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Royal Norwegian Navy Band/Bjarte Engeset
rec. 2019, Torpedoverkstedet, Karjlohansvern, Horten NORWEGIAN ARMED FORCES FMK2001 [54:48]
Even the most ardent pacifist might, I’d guess, find it challenging to stop tapping a foot to the likes of A life on the ocean wave, The Radetzky march or Entry of the gladiators, for there is something undeniably appealing about a march. Nonetheless, with the very word itself deriving from Mars, the Roman god of war, there’s also a darker, more morally conflicted side to consider too. Thus, while we might, these days, admire – or, at least, benignly ignore – a neighbour with a fanatical interest in, say, string quartets, we’d probably consider one obsessed with militaristic music to be somewhat odd, more than likely to embrace a range of unpleasant views and generally to be avoided. Even Herbert von Karajan learned that lesson to his cost when his 1970s LP of Prussian and Austrian marches became widely known as ‘Nazis on parade’.
With that self-evidently close link between marches and war, archaeological and other evidence confirms that, throughout history, armies have often been augmented by contingents of musicians. As integral parts of formations en route to conflict, bands played music that was sufficiently rhythmic to ensure that all soldiers kept pace and that there were no stragglers. It was also important that the army’s morale be maintained by generally cheerful and upbeat tunes, though more stirring numbers would no doubt have been belted out fortissimo to boost the troops’ levels of aggression as they moved into battle itself. Marches have thus served a very practical function in the conduct of war.
With such a historical background, it’s not surprising that most of the track titles on this new CD have associations with warfare. One – Arnhem – relates to a specific campaign. A couple acknowledge individual military figures, with Norway’s commander-in-chief saluted in Honorary march of King Haakon VII and a certain Lieutenant General Rolf Rynning Eriksen immortalised in Our commander. Incidentally, if you were wondering why I haven’t included a third name that appears in the contents list, it’s because Colonel Bogey turns out not to have been a real-life battlefield hero but merely an apocryphal golfer whose moniker was popularly given to a score of one-over-par.
A few more tracks - the Honorary march of the 3rddragoon regiment, the Old infantry march and the Valdres march which takes its name from a battalion of that name – celebrate specific army formations. Others, meanwhile, touch upon such military themes as the importance of duty and enlistment (Step up!), celebration of the flag (National emblem, Fluttering banners) and soldiers’ fond memories of the girls they’ve left behind (Farewell of Slavianka). As you’d also imagine, a selection of such pieces performed by a Norwegian navy band doesn’t ignore the important contribution to the war effort made by sailors (Anchors aweigh, Shore leave).
To be entirely honest, however, in spite of all those militaristic or jingoistic titles, when it comes to the music itself there’s nothing here that’s terribly bloodthirsty in tone. If, indeed, you listened to most of these tracks blind, you’d probably guess they’d been written for Waterloo station’s public address system with the aim of encouraging reluctant commuters to stop dawdling and get a move on.
Such a supposition reflects the fact that, over the last couple of centuries marches have increasingly lost their almost axiomatic association with warfare. As a result, fewer of today’s listeners are likely to think of them as accompaniments to conflict than as the hand-clapping climaxes of New Year’s Day concerts. We have, it seems, moved considerably on from the world of Karajan’s goose-stepping Junkers – a welcome transition that’s quite overtly reflected in some of the other tracks. Thus, Allan Johansson’s Holmenkollen march of 1917 takes no notice at all of the First World War’s bloody offensives and instead celebrates that year’s Oslo skiers’ festival. Exactly twenty-five years later at the height of the World War II, Gustaf Sundell’s rather jaunty Towards brighter times explicitly rejects violence in favour of a more optimistic faith in humanity’s future (the composer, by the way, maintained his positivity to the end, even penning a Joy of life march in his tenth decade). A few other tracks explore similarly pacific themes. Josef Ullrich’s notably up-tempo Astronauts’ march of 1955, for instance, acknowledges scientific progress and the imminent era of manned space exploration. And let’s not forget Sam Rydberg’s Vivu Esperantu, written just a few years before the Second World War for a convention of Esperanto speakers – who, as far as I’m aware, had absolutely no plans to bomb Pearl Harbor or launch a Blitzkrieg on Poland.
