Nordic Mass, commissioned by the Bergen International Festival and the Mogens Dahl Chamber Choir and awaiting its world premiere, is a celebration of contemporary Nordic life. Since traditional religion has taken a back seat, the individual must seek meaning in moments of closeness and in the overwhelming greatness of nature. It is a story that opens out in five movements named after the traditional parts of the mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.
The texts to this monumental work, which take the temperature of the early twenty-first century Nordic mind, are by the Swedish Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer. His compact expression and stark honesty are made to resonate to music by a world-class composer, Sven-David Sandström. Mogens Dahl Chamber Choir, based in Copenhagen, consists of select singers from the Nordic countries, and has specialised in the Nordic vocal tradition.
The Mass: a tryst
Purely by calling his work a mass, Sandström sends out signals of a relation to the Christian mindset. Nordic Mass is also a work which, despite modern secular texts, is intimately related to liturgical tradition. Traditionally mass celebrated divine presence in human life, culminating in eucharist, in which communion between the faithful and God is made manifest.
In order to interpret Nordic Mass it is therefore worth looking at religious poets of former generations who are echoed in the work. Two stand out in particular: Juan de la Cruz, the great Spanish renaissance mystic; and TS Eliot, the Christian modernist.
The Spanish poet monk Juan de la Cruz (1542–92) described the intimate relationship of the soul to God as that of a lover who steals out at night to visit his loved one:
One dark night … I went out unseen,
My house being now all stilled. […]
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved […]
Just as in the Song of Solomon – the erotic poetry of the Bible – human love provides a sensuous image of the soul uniting with the divine. It is tempting to let the monk’s dark night of love flow seamlessly into Tranströmer’s portrayal of another secretive tryst:
They turn off the lamp […]
The hotel walls shoot up into the night sky.
The motions of love have subsided and they sleep
but their innermost thoughts meet […]
In Tranströmer’s text there is also something greater at play in ‘the motions of love’. It is in closeness and intimacy that both poets find redemption. One with God, the other in a bout of lovemaking in a hotel room. Can the difference between modern secular man and the classical believer be expressed any more clearly?
Darkness and light
In the poem by Juan de la Cruz the dramatic contrasts between darkness and light (chiaroscuro) play an important role, just as they did for contemporary painters Caravaggio and Rembrandt. This existential perception of light and darkness may also be found in Nordic Mass. The most obvious example is probably the description of an underground train journey from gloomy darkness out into the light of fields under an open sky.
From the very first lines, in which dark thunderclouds portentously gather in the sky, a cloud (of death?) runs throughout Nordic Mass, as a safe but nevertheless threatening companion:
I am borne in my shadow
like a violin
in its black case.
Towards the end of the work the winter sun hangs low and shadows are long – so long that they eventually swallow the light and everything becomes a shadow. In a modern perspective that has renounced redemption outside earthly existence, Death must necessarily have the final word.
Sandström’s music artfully reflects these effects of light and shadow. Bright major chords in the upper female voices penetrate at times the darkness of the male voices like rays of sun. At the end the pitch gradually falls to a darker register, finally settling on a monumentally deep D flat chord on the word shadow.
Things catch fire: Glances of the divine
TS Eliot (1888–1965) is doubtless the poet who has most consistently maintained the basic alienation of modern life alongside a basically religious perception of life. Throughout Nordic Mass it is apparent that Tranströmer shares Eliot’s view of contemporary life – on the one hand barren desperation and on the other sacred translucence.
Eliot’s early major work The Wasteland opens with the memorable lines that claim that April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land. Tranströmer reviews this image of the powerlessness of early spring at the end of Nordic Mass. The poem is called April and Silence:
Spring lies barren […]
All that lights up
is yellow flowers.
However, amidst the barrenness there is hope. In his late masterpiece, Four Quartets, Eliot describes a winter landscape shining brightly in the intense winter sun. The flames of the sun are blinding, like spring in winter, and it is the fire of Pentecost that burns. The divine is fragmentarily perceived amidst an earthly existence.
In Nordic Mass we constantly sense the presence of something elevated pressing forward. Of ‘things catching fire’. Alternately fundamentally good and threateningly alien:
One day something came to the window.
Work halted, I looked up.
Colours caught fire. Everything turned.
The field and I took a leap at each other.
Sandström’s spiritual music allows us to perceive these sudden changes of light, atmosphere and mindset as unexpected musical twists and turns. Energetic rhythm that suddenly imbues the deep voices. Under the ostensibly simple surface there is a rumbling tremolo chord or a complex discord that reveals to us the restlessness and existential uncertainty of the poet.
In Eliot it is ultimately in the silence of nature before the endless ocean that we can hear the distant voice from the source of life:
The voice of the hidden waterfall (…)
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
In Tranströmer too it is at the breaking waves we approach most closely our own starting-point. Here the poet is confronted with himself as a riddle.
I reach the water’s edge too rarely. But now I am here
amid great stones with peaceful backs. […]
What am I?
The universe of the Nordic mind
Nowhere in the world is the sun as low and merciless as in the Nordic countries. Nowhere is spring more gruesome to its weak – and often false – hopes. Nowhere is the ocean or the dark forest more omnipresent than at these latitudes. And perhaps no society has turned more consistently and uncompromisingly away from a religious mindset than Nordic societies. These basic premisses clearly influence Nordic Mass and make it an unmistakeably Nordic work.
We may be fortunate and experience glimpses of human intimacy one summer night in a hotel room. But more basic and enduring are encounters with the Nordic landscape. The old oak tree, the ocean, the forest, the rain. In an encounter with Nordic Mass it is these primal experiences that stay most vividly with us.
The music is distinctly Nordic too. Pillars of sound and monumentally suggestive choral progressions face elements of almost ritual musical character. Sandström has within the Nordic vocal tradition his own particular personal feeling for describing the simple and light against the turbulent and violent.
Rarely has composer Per Nørgård’s famous concept of ‘the universe of a Nordic mind’ been so concisely expressed as in Nordic Mass. Two of the Nordic countries’ greatest creative artists joined forces to produce a work dedicated to a Nordic chamber choir, premiered at a festival which at the start of the twenty-first century has become the foremost cultural platform of the Nordic countries.
Jakob Errboe Holtze, manager, Mogens Dahl Chamber Choir
English version: Roger Martin