The Fairy Tales and Journeys concert includes the premiere of his reconstruction of the Ole Bull work Norges Fjelde (the Mountains of Norway), when he will be joined on stage by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra (KORK) and the violinist Annar Follesø. The work has not been performed since Ole Bull played the solo part.
‘This is a work we have known of for a long time. We know that it was performed a great deal and that it was highly successful. We have reviews with ovation-like descriptions of concerts where it was performed,’ says Wolfgang Plagge.
The reconstruction was no simple task however.
‘We discovered the difficulties while recording Ole Bull’s Violin Concertos,’ Plagge explains.
Annar Follesø and KORK’s critically acclaimed Ole Bull CD from 2010 includes two concertos by Ole Bull considered by many to be unplayable and therefore rarely performed,.
Wolfgang Plagge continues his explanation: ‘It is typical of Bull that he writes complete orchestral accompaniments, but leaves huge gaping holes in the solo part. He knew himself exactly what he was going to play, so he never wrote it down. However, that makes things difficult for us at a later date. They are highly rhapsodic works with plenty of room for improvisation.’
Norges fjelde presented even greater challenges.
‘There were several pages missing from the score. Professor Harald Herresthal did a great job recovering missing pages during his work on Ole Bull’s biography, partly by going through the mounds of manuscripts left at Lysøen. And not least interpreting them. It is one thing to find manuscripts, but something else entirely to put them back together properly and understand what actually belongs in a work,’ explains Wolfgang Plagge.
‘Ole Bull borrowed a lot of material from his own pieces, and was not really concerned with creating complete works for posterity. That was not his way of thinking,’ Plagge reveals. ‘He was on tour all the time. When he arrived at a new concert venue he would typically spend time in the town, visiting bars and assembly halls, noticing what tunes people were humming.
‘Then at the concert he would insert snippets of the tunes he had heard. Imagine how the audience must have reacted: “Listen, it’s our tune!” He was a great communicator: he knew what people wanted, even when they didn’t know it themselves.
‘The orchestra provided little more than a musical backdrop for Ole Bull’s improvisation. He composed some basic riffs for the orchestra, which he would label A, B and so on, and then use them in any order that suited him from one time to the next, improvising over them. This is a highly interactive way to play, closely related to what rock and jazz musicians do today.’
‘How would you describe Norges Fjelde?’
‘It is spectacular music, no less so than the two violin concertos. And the first time we heard the concertos we were taken aback by how good they were. Many people have looked upon Ole Bull as something of a second-rate composer, but I think that is unfair, as it does not take his improvisation into account. But his critics have neither the will nor the opportunity to judge him on his improvisation; without recordings of his concerts it is lost to posterity.’
Wolfgang Plagge makes a comparison with rock music:
‘It’s a bit like the Rolling Stones hit Satisfaction. If you gave classical reviewers the sheet music they would say “This is nothing!” But it is, it is a great composition by virtue of the power of the music. It is just something else, and must be judged according to different criteria. The same applies to Ole Bull.'
Plagge points out that improvisation used to have a more significant role in classical music.
‘In early classical music it was the norm to insert cadenzas – improvised solos. Mozart did so, Beethoven too in his first to fourth piano concertos. From that time on it was common to write out the solos in the score. For instance, in Grieg’s A minor Concerto the cadenzas are written out in the score, even though they are distinctly solo music,’ explains Plagge.
‘I think we have lost something in classical music by rejecting improvisation. I think we need to recreate and rediscover that way of making music. It is essential for communication with the audience.’
In his work on the score of Norges Fjelde Wolfgang Plagge has taken the opportunity to put his theory to the test.
‘I have made it rhapsodic, leaving room for improvised solos. But I have also had to make some choices when filling in the missing pages: should I write them from my own point of view, or should I write them as I believe Ole Bull would have done? I have chosen the latter, and feel that it has now started to gel,’ says Plagge.
He will compere the concert when Annar Follesø and the Norwegian Radio Symphony Orchestra perform Norges Fjelde in Grieghallen. He is looking forward to it:
‘It is often said that classical music is merely reproductive and not a living issue. In the case of Ole Bull it is most definitely alive!
Interview: Anders Kjetland
English version: Roger Martin