From Caramoor’s Manager of Artistic Planning, Ellie Gisler Murphy:
I spent the school breaks of my college years in Norway, while my parents lived there for a work assignment. It was impressed upon me during that time that the Norwegians are an entirely proud bunch, and nothing makes them more proud than their stunning landscape of rugged coastlines, vast mountain-scapes, and steep fjords. To be Norwegian is to understand that participation in the outdoors, regardless of the weather, is compulsory. (Perhaps made evident than their obvious and consistent domination in the Winter Olympics, and with their famous saying “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing”).
Though known for those dark and long winters, perhaps no season is more special to the Norwegians than their springtime, a brief and late season where 18 hours of darkness, thick snow and ice gives way to flowers, greenery and sunlight. Those who live in the Northeast can perhaps relate to a certain extent, especially so in late February. The notable Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg captured the approaching season in his song “Våren” (“The Spring”). The poem, written by Aasmund Vinje, wistfully recalls the emerald meadows, butterflies dancing in blossoms, and spring-gladdened vales. Among all the songs of spring, it is one of the more solemn, as the speaker imagines this spring to be their last on earth, but to me, it makes the song all the more exquisite.
You can’t beat it in the original Norwegian dialect Landsmål, here sung by Barbara Bonney:
My parents were both of Norwegian heritage, and hailed from Minnesota. They met as grad students at the Eastman School of Music, and spent their careers as music educators. Needless to say, our house was filled with music, and I was introduced to the works of Edvard Grieg at an early age. Later in life when I began to sing his songs, I could feel myself tapping a rich vein of familiarity and love. Grieg is the foremost Norwegian composer, and his songs stand out as premiere examples of the Scandinavian contribution to the art form.
The song I have chosen for my final contribution is one of Grieg’s “greatest hits”: “Ein Traum”, the final song in the wonderful Opus 48, consisting of six songs set to German texts. I learned it first in Norwegian, and I must confess that I have never sung it in German in performance. The Norwegian translation is extremely singable, and somehow seems more ‘original’—but then, I’m biased.
Kirsten Flagstad was, is, and always will be, the queen of Norwegian classical singers. (Not that she has much competition, as the group is quite small.) It’s only fitting that her statue greets all who visit the gorgeous opera house in Oslo—she was an amazing artist and is highly venerated in Norway.
The recording I’ve chosen was made in 1936 with the wonderful Edwin McArthur, Flagstad’s musical partner of many years. It’s a masterful song in the hands of true masters.
This week our curators of the Song of the Day blog are the Artistic Administration staff of the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts (our next concert, “At Home,” which will take place both at Caramoor and at Merkin Hall, features Caramoor’s 2016 Schwab Vocal Rising Stars). Today’s selection comes from Caramoor’s Manager of Artistic Planning, Ellie Gisler Murphy:
Ave Maris Stella – Edvard Grieg (1898)
My husband and I both come from formal classical musical backgrounds and as a result, have gathered a large contingent of incredibly talented friends. As we planned our wedding, we knew we wanted to utilize these high quality (and free!) musicians to create a sacred space in which to bless our marital bond. Choosing the music was far more difficult – we are both spiritual people but come from opposite ends of a spiritual spectrum. He is a by-the-book Catholic and I am an increasingly conflicted Unitarian. When we decided it was appropriate to be married within a Unitarian congregation, we felt just as strongly that we wanted to honor my husband and many of our family with sacred texts as long as they still coincided with the liberal and feminist beliefs of the Unitarian community. To that end, we chose two settings of Marian texts to be sung by a male chorus– Ave Maria (Rachmaninoff) and Ave Maris Stella, my favorite setting of which is by the great Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg.
I have long loved Grieg and have also spent a great deal of time in Norway, but somehow didn’t find out until after the wedding that Grieg himself was a Unitarian. The composer tended towards deep religious crisis throughout his life and following the death of his parents and a momentary breakup of his marriage, turned to his wife’s Unitarianism as a vehicle to explore the great theological questions of life and what comes after. His music touched on sacred texts only rarely during his prolific lifetime, dedicating himself instead to the Norwegian people, folk tales, and the mountainous landscape of his beloved country. Ave Maris Stella , originally a solo song, was rewritten for double chorus and published in 1898 as the second in Grieg’s “Two Sacred Choruses” . The miniature work is rarely written about in Grieg biographies, so it’s difficult to assume what exact importance Grieg himself placed on the piece. What is indisputable is the great care with which the piece is crafted, evidence perhaps of the reverence that Grieg still held toward the most sacred of women in spite of his sustained religious doubt. The piece is wholly sacred, pious, and somehow, in the same breath, soaring and joyful.
The Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, performing Edvard Grieg’s Ave Maris Stella
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