Printer Friendly

Beyond Grieg: Norwegian art songs.

EDVARD GRIEG LOOMS LARGE IN THE history of Norwegian art song, and rightly so. However, several earlier composers paved the way for the art song tradition in Norway. Still others, contemporaries of Grieg, have remained overshadowed by him. Grieg was also an important influence on a younger generation of composers. Each of these composers has contributed important pieces to the Norwegian repertoire. Regrettably, their works are largely neglected, especially outside Norway's borders. This article will introduce the reader to a selection of songs by Norwegian composers that, in addition to the well known songs of Grieg, offer a fine introduction to the Norwegian repertoire for young singers.


Like a number of countries in Europe, Norway is a relatively young nation, having gained complete sovereignty in 1905. The 1800s, during which Norway was in a union with Sweden, was a century of great nationalist sentiment, spurred in part by the establishment of its first constitution in 1814. This Romantic nationalism was reflected in Norwegian literature, music, and art. Folk traditions--including costumes, stories, and music--were a subject of great interest for those wishing to strengthen a sense of Norwegian national identity. Ludvig Mathias Lindeman (1812-1887), who published piano/vocal arrangements of Norwegian folk tunes in the mid-19th century, established an organ school in Christiania (now Oslo) in 1883, which became a conservatory the following decade. Up until that time, most Norwegian composers were educated abroad, especially in Leipzig, where Grieg, Halfdan Kjerulf, and Johan Svendsen all studied. Despite spending some of their formative years abroad, all three composers later developed distinctly nationalistic styles, which in turn were influential on their countrymen. (1)


Although his works are few, violinist, conductor, and composer Waldemar Thrane is important for his successful incorporation of Norwegian folk style into his music. He is best known for the first opera/singspiel, Fjeldeventyret (Mountain Adventure), with libretto by H. A. Bjerregaard. It was completed in 1824 and premiered in 1825. From this opera, the showy soprano piece, "Aagots Fjeldsang" (Aagot's Mountain Song), also known as "Norsk Fjeldsang" (Norwegian Mountain Song) or the "Ekosang" (Echo Song), was popularized in recital by legendary Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. Although the melody is original, it found its way into performance by many folk singers, and its Norwegian color was "so convincing that later generations have considered the song to be a genuine folk song." (2)

The recurring melody of "Norsk Fjeldsang" is based on the traditional Norwegian kuhning or lokk (cow call). A typical cow call is characterized by large vocal intervals, high-pitched tongue trills, text such as "koma da, a stakkare" (come now, poor thing), and a final, impressive vocal melisma extending into the highest range of the female voice. (3) All these elements appear in Thrane's aria.

"Fjeldsang" begins with a piano introduction that recalls the harmonic series played by an alphorn, an instrument used in Scandinavia for communication in herding communities. The song is vocally challenging, appropriate for a young coloratura with vocal agility. The text is short, and its syllabic setting is accessible even to a singer unfamiliar with Norwegian. The biggest technical challenge lies in three high B-fats, as well as the final passage--sung on "Ah!"--that mimics the echo of the cow call, with repeated descending major thirds that alternate between forte and piano dynamic levels. The cow call sections have minimal or no accompaniment, allowing rhythmic freedom in the voice and lending an improvisatory and authentic quality. These sections contrast with a melancholy, sweet middle section, in which the narrator describes the approaching sunset. The approximately five-minute piece allows an opportunity for a charming interpretation and performance, not only vocally but also dramatically.

OLE BULL (1810-1880)

Best known as a virtuoso violinist, composer Ole Bull was "one of the most visible champions, in Norway and abroad, for Norwegian culture." (4) He was a child prodigy, studying violin but also absorbing the fiddling style heard in his native Bergen. He assumed the position of conductor at Det musikalske Lyceum (Musical Lyceum) shortly after moving to Christiania, due to the death of the previous conductor, Waldemar Thrane. After touring Europe and the United States, he became a celebrated violinist and musical ambassador of Norwegian culture. Unfortunately, many of his compositions are lost, and extant scores often consist only of rough sketches, as Bull was known to improvise upon the basic framework of his music in performance. (5) As a composer he is known mostly for his violin works. During his lifetime many of his works were considered unplayable by others, due to the demanding virtuosic style for which Bull's custom instrument was specifically designed.

