LARS JOHAN WERLE and his "VAGGSÅNG FÖR JORDEN" (Lullaby for the Earth)

Published: 2001-09-19 by Stellan Sagvik

A composer’s conversation with Lennart Hedvall (First published in Musikrevy no. 7/8, 1987. Translation George Kentros)

It is late summer 1987, but on this September day we can sit out in the garden and converse. About the winds of musical life right now, and shared memories from the “good old days.” Our thoughts cross each other’s, and it feels like just yesterday that we last saw each other, even though it has actually been several years. And eventually we gather around the agreed-upon subject for this interview: Lars Johan’s symphony, "Vaggsång för jorden” (Lullaby for the Earth), a piece dated “Vaxholm Febr-77” on the title page.

-This was my first piece after being given a job with a monthly paycheck as composer for Gothenburg’s Theatre and Concert Inc. Yes, that’s what it is called, and it encompasses both the symphony orchestra and the opera house. So first, I wrote a piece for the orchestra; then I wrote “Animalen” (The Animal) and a ballet for the opera house, called, "Är gryningen redan här" (Has Dawn Already Come) and which is based on 18th century poems from Provence, translated by Evert Taube. I wrote “Vaggsång” from 1976-77, and it was premiered by Charles Dutoit and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra on April 6, 1977. "Animalen" was premiered in May, 1979, and the ballet in September, 1980.

That you were one of the first composers employed in this manner, on a monthly basis, was due to your success as a composer of musical drama. How was it to write for orchestra alone?
-I was a little out of practice, since I hadn’t written a purely instrumental work for several years at the time. I also noticed that I had difficulty collecting myself—I needed a starting point. And I found it, mostly by chance, in a poem by Gösta Friberg, a poem to which I had already planned to set music and that deals with what we are actually doing to our earth and our environment. It inspired me by making us ask questions like this: what happens with the swamps of Hälsingland when we cut down forests in Arizona? I never got the musical setting done, but I got the idea I needed for the orchestral work. And I also had a lullaby in my desk drawer, which I had written as a sort of working material for my students at the Music Drama School, where we often worked together and parallel to one another. They were given the task of setting texts to the lullaby to find out what music could express together with words, but afterwards, the lullaby had just lain there. That is what shows up as a simple lullaby in “Vaggsång.”

But this doesn’t form the basis of the piece, does it? It seems to drop in unannounced…
-The primary motive of the piece is entirely different, yes. It is the rather melancholy melody, mourning song or whatever, by a solo clarinet, that starts the work, and it is in fact the same melody that concludes it as well, though it is then in the cello and played backwards! After that, much happens before the lullaby shows up—the timbres which meet the clarinet melody and almost drown it, giving the outer contours more or less of a “profile.” The timbres are spread over rather large spaces, and used among other things as material for canons between the different instrumental groupings, sometimes collecting into a sort of line, and added to this is a bit of dramatising through the changing dynamics. That you find the entrance of the lullaby surprising is probably mostly due to the fact that it comes in at the point where one might expect a culmination, and instead, you experience a general muting, with an entirely new element added. And, of course, it is tonal, in contrast to the rest of the work, with a more or less traditional accompaniment.

But the lullaby does not continue later in the piece?
-No, it is broken down, you can say, by the threatening elements in the work: the timpanis literally break it into pieces. I remember that the conductor, Dutoit, asked if the timpanis should play so loudly, and I answered: “No, even louder!” The lullaby is dissolved into among other things wind motives, which to me feel like bird’s wings, in contrast to the dark “earthy tones” which surround this particular section. There are quite a few glissandi in the bassoons and trombones, which are rather ghostly. Then, the piece explodes into a new climax, and soon, a new, “broken,” section comes, with quick dynamic changes and new timbral meetings, colored by the harp, piano, vibraphone, and marimba—not least the piano part has been quite “active” earlier. Before the final climax, things collect into a shorter rhythmic model, after which the piece fades down.

You often speak in pictures, and have also given the work a “poetic” title. Is this a habit developed after all your work with words?
-If you mean something along the lines of “pure” music as opposed to “symbolic” or “storytelling” music, I have to admit that I have never understood what people mean with “pure” music—music has a sort of content, it is an expression one wants to achieve, and this can of course be described in “extramusical” terms. In the case of this particular work, I was very leery of the title, and it feels a bit pretentious, I admit it. But I couldn’t simply call it a “Symphony,” though I consider it a symphony—not because it follows any sort of symphonic scheme, but because it is a work with long lines and a dynamic whole. No, it had to have a title, and in its way, it is a sort of protest music—each day, we see everywhere the destruction which threatens the earth and all of us, and I don’t think that it’s inappropriate or pathetic or whatever you would call it when you point out this sort of mistake.

Pretty soon afterwards, you were given the opportunity to use words to expand on this message!
-In “Animalen” (The Animal), yes. And if we’re talking about what is appropriate or not, many people were shocked that I used pastiche, humorous pastiche even, and played with styles while dealing with such an important subject. But it was latent in the text—this was Tage Danielsson’s strength, to serve up bitter truths in a deceptively pleasant package. Most people took it as a good joke, before they quickly understood the very serious moral. Before subjects of great import, all thoughts of “style” must fall into the background, and a variety of styles allows more people to get the message. Creating working theatre must be more important for an opera composer than loyalty to a particular style, or even to being more or less avant-garde!

