The music of the Hameriks as presented on this CD is totally absorbing and quite fascinating. It deserves to be widely known. I must confess that until reviewing this disc I had never listened to any of their music - in fact I had only heard of Asger and did not know he had a musical son. But that, surely, is one of the joys of our lifelong journey of musical discovery.
Listen to this disc - at least twice. Ask yourself -'Does this music deserve obscurity?' 'Is it less deserving of note than a thousand works by better known composers?'
Let's take a brief look at the Hameriks and their music.
Asger was born in the town of Frederiksberg, near Copenhagen in 1843. His father was a professor of church history at the capital's university. However it was on his mother's side that the connection with music was most obvious. She was related to the Hartmanns and to the Hornemans. We have already reviewed a disc of music by the Hartmanns and I think I mentioned there how that family was related to Niels and Axel Gade and also to August Winding. So his musical credentials were ideal.
He spent four years studying musical theory and piano followed by much practical advice from Gade and Winding. He travelled to Germany, studying with Hans Von Bülow and then France. During these travels he became friends with both Wagner and Berlioz. European wars made his life somewhat difficult and caused him to be unsettled. He lived and worked at various times in France and in Italy. Eventually, his growing status as a cosmopolitan composer was recognised by the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore. He was to be director of the conservatory there for some 27 years.
In 1900 he returned to Denmark where he composed little and enjoyed a tranquil retirement.
He died in 1923, aged eighty.
A brief look at his catalogue in the current Grove reveals quite a large output. There are three operas, including La Vendetta that was in the form of a one-act opera. This form was to be used by Mascagni and Leoncavallo in their most famous works. There were seven symphonies, five Nordic Suites for orchestra, and a number of shorter orchestral pieces. There is a Requiem that has a reputation for being a masterpiece, much choral music and a corpus of chamber works.
The two works we are presented with on this CD are representative, perhaps, of his output; the Jewish Trilogy and the Concert Romance for Cello and Orchestra. I say 'perhaps' because after listening and reading about Asger it becomes imperative that we have one of the Nordic suites or even one of the symphonies for evaluation.
The Jewish Trilogy was written in 1868. My advice to listeners is to 'read what the sleeve notes say about this work and then put the 'programme' onto the backburner. Not because it is irrelevant, just because I think it may detract slightly from some very fine music.
The opening of this work is masterly. It is begins quietly with an almost Mahlerian tonal instability. Soon the pace increases with a lovely wistful tune on the strings. One is immediately conscious of Berlioz - and this is hardly surprising as they were close friends.
At times, I confess, there is an operatic feel to some of the first movement. Then suddenly this clears and we are conscious that Hamerik père was a fine symphonist. There is a clarity of orchestration that many composers would envy. The listener feels that Asger is a master of instrumentation. Sometimes we feel that the music of Beethoven is not too far away. Every so often a beautiful tune appears - sometimes only a snatch of a tune - as from nowhere. Melody was so important to this composer.
The second movement is quite gorgeous. It is a Lament - subtitled 'dirge and consolation.' Here, I admit we need to know that this is a 'Jewish' work. There is a big melody that has all the hallmarks of a 'Yiddish' melody. It is well presented, never quite lapsing into sentimentality. Various textures of orchestral accompaniment are applied - the bassoon is used to great effect, with an attractive solo. The second half of this movement is just gorgeous. Hamerik excels himself here. It is beautifully paced, harmonised and scored. This is a movement that would be popular on any 'slow movement' compilation. Do not be put off by the operatic feel to this section - just enjoy the tune!
The last movement is based on an old Jewish melody which tradition states was sung by the Children of Israel as they crossed the Red Sea. Once again Hamerik uses this tune with great effect. He does not just play it over and over again and louder (vide Constant Lambert's criticism) - he uses it as the thematic basis of an excellent well constructed last movement.
The Trilogy is almost a symphony. Many lesser composers would have billed it so. It lasts nearly twenty minutes, is well structured and is scored for a large orchestra. Yet in reality it is a work derived from incidental music for a play called the 'Rabbi and the Knight' by Meir Goldschmidt. Waste not; want not.
The second piece by Asger, the Concert Romance for Cello and Orchestra is a 'wee' gem. It was written whilst the composer was on holiday in Copenhagen and was first performed in 1879 in Dresden. It is a beautifully understated piece. One of these works that you wish would go on forever. Much of it written in waltz time, but this does not lessen the impact. It is a piece that all cellists should have in their repertoire. I accept that it is not a 'masterpiece' in the accepted sense of the word. We are sometimes all to eager to look for masterpieces in every composer. Sometimes we miss works that are just fun and enjoyable in our search for works of genius or for step changes in musical style. This Romance is a case in point. Lovely melodies (especially the main theme) interesting harmonies and good part writing - both for soloist and for the band. One of these pieces that cheer the heart and refresh the soul.
If I were to sum up the music of Asger Hamerik it would be to say that he is obviously a Danish Composer who has been influenced by many developments outside his native land. Berlioz is an obvious candidate, but Wagner perhaps as well. Of course, his relations - the Gades and the Hartmanns were influential too. However, until we have more music to listen to any view must be provisional. Come on Danacord - how about some of the symphonies. I am convinced that they must be well worth an airing!
As I mentioned earlier there is no 'lesser' or 'greater' Hamerik. Ebbe is the perfect match to his father. Vastly differing in style and compositional format, Ebbe ought to be regarded as an important composer. Yet I am convinced that, like his father he is virtually unknown outside of Denmark. When I let a friend of mine hear the two works by Ebbe, she was convinced that they were lesser known pieces by Stravinsky!
Ebbe Hamerik was largely self-taught as far as compositional skills are concerned. True, his father passed on his skills in musical theory and most importantly in orchestration. He studied conducting under Franz van der Stucken. Much of Ebbe's career was spent conducting the Royal Theatre Orchestra in Copenhagen, the Musikforening and the Danish Royal Symphony Orchestra. He was keen to include twentieth century works in these groups' concerts. Works by Bartok, Ravel, Falla, Kodaly, and of course Prokofiev and Stravinsky were introduced to the Danish musical public. He spent time as a conductor in both Austria and Germany. After he a period of military service in the Finnish Winter war of 1939 when Finland fought Russia, he returned to Copenhagen where he began to spend more time as a composer. He died in 1951 due to drowning at sea; he had a passion for solitary sailing on the Kattegat.
Ebbe Hamerik's main musical contribution seems to have been in two principal directions - opera and symphonic works. The catalogue lists five operas including Marie Grubbe, written in a nationalistic Danish manner, through to the experimental Drømmerne - which is unusual in the sense that it is an opera with no singing. All the text is spoken with orchestral interludes. The Royal Theatre rejected it, although it has since received a few performances.
One of the numbers in Marie Grubbe became popular during the war when Denmark was occupied by the Germans; it became a sort of patriotic anthem and a national hit!
The two works on this disc seem to me to be an ideal introduction to the music of Ebbe. True, I have already noted that he was not even a name to me before hearing this CD. However, after reading about the composer and discovering that he specialised in symphonies it is useful to have presented to us his final essay in this form. Furthermore, by recording the largely neo-classical Oboe Concerto we are enabled to see another side of this composer's ability. Both works were written within a year or so of each other. Although they are recognizably from the same source they are quite different in content, texture and sound.
The programme notes provided with this CD goes to some length in describing the symphony; it would be disingenuous of me to repeat all this discussion. However a short resume or précis would be helpful for the listener.
The Cantus Firmus V or Symphony Breve is the last of Ebbe's five symphonies. There is a tension of styles between the format and the sound. There is no doubt that we have a tonal adventure typical of the mid twentieth century. Yet the structural format is an old one - looking back to the polyphonic composers of the past. Unity is given to the work by the use of a 'cantus firmus' - or fixed song. This has the effect of allowing the composer to be both economical and inventive. The entire work is based largely on one theme. However, this music is worked and reworked in a variety of different ways - both within movements and across movements. Perhaps in some ways it is easier to understand this symphony as a passacaglia or a chaconne.
The orchestra for this symphony is extremely large - with all the typical additions of the twentieth century -including vibraphone, xylophone and celesta.
The music itself is truly interesting. Although it is 'modern' it never looses its sense of melody and the harmonies are expressive rather than aggressive. There is movement of emotion from neo-classical through to almost romantic tension. The listener is certainly never conscious that this is constructed to a highly cerebral plan. It is fascinating music, extremely enjoyable and in many passages quite beautiful. If this work were by any number of twentieth century composers from Europe or the United States it would be hailed a masterpiece - and this is not just whistling in the wind. I challenge anyone who is partial to mid century music to listen to this symphony and not be totally impressed. It is wrong to say it is like this composer or that composer. Ebbe has found his own quite unique form for a symphony and has produced a work that is manifestly his own. Yet Prokofiev, Stravinsky and even Britten are often called to mind. There is also a considerable connection with much music that was being composed in Scandinavia at that time - Holmboe for example.
The Oboe Concerto is quite beautiful too. Once again there is a clear influence from Igor Stravinsky. This is no bad thing, of course, for Ebbe has produced a lovely three-movement work that is at once attractive and interesting. It should be in the repertoire of all oboe players who usually complain of a lack of useful concerto pieces to play.
The work is full of good tunes and catchy rhythmic devices. The piece was not completed by Ebbe Hamerik at his death and was left only in a piano score format. It was ably orchestrated by Svend Christian Felumb. (1898-1972) The programme notes suggest that this conductor and oboist 'upped' the Stravinskian content of this piece and does not represent what the composer would have done with the scoring were he to have survived. Who can tell? It is a good work that deserves to be played and heard.
As usual with Danacord the production and sound quality of this CD is excellent. The programme notes are fascinating and helpful bearing in mind the paucity of information about, and understanding of, these two composers.
The playing is superb - all credit to the oboist for a haunting performance of the concerto and to the cellist for a convincing presentation of Asger's Concert Romance. This piece could so easily be played in a manner that did not take the work seriously.
I am left, as so often with lesser-known composers, of wanting to hear more. Perhaps Danacord may produce some of Asger's Nordic Suites and maybe even a couple of his symphonies. Is there room for his Requiem? As for Ebbe, I feel that we ought to have the symphonic cycle available to us. It is surely a part of Danish heritage that ought to be represented in the catalogue by at least one version.