It’s Constitution Day (Grundlovsdag) in Denmark today, the closest the country gets to a national day, so i thought i’d mark the occasion with a piece by one of the country’s best-known composers that i’ve been spending time with lately. It’s a re-thinking by Per Nørgård of one of his earlier works, Remembering Child, a viola concerto written in 1986 in commemoration of Samantha Smith, the 13-year old American girl who became famous for contacting Yuri Andropov to express her fears about the possibility of a nuclear war between Russia and the USA. Material taken from that piece, in conjunction with some “nocturnal sketches”, resulted in a new double concerto for violin, cello and chamber orchestra simply titled Three Nocturnal Movements.
Concertos, whether composers intend them to or not, inevitably raise the question of the nature of the relationship between soloist(s) and orchestra, with concomitant aspects of influence and power-play, the individual pitted against the mass. But in the Three Nocturnal Movements, the answer to this question is obvious: from start to finish the two soloists are emphatically at the helm of the entire musical argument. This stems directly from a generalised atmosphere of somewhat lugubrious vagueness, from which even the soloists are not exempt. On the one hand, it’s apparent that violin and cello have something important to say, from the outset tripping over themselves to articulate it (literally, the two lines overlap each other throughout). Yet on the other hand, it’s also apparent that a predetermined sense of direction is seemingly very far from anyone’s minds. Pensivity reigns.
Of the two soloists, the cello more often than not is responsible for laying down both the tenor of the music as well as its particulars, which are imitated and expanded upon by the violin. Their combined tendency is to meander within relatively confined parameters and pitch-space, with a fluid notion of momentum. In this respect, there’s the barest hint of an inherent friction between the soloists, keen to keep things mobile, and the orchestra, who display occasional efforts to lay down patterns and the makings of a pulse. Nothing so pedantic emerges, though, and instead the orchestra quickly recedes into an extensive palette facilitating delicate colourations and echoes of the violin and cello’s musings. United in difference in this way, as they become later in the first movement, somehow keeps the prevailing meanderment from seeming arbitrary, and in turn the orchestra, acting in the capacity of a supportive soundboard, resists being perceived as a perfunctory functionary. That’s surely a much tougher balance to maintain compositionally than it is to describe.
Nørgård shakes the relationships up in the second movement, inducing the soloists to experiment with pace and the orchestra to test the waters of assertion, but both avenues of enquiry quickly sound at odds with their respective fundamental natures. An ephemeral initial urge to ramp things up by the violin is swiftly jettisoned, and much of the movement becomes occupied with an extensive, highly lyrical duet between the soloists. Loud interjections from the orchestra could be read as over-emphatic nods of agreement or an urgency to push things along, but Nørgård seems to be establishing a clear correlation where the quicker and louder material is played, the greater is its subsequent level of ambiguity and uncertainty. And so the orchestra recedes again into its more instinctive role of reinforcement, placing their music with complete deference to that of the cello and violin. Indeed, despite multiple listenings, it’s often hard to recall exactly what the orchestra does in passages like these, but to my mind that’s indicative of the success of their actions, maintaining the overall focus on the soloists in the spotlight. As violin and cello explore another, final, cadenza, the orchestra briefly enriches the epilogue with a beautiful backdrop before withdrawing and allowing the soloists to conclude things alone, ending in unison.
The way Nørgård sets up such clear roles and relationships in the Three Nocturnal Movements without making the results sound dogmatic or constricted is deeply impressive. Indeed, this is music that could hardly sound more spontaneous, working things out in real time in a manner that’s contemplative and affecting. Commissioned by the Bergen International Festival for a concert celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, the world première was given by them almost exactly a year ago, conducted by Andrew Manze, with violinist Peter Herresthal and cellist Jakob Kullberg, both of whom have long associations with Nørgård’s music.
In the mid-1980s Per Nørgård composed a viola concerto, Remembering Child, a work that embodies the Danish phrase ”Der er højt til loftet,” which roughly translates to ”There is a lot of space under the ceiling” and which means that there is ample space for thinking, feeling and interpreting. There is room enough for thought and contemplation. Nørgård’s own note for Remembering Child was this:
The title refers to the original meaning of the word “remembering”: Making whole. The work should not be considered as a sort of requiem for Samantha Smith – the late 13 years old fighter for nuclear disarmament – but as an evocation of the childlike, creative forces in all people, young and old. Therefore the work applies thematical material of a certain “dawning” quality, including two Gregorian chants, appearing intertwined in the beginning of the 2. movement. And therefore the work also may be considered as a tribute to the still living child-heretics, fighting against the global lunacy of grown-up, such as Eamon Burke, the Australian boy, continuing, independently, the work of Samantha.
As Nørgård himself writes above, a great part of this work expresses a sense of dawning, of first light and the urgent and brand new feeling of perception that children experience and explore. In Three Nocturnal Movements – Based on Remembering Child, the music takes on both a milder and a darker side. As if the two soloists turn around and still see the softness of the night behind them. This is especially expressed in the new middle part of the work.
Three Nocturnal Movements are written in close collaboration with Jakob Kullberg and Peter Herrestahl the soloists, and was first performed in Bergen in June 2015.