An American of Norwegian and Japanese descent, Joseph Swensen was born in Hoboken, New Jersey and grew up in Harlem, New York City. He currently holds the post of Conductor Emeritus of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, where he was Principal Conductor from 1996-2005. He is Principal Guest Conductor of the Orquesta Ciudad de Granada, in Spain, and Artistic Partner of the Northwest Sinfonietta, in the United States. He has served as Principal Guest Conductor and Artistic Adviser of the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris from 2009-2012 and has held positions at the Malmö Opera (2008-2011), Lahti Symphony, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Swensen is the Starling Professor of Music, violin, at Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music. He has also been awarded an honorary doctorate from St. Andrew’s University, Scotland, and was invited to give a TEDx Talk with the title “Habitats for Music and the Sound of Math,” about music education and the developing brain, at the New York Institute of Technology. Joseph and Victoria Swensen are the founders of Habitat4Music, a non-profit organisation devoted to establishing participatory music education programs for children in underserved areas world-wide.Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg, composed The Holberg Suite in the summer of 1884, as a commission for the celebration of the bicentennial birthday of writer, Ludvig Baron Holberg. During the early 18th century, the Danish poet-dramatist had brought Scandinavia to the forefront in European theatrical circles. His comedies were so clever and humorous that he was called “the Molière of the North.” Norway claimed Holberg as their own, due to the fact that, for a time, he had resided in Bergen, Edvard Grieg’s hometown. Because Holberg was a contemporary of Bach and Handel, Grieg chose to compose this 20-minute composition in the style of a Baroque dance suite. Written in five short movements, the work originally composed for piano consists of an introduction and a set of dances. The form and melodies of The Holberg Suite reflect a Baroque style, yet the lush string writing and rich Romantic harmonies were drawn from the composer’s own era. Grieg called this work “my powdered-wig piece.” The suite remains in the repertoire frequently performed by contemporary string orchestras.
Jean Sibelius wrote the Six Humoresques for violin and orchestra in 1916 and 1917. They were first performed on November 24, 1919, at the premiere of the Fifth Symphony conducted by Sibelius in Helsinki, with soloist, Paul Cherkassky. Written as six miniatures, the entire set takes only twenty minutes to perform. Sibelius accompanies the violin with an orchestra that calls for pairs of woodwinds, horns, timpani and strings. However, only the first movement employs the entirety of the orchestra, thus the accompaniment is quite minimal with the violin solo taking centre stage. Sibelius had trained as a violinist and he held great affection for the instrument, writing a superb Violin Concerto and a number of smaller pieces for violin. His understanding of the instrument shines in the graceful composition of the violin solo in his Humoresques.
Johan Svendsen composed Romance for violin and strings in 1881. Completed it in only two days at the end of his compositional career, it has become his most popular work and is among the most popular works in the romantic repertoire. The composer also arranged the work for violin and piano. In contrast to his close friend, Edvard Grieg, Svendsen was acknowledged for his skills in orchestration. While Grieg composed mostly for small ensembles, Svendsen composed primarily for orchestras. He was very popular in Denmark and Norway, both as a composer and a conductor, being honoured with many national awards.
Carl Nielsen was a Danish musician, conductor, and violinist, widely recognised as his country's greatest composer. The First String Quartet in G minor is the earliest of his four quartets. It was composed in 1887 and 1888. The quartet belongs to a group of works the composer produced in his youth. It was not published until more than ten years after it was written, in revised form. The quartet is rumoured to have received its first performance on March 26, 1889, in the recently founded Private Chamber Music Society. In a performance of the Quartet on December 18, 1889, in the Freemasons’ Lodge, Carl Nielsen played first violin. The composer commented in an interview in 1918, “I then put my energy into a string quartet. It was good, I still think so… but when it was performed in the Concert Palæ and the Chamber Music Society, the audience was friendly enough, but the critics… oh, it was painful for me. They cut my quartet completely to pieces and said that it was incomprehensible.” Later a revision of the quartet may have been completed between 1889 and 1898, but it is more likely that he revised it after agreeing to its publication in 1896. Nielsen’s compositional style contains energetic rhythms, vibrant orchestration, and his unique voice, including rich melodies and harmonic vigour. This harmonic language is said to be typically Danish.
