The Bergen International Festival Closing Concert is in the spirit of the nation and democracy, as a worthy musical celebration of the Bicentenary of the Norwegian Constitution. And as an extra anti-chauvinist gesture the concert has been put into the hands of Swedish musicians – the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and the Swedish Radio Choir.
The concert opens with Edvard Grieg’s A minor Piano Concerto from 1869, which more than any other work is associated with Norway and Norwegian landscape. It has been referred to as ‘Norway in miniature’. One reason for this is Grieg’s use of folk dance rhythms – Halling in the first movement and Springar in the last. In the nineteenth century folk music was perceived as nature’s own form of expression. An example of this is the statue of Ole Bull in Bergen city centre, sculpted by Stephan Sinding (1846–1922) in 1901, which depicts the celebrated violinist standing atop the waterfall learning to play from the fossegrim beneath, a supernatural being highly skilled in playing the music of nature. The second movement is in a more poetic mood associated – like the Lyric Pieces he went on to compose – with Norwegian mountain scenery. It was these natural surroundings that Grieg focused on throughout his life. Like Johan Christian Dahl (1788–1857), the Bergen painter, he believed they perfectly reflected the Norwegian character. Indeed, more than that: as the Bergen writer Johan Sebastian Welhaven (1807–73) had emphasised in both poetry and prose, Norwegians fought so intensely for their freedom because they had grown up in severe mountainous terrain, accustomed to being self-sufficient while resisting domination by the power of nobility and wealth. In this matter Norway resembles the only country in mainland Europe to resist subjugation, Switzerland. Thus Grieg’s A minor Concerto may be seen as a tribute to his freedom-loving home country.
This brings us to the connection with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in D minor from 1824. This grandiose symphony, which in form and length breaks all earlier moulds, culminates in Ode to Joy, written in 1785 by Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805). Beethoven found it necessary to re-order some of the lyrics in the verses he selected from Schiller’s 1803 revision, focusing on the motto from the French Revolution: liberté, egalité, fraternité. Thus the ode pays tribute not merely to joy, but just as much to the democratic values that Beethoven treasured so highly. It is no coincidence that Beethoven’s tune was adopted by the Council of Europe in 1972 as the European Anthem.
The Ninth Symphony is of course more than its famous final movement. Beethoven had toyed with the idea of setting Schiller’s ode to music for almost ten years, and had made some sketches while working on the symphony that was to be his ninth. In 1822 he had the revolutionary idea of amalgamating them into a single work – a symphony which ended with a combination of instrumental music and a choir with soloists. No one had done anything of the kind before, and for Richard Wagner (1813–83) this was final proof that the era of pure instrumental music was over; that several art forms would have to be combined for music to be able to achieve greater heights. Wagner’s contention turned out to be somewhat wide of the mark, but there can be little doubt that Beethoven made significant advances.
In the first three movements Beethoven keeps within the boundaries of Vienna’s classical norm while making use of innovative rhythms and harmonies. In the fourth movement he breaks the classical mould and takes a step into the language of the Romantic era. Here niether symmetry nor harmony reigns: the music reflects a yearning for infinity in a form that from a classical point of view is fragmentary and dissonant. Not only that, but the movement lasts 25 minutes, longer than most entire symphonies written before then. It can be divided into four sub-movements – a symphony within a symphony. Beethoven smuggles in an element of doubt in perfection and purity – the very doubt that is the mainstay of democracy.
Text: Gunnar Danbolt
English version: Roger Martin