Similarity and diversity

130 years of Nordic Music Days


Networking among Nordic composers was never the result of a mystical force or an official mandate. Rather, such pursuits have celebrated the internal diversity of the Nordic countries from the very first. 

Text: Kimmo Korhonen

“A four-leaf clover means good luck, and I am particularly happy to welcome Finland on board.”

These contented sentiments were voiced by Carl Nielsen in his ceremonial address at the Nordic Music Days in 1919. Finland had only recently become independent [1917] and was now able to join her Nordic siblings – Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The previous editions of the Nordic Music Days had been held by those three countries amongst themselves in Copenhagen in 1888 and in Stockholm in 1897.

The 1919 Nordic Music Days have come to be regarded as one of the high points in the festival’s history. It marked the last gathering of the ‘old guard’, with figures such as Sibelius, Nielsen, Stenhammar and Kajanus in attendance. The mood was one of bright optimism for the future.

Yet at the next two festivals, in Helsinki in 1921 and in Stockholm in 1927, tensions emerged. These were fomented between the countries by critics in particular. After the Stockholm festival, Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, known for his scathing reviews, wrote in Dagens Nyheter that “nationalism, that hobby-horse of small and mediocre minds, played a greater part than ever”. He ended his article by noting that “of course, no one dared mention the real elephant in the room, namely that one should not celebrate when there is nothing to celebrate”.

What was this all about? Was the Nordic four-leaf clover wilting so soon? Was the grand cooperation built on sand? Was the idea of a special Nordic kind of music a mere myth?

In light of the subsequent history of the Nordic Music Days, Peterson-Berger’s parting shot was wide of the mark. What he saw as “nationalism” was actually diversity within the Nordic countries. After the Second World War, Iceland joined as the fifth member, and the irregularity of the early years was eventually replaced with a regular cycle of festivals. From 1948, the Nordic Music Days were held every other year in each member country in turn, until finally the festival was made an annual event, which it remains to this day.

With roots going back to 1888, the Nordic Music Days is one of the world’s oldest art music festivals. What makes it special is that it is first and foremost a festival for composers, the Council of Nordic Composers having been the principal body behind it since the Second World War.

Natural artistic sympathy

From a distance, it is easy to perceive the Nordic countries as a homogeneous group. They are geographically adjacent, their histories intertwine in multiple ways, their societal ideals are largely the same, and there are also linguistic links between them.

But zooming in, one can find considerable differences between the countries. Each has its own identity and its own cultural features. Even at the very first Nordic Music Days in 1888, the point was probably more to bring related yet distinct national brands of music to the same table than to foster a ‘common Nordic’ style.

Even before the first Nordic Music Days, there had been cooperation between Danish, Swedish and Norwegian choirs, complete with joint festivals. This also coloured the 1888 festival, which featured not only a pan-Nordic orchestra with more than 100 members but also a pan-Nordic choir with no fewer than 554 singers. Nordic composers and musicians have been crossing borders, working in other Nordic countries and forming bonds ever since the 19th century, and it is scarcely surprising that such close relations should give birth to grand festivals.

When Edvard Grieg was a twenty-something budding musician living in Copenhagen in the 1860s, he was encouraged by his Danish colleagues J.P.E. Hartmann and Niels Gade in his notion of developing a national Norwegian style of music. Grieg later reflected on his time in Copenhagen, contrasting it with his sojourn in Leipzig: “I was stuffed full of Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Wagner, and it was as if I needed to find some elbow room and to breathe in a more personal and independent atmosphere.”

Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen also spent time in Copenhagen, providing inspiration to the young Carl Nielsen. The young Sibelius, in turn, was inspired by Grieg to pursue a career in composition, even if he subsequently took a very different path. Sibelius inspired several Swedish composers, among whom Wilhelm Stenhammar championed Sibelius and Nielsen while he was conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. And so on.

Many more such chains of inspiration and influence may be found. They all grew from a mutual affinity and natural artistic sympathy rather than any outside edict proclaiming the creation of a common Nordic spirit.

This artistic sympathy stemmed in part from the geographical reality of the Nordic countries being located far on the periphery of the traditional core regions of European musical life; this remoteness may in itself have led the Nordic countries to band together. Also, musical developments in the Nordic countries were largely parallel, separating from the German mainstream style in the late 19th century and developing national brands of Romanticism – the sort of “more personal and independent atmosphere” that Grieg referred to.

The ideal of smooth cooperation

Rumblings about “nationalism” that emerged in connection with the Nordic Music Days in the 1920s persisted into the 1930s. Bo Wallner wrote in his grand review of Nordic music, Vår tids musik i Norden (Music of our time in the Nordic countries, 1968), that when Neo-Classicism began to dominate in Denmark and Sweden in the inter-war era, Finnish music began to seem increasingly alien. Questions were raised about whether Finland belonged to the Nordic cultural sphere at all, and when Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony was performed at the Oslo festival in 1934, it was described as containing a “Cheremis” feel [referring to a Finno-Ugric people in central Russia today known as the Mari]. Wallner retorted by noting that in that case one might as well have asked whether Denmark belonged to the Nordic countries. Was it not, in fact, the last outpost of continental Europe towards the north?

The situation described by Wallner illustrates that while developments and emphases in music have diverged between the Nordic countries, these divergences are not divisive but a richness. Today, similarities and differences between the Nordic countries are no longer appraised in ‘national’ terms; composers may differ from one another quite as much within one country as between countries.

As a festival, the Nordic Music Days has migrated from the defining of national aesthetics and differences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries towards the more practical approach and smooth cooperation of the post-war era. In a way, the Nordic Music Days embodies the same idea as the joint Nordic embassy complex in Berlin – a miniature village of buildings reflecting similar societal values, together in a single walled compound. In this increasingly fragmentary age, this pooling of embassies sends a strong message of political coordination, similar to the message of cultural cooperation incorporated in the Nordic Music Days.


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