Magma 2002 - Nordic Music Days in Perspective

November 23 marks the beginning of Magma 2002 - Nordic contemporary music’s strongest international effort ever. Head of the Information Department at MIC Norway, Hilde Holbæk-Hanssen, gives you here a historical perspective to the Nordic Music Days.

Magma warm and cold

MAGMA 2002 is a new variation of The Nordic Music Days, which, on the cultural arena, is the oldest existent form for Nordic co-operation. Within the cultural field several Nordic cultural organisations exist on many levels, from the Nordic Cultural Council at the apex to organisations such as the Nordic Association of Plucked Strings Orchestras.

An often-heard accusation at international gatherings is, ”You Nordics always stick together”. This cohesion between five neighbouring countries is often difficult for other nationalities to understand. What are the reasons for this and are they in reality as similar as they appear to be from a distance?

There are certain common denominators: Demographically we are small, our total population only just exceeding that of a large international metropolis. Each of our nations would separately fit into their respective corners of New York. Another common characteristic is that we share a severe Nordic climate, with snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures. And the Aurora Borelalis. And, for those regions within the Arctic Circle, both the midnight sun and months of perpetual darkness.

We too, in principle, share a common language. 6% of Finland’s population are Swedes and the remainder, in principle, speak Swedish. Icelanders, in principle, speak Danish. Norwegian, in principle, lies somewhere between Danish, Swedish and Icelandic. However, reality is not as simple as that. It has never been easy for Icelanders to understand Swedish and Finns Danish, and to be quite honest, many Swedes and Norwegians have great trouble understanding Danish. Anglo-American hegemony has seriously invaded our shores, and the lingua franca of many Nordic meetings is English. With some exceptions: in the Nordic Music Committee it is as yet forbidden to utter any other tongue than a Nordic language.

As with most neighbours we too revel in our internecine prejudices. Where the world without generally sees us as a common blond and blue-eyed people, and hear a ‘Nordic Sound’ in our music, we beg to differ. We see the Finns as introverted and melancholic, the Swedes as phlegmatic and proper, the Danes as sanguine and playful, and the Norwegians and Icelanders as choleric mountaineers leaning into the storms of the north. We quarrel incessantly and bear the brunt of each others jokes.

Neither can we point to an especially benign historical past. We do of course have our common Viking heritage of which we are inordinately proud, but subsequent to that there has been a great deal of bitterness. For centuries, Norway and Iceland were subject to Denmark, Finland to Sweden, and the three most northern countries first emerged as independent nations at the beginning of the 20th century: Norway achieved independence in 1905 after 400 years under Denmark and 94 years in union with Sweden; Finland in 1917 after even more years in subjugation to Sweden and 100 years under Russia. In 1918 Iceland became independent from Denmark. In the period from 1940 – 45, the Nordic countries found themselves on all sides of the front: Norway and Denmark were occupied by Germany, Iceland by England, Finland allied herself with Germany against Russia while Sweden remained neutral.

It is only Denmark and Sweden, with their royal traditions, that have a western European music tradition rooted in the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical periods. The three most northerly countries first start their serious music history in the 1800’s, before powerfully emerging with both Grieg and Sibelius

But there are strong cohesive factors: a common intimation of something elusive. Perhaps the need of small nations to unite against the rest of the world, aware that they belong to the periphery? The common experience of living in the cold and dark lands of the midnight sun? All the above combining to create a need for common expression?

When the first Nordic Music Days took place in Copenhagen in 1888, one had, in the north, over a thirty year period already arranged Nordic Song Festivals, based on similar German models. Choirs from all the Nordic regions regularly gathered, well into the 20th century. As in other European nations the repertoire was distinctively nationalistic. When united, the impulse was clearly to express the uniqueness of the north as a common geographic homeland. As an illustration, at a song-festival in Copenhagen in 1929, a choir of 1000 voices performed the Nordic cantata ‘Song of the North’, composed in co-operation by five composers from each of the Nordic countries.

These song-festivals were large folk cultural events, and the Nordic Music Days emerged as the serious equivalent, with particular emphasis on instrumental and orchestral music. This was a forum in which several Nordic composers, many having been educated in Leipzig and Berlin, had the opportunity to perform their music. The first music festival in Copenhagen featured composers from Denmark, Norway and Sweden, with seven concerts in large format for choir and orchestra. A venue specially chosen for the event could stage 700 performers and had room for 2000 members of the public.

Towards the end of the 18th century there were few possibilities for performance in the three Nordic countries, a situation which lent particular importance to these festivals for the composers. The first three festivals naturally took place in major cities: Copenhagen in 1888, Stockholm in 1897 and in Copenhagen again in 1919. During the latter, eight conductors participated, amongst them Jean Sibelius (FIN), Wilhelm Stenhammer (SE), Johan Halvorsen (NO) and Carl Nielsen (DK).

The Nordic Music Days were a relatively irregular affair during the first 50 years. The first event in Helsinki took place in 1921. Stockholm followed in 1927 and Helsinki in 1932. Oslo was first able to arrange the event in 1934. The last event to be held before the imminent interruption of the Second World War was in Copenhagen in 1938.

In 1946 the Nordic composers’ unions co-operated by forming The Nordic Composers’ Council. The council assumed responsibility for arranging the Nordic Music Days, and since 1948 the festival has been arranged every second year, alternately between the Nordic capital cities. The festival has been an important arena for serious Nordic music and an invaluable meeting-place for Nordic composers, as is ISCM World Music Days on the international level.

The festival has passed through several phases, both stylistically and in terms of production. The stylistic development has closely followed that within western music development since the war. The largest change took place in the 70’s and 80’s, where, in addition to Nordic works, composers from a guest-nation were included: In Copenhagen 1974 – Poland; In Reykjavik 1976 – Canada; In Stockholm 1978 – The German Democratic Republic; In Helsinki in 1980 – Great Britain, and in Oslo in 1982 – France. One then deserted this model and returned to biennial events exclusively programming Nordic music. That one in 2002 has chosen to export the event to a non-Nordic country is yet another innovation. What the future holds remains to be seen.

Three of the Nordic countries have chosen to join the European Union, whereas Norway and Iceland have chosen not to. The European Union has its cultural programmes and organs, and it is a matter of course for Denmark, Sweden and Finland to orientate themselves within those parameters. Traditional Nordic co-operation is therefore challenged – it can either dissolve or be enriched in an interplay with Europe. Let us trust that MAGMA 2002 can contribute to precisely such an enriching interplay.

Translation: Howard Gamble

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