The Norwegian Romance Tradition

Romanse is the Norwegian equivalent of the German Lied, the type of song with piano accompaniment that emerged in the early Romantic period and of which Schubert was the first great exponent. The main characteristic of the romance is that both voice and accompaniment interpret the content and mood of the text. Norwegians also use the words sang (song) and vise (folk song, ballad) to describe works of this nature.

In the 19th century the Norwegians felt a strong need to create an independent cultural identity. Norway was a new nation but united with Sweden under the same king, and in the struggle to assert their independence, the Norwegians wanted to create something that was uniquely their own and would demonstrate that their demands for the right to determine their own fate were justified. In their efforts to create a “Norwegian” musical style, composers therefore used elements of Norwegian folk music in their compositions.

This also applied to the romance. Norway developed a romance genre that, in simplified terms, might be called a stylised folk song. It represented one of the three different lines of development in the Norwegian romance tradition, and examples are found in the works of most Norwegian composers of the National Romantic period.

The romance had its origins in the German Romantic period, which was also the natural starting point for Norwegian romance composers. The simplest method was to write music to German texts, thereby moving directly into the German tradition. Since most Norwegian composers studied in Germany in the 19th century, it seemed perfectly natural for them to adopt this style, and we can observe this line of development in almost all of them.

In Norway, however, people wanted to use Norwegian texts, which led to the emergence of the “Norwegian romance” – the text was in Norwegian, but the song was similar to the German Lied in terms of style. This approach may be seen in all Norwegian composers of the Romantic period.

It is usual to distinguish between three types of romance. The simplest one treats all the stanzas of the poem in the same way; in other words, they are all sung to the same melody and the same accompaniment. This is called a strophic song.

However the composer may vary the accompaniment and melody for each stanza in order to create closer links between text and music. If each stanza is treated differently but the music is still more or less the same, we call it a varied strophic song.

If the composer finds it appropriate to compose a new melody and a new accompaniment for each stanza, the romance is called a through-composed song. This also applies if, for example, there are similarities between the first and last stanzas in a longer song.

Of course there are many transitional forms between the three basic types and a certain amount of judgement has to be exercised when using the different definitions.

Halfdan Kjerulf
The first significant composer in the Norwegian romance tradition was Halfdan Kjerulf (1815-1868). He is regarded as the creator of the Norwegian romance and one of the most important composers in this genre. Kjerulf’s approximately 125 romances were mainly composed in the 1850s and 1860s. In his production we find the three branches of the Norwegian romance tradition fairly clearly defined. Almost one quarter of Kjerulf’s songs were composed to German texts and are fairly closely related to the German Lied. The best known of them is probably Des Mondes Silber rinnt (By the Moon’s Silver Light), to a text by Emanual Geibel.

The Norwegian language approach is naturally the most prominent in Kjerulf’s production. Songs like Søvnen (Sleep) to a poem by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, or En Vaarnatt (Spring Night) to a poem by Welhaven are beautiful, and stylistically close to the German Lied tradition.

The third line of development, more influenced by folk music, is also well represented in Kjerulf’s works. These songs are often in stanza form and contain a varying number of folk elements. The most obvious examples are found in songs to poems by Bjørnson, the best known of which are Ingrids Vise (Ingrid’s Song), Synnøves Sang (Synnøve’s Song) and Aftenstemning (Evening Mood). But there are more, and it is sometimes difficult to draw the line between them and the more “Germanic” songs. A song like Lokkende Toner (Enticing Tunes) to a text by Welhaven would be regarded by most people as having a “Norwegian” sound, even though it does not contain any obvious elements of Norwegian folk music.

Edvard Grieg
Kjerulf was the immediate predecessor of Edvard Grieg who, having composed some 170 songs, is our best known romance composer. In Grieg’s works we also find all three lines of development. He did not write as many romances in the German language as Kjerulf, but there are some, the most important of which are found in op. 48, Sechs Lieder (Six Songs). The best known must be the beautiful Ein Traum (A Dream) to a text by Bodenstedt.

However, Grieg’s Norwegian language songs are better known and loved. Of those that are closest to the German tradition, we might mention Margretes Vuggesang (Margaret’s Cradle Song) to a text by Ibsen, or Jeg elsker dig (I Love but Thee) and Vandring i Skoven (Moonlit Forest) to texts by H. C. Andersen. Jeg elsker dig is Grieg’s best known romance.

