Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen
Publisher: Edition Wilhelm Hansen
Photo © Susanne Hansen
Journey into Music - A portrait of the composer Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen
By Anders Beyer
“I would like to write magical music that isn’t easy to see through, and which has a special sound or tone that stimulates the senses and fill the audience with wonder.”
Imagination, emotion and feelings: Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen cultivates mystery in his music. He never reveals his innermost thoughts to the listener, but presents challenging music with poetically fascinating titles that stimulate the imagination – paradigmatically presented in the work Flowerfall for sinfonietta from 1993. The title speaks of flowers but also of ‘fall’, which can mean both falling and autumn. The composer thus expresses something indeterminate, something enigmatically compelling. The descending lines of the music are arranged in a fragile musical idiom where the flower takes on a special poetic meaning. The ‘fall’ is quite specific in the music, and is used to point to something else implied by the flower as image – the fall that is a falling-off, a decay or withering. Nature is not evoked up in her May-green or wild remote splendour but as dying gardens, as an aesthetic of decay that sounds through the music’s character of nature morte. In the extreme sense, the music is about lived life that ceases to be.
For Hvidtfelt Nielsen, music and its performance are not a calculation that has to come out right. When he plays the organ he transcends the stereotyped through improvisation; when he composes he wants to touch, move, transport the listener to some other place. The titles of the works invite the listener into the music. “The title is the public face of the work”, says the composer. It must sound good and be suitably open, so that it does not become a Diktat – the audience must not think that the music must be experienced in exactly this, that or another way; on the other hand the title must also point to what the music is about. The artist himself clarifies this as follows: “The title points in the first instance to the way I experience the music. I try to gather my experience into a word or a sentence.”
The words ‘night’, ‘dream’, ‘stillness’, ‘winter’ and ‘dance’ recur in atmospheric titles like Towards the Night, While Angels Sleep, In der Abendstille, Lied und Stille, Dreamland, Nightdance and Leaves in Winter.
Viewed in this perspective, Hvidtfelt Nielsen’s music, like Mahler’s, seems to tremble at the lips. Sometimes it is tearfully but life-affirmingly honest as if it were saying that simple is beautiful, and especially at the beginning of his career it was subdued and kept exaggerated gesture on a tight rein. As a listener one does not know when it will stop, so unpredictable are its internal mechanisms. The music has its origins in the Romantic landscape where life cannot be conceived without death, where free formulations are related to fixed forms. Hvidtfelt Nielsen openly acknowledges an affinity with both the aesthetic of Romanticism and a special Danish variant that we see unfolding in the work of among others Hans Abrahamsen and Bent Sørensen.
In Hvidtfelt Nielsen’s work this is a matter of poetry and melancholy, present ever since the composer began his journey into art music. From the outset the music was shaped by a modern gesture, where the composer accepted complex expression along the fault lines of ideas and with the many strata like latticeworks of sound. This creates a spaciousness in the soundscape that has become more refined over the years – in particular the telling pause is seen and experienced as an important form-creating element. The later works of Hvidtfelt Nielsen exhibit musical developments where the pause actually embodies the hesitation before the touch, as if the music sits still and meditates. The music, in painterly terms, has white fields, empty spaces, as if someone has just departed.
Listen for example to Lied und Stille, written in 1995 for the German ensemble L’Art pour l’Art. Each of the three instruments – flute, guitar, vibraphone – has its own type of music, and they vie with one another in speaking – and not least in silence – for just under a quarter of an hour. Each time that the possibilities of the music seem to have been exhausted, a new tension is created through stillness.
Just as in Schubert’s Winterreise, the journey, or the remote and silent, is an imaginary goal for Hvidtfelt Nielsen. Even when he raises his voice for emphatic statements in works with postulatory sonorities, he still sets a mood of melancholy that recalls works by artists like Byron, Poe, Caspar David Friedrich and Wagner. What these artists have in common is that they depict an internal journey that is not about reaching a particular destination, but rather revolves around the purposelessness of time itself, endless time, the maelstrom where the Good Ship Hope founders.
Since this journey forms part of the universe of art, it changes character from purposelessness to reflection, image, sound that form the course of the journey as an expression of a state of mind. Through the Darklands (1996) is explicitly about this idea. But in this case, as the titles suggests, with a goal for the movement. As we also often see in Hvidtfelt Nielsen, there is in the music a motion from agitated activity towards stillness, the secret space, the eye of the hurricane. While in Flowerfall and the related first symphony A Sense of Fall (1997-98) this space is constituted by fragments of melody in the high register of the piano, in Through the Darklands it is the appearance of the human voice that is the actual core of the work – its secret one could say.
