Nordic wine in English wineskins

The Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota releases a historic recording

A collection of Grieg songs in Translation by Melissa Holm-JJohansen and Stephen Swanson

Photo: Christopher Phillips
The new, historic recording of Grieg’s art songs in English features Norwegian-American soprano Melissa Holm-Johansen and American pianist Stephen Swanson.

WILLIAM H. HALVORSEN
Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota

The Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota, a program of Norway House, recently completed a very exciting project: the creation of a professional album of songs by Edvard Grieg sung in English. Titled Edvard Grieg: Songs from the Heart, it features Norwegian-American soprano Melissa Holm-Johansen and American pianist Stephen Swanson. The recording was made in late August at the Landmark Center in St. Paul and will be officially released on Nov. 15, available for purchase from Norway House, online at Amazon.com, and on several streaming services.

The historic importance of this recording cannot be overstated, for it will be the beginning of the fulfillment of a dream articulated by Grieg himself, as early as 1875.

Grieg’s Dream

Grieg aspired to reach an international audience, and early in his career, he realized that to do that, he needed to get his Scandinavian song texts translated into other languages. In 1875, therefore, he arranged with the distinguished Leipzig music publisher C. F. Peters Verlag to publish most of his Scandinavian songs in German translations. Grieg was fluent in German and thus was able throughout his career to work with German translators until they achieved a result that was acceptable to him. It was his hope that, since German was one of the great international languages, these translations would be used as the source for translations into other languages.

The composer had the pleasure of hearing his songs sung in German many times during his life, and to this day the German versions of some of his best songs appear regularly in concert programs in the German-speaking world. As a matter of fact, one sometimes even hears German versions of his songs in recitals in this country.

But in English? To my knowledge, the first public concert devoted exclusively to a professional performance of Grieg in English did not occur until Jan. 20, 2019, when three American artists—soprano Maria Jette, baritone Alan Dunbar, and pianist Sonja Thompson—presented a concert titled “Grieg’s Favorite Songs – Sung in English” at Norway House in Minneapolis. It was the enthusiastic response of the audience at that concert that led to the decision to launch the Norway House album.

Siblings, not identical twins

As the creator of the English versions of the texts that will be used in this album, I want to say a few words about song-text translations. Essentially, the translator must package the sweetness and potency of the Norwegian words, as if they were a fine Nordic wine, into new English words, which become the wineskins that preserve them both—and it is a challenge.

A poetic, singable version of a poem in a language different from the original is more than merely a translation. A translation is a restatement of a written or spoken text in another language; Norwegians call this an oversettelse. One can ask of a translation, does it preserve the exact meaning of the original, adding nothing, and omitting nothing? In the case of a poetic text cast in poetic form in another language, the answer to that question is almost always negative. To create a singable text, one must create a poem that preserves the meter, the rhyming pattern, the mood, and the poetic beauty of the original without departing farther than necessary from the literal meaning of the original. In Norwegian, there is a different word to denote this kind of translation: gjendiktning.

In the case of a text that is to be sung, the new poem must fit the pre-existing music. (For example, you wouldn’t want the word “soaring” to appear in a descending passage, or the word “depth” to appear on a high C.) The process whereby one attempts to achieve this result is more than translation: it is re-creation. The original poem and its counterpart in another language are siblings, not identical twins.

The original poems that constitute the lyrics of the songs in Edvard Grieg: Songs from the Heart include some of the finest products of ten Norwegian and Danish poets of the 19th century (including Hans Christian Andersen, Henrik Ibsen, and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson). The original texts are in three languages: Dano-Norwegian (the predecessor of today’s bokmål), New Norwegian (landsmål/nynorsk), and Danish.

The songs selected for the Norway House recording include many of the ones that Grieg himself chose repeatedly for his public concerts in all the major concert venues of Europe and Scandinavia. The album is now available as a CD and will soon be available in downloadable formats. It will introduce these beautiful songs to audiences for whom the Scandinavian texts have thus far been an insurmountable barrier.

Let me give just one example. The concluding song in the album is Grieg’s setting of “Ved Rondane,” a beautiful poem by Norwegian Romantic poet A. O. Vinje. Rondane is the name of a spectacular mountain range in central Norway. “At Rondane” is, however, more than a descriptive nature poem. For Vinje, the breathtaking scenery looming before him provided an occasion for reflecting on his life. Many readers of The Norwegian American will be familiar with Grieg’s unforgettable setting of this text.

At Rondane – Ved Rondane
Translated by William H. Halverson

Again I see majestic peaks ascending,

So like the ones I saw in days of yore;

The cooling breeze my fevered brow befriending,

The sun-tinged snow lies golden as before.

A gentle, child-like voice to me is calling,

It stirs my memories and gives me joy;

The thoughts of youth with this sweet voice are blending,

I scarce can breathe, entranced by views unending.

Yes, life embraces me as in life’s morning

I saw ’neath melting snow first green of spring.

I dream today as in life’s early borning

Such peaks and skies inspired my soul to sing.

The trials and stress of life are all forgotten

When evening grants one final glimpse of sun.

I know that I will find a place to rest me,

When soaring peaks and setting sun have blessed me.

One final comment: The substantial cost of creating this historic recording has been financed entirely by voluntary contributions from individual donors and supportive organizations, all of whom are listed in the CD’s liner notes. We are especially pleased that all four of our sister Edvard Grieg Societies—the Edvard Grieg Society of the Dakotas, the Edvard Grieg Society of the Great Lakes, the Edvard Grieg Society Inc. (New York), and the Northwest Edvard Grieg Society—have lent their support to this project.

In the midst of the sadness and ugliness of a worldwide pandemic, Melissa and Stephen and all of the people who have made this album possible have created something of lasting beauty—and as English poet John Keats has taught us, “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” This artistic triumph is an illustration of what can be accomplished when a community of like-minded individuals unites to pursue a common goal.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

William H. Halverson

Dr. Bill Halverson, scholarly advisor of the Edvard Grieg Society of America, Inc., is regarded as one of America’s leading authorities on the life and work of Edvard Grieg. His translations of Grieg’s writings (letters, diaries, articles, speeches) and of books about Grieg and his music are major sources of information about Norway’s greatest composer in the English-speaking world.

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