Bull was active politically, campaigning often for the independence of Norway. To commemorate one particularly successful event, he composed Et saeterbesog (A Mountain Pasture Visit), a programmatic piece for violin and orchestra. One movement is "Saeterjentens Sondag" (Herd-Girl's Sunday), "one of the most beloved of all Norwegian melodies." (6) It was later arranged for voice and piano, with text by Jorgen Engebretsen Moe. The song was recorded by Kirsten Flagstad and is well established in the standard song repertoire in Norway. (7) The text is only eight lines, and the melody is quite slow, making this piece an accessible undertaking for a novice to the Norwegian language. The enduring nature of the melody is a testament to its universal appeal.

Bull heard performances by Edvard Grieg and Rikard Nordraak in the 1850s, and was instrumental in their continuing education and development. (8) His enthusiasm for traditional idioms was influential in the output of both young composers, and in the development of a Norwegian national style.


Halfdan Kjerulf intended to study law, but after the death of his father and two of his siblings in 1840 and 1841, he became a journalist to help support his three remaining younger siblings. By 1845 he was working primarily as a music teacher, and began to compose as well. In 1849 he earned a government stipend to study in Copenhagen, where he worked with Danish composer Niels Wilhelm Gade, and in Leipzig, where he studied with Ernst Friedrich Richter (with whom Grieg would later study). (9)

Kjerulf composed mostly in small genres, including piano pieces, songs for mixed and male chorus, and some 130 songs. He set texts in all three continental Scandinavian languages, as well as in German and French. Called the "Norwegian Schubert," he is credited with bringing the lied tradition to Norway. (10) The influence of Schubert and Schumann is evident in his works, as are Norwegian folk melodies, with which Kjerulf had a deep familiarity. He successfully integrated Norwegian favor into the song genre, and "laid the groundwork for Grieg and his successors." (11)

"Syng, syng!" (Sing, Sing!), no. 6 in Kjerulf's op. 2, is a setting of a text by his younger brother, Teodor Kjerulf. It is a simple strophic setting of the three-verse text, typical of the composer's output and folk song, and begins with arpeggiated chords in G major. The harmony moves away from G major into the relative E minor, representing the melancholic, longing mood as the narrator beckons the nightingale to sing. The text "Syng, Syng, Nattergal du" (Sing, Sing, Nightingale) frames the first and second verses. It returns to G major at the end of each strophe, a delicate ornament in the piano evoking the song of the nightingale. It is a dreamy, accessible melody with a total range of a ninth, appropriate for a singer of any voice type.


Baptized Richard Nordraach, the composer adopted an alternate spelling to appear more nationalist. Rikard Nordraak studied in Copenhagen and Berlin, but was highly influenced by Ole Bull and the movement for a national Norwegian style. Along with his friend Grieg, he established Euterpe, a music society whose mission was to perform Scandinavian works. (12) Due to his early death from tuberculosis, Nordraak's output is small and its potential was largely unrealized.

Nordraak's music is elegant in its simplicity, with appealing directness and clarity. Most of his songs are strophic, and the vocal line is of primary importance, with the piano accompaniment playing a supporting role. Nordraak composed Norway's national anthem, "Ja, vi elsker dette landet" (Yes, We Love this Country), with text by his cousin Bjornstjerne Bjornson. His Fem norske Digte (Five Norwegian Poems), op. 2, with texts by Bjornson and Jonas Lie, is perhaps his most well known composition.

Of the five Digte, "Treet stod faerdigt med blad og med knop" (The Tree Stood Ready with Buds and with Leaves) is especially appropriate for a young singer. In modified strophic form, text painting in the piano interludes represents the tree quivering and shaking in a frosty breeze. Unfortunately, limited availability of this score in North America makes it largely inaccessible--perhaps an anthology of Scandinavian music for distribution in North America could make this charming piece more widely accessible.


