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Nordic Voices: From Grieg to Thorvaldsdóttir

10 May 2017

Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Anders Hillborg, Edvard Grieg, Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen

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"Carrying an air of almost otherworldly beauty, the music and sonic creations delivered by these Nordic voices make indeed for a most exhilarating hearing."

Choral music from the Nordic countries boasts a long tradition, reaching at least as far back as the 19th century with works such as Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Cantata, Four Psalms, or the Album for Male Chorus. Jean Sibelius, though mostly acclaimed for his tone poems and symphonies, wrote several vocal and choral pieces including the choral symphony Kullervo and the cantata The Origin of Fire, both works having been inspired by the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. Carl Nielsen also wrote a considerable number of choral works including The Sleep for chorus and orchestra, the cantata Hymnus amoris, and Springtime on Funen for soloists, chorus and orchestra, often referred to as his ‘most Danish’ composition.

In more recent years, a new generation of Nordic composers has emerged that, among other notable achievements, has produced remarkable choral works that stand out for their originality and unique character. Ranging widely in style, form and texture, these works somehow share some specifically Nordic qualities, originating from tonal characteristics and evocations distinctive of the Nordic musical language and nature, respectively.

Considered one of the most outstanding Finnish composers of our time, Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) has toyed with several techniques such as serialism and spectralism throughout her creative career, often employing electronic elements to enrich her elaborate compositions. Her captivating Oltra Mar (1999), subtitled “seven preludes for the new Millennium for orchestra and choir”, consists of seven movements that, in the words of Saariaho herself, “speak of departure, love, tides, time, memory, death and arrival.”

One of Sweden’s foremost composers in recent years, Anders Hillborg (b. 1954) has produced several notable choral works such as Mouyayoum for 16-part mixed choir (1983–85, a version for male chorus also appeared in 1999), or Endless Sky (2004) that deals with the theme of light, in both physical and spiritual sense. Besides, his work Sirens (2011) for 2 solo sopranos, mixed choir and large orchestra is inspired by Ulysses’ encounter with the Sirens in Homer’s The Odyssey.

Although known chiefly for his instrumental compositions, Danish composer Bent Sørensen (b. 1958) has also penned some enchanting choral works, such as the cantata The Echoing Garden (1990-92) and In Paradisum (1994-95, 2002). Moreover, he recently undertook an interesting musical experiment, combining movements from Missa pro defunctis by 15th-century composer Johannes Ockeghem with his own requiem fragments in an attempt to create a unified whole with fascinating results. 

Among the younger voices in contemporary Nordic music, US-based Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978) has produced several choral works such as the Sunrise Mass (2008) for choir and string orchestra, and Northern Lights (2012), while his latest choral album Ola Gjeilo (2016) features performances by Tenebrae Choir and the Voces8 cappella octet.

Hailed as a “significant compositional voice”, Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir (b. 1977) has been gaining prominence as one of the most promising exponents of the vibrant and exciting Icelandic music scene. Although her passion and strength lie largely in her writing for orchestra and large ensembles, her output also includes several choral pieces such as The Color of Words (2008) for contrabass and choir, and Ad Genua (2016) for choir and string quintet.

An essential counterpart to the orchestral and instrumental output of contemporary Nordic composers, their choral works represent another, equally intriguing dimension of their creativity and expressive power. Carrying an air of almost otherworldly beauty, the music and sonic creations delivered by these Nordic voices make indeed for a most exhilarating hearing.

Mimis Chrysomallis
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