Finn Høffding: Symphony no. 3, op. 12

performed by the Jena Philharmonic Orchestra under Frank Cramer, a world premiere recording, or below by the Danish Composers’ Society

Niels Finn Høffding was born on 10 March 1899 in Copenhagen. He studied under a person I wanted to introduce earlier, but hadn’t the occasion: Knud Jeppesen. We’ll get there momentarily. Høffding moved to Vienna and studied with Joseph Marx for a year or so starting in 1921. Some of his works began to gain notice in Denmark shortly thereafter. He spent some time studying folk music, and established the Copenhagen School of Folk Music in 1931, in which year he also began teaching at the Royal Danish Academy. We will speak of one of his students, Vagn Holmboe, later this week.

(I digress for a moment to speak of Jeppesen. He was a Danish composer, obviously, but primarily a musicologist. He studied under Carl Nielsen, but also studied musicology at Copenhagen University with Angul Hammerich, brother of Asger Hammerich [Hamerik]. Of Jeppesen’s compositions, among them a string quartet I wanted to include but could never find a recording of, Wikipedia says, “Jeppesen’s early efforts at composition were poorly received and he turned away from composition in 1919, only to resume after a fifteen-year hiatus.” It seems he later became most known for his Danish songs, but Wiki also says “His style incorporates his knowledge of early counterpoint but also the style of late Viennese romantics including Gustav Mahler, to whom he was introduced by [Guido] Adler.” Small world. So thanks to him for teaching Høffding and Holmboe, but enough about Knud Jeppesen.)

Back to Høffding. In total, he wrote four symphonies, two symphonic fantasies, two string quartets, a wind quintet, and some other stuff, as well as “several theoretical treatises.”

Today’s work exists in a very poor-quality recording of a radio broadcast from who knows when, but hey, it’s better than nothing. Thankfully, we now have Cramer’s recording, which I swiftly purchased. I’m coming to appreciate Dacapo more and more for their outstanding program notes and composer bios on their website, this recording linked above. Of the work, they begin by saying:

The Third Symphony exhibits the incipient influence of the New Objectivity of the 1920s: it was written in 1928 for 40 musicians in four distinct movements on a classical model. With the use of the piano in a prominent role and a transparent soundscape with audible contrapuntal part-writing he distanced himself in it from the Romantic orchestral sound.

I don’t know what the New Objectivity’s influence would have been, but it is surprising that the work is for only 40 musicians. The model is quite classical, and one of the most noticeable things is the use of the piano, as mentioned above. The sound world is dark, not bleak, necessarily, but both Sibelius and Shostakovich can be heard here, and I’d say more of the latter. It’s not a work of outright bitterness or sorrow, but there are certainly grey or at least deep blue overtones to the piece.

The piece begins with solo piano, with woodwinds and brass entering shortly after, and there’s an ominous shadow to the work, accented by the color from percussion and piano, which hammers out strong chords here and there, almost against the orchestra in the manner of a concerto. The work builds to near-tragic heights, with piano serving as much of the backbone, snare drum emphasizing a dark militaristic nature. The first movement is an engaging first chapter of the work, a convincing play of light and shadow, not contrast for contrast’s sake, but a heartfelt, meaningful development of thought.

The second movement is broader, more sparse, a pensive, quieter movement, still underpinned by the piano. It’s beautiful writing for this orchestra, but a stronger pulse emerges from the lower end of the orchestra, and what unfolds is a quiet intensity, a slow burn, one of the most compelling movements of the symphony, a show of Høffding’s skill as a composer. It doesn’t bowl you over at first listen, but slowly grows on you as you realize its enormous depth and strength. It ends ominously, trumpet and piano fading away to nothing.

After that, the two movements that follow, together, are only slightly longer than the second and longest movement of this symphony. The third and shortest movement is suddenly light, with repeated notes on piano under clarinet and flute, in the manner of a Shostakovich scherzo, without as much of the maniacal. It’s light and friendly sounding, but at least to me, there’s something still mildly unsettling about it. It has a neoclassical transparency and clarity to it, quite different from what we’ve heard so far, and it may just be everything before it that’s casting this lighter chapter in a darker light. The piano still plays a pretty central part in this movement, and this is the first place where any chamber-like nature of the aforementioned 40 players really shows through. There’s even some kind of marimba or xylophone that makes an appearance, and we see a lighter, more colorful side of the composer’s palette, but suddenly, just like that, it’s over.

The final movement begins ominously, again with piano, but it’s quickly, if only briefly curtailed by another motif. See if you can recognize in this movement a figure that sounds to me hopeful, almost heroic, if it were allowed to grow to its full potential. It’s made of dotted notes that rise in a stepwise fashion, and it appears here and there throughout the finale.

There’s a moment of abrupt, weirdly ethereal dissonance in a melody played by the piano, about halfway through the work, after which follow echoes of the third movement, but darker, quotes and bits of what came before, a captivating glimpse of the work in its entirety. The work closes with a muffled bang, nothing spectacular, nothing gushingly Romantic, neither celebratory nor catastrophic, expressive, somber, but discreetly so.

I’ll admit I gave this work a number of listens, some quite passively, before I started to realize it was growing on me in a big way. Høffding plays an important role as a connection between Nielsen and Holmboe, who we’ll be meeting later in the week, so I wanted to include him, but after having heard (only) this third symphony, it makes a compelling argument for being one of the most unique, moving, well-crafted symphonies I’ve heard in recent times, and from out of relative nowhere. I know Nielsen, I know Holmboe (a bit), but I’d never heard of this great Dane, the link betweent these two great names. The title ‘orchestral works’ for a CD that doesn’t contain his other three symphonies makes me wonder about their status: published? inferior? I don’t know, but today’s symphony is a very fine one indeed, certainly one of the highlights of the month. Give it some time, warm up to it and see if it doesn’t begin to speak to you. gensyn. 

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