Geirr Tveitt: The Soul of Folk Music

"I scarcely know of any art form - pictorial, literary or musical - which has provided a more realistic, true description of what is known in elevated language as the Norwegian national soul", commented a critic the first time he heard a selection of Geirr Tveitt's Hundrad folketonar Frao Hardanger (A Hundred Folk Tunes from Hardanger) opus 151.

Geirr Tveitt

These orchestral fantasies in concise, concentrated form were soon to become highly popular and are today part of the standard Norwegian orchestral repertoire.

Edvard Grieg, Johan Svendsen and Johan Halvorsen adhered to the Romantic tradition when handling folk music themes. On the whole, they solved the problems by “beautifying” the folk songs. Geirr Tveitt approached this material in an entirely different way. He caught the mood of each little tune, usually on the basis of the text. Every phrase is meaningful. The Hardanger pieces are therefore pure gems of musical description reflecting a diversity of life situations and changing moods. People in groups and in solitude, in lust, love and grief, in serious ceremony and wild abandon, in faith and superstition. Irony, wit and rich humour permeate this collection of folk music from Hardanger. But Geirr Tveitt did not shrink from original solutions. If the source is not given, this inventive musical poet has probably found the “folk song” in his own head.

The fire at his ancestral farm in Norheimsund in 1970 which destroyed such a large part of Tveitt's production reduced the Hundred Folk Tunes to sixty. They are arranged into four suites of fifteen pieces each. The first and most performed suite is untitled. The other three are called Fjelltoner (Mountain Songs), Brudlaupssuiten (The Wedding Suite) and Trolltonar (Troll Tunes). Fifty pieces are found in a piano version, opus 150. It was with excerpts from this collection, plus sonatas and piano concertos, that the composer-pianist made his breakthrough in Paris during the post-war period, where he was enthusiastically received by composers like Florent Schmitt and Nadia Boulanger.

Hardly anyone realised that there was such an overwhelmingly rich treasure trove of folk music in Hardanger before Geirr Tveitt presented the results of his collection, which began when he was only 16 years old. Well-known musicologists had tried, but they came back from the Hardanger villages almost empty-handed. People who scraped a living from a narrow strip of land between precipitous mountains and deep fjords or lived in isolated valleys were reluctant to bare their souls to strangers. They kept the traditional material to themselves and regarded it as their own personal property.

How did Tveitt manage to find sources for more than one thousand stev and stubber? Because he knew the people and the conditions, and came from a long line of Hardanger ancestors. His father, principal of the local college, was a revered man. The composer himself was a strong, handsome fellow who know how to win the trust of old people with good memories. Perhaps most important, he spoke their own dialect perfectly. He chatted for a long time on all kinds of topics. He told excitingly of his own experiences and asked about farming and life in the old days before he approached the main subject of his errand.

Sometimes Tveitt found sources in his local neighbourhood, on his own family farm. Ver no velkomne med æra (Welcome with Honour) was sung here when the farmers gathered for granneveitle, a “neighbourly visit” once or twice a year. In Geirr Tveitt's arrangement, this expressive, enchantingly beautiful music has reached the whole world. The first CD of all four orchestral suites is currently under production at Naxos.

The Hardanger fiddle was Geirr Tveitt's favourite instrument and primary source of inspiration. This was the basis for his creative genius. Tveitt proved his familiarity with the slått in two concertos for Hardanger fiddle and orchestra, the first performed for the first time by Magne Manheim at the Bergen International Festival in 1956 and the second, Tri Fjordar (Three Fjords, Hardanger Fiddle Concerto No. 2), performed by Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa at the North Sea Festival in Ostende in 1966.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.4 - 1996 No. 1
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