The third line of development, the “national” romance, is also well represented in Grieg’s works. Characteristically, the Norwegian folk music tradition is clearest in songs to texts in New Norwegian (a language constructed from local dialects during the National Romantic period in an effort to counteract the Danish influence). Most of the songs to poems by A. O. Vinje are related to the Norwegian folk song. Songs like Våren (Last Spring), Ved Rondane (At Rondane) and Gamle mor (The Old Mother) are all in stanza form and reminiscent of folk music. They are also among the best romances Grieg produced. The same can be said of the Haugtussa cycle (The Mountain Maid) to poems by Arne Garborg. Veslemøy (The Young Maiden) and Blåbærli (Blueberry Slope) are fairly close to the folk song in style.

The Lone Woman – Agathe Backer Grøndahl
Kjerulf and Grieg represent the first and greatest flowering of the Norwegian romance tradition. These two composers raised the Norwegian romance to the level of the German romantic Lied. Their successors didn’t quite manage to reach the same high standard, but romances were an important part of Norwegian music throughout the Romantic period and several of the more recent Norwegian composers have written romances, some of them very good ones.

In this review, we must be content to name only a few of them. Next on my list is Grieg’s contemporary, Agathe Backer Grøndahl (1847-1907), the most important Nordic woman composer prior to 1900. Although she wrote a broad range of music, the romance was her most important genre and she composed about 190 songs, including many real gems.

Agathe Backer Grøndahl’s romances are usually close to the German Lied in style but have Norwegian texts. Although she did not compose any songs that were strongly influenced by folk music, she wrote some excellent romances in a refined musical language that are known and loved in the Norwegian song tradition. The best known is Mot kveld (Toward Evening) to a poem by Andreas Jynge. It is to be found in Barnets Vaardag (The Child’s Spring Day), a collection that contains several fine songs. Another good collection is the song cycle Ahasvereus to texts by B. S. Ingemann on the subject of the eternal Jew wandering restlessly around the world. Her well known songs also include Efter en Sommerfugl (Following a Butterfly), also to a text by Andreas Jynge, and Kløvereng (Clover Meadow) to a text by Theodor Caspari.

Agathe Backer Grøndahl composed four collections of romances to German texts, and although they are not among her best known, this part of her production also contains some fine works.

Grieg’s closest successor in Norwegian music, Christian Sinding (1856-1941), also wrote a large number of romances, about 250 in all, comprising both songs to Norwegian texts and songs in the German language. It is difficult to select particular examples from this large number of works, but of the Norwegian songs we might mention Sylvelin (from op. 55) to a text by Vetle Vislie and Der skreg en fugl (A Bird Cried Out) from op. 18, Sange til Tekst af Vilhelm Krag. Of the German language songs we might mention Maria Gnadenmutter from op. 15, Lieder aus “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”.

Although Sinding was relatively uninterested in Norwegian folk music, its influence is felt in some of his songs, most clearly in settings of poems by Ivar Aasen which are collected in two volumes, Symra (Anemone), op. 28 and 75.

Many late-19th century Norwegian composers wrote songs and romances, but we must confine ourselves to two of them: Sigurd Lie (1871-1904), who is best known for his song Sne (Snow) to a text by Helga Ronde, and Per Winge (1858-1935) who wrote the well-known children’s songs Kjære lille gutten min (Lullaby for Little Boy) and Jeg synger for min lille venn (I’m Singing for My Little Friend).

Alnæs and Irgens-Jensen
In the first decades of the 20th century, Norway had a prominent romance composer in Eyvind Alnæs (1871-1932). Many of his approximately 185 songs are worthy of mention, for example Februarmorgen ved Golfen (A February Morning by the Gulf) and Vaarlængsler (Longings for Spring), both to poems by Nils Collet Vogt, Nu brister i alle de kløfter (The Ice is Cracking in All the Crevasses, text by V. Stuckenberg), Sidste Reis (Last Journey, text by Henrik Wergeland) and De hundrede violiner (The Hundred Violins, text by Arnulf Øverland). The latter has become particularly popular. Alnæs’ romances are characterised by the composer’s fine melodic sensitivity and rich, late-Romantic harmonics.

Alnæs was the last great romance composer in Norwegian musical history. Later in the 20th century the romance was overshadowed by other types of music. The romance was a Romantic genre and had difficulty in surviving the Romantic period as an independent entity. Some songs were still composed in a modified Romantic style, but few of them achieved popularity among musicians or audiences.

Nevertheless, a few composers did manage to renew the romance genre. The first, who wrote songs in a more neo-classical style, was Ludvig Irgens-Jensen (1894-1969). He made his debut as a composer in 1920, publishing no less than 38 songs with piano accompaniment in op. nos. 1 to 6. He made an immediate impact, for example with the collection Japanischer Frühling (Japanese Spring) to texts by Hans Betge, which is currently experiencing a renaissance. In addition to other works, he later composed the song cycle Rosenstaden (The City of Roses) to texts by Bergel Gripenberg. The best known of his songs is Altar (Altar) to a poem by Haldis Moren Vesaas, which was composed at the end of the 1930s.

Modern Times
A few composers continued to write in the romance genre after 1950. One of the finest was Øistein Sommerfeldt (1919-1994), who achieved considerable popularity with the song Juninatt (Night in June, text by Einar Skjæraasen) from op. 2. Of his later songs, we might mention Fattig er mitt liv (Poor is my life, text by Hans Kristiansen), Kvitsymre (White Anemone, text by Hans Henrik Holm) and Skjærgårdsø (Skerry Island, text by Knut Hamsun). Sommerfeldt’s songs were characterised by good melodic abililty and fine harmonies.

Sommerfeldt’s contemporary, Johan Kvandal (1919-1999), made a greater impression in other musical genres but also wrote some good songs, such as Fire Krokannsanger (Four Songs by Inge Krokann), op 76, and a collection called 14 sanger for sang og piano (14 Songs for Voice and Piano), written at different times during the composer’s life.

Edvard Hagerup Bull has also composed a number of songs, including the collections Guirlandes, op. 5, four songs, and Dramatiske sanger (Dramatic Songs), op 53A, four songs, all to texts by Gunnar Reiss Andersen.

Some of our contemporary composers have also written works in the romance genre. Trygve Madsen (1940-) has composed a large number of works for voice and piano, including 8 sanger til tekster av Sigbjørn Obstfelder (Eight Songs to texts by Sigbjørn Obstfelder), op. 8 and 4 Sanger (Four Songs) to texts by Rolf Jacobsen, op. 87. He has also composed a collection called Sanger til tyske tekster (Six Songs – German Poetries), op. 12, thereby re-establishing the link with this branch of the Norwegian romance tradition. In this case the texts were by Richard Schaukel and Eduard Morike.

Morten Gaathaug (1955-) has composed 7 Sanger til tekster av norske forfattere (7 Songs to Contemporary Norwegian Poems), op. 15 and Vinden ser aldri på veiviserne (The Wind Never Looks at the Signposts), six songs to poems by Hans Børli, op. 33. The youngest of the composers I shall mention in this connection is Kjell Mørk Karlsen (1947-), who has written several song collections, including 5 Bruheimsongar for baryton og piano (Five Bruheim Songs), op. 86 and 5 Orgland-songar (Five Songs to texts by Orgland), op. 115.

The Future of the Romance
The Norwegian romance tradition got off to an impressive start in the mid-1800s with Kjerulf and Grieg. In later years it varied in strength and significance but
it has always been present, despite the relatively low status of the romance genre throughout most of the 20th century.

Romances in the Norwegian language have seldom been performed outside Norway’s borders. Although a large proportion of them have been translated into other European languages, few translations are able to reproduce the poetic qualities of the original text. This affects the interplay between text and music, and the musical expressiveness of a romance with a translated text will therefore easily be reduced.

The best solution to the problem is often to sing the romance in the original language and ensure that both singer and audience are aware of the content in translation, because the Norwegian romance tradition is well worth closer acquaintance.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.7 - 1999 No. 2
Share the story on:
                    |     More


New acquisitions from the National Library (sheet music)

MIC-pages is managed by Aslak Oppebøen
Tel: +47 90175338 ·