A PLAY WITH TRADITIONS // BACKGROUND
Møllerleken, 'pols' type, played by Sven Nyhus (Glåmos spelemannslag, 1970, track 8)
I grew up in a house filled with folk music. When I woke up in the mornings, my father was already seated downstairs under my room, playing pols1, waltz and reinlender2 on fiddle, slåtter3 on Hardanger fiddle, and baroque and classical pieces in between. We spent the summers on kappleik4 and folk music assemblies, lying on my belly listening to Hardanger fiddle and Jew’s harp sounds. I tried to play the fiddle myself, but I couldn’t grasp it. However, the piano in the living room attracted me.
The piano followed me through childhood, and as a teenager I chose to study the classical piano tradition, and I immersed myself in it. In addition to focusing on the classical romantic repertoire, as well as early music through fortepiano lessons, I was interested in searching for and experimenting with the values of contemporary music, and played a lot of new music, in solo, chamber music and ensembles.
In 2005, just after I finished my studies, I wanted to work with the Slåtter, op. 72 (1903) by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). I had followed the work that my father, Sven Nyhus5, had done, transcribing the 17 traditional Hardanger fiddle slåtter after Grieg’s source Knut Dahle (1834-1921) and his descendants. My interpretation process with this piece would become part of an increasing personal questioning.
Knut Dahle was a Hardanger fiddle player from Tinn in Telemark, and he learned his slåtter from master fiddlers like Håvard Gibøen (1809-1873) and Myllarguten (1801-1872). Dahle feared that the old slått forms in his region would die out, so he wrote a letter to Grieg, whom he had heard was the most famous musician in Norway, asking if he could write down the slåtter on paper. After some time, Grieg organized for his colleague and friend Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935), a violinist who was familiar with the Hardanger fiddle, to receive Dahle in Kristiania (the old name of Oslo), and write down some of his slåtter. Halvorsen subsequently sent these music sheets to Grieg at his Troldhaugen villa in Bergen. The two men corresponded by letter:
(Xnia 17.11.1901) Dear Grieg! Knut Dale has arrived. Today saved 2 slåtter from oblivion. They are not so easy to write down. Small bounces and trills which are like a little trout in river. When one tries to take them,they are gone ...Thousands of heartilygreetings from your devoted Johan Halvorsen
(3.12.1901) Dear Grieg! ... I have aspired to write down everything as precisely as possible. There isa godly blessing of repetitions, but that is very easy to correct. With respect to key, the peculiarity occurs that G sharp almost always... is used; firstly,towards the end...G appears. To my taste I think the G sharp is fresh and gay where G would appear embarrassing...Your devoted Johan Halvorsen
(Troldhaugen 06.12.01) This I call a Saturday evening, dear Halvorsen. Outside a south storm is thundering, shaking the house, thereto a pure sin flood is pouring down from the skies. But in the living room it is cosy. I have just received your slåtter and read them through, and I have chuckled with joy. ... Currently it would seem a sin to treat the Slåtter for piano. But that sin I will, sooner or later, commit. It is too tempting. ... your Edvard Grieg (quoted in Buen, 1983, pp. 71-91, my translation).
Norway was on its way to becoming an independent nation at this time, and there was great interest in looking for things which were particularly ‘Norwegian’. The cultural elite in the big cities were enthusiastic about folk culture, though there was also a lack of trust in the peasants’ abilities.
Romanticism’s interest in folk culture was paradoxically combined with quite a sharp scepticism, at times contempt, for those forms of expression... The cultural elite placed the people on a retarded and lower intellectual level than the higher classes, and there was great doubt whether the peasantry was capable of independent creative work... The people don’t create, they recreate and reproduce without exercising their own will; in this way, they may perform a collective destruction of the original material. ‘Folk poetry bears no mark of an author’s personality, and has no urge for individualization; its characters are lonely types’, thought Moltke Moe... The fascination with folk culture was considerable and true, but at the same time a sieving of ‘vulgar’ folk elements occurred through the higher rank’s cultural filter (Havåg, 1997, pp. 88-89, my translation).
Knowledge of the slått forms and their variability was limited at the beginning of the 1900s, and methods for notating Norwegian folk music and its peculiarities had not yet developed. Thus, Halvorsen’s transcriptions can be seen as simplifications. There were misunderstandings too, like the incorrect placing of bar lines in some of the springar dances. Grieg made adaptations of Halvorsen’s transcriptions, which became Slåtter op. 72. He utilized the actual transcriptions as Halvorsen wrote them down, arranging them by adding classical-romantic harmonics in the style we know from Grieg’s hand, octave displacements, dynamic contrasts, some beginnings and endings, and a couple of the dances have a middle part added. In the preface to op. 72, Grieg writes:
These Norwegian ’Slåtter’ (Slåt is the usual Norwegian name for the peasant's dance), now for the first time brought before the public in their original form for the violin (or for the so-called Hardangerfiddle) and re-arranged for the piano, were written down after an old gleeman in Telemarken. Those who can appreciate such music, will be delighted at the originality, the blending of fine, soft gracefulness with sturdy almost uncouth power and untamed wildness as regards melody and more particularly rhythm, contained in them. This music, - which is handed down to us from an age when the culture of the Norwegian peasant was isolated in its solitary mountain-valleys from the outer world, to which fact it owes its whole originality, - bears the stamp of an imagination as daring in its flight as it is peculiar. My object in arranging the music for the piano was to raise these works of the people to an artistic level, by giving them what I might call a style of musical concord, or bringing them under a system of harmony. Naturally, many of the little embellishments, characteristic of the peasant's fiddle and of their peculiar manner of bowing, cannot be reproduced on the piano, and had accordingly to be left out. On the other hand, by virtue of its manifold dynamic and rhythmic qualities, the piano affords the great advantage of enabling us to avoid a monotonous uniformity, by varying the harmony of repeated passages or parts. (Grieg, 1903, p. 4).