Backer-Grondahl was a contemporary and close friend of Grieg, and was well connected with some of the most important European composers and performers of her time. Ole Bull, known for his innovations in violin construction, built an acoustically superior piano that was first played in concert in Norway by Agathe Backer. (13) She studied for a short time with Kjerulf, and travelled abroad with her sister, the painter Harriet Backer. While in Leipzig, she gave a concert at the Gewandhaus, where she met composer Johan Svendsen. Bull encouraged her to go to Florence, where she met the conductor Hans von Bulow. In Weimar, she was a frequent guest in the salon of Franz Liszt, with whom she studied for a time.

In 1875, she married choir conductor and voice teacher Olaus Andreas Grondahl (1847-1923). They were offered positions teaching at the Peabody Conservatory in the United States, but they declined to emigrate. (14) The couple had four children, and Backer-Grondahl continued to be active as a composer and a performer throughout Europe.

As a well known pianist and composer both in her homeland and abroad, Backer-Grondahl could rightly be called the Clara Schumann of Norway. In addition to composing many piano pieces, she wrote around 250 songs in an early Romantic style, with texts in Norwegian, Danish, German, and Swedish. Her Danish song cycles Sange ved havet (Songs at Sea), op.17, and Blomstervignetter (Flower Vignettes), op. 23, are the most well known.

The cycle Mor synger (Mother Sings), op. 52, with texts by Andreas Grimelund Jynge, is a wonderful collection of eight short songs in Norwegian. The cycle, with its delightful, melodic vocal lines and lighthearted themes, is a wonderful choice for young singers.


Sinding was studying as a violinist at Leipzig Conservatory when he turned his attention exclusively to composition. He spent over forty years of his life in Germany, and many of the more than 250 songs he composed were settings of German texts. According to Kari Michelsen, Sinding was the most important Romantic Norwegian composer after Grieg, (15) although his popularity has since waned. Unlike his contemporaries, Sinding did not rely on overtly Norwegian musical sources, even in his settings of Scandinavian poetry.

Sinding's most famous works are the songs of op. 18 (settings of poetry by Vilhelm Krag), as well as opp. 28 and 75, settings of texts from Ivar Aasen's 1863 collection of Nynorsk poetry entitled Symra (The Anemone). Of the songs in op. 18, "Moderen synger" (The Mother Sings), no. 3, and "Der skreg en fugl" (The Bird Cried), no. 5, deserve particular mention. "Moderen synger" is a somber piece, in which the narrator mourns the loss of a child. The accompaniment is heavy and sorrowful, and the voice has recitative-like passages. "Der skreg en fugl," a text also set by Grieg, Backer-Grondahl, and Sigurd Lie, almost acts as a cyclic mini aria--although its duration is only about a minute--with the piano motive from the introduction returning in the short postlude. Like "Moderen synger," the heaviness in the piano accompaniment lends a feeling of desolation and expansiveness. The dark color of both pieces is particularly suited to mezzo sopranos or baritones.

SIGURD LIE (1871-1904)

Sigurd Lie came from a musical family. He studied in Christiania and Berlin, and was active as a conductor in Christiania and Bergen. He suffered from ill health and from tuberculosis in his final years, and less than a year after his marriage to Gudrun Bodtker-Naess, Lie collapsed after a concert and subsequently died. (16)

In 1892, Lie published his first works, Seks Sange til tekster af Vilhelm Krag (Six Songs to Texts by Vilhelm Krag). Krag was his childhood friend; he delivered a speech upon the unveiling of a bust in Lie's memory in 1925, saying, "Saa vaeldig hans arbeidskraf og hans evne" (So great was his capacity for work and his talent). (17)

The collection Seks Sange til tekster af Vilhelm Krag is musically challenging as a whole, and the poems are quite long. These songs would be appropriate for a more advanced singer with previous experience singing in Norwegian. Often the vocal line and piano accompaniment seem almost independent of one another, and yet somehow they intertwine in a

satisfying manner. He was daring in his use of harmony, and a Norwegian color is heard frequently in his instrumental pieces. Lie's most famous song, "Sne" (Snow), is a setting of a Danish text by Helge Rode.