The music matures
The composer Hvidtfelt Nielsen, who is also a graduate in philosophy, is no stranger to deep thought. At the beginning of his career he tried to see the connections between philosophy and music, inspired not least by the German philosopher T.W. Adorno’s thinking. But the fullness of time and new professional skills have led Hvidtfelt Nielsen to look elsewhere for his compositional impulses. His composing activities have always been accompanied by other work – his practical activities as an organist and as a teacher of musical structure and theory.
The reason why Hvidtfelt Nielsen composes at all is the direct pleasure of the actual writing process. “I sit by myself, and when the day is over, I have written some music, and it has been a delight. I only feel I am working when I compose”, the composer has said.
Among the first works in Hvidtfelt Nielsen’s opus list we find the vibraphone solo Those Splinters of Ice from 1986 and the string quartet Passenger from 1988. These pieces introduce his work with a multi-layered music characterized by rhythmic polyphony. The composer begins to take an interest in what we as listeners can grasp; he explores complexity in relation to our capacity to listen in on ‘dense’ structures.
The experience comes gradually, and especially from the shaping of works for small ensembles. One senses that it becomes possible for Hvidtfelt Nielsen to merge his many skills and philosophical deliberations at the beginning of the 1990s. The first work that catches the attention from this period is Flowerfall for sinfonietta from 1993, where the composer achieves a transparence in the various layers that permits the listener to follow the different melodic lines and layers. The composer has also gained a feeling for using the timing of the musical process to exploit the material optimally. Finally, he has also rediscovered early techniques for the treatment of dissonance and counterpoint that can be used in the new music to obtain the greatest possible transparence in the sonority.
Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen’s music takes on its own quite personal idiom in the course of the 1990s, and yet one is in no doubt that the artist is inspired by Danish music and musical thinking – first and foremost Per Nørgård, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen and Ib Nørholm in the older generation, and then, as mentioned above, Hans Abrahamsen and Bent Sørensen in Hvidtfelt Nielsen’s own generation. With the composer’s own formulation:
“What I myself can see most clearly is the inspiration from Pelle’s aesthetic and of course some of Per’s techniques. The various elements that taken together form a third picture – that is something I have from Abrahamsen. The last movement of his Winternacht has always been the paradigm for me. It was music like that I wanted to write and to work on with. So that is the basis of Serenade from 1990-91 for five instruments, and of Flowerfall from 1993 for sinfonietta. I’ve often had some of my colleagues’ works in my mind and thought, ‘I’d like to write something like that’. Flowerfall was my attempt to write like Bent. I thought, ‘Now I’d like to write the kind of music Bent makes’. Then of course it became something different, for it was I who wrote the music, but it was Bent’s music that was the model for me.”
More room for intuition
Throughout the nineties Hvidtfelt wrote a series of chamber works with the focus on a particular sound-register. The sister works Into the Black... (1994) and Crossing Styx (1995) are mostly played out in the lowest octaves of the piano, while White Light (1994) belongs not surprisingly in the heights, just as the violin solo Reveal (1995, written as a set work for the second round of the Carl Nielsen Competition in 1996) explores the instrument’s very highest register. In the middle movement of In der Abendstille, where he resumes the line from Abrahamsen, the registers are again at the centre of attention. In the last movement, the polyphonic tapestry takes the form of a polytonal proportional canon based on the Golden Section.
The latter half of the decade brings a number of works for larger ensembles. It is as if the composer has spent a whole decade gathering strength and experience to write for the large ensemble. The dream of writing for a large ensemble has long been close to Hvidtfelt Nielsen’s heart, and all at once it is as if some bonds are loosened, and in a liberating burst of work and in quick succession he creates among other things two symphonies, a concerto for saxophone quartet and sinfonietta, and an opera based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
We also have a pure sinfonietta work from this period, Movements. In the four movements of this work he tries out the possibilities offered by polyrhythms combined with shifting time signatures. Since they can be arranged so that there is hardly any audible difference between them, they can either be used as a regular motion against constantly shifting semiquaver values based on Fibonacci numbers (as in Through the Darklands), or he can permit the imperceptible difference to continue in a certain direction, and thus achieve a precisely notated, endlessly slow ritardando or accelerando. Or both at once, perhaps even simultaneously with a stable motion.
In several respects the symphonies sum up the work so far. In the First Symphony – A Sense of Fall – we find again the polyphony of musical statements (first and third movements), the cultivation of the extreme registers and the simultaneity of ritardando and accelerando (second movement, polytonal canon in the Golden Section proportions, silence (third movement) and finally the fourth movement features pulsing rhythms of the kind we know from passages in Flowerfall and the second movement of Serenade. The tissue of different tempi gathers into hard-pumping semiquaver activity. The Second Symphony works primarily with the polyphonic melody lines, but this time unfolded in music that can be played by amateurs.