When I started rehearsing this work in 2005, I was interested in the recordings of Knut Dahle and his grandsons. From my knowledge of the slått music, I was not able to read the notes in op. 72 without hearing slått playing in the background. The Dahle recordings gave me the opportunity to come even closer to the musical source behind the score. In the preface to my father’s transcriptions, the Dahles’ playing is described like this:
Knut Dahle taught numerous Telemark players, but first and foremost his two grandsons, Johannes (1890-1980) and Gunnar Dahle (1902-1988). How a player learns from another player depends very much on personality. Some are satisfied by learning the principal themes and tricks of a tune, while others imitate even the smallest details, not only the melody but also the chord fingerings, the bowing, the rhythms and the embellishments. The Dahle players decidedly belong to the latter category ... We found it reasonable [for the transcription purposes] to choose the recording of the dances in question made in 1953 by Johannes Dahle for the Norwegian Folk Music Collection. It also proved possible, to a certain extent, to verify Johan Halvorsen's sources by means of some gramophone recordings made by Knut Dahle in 1910, even though the noise level and the lack of high frequencies make them less reliable (Nyhus, 1993a, p. 4).
Skuldalsbruri, 'gangar' type, played by Knut Dahle (Dahle & Dahle, 1993/1910, track 15)
I listened carefully to the Dahles’ playing. What remained in my ear and my body from the listening, would resound on the piano in my playing of op. 72, in ornaments, rhythms and forming of motifs. I not only wished to transfer these folk musical aspects to the grand piano, I couldn’t avoid them coming with me; they were inseparable parts of the music to me. At the same time, I aimed to interpret Grieg’s notes and be loyal to his score. Classical study had taught me this fidelity to composer and text as an important virtue of the tradition.
Fidelity to the letter: Are we expected to play what the composer has put on paper? The answer should be: as extensively as possible. There is a stress on ’possible’. Blind trust can go too far. ... Love: Are there musicians who do not love music? I am afraid so. Are there performers who do not love the composer? You bet. The composer is our father (Brendel, 2013, p. 342 og 481).
The romantic, harmonic lines Grieg combined with the slått music were quite difficult to merge with my bodily knowledge of the variability and repetitivity of slått playing. A chaos of different forms and expressions had to be shuffled into an interpretation. In the slått tradition, the motifs are varied in spinning and groovy patterns, often trance-like, while the romantic tradition aims for long lines, surging phrases, contrasting parts. These two musical traditions are built on such different foundations, with different building blocks, ideals and performance traditions. At this time, I aimed for a stylistic balance between the classical-romantic tradition and the folk musical tradition, and I made a recording of this interpretation in 2007.
Grieg: Skuldalsbruri, op.72 nr 15, played by Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, 2007 (Nyhus & Nyhus, 2007, track 15)
Questions kept buzzing in me during the period following this process. I had felt resistance in my body against playing the slått music in such a fixed notated form, and I had felt resistance against the merging with romantic style ideals. I had transferred embellishments and rhythmical aspects from slått playing to op. 72, but why had I omitted to transfer the variability in form? What would have been ‘too far’ from the score? I had felt it necessary to be loyal to Grieg’s score, but whose music was this really, Grieg’s music, the fiddlers’music, or somebody else’s? Which tradition should I comply with, to what or to whom should I be loyal?
Such questions related to the framework of interpretation kept following me over the following years, and in the planning of my debut recital in 2009. I had chosen a romantic recital programme, at first including piano music raising fewer problematic issues of this kind because they did not have this duality of folk music and classical music. But a couple of weeks before my debut, it became clear to me that I still had doubts about the frames and origins for my interpretational choices. I performed the debut recital as planned, though half-heartedly, but then I let the piano be quiet for a while, so that I could take a step back and re-examine my role as musician.
I wished to have a closer look at what it was about the folk music that interested me, and how I could relate to it as a pianist. With my background in folk, classical and contemporary music, I felt that my position was betwixt and between performance traditions, ‘lost in traditions’ if you like. Maybe this middle position could be fruitful, maybe I could use it to search for an expanded understanding of my framework of performing, and to generate new musical possibilities? On these grounds, the artistic research project A Play with Traditions, Interpreting and Performing Between Folk and Pianism emerged.