EYVIND ALNAES (1872-1932)

Eyvind Alnaes was an active organist, collaborative pianist, choral conductor, teacher, and composer. Along with Hurum, he was a founding member of Norsk Komponistforening (Norwegian Composers' Association).

Considered "the successor of Grieg and Kjerulf," (18) Alnaes composed nearly 100 songs, primarily settings of texts by Scandinavian composers. The pieces are of uniformly high quality, and universally appealing. During his lifetime, the songs of Alnaes were greeted with enthusiasm by audiences and critics alike. (19)

Especially charming are the songs of op. 31, Tre digte (Tree Poems), settings of poems by Olaf Bull: "Promenade" (Promenade), no. 1; "Lille ven" (Little Friend), no. 2; and "Digter" (Poet), no. 3. The strophic "Promenade" contains some unexpected melodic leaps, but is within the capabilities of a typical undergraduate singer. "Lille ven" is set in an almost recitative-like style, and serves as an excellent study in appropriate Norwegian infection. "Digter" begins with a playful melismatic section, and the piano accompaniment is likewise lively. These three songs as a set make an excellent addition to any recital program, and are particularly suited to a young soprano voice.

ALF HURUM (1882-1972)

Alf Hurum was known as both a painter and composer, and is considered the first Norwegian Impressionist. (20) He began his studies in Christiania, and spent some time studying in Paris from 1911, where he was influenced by the music of Debussy. While Hurum was in Paris, his Violin Sonata in D minor, op. 2, was played throughout Norway and his name became relatively well known in his home country; however, his Debussy-inspired music was considered quite radical and was not particularly well received in France, (21) perhaps not surprising for a country that had given scathing reviews to Debussy's music in 1906. Many of Hurum's songs show stylistic and harmonic elements of Debussy, (22) although Hurum himself downplayed this influence later in his career. (23)

Hurum influenced fellow composer David Monrad Johansen, and was a founding member of the Norsk Komponistforening (Norwegian Composers' Association). He was active in the music scene in Hawaii (his wife's birthplace) starting in 1924, and settled there permanently in 1934. He was instrumental in the reorganization and expansion of the faltering Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, even conducting the ensemble for one season at the beginning of its reorganization. In his later years he left music composition altogether and focused on painting, travelling to Asia to study oriental silk painting.

Many of Hurum's songs are for the advanced student, but "Liden Kirsten" (Little Kirsten), op. 12, no. 1, with text by Vilhelm Krag, is musically approachable. It is also significant because of the popularity of this text; it was also set by Grieg, Backer-Grondahl, and Sinding. A recital grouping could contrast these different settings.


The suggestions above include settings by Norwegian composers of texts in Norwegian, as well as a few in Danish and Swedish. These languages may be daunting. To the untrained eye, they appear similar to German, but sound quite different. Where does one start? A novice to the Scandinavian languages can get the sound "in the ear" by listening to song recordings of native speakers. Iconic Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) is an obvious choice, and she recorded songs by compatriots Grieg, Bull, Backer-Grondahl, Sinding, Lie, Alnaes, and Hurum. (24) Contemporary soprano Bodil Arnesen (b. 1967) is notable for her recordings of the songs of Greig, Sinding, and Alnaes. (25) Soprano Elisabeth Tandberg has recorded songs of Backer-Grondahl, Alnaes, Sinding, and Hurum. (26) Mezzo soprano Marianne Beate Kielland (b. 1975) has recorded the complete songs of Hurum, (27) and mezzo soprano Marit Osnes Aambo has recorded Grieg and Kjerulf. (28) Baritone Per Vollestad (b. 1959) has recorded songs of Grieg and Sinding. (29)

