Romantic Music in Scandinavia

Scandinavia has many great composers to talk about, and these Northern countries take particular national pride in their Romantic composers. These composers took their native Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Danish folk song to heart and developed a sound distinct from the rest of Europe. In countries where there previously were no national “schools,” or styles, of music composition, these Romantic era composers created them. Today we will discuss two of the most famous examples of Scandinavian composition and how their music sounds distinct both from the rest of Europe and each other.

Edvard Grieg: Father of the Norwegian Sound

Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) is known as the first major contributor to Norwegian classical music. He took folk melodies from his home country and incorporated them into his works, gaining a reputation for inventive harmony and lyrical, emphatic melodies. Grieg’s music is highly emotive, charged with folksy energy, and harmonically unlike the trend in Germany, Austria and Russia. The orchestration (reminder definition here) choices he makes are shimmering and atmospheric. Grieg’s fame was widespread, and he toured Scandinavia and the rest of Europe performing his works. His legacy is significant in the canon of favorite classical works, as we will hear below.

Peer Gynt Suites 1 and 2

Although Greig’s Peer Gynt was intended to accompany a play, it was so successful at its premiers alongside the play that Grieg extracted particular movements and made them into two stand-alone works for orchestra. The music’s original purpose, having to depict stage events, shines through in the colorful orchestration, sudden changes in character, and vivid dynamic range.

You will absolutely recognize some of these pieces, such as Morning and In the Hall of the Mountain King. For these and for the less familiar movements, notice things that set it apart from Brahms or other composers we’ve discussed recently. For me, the harmonies are less dense than in music written by Brahms or the Schumanns, and the cadence of some of the phrases is, similar to with the Slavic composers from last week, shorter or longer than I expect. Some melodies are quite folk-like and even reminiscent of Musical Orientalism in their cadence; this was Grieg’s depiction of the play character, Peer Gynt, traveling the world on his adventures.

Here are the movement titles:

Suite 1:

  • Morning Mood: sunrise
  • The Death of Åse: a lament for the love interest in the play
  • Anitra’s Dance: evoking Peer Gynt’s travels to the Middle East.
  • In the Hall of the Mountain King: Peer Gynt’s battle with the Troll King.

Suite 2:

  • The Abduction of the Bride. Ingrid’s Lament: Peer steals a bride away at her own wedding to another man!
  • Arabian Dance
  • Peer Gynt’s Homecoming (Stormy Evening on the Sea)
  • Solveig’s Song: The theme for the woman Peer loves, but who does not love him.

More Grieg Suggestions

Greig has many gorgeous works to choose from, so narrowing it down is difficult. I particularly enjoy his first string quartet due to its monumentally emotional quality. The first movement is almost outrageously dramatic, the second is a beautiful song, the third is a compelling and stately scherzo, and the fourth brings everything together in an almost programmatic recap of the first movement followed by a harmonically colorful, powerful finale.

Grieg knew how to write a great melody, and nothing shows this off more than his collection of Lyric pieces for solo piano. These miniatures all evoke different characters with color and imagination, all in just a minute or two each.

Jean Sibelius: Finland’s National Treasure

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is synonymous with Finnish music; he wrote what would become the Finnish national anthem (Finlandia) among an enormous collection of works for large orchestra, voice, small ensembles and solo instruments. Similar to Janáček, Sibelius was an offbeat personality and known for his vices, particularly the alcoholism that eventually killed him. His unique, quirky mind shines through in his music, which sounds entirely unlike anyone else’s, even within Scandinavia.

Sibelius’ music is known for its pioneering use of metric modulation, which is a gradual and smooth change of pulse to downplay the sense of pulse and crate a sweeping, landscape effect on the listener. In Sibelius’ music, you will often have trouble staying in time, tapping your foot or nodding along to the music, due to this effect. It is incredibly difficult to write Sibelius’ music down from hearing it. Sibelius also uses fantastical color in his orchestrating, switching quickly between sweeping melodies and rhythmic, almost mathematic sequences, and uses Finnish folk melodies which give a rustic character to the more cheerful passages.

Symphony no. 5, op. 82

Sibelius wrote several symphonies and they are perhaps the works for which he is best remembered. These works for large orchestra all showcase his classic rhythmic idiosyncrasies, metric modulations, and vibrant orchestration techniques. Symphony 5 is probably the most often performed. Its format is already a source of curiosity; it’s quite short by Romantic era standards at 30 minutes long, and it only has three movements.

The first movement begins with a heroic chorale in the horns, and already the rhythm is unclear to the listener. Try to tap along with the many melodies from this movement as you hear them. You will soon find it difficult to stay with the orchestra! Gradual, almost glacial movement from one tempo to another happens without the listener even noticing.

When Sibelius isn’t presenting a gradually shifting wall of sound, he is creating manic excitement with absolutely unison rhythms, such as the end of the first movement which races to the finish with unison, almost mathematical-sounding rhythm throughout the orchestra.

The second movement, although slow, has a clearer sense of pulse than the first movement’s slow section. It sounds like a simple folk melody, another of Sibelius’ favorite sources of material. The strings provide interesting, rhythmic commentary on strange, dissonant woodwind chord progressions. These harmonies sound nothing like what Brahms would have written!

The final movement takes up half of the symphony’s run time, and it contains one of Sibelius’ most famous melodies. The movement’s form is loosely based on a two-theme form (like sonata form). The strings open the movement with a frenzied tremolando (fast repetitions of the same pitch), and the next section is the famous “swan call” melody. Sibelius is said to have seen 16 swans take flight at once, and this event inspired this epic, film-score-worthy chorale in the brass and winds, accompanied by the strings. The meter is unclear and doesn’t seem to be important anyway; it is about the harmonies going by at a slow pace. Similar to the first movement, the shivering, chattering figure in the strings returns. This time it will build over the entire rest of the movement and finish with the swan call chorale again. The end of the piece, after all of the multi-rhythmic walls of sound, is starkly different: Sibelius writes several short chords for the entire orchestra to play in unison. No other composer had used a technique like this before.

More Sibelius

Sibelius has many other compelling and contrasting works to listen to. First I will suggest his violin concerto. This incredibly beautiful work could easily be used as a film score! The first movement is stirring and inspiring, the second is lyrical, and the third is a spritely peasant dance.

A new piece for me, this piano quintet was written early in Sibelius’ career and already shows his unique style. Listen for atmospheric, rhythmically off-kilter sounds, folklike tunes and very long “sentences,” or phrases, as phrases repeat and build on themselves..

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