Ketil Hvoslef – Violino Solo III (2013)
(b. Bergen, 19 July 1939)
Ketil Hvoslef 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 140 compositions to date. Hvoslef is always motivated by restrictions and 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 to date.
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.
VIOLINO SOLO III is a rare example of a piece Hvoslef wrote of his own accord, that is, without a commission. In 2012 he had written a work for wind band (L’Homme Armée) and found himself with some unused material that he deemed appropriate for a solo violin piece, which he decided to write for me. I had, by that time, loved Hvoslef’s music and played it in several countries for some twenty-four years, so that perhaps qualifies as one of the longest auditions in music history. Joking apart, in a presentation before one of the performances I gave of the piece he said that he considered that I enjoy a challenge, so he wrote this piece for me with that in mind. The piece is, indeed, challenging. Of the three works he has written for solo violin (Violino Solo, 1980; Violino Solo II, 2009 and this one) so far, this one is the most technically demanding.
I gave the first performance of the piece on May 27th 2013 during the Bergen International Festival. Hvoslef revised the piece several times in the following years and I premiered the final version of the piece on February 12th 2018 in a recital at the Grieg Academy in Bergen.
In Violino solo III Hvoslef adopts a formal approach by which the music evolves from one event or emotional state to the next rather than trying to achieve cohesion by developing and restating material (although a very small measure of the latter also takes place). It is a hallmark of this work that Hvoslef frequently uses breath marks (commas) in between short phrases or even individual notes. It is obvious that he is more interested in the intensity of the moment and in the presence of each note than in a Romantic sense of flow. It is up to the listener to “join the dots” and make sense of the piece as a whole. Tellingly, he writes “interpretando” right at the beginning, next to the metronome marking. Known for the strongly rhythmical character of his music, in this work Hvoslef wishes for the performer to take the necessary time in order to make the music fully expressive. Each musical gesture must be given the time to be completed, even if it entails eschewing a steady pulse. The most obvious example of this is in the espressivo passages on page 4: the low, staccato double stops are quite different from the short expressive legato lines, and both must be given time to stand in full relief. Hvoslef has jokingly (or perhaps not; it’s not always easy to tell) said that the most important lesson he learned during his composition studies in his youth was to write “ca.” next to the metronome markings. This remark becomes particularly relevant when dealing with Violino solo III.
The piece begins almost tentatively, as if reluctant to “leave the nest”, unsure of which octave to hang on to. By the bottom of page 1 it has become more self-assured, opening up for the unsettling passage (meno mosso) in pages 2 and 3, where unpredictable accents and melodic flourishes seem intent on throwing the two-note (D-Eb) ostinato out of kilter. The aforementioned espressivo sequence follows, interrupted by an almost ostentatious double-stop 7-note pattern (second and third systems of page 4). A short sequence of eighth-notes that meander around one another in small intervals at the bottom of page 4 brings back some of the indecision of the opening (in a different form) on page 5. At the bottom of the same page a curious process takes place: to pizzicato voices (one static, the other alternating between two notes) cross each other; one becomes louder while the other stays soft before the process is reversed. The listener is made to follow closely this balancing act before the music becomes more lyrical, albeit somewhat short of breath in the a tempo section on page 6. After so many individual gestures and short phrases, Hvoslef now gives us the first properly long melodic line of the piece, beginning at the top of page 7. Soon, however, this seamless line becomes disturbed, first by a single intruding note (A) then by clusters of four notes. In sharp contrast, the next section (beginning at the bottom of page 7) is played pizzicato and it contains plenty of long silences. This pizzicato music engages in conversation with what could be called the only proper theme of the piece: a melody played tremolo and accompanied by bell-like left hand pizzicatos, beginning on the fifth system of page 8. Eventually the pizzicato lines gain the upper hand before the bow returns with a nervous theme marked “frettoloso” (hasty) and played ff (bottom of page 9). After so much built-up energy we are led to expect the grand emotional culmination of the piece. However Hvoslef plays with our expectations by making the music suddenly softer each time the theme rises in pitch. This happens three times before we are finally indulged by a long crescendo and a melodic rise finally reaching the high register. The earlier soft tremolo theme is now played (non tremolo) two and a half octaves higher at full volume, with the pizzicato tolling bells now consigned to the bottom string. Mirroring the decreasing indecision of the beginning of the piece, the music now gradually loses heart, descending in both pitch and dynamic, finally reaching the bottom of the instrument. The last impression, however, is an ascending triplet (also an echo of the beginning) marked “innocente”. I had remarked to Hvoslef that all three of his solo violin pieces end with the open bottom G string. In order to break the pattern he introduced the aforementioned triplet. It also offers a glimmer of hope after the rather sombre music that immediately precedes it.
Incidentally, at around the time of the final revision of this work Hvoslef abandoned the practice of using accidentals on notes tied from a preceding measure.
Ricardo Odriozola, 4 January 2019