Written resources include Bradley Ellingboe's IPA transcriptions of songs of Grieg, from which transcription methods may be extrapolated to the repertoire listed here. (30) Wencke Ophaug's recent article in this journal discussed some caveats for singers wishing to sing Norwegian. (31) The present author has a book forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield, which will include an overview of Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish diction, as well as repertoire suggestions, and translations and IPA transcriptions of much of the repertoire presented

in this article. (32)


Edvard Grieg is the most recognizable figure of Norwegian music, and a significant contributor to the art song repertoire. Many of his compatriots also composed art songs of high quality. Thrane, Bull, Kjerulf, Nordraak, Backer-Grondahl, Sinding, Lie, Alnaes, and Hurum are names that deserve to be more familiar to singers outside of Norway. Although Norway lies on the periphery of Europe, the valuable contributions of its composers deserve a more central place in the canon. It is hoped that the information in this article will give teachers and singers a starting point from which to begin exploring these songs.


(1.) Arvid O. Vollsnes et al., "Norway," Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, Oxford University Press; (accessed May 30, 2015).

(2.) Finn Benestad, "Thrane, Waldemar," Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, Oxford University Press; (accessed May 15, 2015).

(3.) Vollsnes et al.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) "Ole Bull," in Norsk biografisk leksikon; (accessed June 1, 2015).

(6.) John Bergsagel, "Bull, Ole," Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, Oxford University Press; (accessed May 31, 2015).

(7.) Kirsten Flagstad, Kirsten Flagstad: The Supreme Wagnerian Soprano, Warner Classics 4553462 (2010).

(8.) Bergsagel.

(9.) Rune J. Andersen, "Halfdan Kjerulf," Store norske leksikon [Large Norwegian encyclopedia]; (accessed May 31, 2015).

(10.) Sandra Jarrett, Edvard Grieg and his Songs (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), 16.

(11.) Nils Grinde, "Kjerulf, Halfdan," Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, Oxford University Press; http://www.oxford(musiconline.)com/subscriber/article/grove/music/15085 (accessed May 31, 2015).

(12.) Kari Michelsen, "Nordraak, Rikard," Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, Oxford University Press; (accessed May 31, 2015).

(13.) Bergsagel.

(14.) Rune J. Andersen, "Agathe Backer Grondahl," I Store norske leksikon [Large Norwegian encyclopedia]; (accessed June 1, 2015).

(15.) Kari Michelsen, "Sinding, Christian," Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, Oxford University Press; (accessed June 1, 2015).

(16.) John Bergsagel, "Lie, Sigurd," Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, Oxford University Press; (accessed June 2, 2015); Kari Michelsen, "Sigurd, Lie," Norsk biografisk leksikon leksikon [Norwegian biographic encyclopedia]; (accessed June 1, 2015).

(17.) Kari Michelsen, "Sigurd Lie" (translation mine).

(18.) Peter Andreas Kjeldsberg and Martin Anderson, "Alnaes, Eyvind," Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, Oxford University Press; (accessed June 2, 2015).

(19.) Kristi Grinde, "Eyvind Alnaes," Norsk biografisk leksikon [Norwegian biographic encyclopedia]; (accessed June 1, 2015).

(20.) Rune J. Andersen, "Alf Hurum," Norsk biografisk leksikon [Norwegian biographic encyclopedia]; (accessed March 21, 2015).

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Rune J. Andersen, "Hurum, Alf," Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, Oxford University Press; (accessed March 21, 2015).

(23.) Rune J. Andersen, "Edvard Grieg, Alf Hurum, and musical impressionism" (paper presented at The International Edvard Greig Society Conference, Bergen, May 31, 2007).

(24.) Kirsten Flagstad, Kirsten Flagstad: The Voice of a Century. Vol. 5, Edvard Grieg, Alf Thorvald Hurum, Documents (233589 (1937, 1948); Kirsten Flagstad, Kirsten Flagstad: Ein Liederabend, Allegria 4023189 (1980); Kirsten Flagstad, Kirsten Flagstad: The Supreme Wagnerian Soprano, Warner Classics 4553462 (2010).) This is a representative list of recordings.

