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Nordic Art Music: From the Middle Ages to the Third Millennium.

By Frederick Key Smith. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002. [xviii, 193 p. ISBN 0-275-97399-9. $64.95.] Bibliography, discography, index.

The term "Nordic" comes from the political and historic ties between the countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. In comparison, "Scandinavian" applies only to the related languages of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Smith uses the terms "Northern European" and "Nordic" interchangeably for all five countries and "Scandinavian" when referring only to Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

The goal of this book is "to make the history of Northern European musical development accessible for any interested reader, whether musician, historian, student, concertgoer, or layperson" (p. xvii). Smith has left out detailed musical analyses and music examples since they are easily available elsewhere and would have tended to clutter this concise history. The book is arranged chronologically, with seven chapters ranging from the Middle Ages to the present. Within each chapter Smith describes the various composers of that era, in order of their birth, naming and describing their works in all genres.

As the title promises, Smith adheres strictly to the development of art music in the Nordic region; any references to folk or popular music appear in the context of how they relate to art music. On several occasions Smith tells how Nordic composers did not use actual folk tunes in their compositions, but were so familiar with the folk music around them that they were able to imitate the style. Smith does show how works inspired by folklore, such as the Kalevala, played a significant role in the music of Jean Sibelius for example. He also offers concise explanations of the general history of the Nordic region for each of the time periods covered, and how that history influenced music.

Smith has avoided writing a separate section for each country and has thus shown the integrated growth of art music in the region as a whole. He has struck a balance, as much as possible, by covering composers from all five countries, and even from the Aland and Faroe Islands. In tact, he covers so many personalities that readers sometimes may lose track of the home country of a particular composer. He highlights each person's name in boldface type in the text so that it may be easily found after finding the page number in the general index.

Nordic Art Music reads like a reference book. It is packed with facts and figures and would serve as a fine source for dates, titles, and descriptions of works by Nordic composers. Smith has culled this information from a large number of sources, many of them only available in one of the Nordic languages. He includes three valuable appendices with a glossary of Nordic musical terms, a discography arranged by composer, and contact information for Nordic Music Information Centres, record companies, and journals. In spite of this wealth of condensed information, the book is enjoyable and easy to read.

The average art music listener might be hard pressed to name more than the three most famous Nordic composers, Edvard Grieg, Jean Sibelius, and Carl Nielson. Smith has featured each of them prominently; Grieg has his own section in the chapter titled "Nordic Romanticism." It was fascinating to read about all of Grieg's other music besides Peer Gynt and the Piano Concerto. Sibelius and Nielson, who were coincidentally born the same year (1865), are discussed together in the next chapter, "Into the Modern Era." The juxtaposition points out the many contrasts and similarities found in the music of these two great symphonists.

This book is not just about these three composers, however. Smith has included literally hundreds of others, some familiar and some completely obscure, who make up the bulk of this history. There are a surprisingly large number of composers considering that the Nordic countries were on the periphery of the major European music centers. Many of them studied in central Europe, and central European musicians and composers found work in the Nordic countries. Smith shows that the northern periphery of Europe was not as musically isolated at we might have supposed.

For many of these composers, Smith describes a staggering number of works. Nordic composers produced works in every genre of art music: symphonies, operas, concertos, chamber music, songs, sonatas, suites, and tone poems. Smith must have listened to hundreds of hours of sound recordings to produce such interesting and detailed descriptions of these works. He enhances his effort by comparing the history of Nordic art music with that of central Europe. Although he poses a theory that the "musical development of the Nordic nations parallels ... the musical development ... in continental Europe" (p. xiv), he concludes that there is a fundamental difference between the two: "Whereas the history of Continental European art music has been plagued at many points by certain stylistic and philosophical divisions between countries, that of Northern European art music has resulted in a joint effort on the part of all five Nordic nations for the advancement and promotion of their mutually-related musical cultures" (p. 152). The Nordic Music Information Centres are linked together by NOMUS, the Nordic Music Committee, a subcommittee of the Nordic Council of Ministers. NOMUS promotes all genres of Nordic music, in part through its quarterly English-language journal Nordic Sounds.

Nordic Art Music is one of the finest books on the topic and should be found in every music library.


Indiana University of Pennsylvania
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Author:Rahkonen, Carl
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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