Paradoxically enough, given the limited space available on ship for sailors to practise marching, it’s the nautical numbers - the jaunty Shore leave and Anchors aweigh - that I particularly enjoyed. The latter enjoys an inbuilt advantage, for I suspect that its familiar earworm melody may well be the only music on this disc apart from Kenneth Alford’s Colonel Bogey and Edwin Bagley’s National emblem that’s already familiar to most non-Scandinavian general listeners. Shore leave, however, is a rather more interesting composition (“unusually rich and varied in musical expression”, according to conductor Bjarte Engeset’s very useful booklet notes). Written to mark a band director’s retirement from the armed forces, its trio section suddenly veers off in a suitably civilian direction, the new mood somewhat reminiscent of a soundtrack to one of those old 1960s Look at life cinema featurettes (“Welcome to Oslo, icy jewel of the north…”)
As for the rest, it must be conceded that listening to 18 marches in quick succession (none reaches even four minutes in length) allows few of them much of an opportunity to make a distinctive impression. As well as Shore leave, I rather enjoyed the Valdres march, the quirky Honorary march of the 3rddragoon regiment (though it’s a piece in desperate need of a snappier title), Fluttering banners and Awakening. I also had a soft spot for Farewell of Slavianka, even if its notably upbeat tempo leads one to suspect that the abandoned girl might not have been too reluctant to see the back of her soldier boy after all. All those choices are completely subjective, however, and other listeners may just as easily come up with a completely different selection.
Every march is performed with both full commitment and, as you might expect, exact military precision, while the quality of the recording is first class. Celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, the Royal Norwegian Navy Band offers, on this disc, compelling proof of its ongoing musicality and skill.
Øyvind STRAND (b. 1956) Landlov (Shore leave) (2017) [3:57] Johannes HANSSEN (1874-1967) Valdresmarsj (Valdres march) (1904) [3:42] Albert Edward KELLY (1914-1994) Arnhem (1956) [3:32] Sam RYDBERG (1885-1956), arr. Gösta Morberg Vivu Esperantu (1933) [2:54] Vasily Ivanovich AGAPKIN (1884-1964), arr. Jan Eriksen Proschaniye slavyanki (Farewell of Slavianka) (1912) [2:53] Edwin Eugene BAGLEY (1857-1922) National emblem (1902) [2:58] Oscar BORG (1851-1930) King Haakon den VII’s Honnørmarsch (Honorary march of King Haakon VII) (1905) [3:20] Erling MOSTAD (1913-1966) D.R. III’s Honnørmarsj (Honorary march of the 3rddragoon regiment) (1962) [3:47] Josef ULLRICH (1911-1976), arr. Gerald Weinkopf Astronauten-Marsch (1955) [2:27] Gustaf SUNDELL (1900-1993) Mot Ijusare tider (Towards brighter times) (1942) [2:41] Kenneth J. ALFORD (1881-1945) Colonel Bogey march (1913) [3:29] Allan JOHANSSON (1900-1982), arr. Østen TOFT Holmenkolmarsch (Holmenkollen march) (1917) [2:17] Trad., arr. Øyvind Strand Gammel jegermarsj (Old infantry march) [2:05] Charles A. ZIMMERMANN (1861-1916) Anchors aweigh (1906) [2:53] Viktor Magnus WIDKVIST (1881-1952) Fladdrande fanor (Fluttering banners) (c. 1930) [3:11] Åge Gerhard HERMANSEN (1932-2005) Vår kommandant (Our commander) (1974) [2:28] Stig Rune FREDRIKSEN (1954-2006) Step up! (1984) [2:51] Václav VACKÁR (1881-1954) Probuzeni (Awakening) (?) [3:11]