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(b. July 19th 1939, Bergen)
ORGAN WORKS – Vol. 1
First performance: Oslo Konserthus, 29. September 1986
First performance: Oslo Konserthus, 23. September 1997
Ketil Hvoslef was born in Bergen on July 19th 1939. He is the youngest son of Harald Sæverud and Marie Hvoslef. He arrived at a propitious time, since his birth coincided with the completion of Siljustøl, the great mansion in the outskirts of Bergen where the Sæverud family settled and where his father lived until his passing in 1992. It also proved to be a haven during the Nazi invasion of Norway in the Second World War.
Being the son of a great composer, music was naturally very present during his upbringing. He learned to play the piano and the viola and, in his teens, he became heavily involved in Bergen's jazz and pop music environment, becoming a member of what was, reportedly, Bergen's first rock band. Hvoslef (who retained the Sæverud surname until his 40th birthday, when he decided to adopt that of his mother) had, however, plans to become a painter and took serious steps in that direction. It was in the Bergen Art Academy that he met the painter Inger Bergitte Flatebø (1938 - 2008), who would become his wife and adopt the Sæverud surname.
With the birth of their first child, Trond, in 1962, Hvoslef realized that he needed to provide for his family and, abandoning his dreams to become either a pop star or a painter he took an organist's diploma at the Bergen Music Conservatoire. Upon finishing his studies, he was offered a position as theory teacher at the Conservatoire by its director, the legendary Gunnar Sævig (1924 - 1969).
Hvoslef became a composer almost by accident. In his 25th year he composed a piano concertino for his own satisfaction. Shortly after, his father passed on to him a commission for a woodwind quintet he had no time or inclination to write. Since then Hvoslef has received a fairly steady stream of commissions and his work list counts with some 160 compositions to date. Hvoslef always enjoys a challenge and he has often written for unusual or seemingly "hopeless" instrumental combinations, always using the limitations of the ensemble as a stimulant for his imagination. He has written for large orchestra, for a great variety of chamber ensembles and for solo instruments. He has composed twenty concertos and three operas.
He was the Festival Composer in the Bergen International festival in 1990 and has received several prizes such as the Norwegian Composers' Society's "work of the year" in four occasions (1978, 1980, 1985 and 1992) and TONO's Edvard Prisen in 2011.
Hvoslef's music is characterized by great transparency and by a conscious building of tension achieved by accumulating latent energy. He wants his listeners to lean forward and listen rather than sit back and be lulled into a reverie. Listening to a Hvoslef composition is always an adventure. One never knows what to expect. He stretches sections of the music almost to breaking point and only then introduces a new idea. His music has a classical clarity and transparency and is therefore always easy to follow. Although his highly personal and concentrated language is very much of its time, Hvoslef is not averse to using material that is recognizably tonal (such as major and minor triads) albeit always in a context that sets these familiar sounds in conflict with their surroundings. Rhythm is a very prominent aspect of Hvoslef’s music. Although the vast majority of his production is notated in 4/4 metre, his rhythmical patterns almost never conform to it, always favouring patterns of odd-numbered notes.
Ketil Hvoslef is, without a doubt, one of the greatest composers to emerge from Scandinavia in the second half of the Twentieth Century and one of the truly original masters of our time.
ORGAN WORKS – Vol. 1
With this new series, Amethyst Edition aims to publish Ketil Hvoslef’s works for organ that still remain in manuscript form. These are Påskevariasjoner (‘Easter Variations’ – 1986), Revidert Åpenbaring (‘Revised Revelation – 1991), Passacaglia (1997) and Chiese di Roma (Churches of Rome – 2015-2017)
This first volume includes Påskevariasjoner and Passacaglia.
One common denominator for the four works that feature in the series is that they were all commissioned by and written for the Bergen-based organist Karstein Askeland (b. 1963). We are very fortunate to count with his assistance in these editions, which he has meticulously proofread. His help with registrations and correct organ-related terminology has been invaluable.
Hvoslef belongs to a generation of Norwegian composers and musicians whose higher music education resulted in an organist diploma. He has, therefore, an intimate knowledge of the technical and expressive possibilities of the instrument. His first work for the organ was Orgelvariasjoner – Organ Variations from 1972 – which he does not consider to be fully satisfactory. Six years later he would salvage the work’s main theme in his 7-flutes miniature Ludium (mph 1977). His first consummate composition for the instrument came in 1974 with Organo Solo, the third in a series of works for solo instruments designated by their Italian name (Flauto, Tromba, Organo, Violino etc.)
After a gap of twelve years Hvoslef again turned his attention to the organ. The occasion was the debut concert by the, at the time, 23 year old Karstein Askeland.
The composer writes:
Central to the work is the old Latin Easter sequence "Victimae Paschali Laudes". I have divided the sequence into three sections, each of which demarcates a new movement. The melodic material of the sequence itself is not subject to variations, but instead furnishes the basic material that affects the overall musical fabric of the work.
As Hvoslef points out, the sequence is quoted verbatim (although only in full at the very end) several times but always against a harmonic background that does not correspond to the melody’s tonal centre. Otherwise, elements of the ancient sequence serve as cells that Hvoslef develops throughout the work.
The three sections or movements Hvoslef mentions are to be played without interruption.
The music begins with murmurings in the lower register, soon complemented by a tonal two-part chorale that rests on an F pedal note before reaching a soft Db Major chord in first inversion. The murmurings rise to the higher octaves, reaching a high E, whereupon the DbM is played at full volume. The sequence, in D Dorian (or perhaps Aeolian: both are plausible since the sixth degree of the scale is absent from the melody), is heard for the first time, played softly against a gradually rising DbM harmony. Then the variation work begins: Hvoslef retains the number of notes of the melody’s different phrases but compresses the intervals into melodic snippets of very narrow range (bottom of p. 7). A section dominated by kaleidoscopic figures deftly conceals an augmented version of the compressed theme (pp. 10-11) while the pedals play a longer version of the same in eighth-note figures. The volume rises up a notch or two and a continuous row of intervals – hinted at by the pedals six measures earlier – is played at three different speeds (bottom of p. 11 – top of p. 13). The next five pages are dominated by arpeggiated figures that act as a backdrop for diverse staccato comments from one manual in conversation with legato replies from the pedals. On p. 16 the manuals engage in conversation on top of an underpinning “walking bass” figure. The ensuing section acquires the character of a moto perpetuo. At the top of p. 18 the first manual breaks free only to get stuck on a sonic “wasps’ nest” soon joined by the Latin sequence, now played in F# Dorian/Aeolian against a pedal C. The gentleness of the melody eventually helps the top line to descend, ultimately reaching an abrupt stop at the bottom of the keyboard. This opens the door to the piece’s main second section, which begins in the manner of a stately procession. At first the soft music is clearly in C# Aeolian soon losing its tonal centre on top of an otherwise reassuring, low sustained C# drone that will stay in place almost to the very end of the movement – together with a sustained G natural an octave and a half above it. Seemingly out of nowhere a high, short C# appears (p. 21). It is repeated, always on the offbeats, at two-beat intervals above the free-atonal polyphony of the three middle voices and the sustained pedal C#. It then disappears as unexpectedly as it had shown itself, only to reappear 11 measures later (p. 22), now at three-beat intervals. By this point the music has settled into a slow polyphonic ostinato of sorts. The two-beat distance between the star-like twinkles is reinstated, eventually petering out as the processional heard at the beginning of the movement is now played in G# Aeolian. The long-held pedal C# is now substituted by a held G natural an octave above the original one. This second section of Påskevariajoner easily qualifies as one of the most profound moments in Hvoslef’s output. Although his music is often characterized by great rhythmic vitality, Hvoslef has a unique way of creating passages of deep calm and introspection that incite alertness rather than lethargy.
The previous pedal C# provides the link to the work’s final section. On top of the drone we hear gentle strands of “angel music” (pp. 23-24). After a short pause, the music suddenly becomes raucous, driven by a vigorous dotted motif played in hocket fashion between the hands (pp. 24-25). After 11 measures of this, Hvoslef introduces sharp dynamic contrasts by alternating between the manuals, one soft and one loud (pp. 25-26). Eventually the music becomes quiet, in contrast to the way it began. A new walking bass figure is introduced at the bottom of p. 26. A delightful series of ephemeral motifs ensues, including a charming echo effect (bottom half of p. 27). In a feat of virtuosity, on pp. 29-30 the organist is asked to hold a low drone with his left foot while playing a melody – partly related to the Latin chant – with his right. All this while maintaining the sprightly dialogue of dotted rhythms with the hands, including unpredictable changes of manual and, therefore, dynamics. On p. 30 the hocket is shared by both hands and the feet, now at full volume. This leads to the apotheosis of the piece: a passage of great sonic density that begins at the bottom of p. 31 and continues to the top of p. 34. The right hand alone breaks free and plays a quick ascending line, ending on a high E – as in the first movement – followed by the ponderous DbM chord in first inversion we heard earlier in the piece. Hvoslef considers that that chord sounds particularly powerful on the organ. He used it on another Easter-themed work, the opera Barabbas and its subsequent orchestral relative Barabbas (Opera Without Singers). An echo of the DbM chord is heard as Victimae Paschali Laudes is played in full. The chord climbs as it did in the first movement. When the melody is ended, it stays on its final note, D. The pedals have the last word, with a slow descending line that ends on the lowest note of the organ.
When Karstein Askeland commissioned me to write a Passacaglia, he had in mind a companion piece to Bach's great Passacaglia in C-minor. Initially I did not meet this request, but eventually Bach's work with its familiar theme instead became a source of "strength and partly guiding stimulus".
Bach's theme can be heard at the opening of my work, in which I use three different themes with passacaglia character. Even though the passacaglia form has not been treated in a traditional manner, it has nevertheless been my intent to create a kind of unity that characterizes such a form.
The work opens with typical Hvoslef meandering eight-note figures. Amidst the haze these create Bach’s theme appears on the pedals in alto register with unpredictable note values. The end of the eighth-note figurations crosses paths with the beginning of the first Passacaglia theme: the opening fifteen notes of the piece played four times slower (last measure of p. 38). On the theme’s second pass this is complemented by a syncopated counterpoint in the left hand (p. 39). On the third pass, the theme is played in triple metre with the eight-note figures back into the mix, now joined by occasional sixteenth-note chromatics (pp. 39-40).
The second Passacaglia subject begins as a melodic contraction of Bach’s theme and ends with a folk-like cadence (last system of p. 40-1st system of p. 41). An 8th-note counterpoint continues as the theme is replayed on the pedals in a different key centre. This gives way to a fanfare of sorts, played in dainty Bach-like rhythms by the right hand on top of a long held drone. We saw this technique used occasionally on Påskevariasjoner. On Passacaglia drones are heard in five extended passages. The first drone – a B natural – stays in place for 41 measures, supporting a complex polyphony that eventually includes the “fanfare” material and the current theme played, mostly, in thirds. Hvoslef often steers away the listener’s attention away from the Passacaglia theme by giving the other voices prominent parts. This is the case on p. 44 where the theme in the pedals is obscured by the bustling activity of the hands. On the same page, at the end of the third system the theme disappears all together, with the feet finally joining the hands in their playful commotion. This ends abruptly and the top of p. 45 and the third Passacaglia theme appears in the pedals. At first it is hard to distinguish from the previous theme, due to its similar rhythm. The gentle texture grows from two to three to four voices. On top of a new drone, the theme wanders from voice to voice, finally returning to the bass in the second system op p. 47. At the bottom of p. 48 the right hand reinstates the first theme while the pedals play the second one, four beats apart. The left hand holds the strands together with its rapid triplets. After an abrupt stop another drone supports a high-temperature exchange between the hands, beginning with triadic triplets that turn into 16th-note tetrarchords. With the latter, the pedals take up the second theme in longer note values.
After another abrupt stop (top of p. 54) the texture again becomes sedate for a few moments. The two middle voices offer a new point of view on the second theme with the two outer voices barely reacting. The volume again rises at the bottom of the same page and will stay on the same intensity until the end of the piece. At the bottom of p. 56, after a sustained passage of continuous sound, the hands – playing repeated 16th-notes in parallel tritones – play in hocket with each other and the pedals, each playing the third theme in its particular tonal centre(s). For the final stretch of the piece, beginning on the last system of p. 57, the tritones stay in place but now hands and pedals – five voices in all – play their lines in sustained, legato fashion. The dynamic is fortissimo and the music acquires an almost overpowering grandeur. The scurrying 16th-notes return, ultimately propelling the piece to its final open E harmony. It is not at all common for Hvoslef to end a composition with such an unequivocally tonal harmony.
Naturally Hvoslef gives us a Passacaglia with a twist, or many twists. He uses three themes, rather than a single one. The themes wander from voice to voice and are not always audible in the texture. While the music is easy to follow, due to a clear sense of form created by juxtaposing contrasting textures, the listener is never sure of what to expect. This is very much in keeping with Hvoslef’s often stated intentions. The early exposition of Bach’s theme and the later adherence to the theme’s rhythm create a connection to both Bach and the Baroque style in general. It is a tenuous connection, however. By quoting Bach’s theme at the beginning Hvoslef creates an expectation that is not fulfilled. However, one can sense the presence of Bach as that of a distant observer, rather than an active participant. The Baroque figurations that appear now and then also contribute to reinforce this connection.
About this edition
Karstein Askeland is keen to point out that the registration indications are to be seen as general directions rather than fixed instructions. Each organist will find his or her ideal registrations based on the ones given in this edition and dictated by the instrument and church rooms in which the works are performed.
German preface not available ...
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