Voices

Seven pieces of Scandinavian music to enjoy

By Robert Ferguson

25 April 2017 - 14:55

Writer and translator Robert Ferguson, who has lived in Norway for 30 years, takes us on a tour of the region's musical heritage.

1. Not all Scandinavian musicians sing in English

Most Scandinavians speak good English, and quite a few of them sing well in it too. And while it might be enjoyable to listen to Scandinavian musicians like Aurora, the Kings of Convenience, A-ha, Ace of Base and ABBA singing in what is, for them, a foreign language, the worldwide dominance of English is sometimes seen as a long-term threat to the existence of their own languages.

Young Scandinavians frequently spice their sentences with English words and phrases and hardly seem to notice they're doing it. It's a fashion thing, and as an outsider who loves Nordic languages and culture, it probably dismays me more than it does the natives. It also means that I reserve a particular admiration for groups like Sweden's jazz-pop group Bo Kaspers Orkester - who could probably command a worldwide audience if they wrote and sang in English - for having the courage and integrity to write and sing in their native language.

Listen to their live performance of Vi kommer aldrig att dö (We're never gonna die).

2. A Danish musician with a sense of humour

A calumny frequently directed at Scandinavians is that, for all their other virtues, they have no sense of humour, or at least, not one that travels outside the peninsula. One of the minor culture shocks of my early years in Norway was to see how many '60s and '70s British comedy television series were imported and adapted for Norwegian and Swedish audiences. In Sweden, The Rag Trade became Fredriksons fabrikk; and Steptoe and Son was reborn as Albert and Herbert; while in Norway, Hancock's Half Hour became Flexsnes.

Very often, audiences had no idea that what they were watching was not the product of domestic talent. Indeed, I was frequently assured 'Marv Flexsnes', as the very British character of Tony Hancock was known in the Norwegian version, was a 'typical Norwegian'. It certainly gave me pause for thought about the whole dubious business of 'national characteristics'.

This lack of cultural self-confidence is a thing of the past now, and British sitcoms are no longer routinely adapted for local audiences. In fact, the Scandinavians have always had their own talented comedians. The great Victor Borge, a Danish comedian and pianist, was one of the most original comedians of all time. His 'Phonetic Punctuation' number makes inspired use of the international language of pure sound.

3. A jazz arrangement of a classic Swedish folk song

During the latter decades of the 19th century, there was mass emigration to the United States, from both Norway and Sweden (much less so from Denmark). Driven by hardship and poverty, the migration left a rich artistic legacy in the cultures of both countries, notably in folk songs that document the sorrow and homesickness aroused by such a huge social disruption.

Among the most memorable is a fragile little Swedish classic called Vi sålde våra hemman (We sold our home) or Emigrantvisa (The Emigrant Song), first documented in 1854. A Swedish pianist named Jan Johansson recorded it in 1964 on his album Jazz på svenska (Jazz in Swedish), which consists entirely of jazz arrangements of Swedish folk songs. I love the stately melancholy of his arrangement. Johannson died in a car crash aged just 37, but the Jazz på svenska album, recorded four years before his untimely death, remains the best-selling jazz record ever produced in Sweden. It introduced a new and uniquely Scandinavian form of jazz, a beautiful fusion of ancient Scandinavian traditional music and American jazz that musicians continue to exploit.

4. A suite by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg

Back in 1970, Hollywood was looking for a way to follow up the worldwide success of The Sound of Music five years earlier. Their choice fell on a biopic based on the life of the classical composer Edvard Grieg, hoping that the wild beauty of the Norwegian mountains would replicate the success of the von Trapp family film. Filmed in English, with the great Norwegian actor Toralv Maurstad (who is 90 years old and still performing) playing the composer, it featured lots of Grieg's music. Alas, the Scandinavian setting that might have guaranteed the film's success today could not prevent it flopping at the box office.

One could hardly claim that Grieg's music needed the exposure. His score for Henrik Ibsen's five-act play in verse, Peer Gynt (which Ibsen did not like, any more than Grieg liked the play), contains some of the most familiar melodies in classical music – Anitra's DanceMorning MoodThe Hall of the Mountain King. Grieg abstracted two lovely symphonic suites from Peer GyntListen to the first of them, conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

5. A patriotic melody after a national tragedy

Norway's relative youth as an independent country (it only became fully independent in 1905, after 400 years of colonial rule by first Denmark and then Sweden) has left the country with a legacy of patriotism that is unusual in being not only very strong, but also inclusive and non-aggressive.

The Norwegian ballad singer Ole Paus's song Mitt lille land ('My little country') is a moving expression of this patriotism. It does Paus a disservice to call him 'the Norwegian Bob Dylan', but as a rough approximation of his status it will have to do. Following Anders Behring Breivik's murder of 77 people on 22 July 2011, Mitt lille land became an anthem that expressed people's grief and their determination not to let their joyous patriotism be stained by Breivik's dark perversion of it.

Here is Tine Thing Helseth, one of a succession of young Norwegian classical musicians who have made their names as outstanding solo performers in recent years, playing Ole Paus's melody at the National Day of Remembrance Concert in front of Oslo City Hall on 22 July 2012.

6. Danish music: psychedelic rock and classical symphonies

For at least 700 years, from the time of Charlemagne to the emergence of the short-lived Swedish empire in the mid-17th century, Denmark was the regional superpower in Scandinavia. Until the middle of the 19th century, Danish territory in Europe extended as far south as Hamburg. The Danish monarchy, founded by the tenth-century King Gorm the Old, is the oldest in the world. Denmark's current monarch, Queen Margrethe II, is Gorm's granddaughter 29 generations removed.

Perhaps because of this, there is deep respect for tradition in Denmark. Unlike Sweden and Norway, Denmark created an official Danish cultural canon, containing selections from literature, art, film and music. The latter category is divided into classical and popular. Psychedelic rock group The Savage Rose are probably Denmark's Rolling Stones in terms of longevity, and their debut 1968 album is in the pop and rock part of the canon.

The classical canon includes Symphony No. 4 by Carl Nielsen, one of the great European symphonists. You can hear it performed here by the Royal Danish Orchestra. Formed in 1448, it is the oldest orchestra in continuous existence in the world. In its early years, members of the orchestra were expected to bear arms and fight for the king as well as play for him.

7. Norway's heavy metal scene

Scandinavia's long-standing reputation for unusual tolerance in social and sexual matters was reinforced by its generation of so-called 'sixty-eighters'. These idealistic hippies practised a tolerance so extreme it might well have made teenage rebellion impossible, had not their children and grandchildren discovered the provocation they could arouse by resurrecting Scandinavia's Viking heritage. At its worst, a renewed interest in the cults of Odin and Thor led to a spate of church-burnings in the 1990s that included the destruction of the oldest stave church in Norway.

These are the roots of the passionate intensity with which some young Scandinavian musicians now cultivate different branches of what was once called heavy metal music, a name derived from William Burroughs's novel The Soft Machine. The music has now moved far beyond this literary root into an elaborate sub-world of genres that includes Death Metal, Black Metal, Thrash Metal, Speed Metal and, of course, Viking Metal. In most of these, Norwegian bands are the acknowledged masters; and among them, Enslaved are the undisputed kings. You can hear the whole of Vikingligr Veldi, their debut album, here.

If I had to choose just one of these pieces of music, I would probably go for the Jan Johansson. But taste is highly subjective, so your own choice will probably be very different.

Robert Ferguson is a British writer and translator who has lived in Norway for over 30 years. His most recent book is Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North.

Hear more Scandinavian music at the Nordic Matters festival, in partnership with the British Council, at the Southbank Centre until the end of 2017. 

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