Alixandra Porembski, English Language Annotator
Carl Nielsen, (1865–1931), Denmark's most famous composer was born in the quaint rural village of Nørre Lyndelse on the Danish island of Funen. Hans Christian Anderson, the celebrated writer of fairy-tales was born quite close by. Both men grew up speaking the lilting, magical-sounding local dialect known as ‘fynsk’ which could easily be mistaken for the language of an elf in one of Anderson's fairy-tales. It was during my own twenty years living in Copenhagen, bringing up my two Danish-born sons in a house just a stone's throw from Tivoli Gardens that I came to realize that Denmark is actually a kind of fairy-tale country. A place where the child is valued and celebrated above everything else!
Copenhagen is also the common city to all the composers on this program.
Johann Svendsen (1840–1911), emigrated to Copenhagen with the reputation of being one of Norway's greatest composers. He soon became one of the most important conductors of the Royal Danish Opera in its illustrious history. He was the ‘Kappelmeister’ there when the young Carl Nielsen played in the back of that orchestra's second violin section. They quickly became close friends and mutually inspiring colleagues. In 1888 for example, Nielsen dedicated his g minor quartet to Svendsen. (The same g minor quartet I have orchestrated and will present at this performance!) A few years later Svendsen returned the favor by premiering Nielsen's Symphony #1 with the orchestra of the Royal Danish Opera famously offering the composer a rather comical bow from the back of the second violin section at the end of the performance. Svendsen's Romance for Violin and Orchestra is his most often played work and has been compared to the beautiful Romance movement from Grieg's 3rd Sonata for Violin and Piano.
Edvard Grieg (1843–1907) spent two decades living in Copenhagen just prior to Nielsen's arrival. The Holberg Suite of 1884 is his light-hearted homage to the great 18th century Danish writer, Ludwig Holberg. Grieg's music was a gigantic influence on both Svendsen and Nielsen and was internationally beloved even during his own lifetime. (He was one of the favorite composers of none other than Maurice Ravel!)
Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) made numerous trips to Copenhagen during his lifetime, most famously in connection with his incidental music to Shakespeare's Tempest, commissioned and premiered by the Royal Theater of Denmark in 1925 (only a few years after composing his charming Six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra.) This event firmly established a powerful Finnish connection for Copenhagen, one that continued with the extraordinary relationship the Royal Danish Opera had in the 1990's with the legendary Finnish conductor Paavo Bergland (who was incidentally, my own teacher in conducting for nearly a decade!)
Four Movements for Orchestra (1888) is the title I've given to my orchestration of Nielsen's ebullient early g minor String Quartet. Even in Copenhagen, most musicians and music lovers are unfamiliar with this work and many assume it to be a relatively immature student effort. Obviously, I beg to differ! This gem of a piece, like the great Bizet Symphony in C (also written when that composer was a student), is one of the most ingenious and inspired works I know by any young composer! I always wondered if Nielsen ever considered its orchestral textures and colorful timbres to be material for a Symphony rather than a quartet. Its passionate character Is for me, too powerful to be contained by only four string players.
As for my orchestration, my goal was to find the most discrete, elegant and respectful way to highlight the orchestral nature of the work by adding the tone colors of the winds, brass and timpani to the original music for strings. I have been absolutely true to all of Nielsen's original notes and phrasings and have used his Symphony #1 as my modal for orchestration. I have also resisted all temptation to add any notes of my own! We can clearly hear hints of Nielsen's later music in this early quartet. Even at the youthful age of 23, he already seems focused on what will be his lifelong preoccupation, the juxtaposition and integration of opposites. In most of Nielsen's major works the bucolic, unchanging fairy-tale world of his harmonious Funish childhood (with all the echoes of brass bands and church hymns), is constantly contrasted with the cosmopolitan, industrial, dissonant, progressive, international modernism of the Copenhagen of his adult years. His aesthetic ideal to integrate and harmonize these and other opposites in his compositions and within himself exemplify for me, an enlightened and inspiring aspiration for a kind of psychological and spiritual ‘wholeness’.
However, one must ultimately admit that over and above any of these considerations, Nielsen's works are primarily an expression of the incorrigible, irrepressible, childlike temperament of the composer himself, a particularly untamable, irreverent, comic and impulsive personality. Nielsen, the ‘prankster’ of a Hans Christian Anderson fairly-tale, unashamedly loved celebrating the child within him!
Joseph Swensen, Artistic Director of NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra