Ib Nørholm: Symphony no. 3, op. 57 ‘Day’s Nightmare’

performed by the Odense Symphony Orchestra under Edward Serov

(please note that the ‘third symphony’ on YouTube is actually his first. That’s an error. It’s a nice piece, but not the one we’ll talk about today. There’s no video available of this work that I could find.)

Ib Nørholm was born on 24 January 1931, and is still alive.

He studied with Vagn Holmboe at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, continuing that fine line of students from Gade to Nielsen to Holmboe and onward, because he himself began teaching there at the age of 50.

His Wikipedia article begins describing his work by saying “Initially, Nørholm’s music was very much in the tradition of Carl Nielsen, as exemplified by his first symphony (1956-8).” As one would assume with the qualifier ‘initially’, that didn’t last long. He was apparently “deeply impressed by his experiences of the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and others at the ISCM in Cologne,” and experimented with graphic scores and serialism, later simplifying and paring down his work into a more straightforward ‘new simplicity’. In total, he’s written a dozen (actually 13, by now) symphonies, a concerto each for violin and cello, chamber works, and some operas.

That being said, there’s a question to be asked about choosing a piece from the composer’s earliest period and saying “Here, this represents this composer,” as an introduction. Sure, it’s an important starting point at least, but it’s a matter, I suppose, of what you’d like to highlight.

In any case, since Nørholm is still around, some of his most recent symphonies are very recent, his 11th and 12th having been completed in 2008 and 2009, the new 13th even more recently. But for now, we’re going to step back in time a few decades to his third. I will say here that it was a bit difficult for me to choose between the first and third. The first is immediately interesting, charming, and very worth a listen or five, but ultimately I decided on the more recent and slightly more mature third symphony.

I have an impression of this piece, from the English subtitle it carries, of being a kind of more modern, Danish answer to Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica, if only in concept. I searched high and low but was unable to find any program notes, liner notes, anything describing this interesting title for the work. One could assume it’s self-explanatory, and it appears that it’s the best we can do, because there’s very little around about this work. The most I can find referring to it directly is here, which says “A Day’s Nightmare – his most compact symphony to date, in a single movement – is concerned with the routine of the daily cycle.”

The overall arc of the work is one that begins with quiet serenity, increasing energy and tension and then ultimately a resolution of that tension and a calming down, much like the trajectory of an average day, no?

The opening paints a shades-drawn sunshine, a series of sweet melodies in strings that get more and more shades of color, as oboe, trumpet, flute enter the picture. Oboe and flute are respectful of the quiet morning routine, but a trumpet breaks through the fuzzy peace of half-wakefulness.

I think there maybe isn’t a lot of need to explain this piece step by step. Listen for that beginning contour, the shape that the strings present at the opening, like drawing the curtains in a dark room, and see if you can follow how it, or something like it, moves through at least the beginning of the work. That might be a bit too straightforward and programmatic for this piece, but it’s something, isn’t it?

Wait for a thump from the timpani and see how the color of the work instantly changes, but how the opening ‘curtain’ figure reappears. That oboe line also comes back, and the trumpet with its little diminutive fanfare… all of these things are glimpses and flashes, maybe memories, throughout the day. I talk about this like I know what the symphony is trying to communicate. I don’t. But it’s something, and no matter what it communicates, there’s a sense of unity in this single-movement work, which shouldn’t be too hard for a symphony coming in at under 20 minutes.

For a work that seems so transparent, there’s lots of contrast, some outbursts of violence and chaos, especially a central section featuring trombones and percussion that gets increasingly more menacing, leading to frantic, unsettling lines in the strings, and these two elements battle for a while. Even in the more aggressive passages, there still manages to be a softness, an almost impressionist sound to the music, although this is clearly not of Debussy’s pen.

I don’t mean to belittle this work, because it’s a piece in which its composer shows a talent for treatment of material, for tonal color and orchestration in a logical, engaging way, but I can almost see this being a wonderful composition for the next Fantasia series. I don’t know what cartoon would go with it. Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice was pretty literally done, but Respighi’s piece was set to whales dancing. I think that’s a compliment. It’s vivid music.

Listen toward the end of this work how all the individual threads are presented almost simultaneously, the little gestures and pieces we heard not forgotten, not appearing and disappearing, but building toward something.

Do you hear the harp? It brings with it peace, and a brief silence before the opening motif, now softer, tired-sounding, reappears and although we’ve heard it here and there, it’s back now, with a violin solo; it sounds nostalgic, quieting down to the final sighs of the piece before fading to nothing.

While this symphony may seem like one relatively small single gesture, an unbroken one-dimensional narrative, it has wonderful strengths in the way it does it. There’s a conciseness to its content, strong use of contrasts, vivid orchestral color, with solos and different textures as the piece swells and shrinks. You might even be able to divide its 19 minutes into movement-like sections; although they don’t pause or stop, there is certainly a scherzo-like section, however brief. Overall, though, I’d say the strongest attraction to this work is an observable modernness in its harmonies that stands out above the first symphony. It’s not harshly dissonant, not cacophonous, but clearly very modern, and that creates a supple kind of fragrant quality to the work.

The first symphony is nice as well, very enjoyable to listen to, but there’s much more unique about this work to share, and to think that it dates from 1973, when some of you readers were already born! That’s outstandingly modern for a symphony, which is super cool. I have peeked ahead at some of Nørholm’s other work, and I hope eventually to get around to more of it.

For now, though, there’s only one more work left in our Danish December series, and it isn’t a symphony, making this very piece our last symphony of the series, and of the entire year of 2016That’s a scary thought, isn’t it? Perhaps it’s fitting, though, to end 2k16 with a symphony that has the word ‘nightmare’ as a subtitle. It’s not the last piece, though; there is one more Danish thing coming, and if you’ve seen anything lately about awards or ‘best of’ albums, you should know who and what is wrapping up our Danish December, so stay tuned.

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