top of page

Myth, Music and Landscape in Scandinavia

Myth, Music and Landscape in Scandinavia

I have been thinking about the connections between music, language, myth and landscape while preparing our concert of Scandinavian music and writing on the 14th May (See Events). And I've discovered that Scandinavian composers of the 19th c were drawing the same parallels. Sibelius, Nielsen and Grieg have been labelled Nationalists after the musical movement which swept Europe in the late 19th century. But more than the Nationalist composers of other countries, they were inspired by myth, legend, folktale and the breathtaking landscapes that surrounded them.

The Norse Creations Myths

“Burning ice, biting flame; that is how life began.”

The Norse creation myth was probably first set down in the late 10th c and later reworked by Snorri Sturluson, the 13th Icelandic author of the Prose Edda. In it, the world that preceded our world is not the formless chaos of Greek mythology or Genesis but a place of terrifying duality: a southern realm of dancing flames and a northern realm of ice and snow. Between them is a vast emptiness: Ginnungagap. Here freezing rime and hot breezes meet and here life quickens into a giant, Ymir, great grandfalther of Odin, the God of poetry, battle and death. It is Odin and his brothers who fashion Asgard, 'a world of night and day, moon, sun and sky, sea, green plains and great shining palaces, giants, dwarfs and men'.

Opposites abound in this vision arising from a realm where the summer sun and heat lasts all day and most of the night, and the winter brings devastating darkness and cold.

Though early poets of Scandinavia tried to explain the world they saw and lived in, they conceived of ideas which also had arisen in other cultures, reinterpreted through their own lense: Noah's flood becomes a deluge of blood from the wounds that Ymir's sons inflict upon him and this flood kills the brutal frost giants. The tree of life of Genesis or of the Kabbalah becomes Yggdrasill, the giant ash whose leafy branches shelter all that is and one of whose roots delves into the underworld. This is the tree from which Odin hangs upside down and saves the world by reciting runes.

“No one came to comfort me with bread, no one revived me with a drink from a horn. I peered at the worlds below. I seized the runes. Shrieking I seized them.”

This crucifixion which calls forth the power of the word, enables Odin to sing 18 charms, die and then rise again.

Jean Sibelius and the Kalevala

It was the Runes from the Kalevala, the great 19th century compilation of Karelian and Finnish folklore, that inspired the four tone poems of Sibelius's Lemminkäinen Suite. Sibelius, writing in 1893, retells in The Swan of Tuonela, the story of the handsome Lemminkainen who takes up the challenge of killing the black swan of the river of Tuonela (Land of the Dead) in order to win a young woman he fancies. In this evocative sonic poem, the dark and the shimmering sonorities of the string section seem to depict the initial darkness of the river and then its turbulence, while the English horn is given a modal theme suggestive of the sung poetry of the Kalevala. A hunting call and plucked strings suggest apprehension, and the tone poem ends with irremediable regret which is taken over from the English horn by a lone cello. Sibelius had recorded in his diary next to a description of sixteen swans flying in formation:

“One of my greatest experiences...Lord God, that beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming, silver ribbon. . . . That this should have happened to me, who have so long been the outsider.” … (They) are always in my thoughts and give splendour to [my] life. [It’s] strange to learn that nothing in the whole world affects me—nothing in art, literature, or music—in the same way as do these swans and cranes and wild geese. Their voices and being.”

Carl Nielsen and Landscape

In his recent television series, Art in Scandinavia, Andrew Graham-Dixon speculates that '… the Scandinavian mind has been formed by nature - loneliness, melancholy but a determination to endure come what may.' Stephen Johnson in Classical Music Magazine, draws a connection between language and music. Speaking of the Danish composer, Carl Nielsen, he comments: 'As anyone who has spent any time talking to Danes will probably have noticed, the natural melodic curve of Danish speech tends to move up and down within relatively narrow intervals (a minor or major third)... A remarkable number of Nielsen’s melodic lines do the same... Folksong grows naturally from the rhythms and melodic contours of native speech, and Nielsen was as saturated in folksong as in folk speech.' If Nielsen himself was unaware of the influence of the Danish language on his music, he was more than aware of how the vistas of his childhood had influenced the melodies he conceived. In his 1927 memoir, Min fynske Barndom (My childhood on Funen), he wrote of his early years in rural Denmark: 'On the way home after (these) musical evenings through the beautiful landscape, I used to dream and fantasise in music.'

Edvard Grieg and Folktale

Landscape, language, myth and music..

The Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen managed to combine all these strands of his sense of place in his 5 act verse play of 1876, Peer Gynt. Just as the Prose Edda relates how Odin dies and rises again and the Kalevala describes the death and subsequent redemption of Lemminkainen whose mother searches heaven and earth to find a way to restore him to life, the folk tales upon which Ibsen's play is based, tell of the archetypal Peer who is thrown off his path by hubris and is eventually redeemed by the love of the faithful Solveig. Peer undertakes an Odyssian journey which leads him to the Hall of the Mountain King who advises him: Be true to yourself and to hell with the world. Later a troll tells him: Go around. Peer takes both pieces of advise to heart, continually putting himself first and avoiding all that is difficult. It takes Peer all five acts of the play, old age and his confrontation with all he has not done (his unsung songs, his unmade works, his unwept tears and his questions that were never asked) to prepare himself for the absolution of Solveig's love and forgiveness. Solveig sings a lullaby to Peer who, we are led to believe, dies in her lap.

When Ibsen asked the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg to write incidental music for the play, Grieg took up the challenge enthusiastically. He originally produced 22 short pieces for piano duo.

As his wife recorded: 'The more he saturated his mind with the powerful poem, the more clearly he saw that he was the right man for a work of such witchery and so permeated with the Norwegian spirit.'

Eventually Grieg chose 8 pieces to form two suites which were not published in their orchestral arrangement until after his death. The music is simple but so evocative of the surreal fairy world that Ibsen describes that, like Ibsen's play which blends dreamlike tales with realism, Grieg's music has taken its place as some of the most familiar of the 19th c. The iconic 'Morning' whose falling and rising melody may have been inspired by the Kulning tradition of mountain yodelling and the urgent, almost devilish accelerando of the Hall of the Mountain King have become part of not only Scandinavia's shared sense of place but of the collective unconscious of the modern world.

The Specific and the Universal

I find it fascinating that where we live moulds, if unconsciously, how we speak and the stories we sing and tell. It seems inevitable that the Art we make will reflect and rework those unconscious influences. Landscape, language, myth and indigenous music interweave and produce a more conscious Art which, though seen through the lens of the individual, becomes Universal.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page