The Saxophone Concerto brings a new sound into the composer’s oeuvre: the screaming saxophone glissandi that appear again later as if with whisper-soft voices. Glissandi and quartertones make their entry with the Saxophone Quartet. On the basis of this work, a number of other works where the saxophone is central appear over the next few years: While Angels Sleep (1999) for percussion and saxophone quartet; In the Dead of Night (1999) a saxophone quartet; Like Song (2000) for mezzo and saxophone quartet; Towards the Night (2001) for piano and saxophone quartet; Winter Has Come (2002) a concerto for soprano sax and sinfonietta; and Elegy (2002) for soprano sax.
With opera the composer breaks through genre constraints and can write more freely than normal, first and foremost tonally with singable melodies. The direct spin-off from this can be heard in the opera suite Of Princes and Dreams (1999-00), as well as the grand-scale work Thumbelina (2003) written for the bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth for symphony orchestra, amateur choir, children’s choir, two soloists and a narrator for a premiere with the Spanish Orquesta Sinfonica de RTVE in Madrid.
Hvidtfelt Nielsen decides to continue with the immediately accessible musical tone from the Andersen opera and orchestral work in the next opera, which is based on Svend Åge Madsen’s novel Edens Gave (‘The Gift of Eden’), written for the Summer Opera in Aarhus.
After he has written lyrical character pieces throughout the eighties and at the beginning of the nineties, certain aspects of Hvidtfelt Nielsen’s music become more sharply profiled towards the turn of the millennium. The many layers and the well proportioned rhythms are still formal determinants in a work like Through the Darklands from 1996, but a different aesthetic breaks through in the soundscape. The composer relies more on his craft and abandons systems to be able to write more intuitively. Definite proportions and displacements in different tempi are superseded by a more immediate kind of music that speaks to both head and feet. This is true not least of a work like While Angels Sleep for saxophones and percussion from 1999.
These interesting free developments, by no means without their own constraints, are something we find again in Winter Has Come for soprano saxophone and sinfonietta from 2002. Hvidtfelt Nielsen selects three techniques that he uses in the three movements. “The title Winter Has Come reflects my wish for a title that has associations with both overwhelming snowy landscapes – with icebergs, cold, storms, desolate wastes – and inner despair and frustration; at the same time it is not far from my mind that the title can be related to the prevailing cultural winds in Denmark.”
Hvidtfelt Nielsen’s later music refuses to be labelled any more than the preceding works. Whatever one claims, one can always find examples of the opposite in the composer’s music. If there is a recurrent feature, it is that the artist is always searching, never contenting himself with an achieved result. He uses the computer to measure and weigh the validity of a statement, and he stretches the notation to include graphic design. The music does not offer itself by virtue of simple solutions, and it is often difficult to realize. But once one has entered into it, an enduring world of forms and figures opens up. This is true in both the small ensembles, for example in Etudes for recorder quartet from 2001, and in the larger ensembles as in Flowerfall.
Etudes incidentally stands out from most of the oeuvre in consisting of a series of short, emphatic movements – a way of writing that is anticipated in Sonata (1994) and is resumed in Scenarios (2002).
In Leaves in Winter we discover – yet again – the appropriation of the extreme registers – this time the heights again. The initial entry of the oboe lies about a third higher than a normally proficient oboist’s highest limit. The short movements can be seen here too. There are nine in all. And yet they are so closely related that a listener does not necessary perceive the division into movements, especially when pauses are also used as formative elements within the individual movements. In these nine movements the piece works its way down to the lowest register of the oboe, from where it again ascends to the heights by a way of a coda.
Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen has made striking contributions to vocal music. In the large-scale Mass for 30-voice choir, Hvidtfelt Nielsen gathers together his techniques once again: glissandi, polyphonic motions and polytonality, and canon in ‘Golden’ proportions.
Besides the works for the concert hall Hvidtfelt Nielsen has created music for use in church. He has published a collection of motets for each of the Trinitytide texts from the second series.
First and last, Hvidtfelt Nielsen’s invites interpretation: it almost cries out to be decoded, although the attempt may be doomed to failure. At one moment one thinks it recalls something from the past, the next moment one’s understanding slips through one’s hands like a piece of wet soap. What he creates could be called an expression of duality or dialectic. It evokes a naturalness that does not and perhaps never did exist. The music views the landscape from its own hermetic perspective, and like a prisoner dreaming of freedom it dreams of an imaginary nature – all the stronger the more distant this nature is from reality and the attainable. In the music’s denaturing of nature there is a note of farewell, but also of defiance: if no such nature exists, then it must be invented.