Ketil Hvoslef - String Quartet No. 4 (2007 / rev. 2017)
(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 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.
String Quartet IV received its first performance during the Bergen International Festival, on May 25th 2019, at a special concert celebrating Hvoslef’s impending 80th birthday. The performers were Ricardo Odriozola and Mara Haugen (violins), Ilze Klava (viola) and Ragnhild Sannes (cello).
The work has an interesting background. The composer writes:
“In the absence of a commission in 2007, I thought that the best way to fill thatabsence was to try and write a new string quartet, mostly because string instruments have always stimulated my imagination. On the cover page I wrote ‘To whom it may concern’. I then put the score at then bottom of a drawer. The thought behind this was that someone (maybe in a hundred years’ time) would find the score and cry ‘Look! I found a new string quartet!’ A
couple years ago the need suddenly arose to fill a time gap in a planned CD production. I found my quartet effort from 2007 (at the bottom of thedrawer), changed it a bit, added a bit and, behold, the result was my string quartet no. 4” *)
The recording project to which Hvoslef refers is the 9-CD project undertaken by the record label LAWO, covering Hvoslef’s entire chamber music production. It began in 2013 and the final recordings were made in June of 2019. At the time of this writing the first six CDs are already available. The final CDs in the collection are expected to have seen the light of day by the end of 2020. String Quartet IV will be heard in volume 8.
Tellingly, Hvoslef says nothing whatsoever about the music in the text above, which I asked him to provide in connection with this edition. As a spiritual heir of sorts to Stravinsky, Hvoslef (whose music does not at all sound like Stravinsky’s) lets the music speak for itself. He has said that, when composing he is only able to think in musical terms. Any extra-musical associations that may be made are entirely up to the listener, and were never present at the time of composition, although sometimes a picture or a situation will spark an idea for a work.
String Quartet IV is a prime example of a composition that works on solely musical terms. In it, one senses that Hvoslef is (as in the old Hatfield and the North song) “choosing notes to see if they make friends”. The two fortissimo (i.e. as loud as possible) 16th notes at the beginning set the music in motion and act as a common denominator throughout the piece. Hvoslef insists on the players stopping the bow on the string every time that figure appears. The initial outburst is set in contrast with the muted mumbling of the pianissimo (i.e. almost inaudible; a much beloved expression for Hvoslef) viola and cello. Many different situations occur along the way. At times the quartet splits into two pairs of instruments, each pair minding its own business (see measures 39-52). At other times, although the entire group works in rhythmic conjunction, the violins move in contrary motion to the viola and cello (see mm. 160-188). The section between measure 60 and 94 had Hvoslef burst out laughing the first time he heard it in rehearsal. The segment is akin to watching an extremely focused ping-pong doubles match, waiting for the first error to occur; except it never occurs. Instead the four instruments coalesce at the end of measure 94, opening the door to a completely different situation: a succession of solos (played in parallel thirds) supported (or perhaps challenged) by tremolos. This also ends in agreement (mm. 113-116), again leading to a new scene: a charming duo between violin 1 and viola, consisting of a succession of chords, one long and one staccato, on a background of a long-held third on violin 2 and laconic staccato comments from the cello. Then, without warning, a mad hocket section occurs between measures 132 and 159, finally breaking into fragments. Passages of melodic unison also occur, such as between mm. 196 and 204. The section between mm. 274 and 288 is particularly remarkable: it begins as a fortissimo unison (in the same register) where the instruments, one by one become softer, finally revealing the line played pianissimo in parallel clusters.
There are only two solos, in the traditional sense. The first is given to the first violin in mm. 15-23. Here, as in the above mentioned unison passages, we can enjoy Hvoslef’s exquisite sense of melody. Hvoslef’s melodies are objectively beautiful in the same way that the contours found in nature are beautiful. They do not respond to human, subjective conceptions of beauty. Neither are they necessarily “singable”, but they are beautiful nonetheless.
The second solo is given to the viola 217-253. It begins gently, with the violins providing a somewhat kaleidoscopic support and the cello back in laconic mode. The viola suddenly turns aggressive (marked aggr. in measure 242) bringing the others with it in the most energy-charged passage of the work (mm. 253-273).
A new idea appears at measure 307: an identical melodic line played by the violins and viola (each in its octave), entering in succession at different speeds. They finally meet on a unison E flat (m. 320). From here begins a typical Hvoslef “wasps’ nest” section: angry rapid cluster outbursts interspersed by long, soft unison notes. Then the “wasps” become soft and the long notes become loud. This goes on for 27 measures, after which the melody first exposed in m. 307 reappears, now played simultaneously by violins and viola, each at its own speed. The dynamic swells create a somewhat inebriated feeling. The cello finally emerges from its long drone and gives its version of the melody. Suddenly in measure 368 (321 measures after the only pizzicatos heard in the piece to that point) the second violin and the viola introduce a pizzicato theme, played in contrary motion. The first violin and cello soon join, creating a joyful four-part counterpoint. There is something strangely familiar about this theme: the rhythm of its first two measures is identical to that of the first two measures of Bach’s arch-famous Double concerto in D minor! (as indeed are the opening four notes in the viola).
After a brief pizzicato and arco alternation, the piece concludes with a typical Hvoslef “corale sospeso” where the upper strings play a succession of wistful chords separated by pauses, on top a long held cello note. The work concludes with the opening two-note motif softly played twice by the whole group.
In this quartet Hvoslef has, yet again, managed to create a work that is both delightful and challenging. A piece of music that delivers each of its unexpected turn with poise, humour and elegance.
Ricardo Odriozola, Svelvik, July 27, 2019
*) Email to Ricardo Odriozola. July 24th 2019.