1000 Years of Norwegian Church Music

The new Norwegian Hymn Book, published in 1985, reflects one thousand years of religious songs of praise, from the Gregorian' chants of the 10th Century through the vernacular hymns of the Reformation and hymns from many different religious movements in the 18th and 19th centuries to contemporary songs and spirituals from churches and chapels.

Harald Herresthal

When Christianity came to Norway at the end of the l0th Century, the universal Catholic Church had long since laid down the rules for singing at religious services. Only in connection with the veneration of saints was there room for national contributions to the Gregorian choral tradition, and only here was it possible for Norwegian-composed sequences and other liturgical music to find their place. Best known is the sequence Lux illuxit, which was used during the recent St. Olav celebrations at Nidaros Cathedral, The sequence Predicasti Dei care was used at weekly Wednesday masses, held on the day on which St. Olav was martyred in 1030.

During the first half of the 14th Century, some Norwegian churches acquired organs and the statue of the lyre player m Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim shows that many other instruments were used in Church services. Norwegian theology students, who were trained in Paris at that time, introduced polyphony from the Notre Dame School and other impulses from European music. Norway had long had close ties with England, and historical sources show that the cultured classes in Europe's northernmost archbishopric were satisfied with only the best quality.

The Reformation was introduced in 1536 by a resolution of the Council of the Realm in Copenhagen, which had been the capital of Denmark-Norway since 1398. During the following century, the Roman Catholic Church music and liturgy were replaced by the German Lutheran liturgy and metrical psalms, as written in the first hymn books by Hans Thomissøn (1569). Jespersøn's Graduale (1573) contained music for Church services, which were led by pupils of the Latin schools. No seventeenth century Norwegian choral music has survived; but the old heilagvisene (holy songs) have lived on in religious folk music right up to our own times. Due to the Lutheran church’s emphasis on the organ as a solo instrument and an instrument to lead the congregation's ringing, an increasing number of churches acquired their own organs. Many sources describe the wonderful sound of the organ and relate how string, wind and various percussion instruments were used at weddings and other religious festivals. Eighteenth century accounts describe an active musical life around the churches in the larger towns. Occasional cantatas were performed at private and public ceremonies, and Passiontide concerts became an annual tradition at an early date. The few composers we know of were immigrant Germans or Danes. Georg von Bertuch (1668-1743), Commandant of Akershus Castle from 1719, was a keen composer who had close contacts with European music. A choral cantata and a couple of solo cantatas performed at Oslo Cathedral are still in existence.

Johan Daniel Berlin (1714-1787) was cathedral organist and official city musician in Trondheim. His violin concerto and orchestral sinfonias evidence his capable craftsmanship and the high quality of Trondheim's musicians. Berlin's church music has not been preserved. On the other hand, in spring 1995 it was once again possible to hear the wonderful 30-stop organ built by Joachim Wagner, first played by Berlin in autumn 1741.
This baroque organ, which has just been restored and re-installed in the Nidaros Cathedral, is audible proof of a rich musical period.

One common characteristic of 18th century European Lutheran hymns was that the Latin school choirs, lead singers and congregations often embellished the choral melody with passing notes and heterophonic embellishments. Congregations usually learned the hymns auditively, with the help of a lead singer or a choir. The latter created individual ornaments which led to a mixture of melodies and many local melodic variations. The metre of the various hymn book texts was not always consistent with the melodic form, which further complicated the singing. With the rise of rationalism and classicism in the second half of the 18th century, systematic efforts were made to eliminate this practice.

Towards the middle of the 19th Century, with the help of choirs, organs and ringing lessons in schools, hymn-singing became more uniform in larger owns and urban areas. For many years, music teacher Lars Roverud travelled round the country introducing the authorised choral forms. He related that the local peasants could spend three quarter of an hour singing their way through a 22-verse hymn. However, when he came to church with his trained boy sopranos to teach the congregation more “modem” hymn-singing, the old “Kingo” singers turned up to sing in their own way.

In rural areas the old traditions were kept alive in remote churches and by individuals in their own homes. It is these choral variants that are now regarded as religious folk music. When Ludvig Mathias Lindeman began to collect religious folk music in the mid-19th century, he found different versions in the various valleys. The Gudbrandsdalen valley, where pietism never gained a foothold, was a rich source of hymns from the early baroque period. The Kingo melodies from Valdres contain melismas and embellishments originating in the descant practice of the Latin schools. In other areas were pietism had a stronger influence, folk songs were characterised by aria-like and strophic song forms. When modal folk songs were discovered at the beginning of the 19th century, it was believed that these song traditions could be traced right back to the Middle Ages.

In numerical terms, religious folk songs are the richest genre of Norwegian vocal folk music. The most popular hymn-writers were Hans Adolph Brorson and Petter Dass. Nearly one hundred melodic versions of the latter's hymn Herre Gud, ditt dyre navn og ære (Lord God, thy wondrous Name and praise) have been written down. The collection of religious folk music continued in the 20th century, and many of the melodies were included in hymn books and have been a continuous source of inspiration for composers of choral and organ music.

