject matter of Hardanger folk music: “Consecration of the New Beer,” “The Loveliest Song on Earth,” “The Hasty Wedding,” “Beard on Fire,” “Sad Song of an Empty Brandy Keg,” “God’s Goodness and God’s Greatness,” “The Lame Fiddler’s Hulder-Dance,” and “Do You Hear the Falls Singing?” from which Tveitt’s biographer, Reidar Storaas, aptly drew the title of his book, The Song in the Waterfall’s Roar.

The music could hardly be more specific to a location and a particular, provincial culture. So what explains its universal appeal? How can we be so thoroughly delighted by the peasant music of western Norway—or, to be more exact, by music drawing upon it? The reason is that folk music is entirely based on song and dance, which are the original wellsprings of all music. That is what gives Tveitt’s music its sense of freshness and innocence, its robustness and vitality, its spontaneity and directness. Both in these vignettes and in his larger works, there is a living, pulsating feeling to Tveitt’s music.

Tveitt himself, however, was not a peasant. He was a man of the highest musical and cultural sophistication. He studied in Vienna and Paris with Egon Wellesz, Arthur Honegger, and Heitor Villa-Lobos (among others). He spoke five European languages fluently and managed to get by in four others, including Arabic and Hindi. He was not a country bumpkin, but he so identified with the region from which he came that he became indistinguishable from it. Tveitt said of himself, “If a leaf grows on a birch tree, it necessarily becomes a birch leaf.” He became the song in the roar of the Hardanger waterfalls, or in other words, a source of folk music himself. No one can distinguish between the “real” Hardanger folk tunes and the ones Tveitt made up.

To the Hardanger tunes, Tveitt added a technical sophistication and a sense of orchestral color that can be compared to that of Maurice Ravel, to whom he dedicated his Second Piano Concerto. While the Hardanger vernacular predominates in Tveitt’s music, other Nordic and European influences are also discernable. One can hear them in two other splendid recent releases of his music. Again using the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra and Ole Kristian Ruud, the Bis label has brought out the premiere recordings of two major orchestral works, Prillar and the Sun God Symphony, which is a compilation of the surviving fragments of his huge ballet, Baldurs Draumar. The budget Naxos label has issued a recording of Tveitt’s Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 5. These are breathtakingly played by Havard Gimse with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Bjarte Engeset (Gimse also performs the Hardanger Tunes on the Marco Polo CDs).

The Bis release makes clear Tveitt’s debts to Ravel not only in his stunning orchestration and impressionistic harmonies, but also in his formal treatment of what are essentially folk music suites. In these larger forms, Tveitt uses a bolero-like scheme of intensification through repetition. The music grows in volume, speed, and rhythmic accent. Tedium is avoided by Tveitt’s orchestral virtuosity and improvisatory style. At times, Tveitt’s works are also reminiscent of Leos Janacek in their swirling ostinatos and punchy motifs. As is perhaps inevitable for a Scandinavian composer of his period, Tveitt occasionally falls under the spell of Jean Sibelius, especially in his string and woodwind writing. His work is also reminiscent of another Norwegian musical nationalist, Harald Saeverud.

In the two piano concertos, Sergei Rachmaninov’s influence shows up in Tveitt’s propensity to pile chords on top of each other to reach thrilling climaxes. Counterpoised to Rachmaninov’s influence, however, is that of French composer Francis Poulenc. Like Poulenc, Tveitt was utterly unafraid of simplicity. Some of Tveitt’s melodies possess a childlike naiveté that goes straight to the heart. The music alternates between orchestral storms and gentle melodies.

There are other recordings of Tveitt’s works available on the Norwegian label, Simax. These CDs, however, are hard to find in the United States. With some ingenuity, they can be purchased on the Internet (try www.toccata.nu). It is worth searching out the Harp Concerto No. 2 on Simax PSC 3108, which is paired with the Suite No. 1 from the Hardanger Tunes. Simax also offers a CD (PSC 1805) of Tveitt playing his own works in recordings made in the 1940s. The sound quality is execrable. I listen anyway because it is the only way I can hear Tveitt’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which Tveitt claimed Brahms played for him in a dream (the score was lost). This CD also features Tveitt playing his Piano Sonata No. 29, the only one to have escaped the fire. These few CDs, however, only scratch the surface of Tveitt’s surviving works, and I hope more will be recorded soon. Also, someone needs to restore to the catalog the defunct Aurora label’s recording of Tveitt’s enlivening Concerto No. 2 for Hardanger Fiddle and Orchestra, a work of irresistible charm.

But what about Tveitt’s 30-some other piano sonatas and his many other concertos, symphonies, ballets, operas, and ballads that perished in the conflagration of 1970? I am afraid I will have to wait to hear them with Phil Nicolaides.

Author

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...