(25.) Bodil Arnesen and Erling R. Eriksen, Grieg: Songs, Naxos 8553781 (1996); Bodil Arnesen and Erling R. Eriksen, Christian Sinding: Songs, Naxos 8553905 (1999); Bodil Arnesen and Erling R. Eriksen, Eyvind Alnaes: Songs, Simax 119783203 (1995).

(26.) Elisabeth Tandberg and Jorunn Marie Bratlie, Valborgsnatt: Romanser til Dikt av Vilhelm Krag [Walpurgis night: Songs to poems of Vilhelm Krag], Tolo Grammofon T01105 (2011); Elisabeth Tandberg and Per Arne Frantzen Stevnemote: Romanser til Dikt av Vilhelm Krag [Rendez-vous: Songs to poems of Vilhelm Krag], Tolo Grammofon T00904 (2009).

(27.) Marianne Beate Kielland and Oyvind Aase, Alf Hurum: Complete Songs with Piano, Thema Music TH2032 (2003).

(28.) Marit Osnes Aambo and Graham Johnson, Greig, Delius, and Grainger, Simax Classics 1120 (1996); Marit Osnes Aambo and Arild Aambo, Auroro Borealis: A Norwegian Song Recital, Aurora Classical ARCD 1919 (1989).

(29.) Per Vollestad and Sigmund Hjelset, Grieg: Songs, Simax PSC 1089 (1995); Per Vollestad and Sigmund Hjelset, Christian Sinding: Songs, vol 1-3, Simax PSC 1194 (2000-2004).

(30.) Bradley Ellingboe, ed., Forty-five songs of Edvard Grieg (Geneseo, NY: Leyerle, 1988).

(31.) Wencke Ophaug, "Troubleshooting Norwegian Pronunciation in Classical Singing," Journal of Singing 69, no. 1 (September/October 2012): 49-56.

(32.) Anna Hersey, Scandinavian Song: A Guide to Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish Repertoire and Diction (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming 2016).

Hailed by critics as a "force of nature," soprano Anna Hersey has performed throughout the United States and Europe, appearing with Palm Beach Opera, Florida Chamber Orchestra, Hispanic-American Lyric Theater, Skylark Opera, The Minnesota Opera, and Theatre de la Jeune Lune (at Berkeley Repertory Theater), among others.

A noted expert on Scandinavian vocal literature and diction, Dr. Hersey was a Fulbright Scholar at the Kungliga Musikhogskolan (Royal College of Music) in Stockholm and conducted research at Det Kongelige Danske Musikkonservatorium (Royal Danish Academy of Music) and Kobenhavns Universitet (University of Copenhagen), thanks to a postdoctoral fellowship from the American Scandinavian Foundation. She is a 2015-2016 Finlandia Foundation grantee. She has presented her research on Scandinavian repertoire and diction at a NATS national conference, the University of Copenhagen Center for Internationalisation and Parallel Language Use, and the Yale Conference on Baltic and Scandinavian Studies. Her articles have been published in the Journal of Singing and VOICEPrints, and her translations and transcriptions have been published by Plangere and by Carnegie Hall. Her first book, Scandinavian Art Song: A Guide to Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish Diction and Repertoire, is forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield.

Dr. Hersey is a recent alumna of the NATS Intern Program, and was awarded the 2015 Vocal Pedagogy Award from the NATS Foundation. She holds master's degrees in performance and musicology from the University of Minnesota, and a doctorate from the University of Miami. She is currently Assistant Professor of Voice at Eastern New Mexico University, and was recently named editor-elect of VoicePRINTS, the peer reviewed journal of the New York Singing Teachers Association.
COPYRIGHT 2015 National Association of Teachers of Singing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:THE SONG FILE
Author:Hersey, Anna
Publication:Journal of Singing
Date:Nov 1, 2015
Previous Article:A letter from Roland Hayes.
Next Article:Collab Corner.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters