Elgar on the Øresund

The past is a foreign country. Literally, for some of us. When you move abroad, you learn as much about the territory you leave as the one you adopt. In the nine years I’ve lived in Denmark, the two composers whose profiles have shifted most radically in my comprehension of music history are Bach and Elgar. The latter’s music meant something different to me during my 34 years in England. Now I’m hearing it with more perspective while getting, I feel, closer to its essence.

More and more, Elgar, to me, is Britain – not in its tattered imperial glory but in its wild contradictions, compelling energy and indiscriminate diversity. Elgar’s music seems to strive perpetually to grasp the essence of the nation’s soul – a task in which it has to almost-fail in order to speak the truth so poignantly and movingly. Elgar’s symphonies astonish me. Their relevance is writ large – able to acutely sound-track twenty-first century urban life in a European capital while still communicating that sense of a Britain constantly upending and contorting itself in search of sense and sensibility.

The Second is hands down the greatest symphonic work my country of birth has produced. I hear it now as an absolutely European symphony by a British citizen interested in Englishness – integral and lucid (if unusual) in its form but whose astonishing, writhing and churning vertical complexities and descriptive hysteria are more connected to the Second Viennese School than anything pastoral, imperial or even particularly noble. There’s more whiplash than whimsy in the piece and barely any room for reflection that isn’t ultimately gazumped by emotional outpouring. It sounds, to my ears, a million miles from Vaughan Williams in the ferocity and industry of its argumentation.

For a handful of reasons, it was odd and intriguing to see Marie Jacquot conduct the work with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra on 21 March. This is ground not well-trodden by French conductors nor Nordic orchestras, though the DNSO gave a remarkable performance of Elgar’s First under Vasily Petrenko in 2018 – the last time they played an Elgar symphony, and the first time for many in the orchestra.

More unusually, Jacquot is designated Principal Conductor elsewhere in Copenhagen – at the Royal Theatre and Royal Danish Orchestra, where she starts her tenure in August. She paired Elgar’s Second with music you’d presume was conceived not to work her arms too hard before the interval (but which, from where I was sitting, actually did): Mozart’s Gran Partita, traversed with unerring alertness to shape and line by a posse of DNSO principals.

Danes still see Elgar as representative of imperial England. That’s as much about the here-and-now as anything historical, as a socially flat Nordic society looks west, nonplussed, to a country still skewed by class and status and perennially confused as to its place in the world. Even in England, some hear Elgar as a poster-boy for everything unfashionable – dead values that were only ever valuable to a few. I hear his symphonies as radically progressive and ever-contemporary: torn, outspoken, embracing, terrifying, tender and loving, And more connected to the identity-confusion of the British than ever. They are surely as emotionally open as Tchaikovsky’s, if consciously and poignantly stilted by that very English inability to be direct (surely the point, in the First at least). Elgar over-shares as much as he conceals. He is as disarmingly emotionally damaged as the rest of them.

Jacquot’s performance of the Second took the music’s vertical complexity seriously but within what was a determinedly horizontal, linear reading – an onward-pressing journey she likened, in an interview on the live radio broadcast of the concert, to a train ride. One of the radio announcers talked of Elgar’s bicycle Mr Phoebus. A few weeks later I talked to that announcer, Esben Tange, about the symphony’s straining opening unison as if it were the moment a bike teeters at the top of a hill before whooshing down it (on the broadcast, Esben made a remark about the British not being willing to cycle in the rain – naturally).

Marie Jacquot conducts Elgar with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra

Most in Copenhagen have only ever ‘seen’ Jacquot conduct in the pits of the city’s two opera houses – largely invisibly. She was born in Paris, raised in Chartres and trained in Austria and Germany, serving two Kapellmeisterships before assisting Kirill Petrenko at the Bavarian State Opera and suddenly springing to attention. She is Principal Guest Conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and is soon to take the top job at the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne, which she will combine with her new post in Copenhagen. In the concert hall, her gestural language was strikingly impressive – as refined and judicious as the young Vladimir Jurowski’s (who once described Elgar to me as ‘an unconscious plagiarist of Brahms’ and vowed he would never conduct any; he went on to record the Violin Concerto with Nicola Benedetti).

Jacquot took each episode as it came but let musical logic feed surely into a sense of cumulative power, while springing those moments of orchestral panache off the page (the final bars of the first and third movements, notably). The radio broadcast gives you a more forensic view of how she dealt with inner complexities and harboured contrasting energies in service of intimacy and spontaneity.

It was, to summarise, a fluent and literate first performance of the symphony from the conductor, full of musicality and with a degree of flair that to my mind is absolutely necessary in this music. Even listening again online, I find it a far more successful account than that from another über-central European conductor: Daniel Barenboim, with the Staatskapelle Berlin (though Barenboim’s First is brilliant, and essays I think, everything I am trying to say here).

The bigger picture is that of the work’s colossal emotional residue. A colleague in London listened to the broadcast of Jacquot’s performance and found it too noblimente and long-breathed, with a ‘strenuous simulation of Edwardian moustache and steak-and-kidney.’ He was probably talking about the Larghetto, which I found the most affecting of all in Jacquot’s capturing of the catch in Elgar’s emotional composure – the wave-form of his social nausea.

As an expatriated Englishman in Lutheran Europe, I hear those things differently now – as a marriage of what Elgar referred to as the ‘passionate pilgrimage of the soul’ to the emotional comedown of withdrawal from all that you know and all that made you. Britain’s idea of itself hasn’t been getting any less fragile since the social upheavals of the first decade of the 1900s when Elgar wrote the piece. We know parts of the score were inspired by Venice. I hear the composer looking to Europe in more ways besides. Perhaps, in so doing, he was underlining his ambivalent attitude to the England he found so hard to love by putting that England in a frame – in parentheses. That might be one reason I have found the piece so devastating on every hearing since 2015 (make that 2016).

Five weeks later on 25 April, at the opposite end of the Øresund Bridge separating Denmark from Sweden, the Malmö Symphony Orchestra gave a performance of Elgar’s Symphony No 1. It was to have been conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, but a little over a week in advance we were informed that Davis was unwell, and that Martyn Brabbins would take his place. Five days before the concert, Davis died at home in Chicago.

Martyn Brabbins conducts Elgar with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra (Emma Larsson)

Like many, I had my first live taste of this symphony under Davis’s baton – in my case, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in 2006. It felt doubly strange – an echo of all my Elgar-related disorientation about displacement, outsider-status and so on – that the first concert Davis should have conducted since his death was taking place on my doorstep.

This was a muted performance but for the symphony’s final bars, which felt charged with an unusual sense of eruption. That’s in the score: a symphony nominally in A flat major that’s really in D, in which the final (re)blossoming A flat major opens up an astonishing new sonic vista. It also includes what is surely the most irregular musical gesture of Elgar’s oeuvre, when the processional theme returns, and the strings throw themselves at it with erratic fury – expressing a sort of volcanic, almost desparate optimism that puts me in mind of suffragettes throwing themselves under horses; the ultimate sacrifice to hasten the better future we know is coming.

It felt like even more of an eruption in Malmö given the rest of the performance had been so smooth – far less animated than either Petrenko’s or Jacquot’s Elgar at the other end of the bridge. I came to Malmö almost-fresh from the Malko Competition in Copenhagen and was reminded yet again that an orchestra’s sound is rooted in what it sees: in Brabbins’s case, a stern but understated physical presence, feet often rooted in position, in contrast to the prudent agility of the former competitive tennis player Jacquot and with a more limited and conventional gestural range. The pay off was structural nous and a deep sense of care, delicacy even, with the way the motto was carried through to the end – more fragile than noble, which seemed right for our times. The end of the Adagio was whispered in the sort of true pianissimo you can wait months to hear. I have never heard the Malmö strings better – nor the entire orchestra, in fact.

This is a symphony about the ‘wide experience of human life’, in Elgar’s words, and perhaps Brabbins’s performance served as a reminder to us narcissist millennials that it might not be our life we’re hearing about. I admired Brabbins’s effort to unify Elgar’s symphony under a simmering legato even if I would have preferred something else. For what it’s worth, he did mine impressively contrasting and vivid colours in Ingvar Lidholm’s Ligeti-influenced Kontaktion from 1979, which was played with a combination of slab-smoothness and vivid colours that’s hard to bring off. Delius’s The Walk to the Paradise Garden was more like his precious-object-carrying Elgar.  

Concertmaster Marika Fältskog and conductor Martyn Brabbins (Emma Larsson)

Ultimately, Brabbins’s Elgar felt a little too English to my now-European ears – veiled by the sort of standoffish politeness that so often misfires in the northern quarters of the continental mainland, especially around the Baltic Sea, even if the British conductor was careful not to over-egg that noblimente that others heard in Jacquot’s Second.

Then again, Sir Adrian Boult’s Elgar (live performances, at least) were always imbued with that radical edge and savage loneliness – with something near Jacquot’s sense of what Elgar himself called ‘the mighty engine’ of the orchestra, which meant the symphonic Elgar could never be considered imperial or even particularly ‘establishment’ whatever the orientation of the man who wrote it. Elgar may still have much to tell us about England – not least about an England perennially unable to cope with the new way of things and certainly unable to cope with art. Perhaps that’s why we’d do well not to consider his music all that English anymore, even if Elgar himself most certainly was – through and through. AM

Listen to the DNSO’s Elgar 2 under Marie Jacquot

Listen to the Malmö Symphony Orchestra’s Elgar 1 under Martyn Brabbins (link coming soon)



Someone asked me recently, at a bookshop event for The Northern Silence in Copenhagen, what Danish composer I had been most effected or enlightened by. Easy: Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen.

I adore Pelle’s music. There’s plenty of it discussed in The Northern Silence (Plateaux pour Deux, Moving Still, Run) and there’s a whole lot more that isn’t (Moments Musicaux, Og, Three Songs with Texts from Politiken, Eksempler, Konstateringer, Symphony and Antiphony, the string quartets…the full list is a long one).

In 2014, before I lived in Denmark, The Guardian newspaper sent me to Copenhagen to interview Pelle. We met in a café overlooking Blågårds Plads. What ensued was one of the most thrilling and enjoyable interviews I have experienced, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that we talked about none of the subjects I had written down in my little notebook. It remains the only such meeting I’ve never been able to bring myself to delete from my dictaphone – perhaps because Pelle died two years later, the year after I moved here, and I never got to see him again (though we did correspond by letter, and on email through a third party). I remain sincerely grateful to Cecilie Rosenmeier for setting it up and introducing me to Pelle.

Bits of the interview made their way into The Northern Silence and a few more into The Guardian article. Here is a transcript of (almost) the whole conversation, slightly tidied up. There is barely a sentence from Pelle that isn’t full of wisdom.

AM: I was at a performance of Plateaux pour Deux [1970] in London recently, your piece for cello and car horns. There were some people behind me and they couldn’t contain their laughter. Actually they were guffawing, as we would say in English.

PGH: …they are welcome to!

The thing is, it created a sort of tension with the people in the concert hall who were thinking, “this is serious music, you shouldn’t be laughing at this”…

It is one of those pieces that’s in the grey zone. If you go to the concert hall, you are supposed not to laugh unless it is Spike Jones or something. The concert hall is a ritual, where you agree to behave. You’ve got to have some manners. You are not coming in naked for instance. When I was at the Royal [Danish] Academy of Music, after a day at the Academy we would go for a beer and entertain ourselves by finding impossible interpretations. Sonata for organ and bicycle pump was one idea. But I soon thought, why is it only for fun we do this? Why couldn’t it be taken as a concept of composing? There is actually nothing wrong with the car horn. It’s OK. It’s a fine instrument. It has a very refined sound.

But it takes a while for the ear to come round to that partnership as a legitimate one.

Yes, and I knew then, of course, that people would laugh. And they have been laughing since, and they have scolded me because they think it’s a stupid idea, which it is as a matter of fact. But this is the temptation: to seek those areas that are called stupid. It has its own kind of innocence, like a child being naughty. As a child you say all those ugly words just to see how the parents react; to the child it’s a nice thing to do. It’s a primitive attitude in a way. But composers are childish under all circumstances, because to compose is very naïve. There’s so much music already made, so if you decide to be a composer you are childish. If you were very clever you wouldn’t do it, because you would see the problems and the impossibility of being together with Mozart and Bach.

Has that troubled you?

I have been in crises like that in my life, crises where I have decided to give up, because I thought, “you can’t expect people to listen to this”. So when I wrote this piece for cello and car horn, I didn’t expect people to be happy about it. I said to myself, “I’m kind of a child, so I’ll do it”. And people are still astonished and still offended. But I think it is a fine piece of music, since it develops very severely. The horn has its system and it gets out of the picture by degrees. The cello is left, and has a solo during the last minutes. So the piece has a story: the cello being born in the beginning and really not heard, but by degrees becoming more present. And when it then has a chance to be present in the last minutes, very reduced and almost silent, it’s as if the cello says, “well, it’s my turn now but I’ve got nothing to say”. That’s its narrative, in a way.

It’s there in other pieces you’ve written: you present an ostensibly illegitimate, unproven relationship, and you set out to prove, or to try to prove…

…that they can be together, yes. Out here [Blågårds Plads], in reality, the most impossible creatures are together all the time. So I wanted to bring this part of our life into music, to show that we have all these different kinds of behaviours and traditions and colours. It’s best to call them “objects” and “beings” and “creatures”. You have very tough materials, stone and metal, and you have the weak things also, the little bird, perhaps not weighing more than 5 grams. A little bird is 5 grams of creature, and you have an elephant in the zoo just 10 metres away. And then you have the children and the parents. When I was in the zoo as a child, I was mostly interested in the little sparrows. My parents would show me the lion, but I was running after the little sparrows. I found them interesting, those little birds.

Related to that, let’s talk about your very specific idea of sound – and perhaps this is as specific as a particular bird’s song. Do musicians ever find it difficult to deal with those specifics – to read your scores as naturally, as it were, as you’d imagined them?

Not any more. For most of my life, I have had troubles with conductors and musicians and audiences. But by degrees I think people are getting accustomed to new music and to my music, so they are now treating it as if it’s music to play in a fine and beautiful way. Good musicians get the solutions: the London Sinfonietta, Theatre of Voices, Kronos Quartet – they find it interesting and find the process of making decisions enjoyable.

Was the London Sinfonietta wrong-footed at all by your work?

I thought so. I didn’t ask them but I thought so.


I think in the beginning they didn’t know what to think – perhaps they were afraid of being in bad company. That’s my destiny, to be bad company.

But you’re surely in the company of people like John Cage – the ideas, in a sense, are bigger than music. To me they’re more about sound – the capabilities of an instrument, the social interaction of performance – even if music is a byproduct. The principle of ignoring display, that’s all over your work…

Yes it is. There are some new possibilities now, it’s coming back to the 1920s and Dadaism of course; then [Gérard] Deschamps taking things, completely innocent things, not connected with art at all, and putting them into a museum. So it began there in the beginning of the 1900s, and since then we have become accustomed to the possibility of using every kind of sound. But the difficulty then is to choose your sound: you can’t put every sound in one piece. So in connection with each piece you have to decide which sounds should meet each other, should circulate. These figures, these sounds, are often running in circles – not developing, not going anywhere but just being there.

Cage is long gone and Busoni even more so. These ideas about sound and music, nobody has taken them forward quite like you. Do you feel you’re on your own?

Well, each nation has its own tradition. If you’re in Germany of course you have Schoenberg and Stockhausen, who have made a strong impression on generations. Still, the German approach can be heard in the German composers and also in Boulez – even though he still has this big character, clarity and beauty in the sound, which I think is French. Not that I prefer Boulez to Stockhausen, I’m very fond of those two guys in fact. In the 60s we were completely overwhelmed by their music, but I’m still faithful to their expression. You can’t hear it my own music because I’ve found another way of doing it.

Sometimes I can hear it in your bigger works, maybe in your orchestral works.

Maybe, I don’t know. I think Ives and Varèse and Stravinsky are more there. Charles Ives was a fantastic, wild and strange composer, putting those things together. He was mad and fresh; his madness was fresh. But when I listen to Stravinsky I have this feeling that I only have when I listen to Stravinsky; it’s as if a hot electrical current has been put directly onto the nerves. This nervous rhythm, constantly moving without going anywhere. But at the same time he’s Russian and he also has this Asian quietness, calmness. Perhaps that Asian quality enables him to be nervous and calm at the same time.

Photo: Lars Skaaning / Edition Wilhelm Hansen

The piece we just heard being rehearsed, Og, I know it’s not structured as a passacaglia, but it feels like one in the sense that…

…things keep coming back…

Yes. And talking of national characteristics, do you feel there is a sense of organization in Danish music post-Nielsen, no wasted notes…

No, no, there should not be any wasted notes. I try to get rid of unnecessary notes.

Perhaps that comes from Stravinsky.

Yes it does. It’s not an improvisatory thing; a jazz musician has a lot of notes to enjoy. But I prefer to take away what is not necessary, even if there are a lot of notes. I like the feeling of chaos, of not being able to find your orientation, feeling a little lost, and then, by degrees, finding your way, if not the material. Many of my pieces are about this situation, being shocked by the multiphonics, and then by degrees, beginning to see what it is about.

As in, you have your parameters, and they’re very tight, and you can go crazy within those parameters?

I don’t like the chaos without any order, so it’s inside the chaos there is complete order.

In Danish society, there seems to be a constant sense of controlled rebellion that results in absolute order. There is never any possibility that things will descend into chaos because the chaos is nurtured and contained in one domain – the democratic public expression of dissatisfaction.

I’m not a fan of Denmark. I think we have so many bad qualities, notably being a little too relaxed when it comes to treating other people, the people coming into this country. I also think we lack a little respect for the tougher materials which make sophisticated art. Generally, I think we in Denmark are a little vulgar compared to Sweden for example. We are happy about being vulgar, as a matter of fact; we make a virtue out of it.

Haven’t Danish artists always done that – Carl Nielsen?

Yes, and Nielsen is one of my favourite composers. And I know why, because he has a freshness which is very rare, and is also odd. Much of his music is not accepted in France and Italy, because they do not understand this square and rude and fresh style…

…can you say ‘vulgar’ as well?

No, I don’t think he is vulgar. He is common – he’s not afraid of being common. But in being common he is still original. He’s an original guy I think. Sometimes I prefer him to Brahms, which I know is a ridiculous thing to say as Brahms is a fantastic composer. But everything is in the right place with Brahms. And you have this colour, sort of like this table here. It’s like a very deep brown, mahogany desk in the Ministry of Justice. Brahms is on the right side of the desk – so convincing, so right, so beautiful in his heaviness. Carl Nielsen is on the wrong side: a little out of tune, the naughty boy, not the cleverest in the class but definitely the most inventive. You couldn’t confuse him with anyone else. He has this innocence and he survives with his fantastic invention. They are very original these ideas [in Nielsen]. If you hear Nielsen you couldn’t think it was any other composer. Max Bruch you can easily think is another composer.

It’s about refinement I guess…

Refining your strangeness.

Is that a process at work in your own music?

I hope so. The older I get the more I try to refine it. Earlier in my life I wrote some pieces that I regret a little, which I think are too rude, too rough – lacking a little. Generally speaking, the pieces I’m rather happy about – you say that because you’re never completely happy – are the pieces in which the concept and the way of doing it has been clear to a high degree: knowing what to do, and doing it. The pieces I’m not so happy about have too many things in them, which means I’ve not been completely aware of what I was doing. What you want, ideally, is to know where your feet are, which ground you’re standing on, have some sort of feeling of what the piece is about. Then you do it as soberly as possible without jumping here and jumping there and without forgetting that original idea.

Often the idea has a wonderful simplicity, obviousness even – as in Three Songs With Texts from Politiken [1967]. It’s a delightfully simple concept.

At that time in my life, I’d been through several periods with different intentions. But I was very much thinking against what was generally done in musical circles, so writing songs was nearly impossible for me. Writing songs was about following words, giving them a kind of colour, a new meaning, or surroundings which would emphasize the deeper content of the text. But at that time I hated this kind of approach to a text, because I found a very fine poem had an extremely clear meaning already, together with the sound of it. So beginning to sing such a poem seemed to me, at that time, to be a bad idea. I couldn’t make sense of it.

So instead, with the Politiken songs, in which the texts are those mundane business reports, there is this ringing absurdity.

Yes because I couldn’t do anything else. The human race has a voice, and I couldn’t see the meaning of not using this voice. Why should we shut up? Samuel Beckett talks about stopping talking, because it’s impossible to talk but it’s also impossible not to talk, so he keeps going on.

“I have nothing to say and I’m going to say it”.

Yes, John Cage, that’s it. Those two guys have something in common there.

Going back to that performance of Plateaux pour Deux in London, the funny thing was that the atmosphere became very serious, because of the people who were laughing, and the people who didn’t want them to laugh, and the people who didn’t know whether or not they wanted them to laugh. Perhaps the only individuals entirely relaxed with the situation were the two musicians.

It’s a nice situation I think, it sounds wonderful, it sounds good – everyone not knowing what to do. That’s fine.

But suddenly there was something to think about.

That’s it. And that’s a good situation, and mostly good music has a little of this in it. Even if you listen to Bach, what the hell is going on? It’s so overwhelming that you find yourself astonished by this information, so this astonishment is part of the joke. It’s not just a reaction – it sounds beautiful – it’s that you can’t understand why it sounds so beautiful. It’s impossible to understand. But if you do not understand one thing, it’s a rather fruitful situation to be in. I think all composers know about not knowing exactly what they’re doing, and they feel the temptation of not knowing. If you knew completely what to do you would be bored. So the anxiety, the nervousness, is rather inspiring. I think all artists know this nervousness in relation to their material; whether they are on the right track or not, when every day a new question has to be solved and you do not know what’s going on the next day. I’m 81 now and I’m still completely unknowing of what situation I will be in tomorrow. Not completely unknowing, because I know a lot of things. But the defining things, the little defining things that make you say to yourself, well, that’s how it should be – you don’t know if they will occur.

Do you develop habits in that sense?

Yes, everyone does. I don’t want not to do anything, so I’m going to try to do something, to be aware of what’s going on.

Are habits bad for you?

No. I will have set habits; everyone has that. It’s a very great part of our lives. I think even the most eccentric person has his habits, and you get accustomed to those habits of course, you accept that they will occur and how they will look to a certain degree. But I think every sensible artist will have a close look at his habits. I have anyway; I am discussing every day if this is the best thing to do, and often I choose the unsatisfying and rude and impolite. I have a tendency to go in that direction because there’s a temptation to explore those things. It’s more inspiring to be on your own, to go into the jungle and find a way to survive; that’s more tempting than to travel first class and have a bath. To be a composer is dangerous as a matter of fact. You talk about the London Sinfonietta…with them perhaps, in that sense, it’s not easy to see what I’m looking for. People think, what is this about?

You can get into it, though, your music. It comes. It suddenly ‘clicks’ – and almost your whole oeuvre falls into place. It did for me.

There are some musicians and conductors who do not have that difficulty any more; they are willing to go further. They are accustomed to the surprises, to the bad manners of my music. The bad manners in my music will not be easy for the London Sinfonietta and I have a suspicion that they will find it too naïve, too clumsy. And who can we compare it with? A little like Carl Nielsen perhaps.

I think people have the same problem with Carl Nielsen. They expect his music to somehow remind them of Jean Sibelius’s.

There’s an enormous difference between Carl Nielsen and Sibelius, but I’m very glad personally, in my experience of those two composers, to be a complete admirer of both. In my younger days my music was inspired by Sibelius’s, but later on, you couldn’t say so.

Perhaps what makes Denmark different is its sense of humour, which is quite close to the British sense of humour – more so than the other Nordic countries.

I know. I’m very fond of British humour and American humour, the black humour of Monty Python for example. And I’m a big fan of Chaplin and Keaton. And of course Chaplin was from London, from a very poor background, but his humour is gorgeous. I don’t think that kind of humour is very German for instance, and not very French either. It’s northern, British and American, and Danish. We have had some fine humorists here and comic figures on the scene, and also in Anglo Saxon literature.

Photo: Jeppe Gudmundsen-Holmgreen

Yesterday I listened to Company [2010]. Something I’ve heard in your other pieces, Moving Still is one of them, is this idea of pulse and repetition – that if you repeat something enough times, its meaning will transform. It will twist.

Yes, that’s it, very much twisting; the same chords, the same rhythm, the same material, but most of the time changing. Company develops from a more complex situation to a peaceful consolation as the sounds become accustomed to each other. Changing it to major with very little dissonance, you get an odd kind of beauty. I’m not afraid of this old kind of beauty. In my piano concerto I take a Mozart piano concerto – as you know – and it ends with Mozart, in a clear A major. The voice of the piano is nearly 100% Mozart. The orchestra is completely nuts, but nevertheless comfortable with it.

There are those Mozart references in the piece we just heard Athelas Sinfonietta play, Og. Obviously the piece is tied up with Søren Kierkegaard. I just read Diary of a Seducer and was struck that even in this ostensibly lighter, narrative work, there is a deep lingering depression. A man obsessed with sexuality but without any love.

Yes that’s it. He’s a desperate man, but Kierkegaard is very sarcastic and wicked to his surroundings; he demands so much. I don’t think it’s fair to demand that much. I laugh when I read Kierkegaard. I read it before bed and my wife asks “why are you laughing? Kierkegaard is a philosopher and you can’t laugh at a philosopher.” But I think it’s fine that a philosopher can call for a laugh. Because he has those two figures A and B [in the book Enten-Eller, (‘Either/Or’)], A’s letters and B’s letters, the older one advising the younger one, and those discussions are so beautiful. He succeeds in putting forward his ideas by letting those two people see different things. So Kierkegaard’s mind is A and B, and by combining the two he puts his finger on a lot of human weaknesses. He’s squeezing it in a sarcastic way that I think calls for a laugh. It’s rather astonishing.

What’s the connection to Og?

I hadn’t read much Kierkegaard but I began because I got that commission, a commission for the Kierkegaard anniversary in 2013. One of the things we are discussing here is his dividing his thoughts in different voices, A and B, and that’s very much my own way of making music, having different paths or voices, different opinions, things to say, and in saying those different things, there might come a third thing that’s worth discussing. So in Og [the Danish word for ‘and’] the brass are only playing the D minor chords of the overture to Don Giovanni, and since Kierkegaard was very fond of Don Giovanni and Mozart, I thought it was an idea to come into the mind of this man, to have Mozart there as beauty, and then these other voices concerned with completely different things. The bassoon is a little creature having not so many notes, but talking all the time, trying to get through and being expressive, while the strings are making sounds from the Politiken songs, they comes from there, and the bassoon is making the same kind of music as in Frères Jacques [1964]. If you don’t know that work, it’s one of my favourite early pieces. The bassoon there is very much like the bassoon you heard here in Og. So I think these different utterances find a way out during the piece. Frères Jacques is the first piece of which I think I’m a little proud.

It’s a little like Company in that respect – the feeling that instruments are hatching out like small creatures from an egg. A stilted vocal flowering into a full voice.

Yes, yes, that’s it. In the beginning of Company the sounds are just spoiling each other, there are too many of them. But they get confidence in themselves and they begin to relax because they accept themselves and it seems to be OK. And the less there are the more beautiful it gets – the end of the piece is far more beautiful than the beginning. There’s not much left so it’s possible to deal with it as music – it’s not objective; it’s not completely reality. You have to make music out of those little things.

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen dances to his own music (the score Triptycon, 1985)

Love / Ambition

The John Fulljames era at the Royal Danish Opera ended this summer. Here are some thoughts on his parting gesture, a new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, whose messages of optimism came with their own bitter aftertaste.

This review was commissioned by and written for Opera News in New York. But a glitch meant it was never published. So here it is. Better late than never…

Wagner: Die Walküre Royal Danish Opera / 6.3.22

Tomasz Konieczny as Wotan in Die Walküre at the Royal Danish Opera (Camilla Winther)

After an absence of 16 years, Wagner’s Ring returned to the Copenhagen Opera House in March. The audience had waited long enough. Early performances of this Die Walküre sold out and there was rapt attention in the auditorium for the duration of the opening night’s 5 hours. Artistic Director John Fulljames took charge of the staging, the last he will pilot while still in post. Conducting was Thomas Søndergård, who played timpani in the pit the last time the Ring was seen at this address, in the production by Kasper Holten that opened the new opera house and put the Royal Danish Opera on the world map.

Fulljames’s intelligent production couldn’t help but bring to mind the sorry administrative mess that will see him depart this summer, and his projected complete Ring apparently aborted after he was allegedly deemed insufficiently Scandinavian to run Denmark’s national company. Here was further evidence that the boss bows out with his head held high, his staging focusing hard on the hopelessness of Wotan’s quest for power and the sort of short-term schemes that are doomed to fail in the face of true vision and genuine humanity. 

Wotan was on stage from the start, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur fixated on architectural models and spreadsheets, who assumed the status of a guru for his MacBook-wielding posse of office-bound Valkyries. When it all came tumbling down, he clasped to his chest a model of a broad staircase punctured by a giant spear, devastated that he – like Fulljames perhaps – would never get to see his plans come to fruition.

That model was the set we saw at full-scale on stage. Beneath the staircase, the under-class of Hunding and Sieglinde struggled in dirt and grime. Above it, Wotan’s elite workforce distributed Frappuccinos as they high-fived their corporation’s latest successes. It formed a strong image of the world in which we find ourselves, but proved even more resonant as a landscape of heartless ambition against which Siegmund and Brünnhilde’s visions of love and empathy proved so instantly transformative.  

The dramatic power in Act II was severe, Brünnhilde’s initial exchange with Siegmund riven with a line of tension drawn from a combination of sadness and complete stasis, the Valkyrie rooted to a single spot on stage until the pivotal moment at which she could resist the power of human love no more. After a caricature of a meek, abused partner in Act I, the Sieglinde of Act II, debilitated by a deep sense of shock, proved strikingly moving to watch.

That role was taken by Ann Petersen, her apparently ageless voice clearer than ever and offering in tone color what it can sometimes lack in agility. Her characteristic ability to rise to the occasion, even in the middle of a phrase, gave her portrayal a vital dramatic edge. Bryan Register’s Siegmund proved his heldentenor credentials, its lyricism mingled with a sense of over-excitement adumbrating a potentially fine Siegfried. Morten Staugaard found unexpected depth and growl as Hunding and his laconic acting oozed malice. Hanne Fischer’s portrayal of Fricka was deeply satisfying. Only the assembled Valkyries underwhelmed, a fragile ensemble stocked with too many promising but inexperienced singers from the Opera Academy.

There was real quality where it mattered. Both Tomasz Konieczny’s Wotan and Trine Møller’s Brünnhilde were defined by their superior approach to text. Konieczny’s bright, gleaming, legato-infused baritone does so much with words and can apparently color a note even when his mouth is closed; his ‘Abschied’ was most moving at its quietest. Møller focused on meaning and diction, drawing attention away from the size of a voice that, in the end, seemed big enough anyway.

Søndergård paced everything to the text and with ample elasticity. Strings were occasionally lost in the orchestral balance – not normally a problem with the Royal Danish Orchestra – and detail in the prelude to Act II was frustratingly low. But grandeur and scintillating rapture were kept in good balance. Ultimately, ambition and power were trumped by love and beauty, realized as effectively via the notes we heard as by the tenderness we saw.


Doing Politics

Towards the end of The Northern Silence, there’s a reference to Finland’s sometime Culture Minister Paavo Arhinmäki. He admits, in a quote from an interview he gave me while in office, that he is ‘probably one of the worst Culture Ministers ever.’

The interview took place in January 2013 on a roof terrace in Cannes. It was unusual in every sense. I was used to interviewing musicians, not politicians. Also, I was offered the chance to interview Alexander Stubb at the same time – then Finland’s Minister for European Affairs and Trade (and an entertaining columnist in Finnair’s magazine, Blue Wings). Just a year later, he would become the country’s Prime Minister.

Music Finland arranged the interviews. I couldn’t think of what to do with the results – they weren’t really saleable – so I wrote them up for my now-defunct website, Moose Report.

Given the quote’s inclusion in the book, I thought the context might be worth republishing here. I also remember vividly the circumstances under which I wrote the article – late one night, the following February, in Andy’s Pub in downtown Oslo, emptying a few large glasses of beer as I went. Reading it now, I think that shows…

Arhinmäki & Stubb

Paavo Arhinmäki (L) and Alexander Stubb at Midem in Cannes, 2013

Have you ever played football against Alexander? I ask the question of Paavo Arhinmäki, Finland’s Culture Minister, as his government colleague the minister for European Affairs Alexander Stubb stands a few yards away posing for a photograph on the roof of a Cannes hotel.

Now, I’m no David Frost, but I think it’s one of the more astute questions of my interview with Arhinmäki. It’s also the last: I’m about to walk over and begin on Stubb. These two Finns might be members of the same government – they’re also pretty much the same age in political terms – but that’s where the similarities end. Ideologically, physically and linguistically they are poles apart. ‘He hasn’t ever played football,’ says Arhinmäki, glancing upwards at the altitudinous Stubb. ‘He’s a hockey guy.’

Of course he is. He would never play football, would he? Just look at him. He’s far too clean-cut. Stubb is famous in Finland and Europe for sporting achievements far beyond kicking a ball on a flat piece of grass. He’s competed in marathons, triathlons and Ironmans.

As he hops up onto the balcony wall for the photographer, he looks chiselled and immaculate in a pale-blue striped blazer. With that single item of clothing he’s gauged the tone and geography of the occasion and nailed it. Perhaps the most impressive part is that he’s come to the French Riviera straight from the World Economic Forum in Davos. He must have packed that pale-blue blazer before he left Helsinki eight days ago. That’s the sort of foresight a good foreign minister needs. That’s the sort of thing that prevents world wars.

If Stubb is the smooth-talking, media-savvy, soundbite-literate and undeniably impressive international politician, Arhinmäki is your clever mate who’s done extraordinarily well for himself. Talking of soundbites, I’m immediately surprised by the first one Arhinmäki offers me. Try this for size: ‘The culture minister before me Stefan Wallin was probably the best or one of the best and I’m probably one of the worst Culture Ministers ever.’

He refers, of course, to the fact that Wallin was in the enviable position of being able to dole-out huge funding increases to cultural institutions, while Arhinmäki is being forced to do the opposite. His cuts are generating angry column inches in arts-loving Finland, but anywhere else in Europe (with the possible exception of Germany and Norway) they’d be seen as fair game: a few brown Smarties dutifully removed from the top a still rich-and-chocolatey cake.

Even so, if I’d got Maria Miller to admit she was ‘the worst culture minister ever’ I’d have a front-page headline on my hands (despite the fact that the statement is self-evidently true).

It isn’t that Arhinmäki doesn’t know how to deal with a naïve-looking music journalist out of his depth sandwiched between two politicians, it’s actually the opposite. He wants to disarm himself early on in the interview.

That way, when I ask what his favourite arts event of the last year has been, he can immediately draw on his special advisor’s brief – knowing that I have a finger in the pie of a major classical music magazine – and say it was the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance at the Musiikkitalo in Helsinki. Tadaa: a neat, back-door and quasi-international routing of those Finnish commentators who have accused him of wanting to dismantle Finland’s extraordinary operatic/orchestral infrastructure.

That’s a little unfair, given the fact that Arhinmäki immediately goes on to reel off a varied list of events starting with Pulp’s Finnish debut (‘I met Jarvis Cocker’) and finishing with a self-arranged view of a private collection of Lichtensteins and Warhols.

What Arhinmäki also does very well is see-off my rather pathetic attempt to align certain elements of musical performance (ie, ensemble singing and playing) to the ideologies of the left. ‘I have had culture as a hobby all my life, and many of my best friends, they are actors or painters’, he says. ‘But it’s not my role to say what is good art and what isn’t. We don’t know in this day what is going to be important art for a whole nation in 50 years.’

He does lurch to the left as part of that statement, but only to cite and criticise the far-right True Finns party, who would only fund artistic projects rooted in Finland’s Golden Age that are ‘easy to understand’.

In the end, Arhinmäki defends those elements of Finnish cultural life which are so humbling and inspiring to people like me who love the arts but particularly enjoy watching operas and listening to orchestras. He points to the issue of engagement: ‘the main idea in our whole cultural policies [sic] is to try to get as many as possible to enjoy all different kinds of art and culture.’

It’s not Arhinmäki’s list of cultural experiences from the last year that strikes you – impressive as it is – as much his emotional and intellectual reactions to them. ‘Patriarkka [Juha Jokela’s play at Finland’s National Theatre] was a discussion about different generations and their political ideas. When I was watching it, I was the whole time wondering what I’m doing, am I doing everything right and wrong about my family, and things like that. It’s very important that it’s that way, you can feel it.’

And so to Stubb, who smoothly slips in a reference to literary hero Elias Lönnrott (he who compiled the Kalevala) when I ask him whether the epic poem – celebrating its 150th year in English this year – has a hand in shaping the everyday life of modern Finns.

Turns out he thinks it does, but only in general terms and in an international sense (a recurring theme): ‘every country has its Kalevala’. I must have missed England’s 736-page poem that takes in incest, fratricide and the formation of the earth through the cracking of an egg on the knee of a semi-submerged woman.

Stubb has far less tenuous things to say about work-life balance – in fact, he delivers a frank admission that takes me back almost as much as Arhinmäki’s ‘worst minister’ protestation. ‘I’m home at five-o-clock when I’m back in Finland,’ says tamed capitalist Stubb. ‘I think it’s bullshit to do long hours to be honest.’

Is that how the Finnish workplace operates? ‘It’s a generation thing. In the olden days you had a whole bunch of politicians who did long lunches, long dinners, and had a certain lifestyle and basically ignored their families. Nowadays, if you look at my Prime Minister and myself, both of us have young kids, and I have to set some rules. I’m away from home for the better part of 4 months a year, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend [the remaining] evenings in cocktail parties or dinners or something.’

That’s not all. Stubb made his name as an economist before entering centre-right politics, and he’s no idiot when it comes to numbers. He’s stumbled Pythagoras-like upon the truth that you can divide very one of earth’s days into three parts of eight hours each: ‘you work for 8 hours, you play for 8 hours, and you sleep for 8 hours’, he tells me.

It’s the sort of statement – especially when delivered in piercing January sunshine on the shores of the Mediterranean – that gets you thinking; that has you inadvertently mapping out a new blueprint for your own life.

That – as well as the moment he pulls out his yellow Nokia Lumia 920 and begins to enthusiastically take me through its features (an experience I last enjoyed at the hands of a deluded individual in an O2 shop in Streatham) – is what I’m left with after meeting Stubb. I’m not even going to tell you what he said about David Cameron. That was quite revelatory, as it happens…but I’d rather you remembered the 8+8+8 theory.  



I’ve amassed hundreds – thousands – of photos from my travels around the Nordic countries. Only one was good and relevant enough to be included in the finished edition of The Northern Silence – the image of Sade Kamppila and Viivi Roiha I took during Silence Festival in Kaukonen (Plate 6).

Here I’ll post some more, each with some relevance to the text itself.


Chapter 1, Landfall, describes my first visit to the fjords of western Norway, when the whole area was so shrouded in mist I could hardly see a thing. ‘Only on subsequent visits could I fill in the blanks: the colossal peaks, sheer hillsides and serene snaking fjords’ (p.13).

This shot is from one of those subsequent visit – made three years later in September 2009. It’s a view of the Stalheim Canyon, from the coach that takes visitors on a winding mountainside road from the village of Gudvangen to the fjordside town of Voss.

Sauna party

The sauna party at the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival (p.31) was an experience I will never forget. Until you’ve spent an entire night at one of these parties, I’m not quite sure you can really comprehend the combination of wildness and oneness with the earth that lies at the heart of the Finnish psyche.

I was with another British journalist at the time, Jonathan Wikeley (known these days as an organist, choir-trainer and music editor). He has his back to the camera in this first photo, taken at around 3am. A few hours later, just before we made it to bed, we took this shot using my camera’s timer, sitting at the end of the little jetty that heads out into the lake. Looks like I still have a ‘sauna beer’ on the go.



The first paragraphs of The Northern Silence – from the opening chapter, Tapiola

From the glass walls of Helsinki Airport, Finland’s forests resemble a dado rail separating the horizon from the sky. But the country’s ancient woods are different. They are altogether more inhospitable, inaccessible and unkempt. They don’t start or finish; they come into being and drift elusively away again. The deeper you venture in, the more their base rhythm shifts. Those neat forests harvested for timber and pulp in suburban Helsinki are clipped and consistent. Finland’s old-growth forests are sprawling and unruly, littered with glacial boulders and standing pools.

            I am clambering through one such forest with two Finns, Pekka and Esa. We are on the outskirts of the town of Pietarsaari, high on the country’s west coast in the district of Ostrobothnia. It is late November, around midday. The sun has emerged, but will remain visible for a few hours at best and will cleave resolutely to the horizon while it does. Its position there actually makes the forest lighter: rays filter sideways through the trees, particularly near the forest clearings where no canopy can interrupt them. I have not experienced this particular kind of light in a wood before. It illuminates millions of tiny particles in the air. It is bracing and embracing, a visual equivalent to submersing yourself in lake water.

            Pekka Hako is a musicologist, folklorist and educationalist from Helsinki and wants to talk about this distinctive late autumnal light. He is a bear of a man, unmistakably Finnish from the drooping legato of his spoken English to his high cheekbones and Nokia gumboots. He mentions the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, born not far from here. ‘Aalto tried to recreate this effect in many of his buildings,’ Pekka half-shouts as he walks some metres ahead, negotiating rocks and dodging squelching mud, gesticulating with his left arm to signal he’s speaking. ‘He considered the sun’s position at latitudes like this and tried to find ways of getting its light to infiltrate buildings in the same way, using latticing and panels. He wanted just the quality of light we have here.’

            Aalto wasn’t the only one. This lustrous, piercing sideways light leads me to music – to the last major piece for orchestra by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. In Tapiola,[i] Sibelius created what seems on the surface to be an orchestral depiction of Finland’s spirit of the forest, as set out in the country’s folkloric poetry. At its simplest, Tapiola can be interpreted as a journey deep into one of these woods. It carries with it the heaving undertow of forest winds and creaking trees. It makes oblique references to mystery critters lurking in the half-darkness. It saturates your ears with a sense of the unseen and the unknown. It disorientates at macro and micro level: underneath the orchestra’s elusive twists and turns, the entire musical structure sits uneasily in its own key.

            Despite the fear and foreboding, Tapiola eventually comes good. In the score’s final bars, the orchestra reaches outwards in an almost physical embrace. Its string sections divide and spread-eagle, alighting on notes just far enough apart to affect the musical equivalent of a damp, luminous glisten. The music shifts key for the first and only time – into the major. As an evocation of autumnal Nordic light momentarily filtering through forest trees, the final bars of Tapiola get closer than Alvar Aalto ever would. We are left with the reassuring impression of the forest as a foe turned friend.

            After those crepuscular chords, Tapiola disappears into the silence from which it emerged. Sibelius would do the same. For more than thirty years following Tapiola’s first performance in 1926, the composer wrote little he deemed fit for public exposure. Were the warning signs there? Tapiola has only one half-melody, itself built mostly from repetitions of a single note. Despite that valedictory shift from minor to major, the piece effectively remains within the confines of a single key, a design feature almost unheard of in music at the time. The whole score is alarmingly short on actual musical material. Little wonder silence followed Tapiola. As one musicologist has written, ‘Sibelius reduced his music more and more until, in the end, there was none.’[ii]

            Silence, it’s tempting to speculate, had proved itself too intrinsic a part of Sibelius’s musical language for him to resist embracing it fully. Or perhaps, from his home in the woods, he let it embrace him. The composer had explored the eloquence and energy of silence in plenty of works before. In some, he uses it more obviously. But in Tapiola, silence is the natural state over which each and every sound treads discourteously, right from the rumbling kettledrum with which it sneaks into being. Here, Sibelius uses silence not as a rhythmic lubricant or a dramatic device pitched in counterpoint to extreme noise. Rather, it lies under each and every note, like the inaudible breathing of the forest. Playing the silence, the best conductors know, is how to play Tapiola.

            Silence is more prominent in the northernmost reaches of Europe, in urban as well as rural environments. Sometimes it is real and pure. Sometimes it lingers despite the noise – the deafening silence of poetic fantasy; stasis charged with ferocious thought. Like the forest of Tapiola, it can exist internally as well as externally. Sibelius’s life after Tapiola was filled not with silence, as legend dictates, but with attempts to fill it – with a world of stillborn noise ultimately suffocated by a silence more powerful.

[i] Tapiola refers to the realm of Tapio – in Finnish mythology, the god or ‘spirit’ of the Forest.

[ii]  Goss, Glenda Dawn (2009). Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.