Ludvig Mathias Lindeman (1812-87) was the most significant figure in the 19th Century. Through his father, he was exposed to the Bach tradition that was still prevalent in Trondheim and he composed several organ works which bear witness to a considerable knowledge of counterpoint. Nevertheless, Lindeman's main importance was a choir book publisher and hymn composer. His melodies became generally popular during his lifetime. Even today, the main church festivals, Christmas, Easter and Whitsun are unthinkable without hymns such as Et barn er født i Betlehem (A Child is Born in Bethlehem), Påskemorgen slukker sorgen (Easter Morning Quenches Grief) or Apostlene satt i Jerusalem (The Apostles sat in Jerusalem).

Parallel with Lindeman's hymn reform, the missionary and revival movements ensured that popular religious songs received impulses from England, America and, in certain cases, Sweden. Spirituals and songs from the revivalist movement had no place in the official church hymn books until our own times; but nevertheless helped to inspire the joy in singing; and spiritual life of the Norwegian nation.

The musical life of the Church was primarily linked to Church services. Church concerts in the contemporary sense took place only in exceptional cases from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards. One example is the annual Passiontide concerts introduced by a musician from Holstein, Bendix Friedrich Zinck, which were held in Christiania in the 1760s. Organ recitals took place occasionally from the end of the 1780s. Best known and most “infamous” were the organ recitals by Carl Maria von Weber's teacher, Abbé Vogler, in certain Norwegian towns in the 1790s. The so-called ”spiritual” concert he gave in Christiania Cathedral in 1794 has been quoted many times due to the extraordinary programme. In addition to such exotic pieces as an Arabian romance and an African allegro, the audience heard Bells in Fuga and a programmatic rendering of cavorting shepherds interrupted by thunder. The main element was a musical description of a sea battle “including the Alarm of several Fleets clashing in Combat; War Music; the Movement of the Ships; the stormy waves; the Thunder of the Canons; the Screams of the Dying; and the Triumphal Song of the Victors”. At one of his concerts, Vogler played self-composed variations on the Norwegian folk song Stusle sundagskvællen (Sad Sunday Evening), and this was as the first time a composer used a Norwegian folk song in serious music. In connection with a later series of variations on the same melody, Vogler maintained that he had personally written it down “off the coast of Greenland”.

Church concerts became more frequent during the 1800s. In 1829, Finnish soprano Johanna von Schoultz gave several concerts in Christiania Cathedral, but her Italian operatic arias by Mozart and Rossini aroused negative reactions. During the rest of the 19th Century, there was continual conflict about whether or not permission should be granted to hold concerts in churches. For certain periods, even Passiontide concerts of Beethoven's Christus am Ölberg and Mozart's Requiem were relegated to the Great Hall of the Old Lodge.

“Experience has shown that the Use of the Churches, even for Organ concerts of the purest religious Content, are not everywhere viewed with favourable Eyes by the Congregations and the Ministry, when Access thereto for the Congregation is not free, but must be paid for,” one newspaper wrote in 1867. Many ministers believed that the concerts were not intended for the edification of the congregation, but were of a purely temporal nature, to “create an Income for the for the Musician concerned”. In this situation, perhaps it is not surprising that so little church music was composed in the 19th Century.

National Romantic composers like Halfdan Kjerulf, Johan Svendsen and Edvard Grieg showed little interest in church music. The wonderful arrangements of religious folk songs by Grieg at the end of his life are nevertheless the most significant church music created during the Romantic period. Due to the limitations imposed by the Church on church music activities, there was no need for full-time church musicians. Throughout the 19th Century, the organ was mainly played by teachers who, thanks to the fact that training in organ and harmonium was compulsory at the teacher training colleges, were able to combine their roles with that of precentor and organist. When the official post of town musician was discontinued in the 1840s, many towns and urban areas preferred to employ organists who could also play for dances. In the second half of the l9th Century, with the arrival of organists who specialised only in church music, more versatile musicians were occasionally preferred, with the resulting bitter conflicts.

Church musicians such as Otto Winter-Hjelm, Johannes Haarklou and Christian Cappelen are among the best known church musicians of Griegs generation, hut only with Arild Sandvold (1895-1984) did Norway acquire a church musician of comparable stature to Ludvig Mathias Lindeman. As organist, conductor, composer, teacher and organisation man, Arild Sandvold was a major pioneer of Norwegian music. With his choirs, he performed more than 70 different oratorios. He opened the way for Bach's music and ensured that Norwegian contemporary music became well known in Norway and the Nordic countries. He improved church music education and trained hundreds of organists who helped church music to flourish all over the country. With his brilliant organ playing, his concert tours and his conscientious work for the Norwegian Church, Sandvold contributed more than anyone towards creating a general interest in church music in Norway, and his Introduktion og Passacaglia for orgel is a standard work in Norwegian organ literature.

