Folk Musical Interpretation

Fossegrimen: Axis

Johan Halvorsen’s Fossegrimen for hardanger fiddle and orchestra, op. 21 (1905) is composed in a romantic tonal language, built upon folk musical motifs. It was initially written as incidental music for a theatre play by the same name, written by Sigurd Eldegard (1866-1950), and this was the first time that the hardanger fiddle was scored together with a symphony orchestra. The three movements of solo hardanger fiddle in this suite, were later used as a hardanger fiddle concerto with orchestra. There are recordings of this work by Alfred Maurstad with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (Maurstad, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra & Fjeldstad, 1954/2000, track 5-9) and Ragnhild Hemsing with Harmonien (Hemsing, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, 2011, track 7-12). 

Early in the fellowship period, I made a piano version of the orchestra part, making the concerto a chamber musical piece for hardanger fiddle and piano. This was recorded with Åshild Breie Nyhus on the hardanger fiddle (Nyhus, 2016, track 1-4).

While Grieg’s op. 72is composed as arrangements of slått transcriptions, in Fossegrimen only folk musical motifs are included as actual folk music borrowings. These motifs are transformed and composed into Romantic forms, and Halvorsen has also added his own created folk musical motifs. The work is primarily Romantic in style. As I rehearsed this piece, I experimented with moving along axes between the Romantic and the folk musical, searching for different ways of balancing style in the performance. 


folk musical                                                                                                                  romantic
dry                                                                                                                                  wet
low voiced                                                                                                                     monumental
everyday                                                                                                                        espressive
simple                                                                                                                             grandiose


For the recording, I let the Romantic long lines and classical form of phrasing take the lead, but still made room for slått-based rhythms in passages where there was a foundation for their characteristic elation or groundedness as rhythmical accentuations within the Romantic phrases. These ask for forward direction, either through long lines or singing phrases. The slått groove rhythms have a particular form of resistance, where the heavy beats are dug into the string of the fiddle. A way of combining these two attitudes is to hold on to the flow of the composed long lines, but let some of the beats be longer and heavier. Other beats will then become shorter and lighter, as the case is in asymmetric slått rhythms. By combining them, rhythmical elation can be activated within the Romantic phrases. The ornaments can be spun into the melodies by varying them with different speeds, articulation and gravitation. 

sound excerpt, Johan Halvorsen: Fossegrimen, played by Åshild Breie Nyhus, hardanger fiddle & Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, piano (Nyhus, 2016, track 1)

sound excerpt, Johan Halvorsen: Fossegrimen, played by Åshild Breie Nyhus, hardanger fiddle & Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, piano (Nyhus, 2016, track 2)

My work on Fossegrimen was done at a time when I was just beginning to test a wider range of folk musical aesthetics in expression and sound (including the dichotomies mentioned in A Folk Musical Aesthetic? and Sketch of Aesthetics). In Fossegrimen, I tried to play somewhat drier than I would otherwise do within a Romantic style. Picturing an axis between folk musical style and romantic style, in this piece I placed myself quite far in the Romantic direction, but with a hint towards the folk musical. 
Without any other comparison, it could be called a ‘stylistic glissando’ moving along these axes, a concept Hans Zender (b. 1936) has used for his ‘composed interpretations’ of old works (Chenal, 2016). To him, a stylistic glissando is a moving between two different styles; creating a musical sense of unity even though both styles are present. To create a sense of unity in Fossegrimen, I tried to accommodate both the grandiose and sonorous, as well the depth of simplicity and of low voice. The interpretation on this recording balances between the performance aesthetics of Romanticism and folk music, and the stylistic language of Romanticism prevails.

sound excerpt,  Johan Halvorsen: Fossegrimen, played by Åshild Breie Nyhus, hardanger fiddle & Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, piano (Nyhus, 2016, track 1)

Working with Fossegrimen was a kickstarter for a wish to make more extreme choices in my other interpretations within the project, in order to enable musical directions which might open up more room for the folk musical. To do this, it was important to seek to experiment and to use more resistance or risk to enable such new modes of expression. 

To acquire a larger space for possibilities, expanding my experience with composition and improvisation was necessary. Another need was to search for extended bodily knowledge of each work, as described in Interpreting and Traditioning. I needed to get to know the musical work I was practising in my body, beyond knowing the notes. I worked with the music of the project with etudes of improvisation and variation, and also etudes related to transferring folk music to the piano. By varying and improvising with musical material, one gets to know the material’s building blocks better. At the same time it was a task to get better acquainted with one’s own taste. I became aware of the importance of becoming more aware of what I meet the work with


As classical performers, we are trained to be experts in shifting between styles, like chameleons. But our individual taste, the question of what like, has often little emphasis in classical music studies. Though, in a good dialogue between a performer and a musical work, it is crucial that the performer knows his own voice and taste. When both parties are present with a conscious voice, the dialogue can begin. 


What if I looked at a notated piece of music as if it were a skeleton or an outline, open for another kind of variability and exploration, but where the core of the work still is kept? This composed music that I interpret in this project - music inspired by slått music - has largely collected inspiration from a variation practice; the slått practice. What happens when the interpretation is inspired by this practice, too? 


To be able to research the possibilities of the music while setting out from this idea of an outline, I would need to know the language and the possibilities of choices that lie just outside of the notes, beyond the notes. What these possibilities are will simultaneously be inseparably linked to the music at play, and to which performer puts it into play. 


In my search for pieces inspired by slått music to explore in this experimenting way, there were two pieces especially which suggested an opening of possibilities to me; Lasse Thoresen’s Solspill (1983) and Olav Kielland’s Villarkorn (1951).