Ragnar Söderlind: Bringing Munch Alive

After the modernist wave of the 1950s and ‘60s, composers with a more traditional approach to their craft are beginning to get a fairer share of the limelight than during those dark years, as much in Norway as elsewhere in the world.

Ragnar Sĝderlind

One of the most prominent Norwegian composers to benefit from the thaw in cultural fashion is Ragnar Söderlind, who is currently working on a ballet to be presented by the Norwegian National Opera at the 1994 Winter Olympics at Lillehammer. It is based, unusually, on pictures by Edvard Munch. By late June, when I visited him in his Oslo flat, Söderlind had written forty minutes out of an anticipated sixty after working on the music for almost a year.

“The projected title is The Dance of Life. The trouble is that there are several ballets that have been inspired by Munch and they have all had the same name!”

Söderlind’s previous ballets - this is his fourth - are a good deal more symphonic than ballets might be expected to be, and they are as likely to contain forms, such as the passacaglia, more frequently found in the symphony than in conventional “dance” music. Two of them, Hedda Gabler and Victoria were scored for large orchestras; Kristin Lavransdatter, which fell between, is written for a very small group, and the Munch ballet uses a large chamber orchestra of 36 musicians.

Söderlind warns of a slight change in his approach. “This ballet is not as symphonic as the previous three, al-though all my music is symphonic in a way - I was born like that!”

Is the new work more episodic because it is based on a series of paintings? “Yes, it's less dramatic, it's not a story. It's a series of tableaux, not exactly illustrating a particular painting. The ballet will show sequences of pictures that are very close to one another, and they run together to make a kind of story, although not a dramatic one." Was Söderlind allowed to select Munch paintings that he especially liked? “The choreographer, Anderz Dĝving, and I got together to talk about timing and the pictures - how much time for each picture - but nothing more concrete than that.”

Were there any suggestions from the paintings themselves? “The Dance of Life itself is a waltz, of course: in the painting you can see them dancing on the beach, going round and round - so that had to be a waltz. But I have used waltzes in my ballets before - in Hedda Gabler, for instance.”

Just as there are symphonic qualities to his ballets, there are dance elements in his symphonic music, too, as in the Third Symphony. Söderlind, a warm man with a ready laugh, shrugs and smiles broadly. “I like that! Some-times music that's flowing has to come to and end and take on strong rhythmic elements. But there are no dance elements in my Fourth Symphony - that's much sterner stuff”.

Söderlind has not worked with Dĝving before. The young choreographer has never been a dancer. That's quite rare. “Anderz has a much more intellectual view than other choreographers I have worked with.”

So does Söderlind consciously change his style between the strictness of a symphony and the looseness required by a ballet? “That depends on the subject. In the Munch ballet, the music I am writing is quite strict. My operas” - Söderlind has written two - “are freer than the ballets because the ballets are pure orchestral music, and that has to be able to lead its own life in a much larger way than operatic music.”

Söderlind has also attracted attention for the effort he has devoted to other composers' music - orchestra-ting Grieg's Ballade, for example. Now he has taken his generosity a step further, writing a version of Grieg's song-cycle Haugtussa (The Mountain Maid) for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Söderlind explains his reasoning. “There are sketches for it in this form, but it was never finished - it's a torso. I had seen all the sketches and so I decided to fulfil Grieg's intentions. It's a big work - one hour and ten minutes.”

But is it Grieg or Grieg/Söderlind? “I think 85 percent of the music is by Grieg. I have written some orchestral preludes.” In Griegs own style? “Yes, why shouldn't I? Personally, I like a thicker orchestral style than he did but it wasn't difficult to keep my head down.”

So why does he devote so much time to other composers? Söderlind gives a disarmingly honest answer: “It's work I do when I have finished a big project of my own. Then I often feel empty and it's good to have some work to recharge your batteries.”

Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.1 - 1993 No. 2
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