In the first few years after the dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905 and until World War II, church music was coloured by national sentiment and a tendency toward, retrospective historicism, the 900th centenary of the death of St. Olav (1930) and the first Nordic Bach festival (1921) being the most important sources of inspiration. Oratorios such as Ludvig Irgens Jensen's Heimferd, Arne Eggen's Kong Olav and Eivind Groven's Draumkvedet are typical examples of the patriotic monumental style that predominated in the 1930s. With a combination of national romantic harmonies and archaic styles, these composers attempted to create a national Norse tonal language.

Fartein Valen's (1887-1952) atonal choral and organ works provide a strong contrast to this movement, and many of his works were neither performed nor appreciated until the breakthrough of modernism in the 1950s.

The re-discovery of Norwegian Gregorianism associated with the medieval veneration of St. Olav and new interest in the ancient church modes in folk music were concurrent with the rise of a European church music reform movement which attempted to re-introduce Gregorian chants and Reformation chorales in their original form into church services. With the re-discovery of Renaissance vocal polyphony and pre-Bach organ music, church music became strongly historicist and in many cases characterised by pastiche and stagnation. This movement became even more popular in the 1950s when the Musica Sacra society was established with a view to promoting and renewing Norwegian religious songs and church music.

Church musicians were inspired by neo-classical composers such as Paul Hindemith and Hugo Distler, and it was this style that was most popular. The organ music of French composer Olivier Messiaen did not become known until later.

Exercises in composition were a t compulsory part of church music studies which, until the establishment of the Norwegian State Academy of Music, provided the broadest, most comprehensive musical education in Norway. Church musicians composed utility music, which might seem to indicate renewa1 and development but was also adapted to the receptiveness of congregations. Apart from certain larger choral and organ works, organ chorales and simple evangelical motets dominated church music production in the 1950s. However, the choral tradition was growing and, in time, well-trained organists and highly qualified church choirs were able to tackle more advanced contemporary music.

While Ludvig Nielsen (1906) and Conrad Baden (1908-89) remained within the neo-classical framework, Knut Nystedt (1915) and Egil Hovland (1924) attempted to stay in the forefront of avant-gardism during its peak in the first half of the 1960s. Nystedt used tone clusters in his choral work De profundis, while Egil Hovland experimented with the organ itself. In the serial, aleatoric work Elementa per organo, the sound spectrum is extended with the help of loose organ pipes, wedged keys and untraditional methods of playing with the palms of the hands and the elbows. In order to make modern musical expression more understandable to audiences, Hovland combined his music with poetry, drama and dance. In the organ suite Jobs bok (The Book of Job), the music is programmatically linked to the reading of the biblical text, in the mass Vigilate, the judgement motif is emphasised by dancers, and in the church opera Brunnen, the whole church becomes a stage for song, music, theatre and dance. Avant-garde music led to strong reactions from Norwegian congregations, and the church concerts arranged by the Norwegian section of the ISCM in the 1960s led to scandals, closed church doors and media headlines.

Christian pop and jazz music were accepted by Norwegian congregations towards the end of the 1960s. In 1963, vicar Olaf Hillestad arranged the first “rhythmic church service” in Bergen. Just like avant-garde music, this engendered much conflict and debate, not least among church musicians. Inspired by the Sing Out movement, in 1967 Kjell Grønner started the Ten Sing movement, which became an important factor in the youth work of the Church of Norway in the 1970s.

During the following 25 years and up to the present day, the former battle lines have relaxed considerably and it is interesting to see how musical trends fluctuate in parallel in very different groups. In the field of serious music, neo-romanticism came as a reaction to the Darmstadt School and serialism. Mendelssohn, Reger and French organ romanticism regained their former prestige, with consequences for the construction of new organs. Christmas carols, Anglican hymns and romantic choral works found their way to Norway from Britain. Among Christian youth groups, the neo-pietist Jesus revival came as a reaction to political and socio-ethical protest songs, with their unilateral emphasis on environmental pollution and social and political injustice.

The search for melodic simplicity and songs which appealed directly to the emotions led to a new interest in 19th century revivalist melodies. With the ecumenical movement came vocal material from the Third World, and with ethnic music came a need to seek: out our own roots, which in time increased the importance of Norwegian folk music as a source of inspiration for a wide variety of genres.

Today, the breadth and diversity of musical activity in Norwegian churches has become a mirror image of events in the rest of the country's musical life. Within the framework of the church service, the music represents everything from Gregorianism to avant-gardism, pop and rock. At church concerts, you can hear everything from traditional motets, cantatas and oratorios to musicals, jazz masses, church ballets, religious dramas and operas and so-called crossover phenomena. The fact that a conflict arises every now and then about the function and purpose of church music, about what is Christian, edifying music, bears witness to the important role music plays in our human existence not least when its purpose is to express our religious yearning.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.3 - 1995 No. 3
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