And you dared be sincerely sentimental, I remember that I myself felt that and appreciated it greatly!
Yes, it's actually quite strange that it is legitimate to compose fugues and other "fine" forms in older styles, or in a manner related to older styles, but not to associate to, for example, operettes or musicals!
-Yes, there are many biases in this area, and I have often been attacked for my “quotes.” I even became somewhat of an adversary with the concertmaster in Hamburg, who refused to play my “Mozart part” in “Resan” (The Trip). But he had to acquiesce in the end thanks to the conductor… But neither he, nor other critical voices, understood that quotes or other allusions can be a path to contact with the listener, and that quick contact with listeners must be established in a theatrical situation, where new impulses come quickly, one after another. I have always had a soft spot for these sorts of means—the ballad in "Drömmen om Therese" (The Dream About Therese) is the first example, and in ”Resan," there are several associations to different styles as well as quotes, and there was a pop group onstage, just to show that these “styles” were justified in the work! Also, the modern listener knows a repertoire which stretches from the baroque—and sometimes earlier—to new pop music. Why not, then, utilise this huge frame of reference? Of course, how one uses these references is quite important! Take, for example, the sisters in "Tintomara", who are characterised by a quote from the "Cosi fan tutte" duet where the girls compare the portraits of their boyfriends. What actually happens here is a double exposure, which I achieved through setting other timbres like a screen on top of the Mozart copy; in this situation it is meaningful, since the sisters are or are turning insane, and can easily see themselves as playing “roles.” On the other hand, I have also borrowed passages from my own instrumental music to paint certain atmospheres in my operas, and have therefore quoted from the “unknown me.” I took the second movement of my "Sinfonia da camera" to paint the autumnal graveyard scene in "Therese," and the murder scene in the opera took material from the third movement of the same piece. There are actually threads connecting “Lullaby” with “Animalen” also—the threat scene in “Animalen” (where the animals threaten humans) was taken directly from the symphony, from a section right after the lullaby has been crushed.

In many ways, you have broken all of the stylistic rules of the new Swedish music. How do you yourself see your development up to “A Lullaby for the Earth”? Have you changed much?
-First of all, I did not at first think that I would only dedicate myself to music. But I played jazz in high school, and wrote songs for our group, sometimes as many as one a day. And to hear immediately what you’ve written, well, it was a good schooling. I sang quite a lot in choirs, and when I studied music sciences at Uppsala, I shared the train ride with Herbert Blomstedt, Olle Ericson, and Ingemar von Heijne, so we used to sing madrigals together! Olle took me to his brother Eric’s “Smaller Choir,” after which I also sang in the Bel Canto choir, and I was doing lots of choir things at the time, and some stage music for choir—the Student Theatre’s production of Sophocles’ “Ajax.” And I was working on a huge orchestral project, a large work for bass solo and orchestra called “The Holy Way,” which was meant to be sung by Arne Tyrén and which just grew and grew, although I had exactly zero experience of instrumentation and how timbres blend. I showed it to Ingvar Lidholm, when I had started working for the Swedish Radio, and he told me to write something short and simple for, for example, four strings instead. And I did, and it became “Pentagram”. And the other piece, I tore almost all of it up… and "Pentagram" was a success, the first big one!

Yes, I know, because I was there for those memorable days at the Gaudeumus Week in Bilthoven. "Pentagram" was the first piece performed during the week, and it was awarded a prize as the best work during the first day. The impression stuck all week, and finally it was named the best piece of the entire festival!
-I guess it came at the right time, as the saying goes, with its at the time rather avantgardist Webern-timbres, this was 1960. For me it was mainly a compositional etude, and I remember how impressed I was by all the other works down there in Bilthoven—all the others who knew so much, and I was just a beginner… But it was a great encouragement, though it did not diminish my trepidation when Blomstedt asked me shortly afterwards to write a piece for the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra. This became "Sinfonia da camera", which I mentioned before, and I think that it can be heard in the splintered first movement that I really don’t know where I want to go. But the second and third movements are already better…

In the second movement, you have the winds speak into their instruments, even reading Shakespeare!
-Yes, that’s right, and there are several “modernistic” details in the piece, as there are in almost everything I wrote up to "Tintomara". By then, though, I had already ended up straddling a fence—I was told, for example, that "Summer Music" was far too “beautiful”—and therefore, of course, conventional—to be as “modern” as it is! Today, I am quite skeptical of this train of thought. That I made a quantum leap in “Tintomara” is probably due to the fact that the subject matter is more far-reaching than in the earlier two, more concentrated operas. I have of course had the incredible luck and honor to work very closely with my librettists—Lars Runsten, Leif Söderström, Tage Danielson, and now, Claes Fellbom—and this is a sine qua non for me. There has to be a steady give and take, always keeping the scenic reality in the fore. So one can’t be afraid to depart from what is “in” at the moment, or even from what could be called one’s own style. The danger might possibly lie in having too much of a feel for pastiche or parodies—you can lose your footings sometimes… This is why it feels so liberating to work with a serious text, about Leonardo da Vinci, which also has a message that isn’t so far from that in “Lullaby for the Earth”—here I am also dealing with power and its misuse. The past few years, I have written so much humorous music—after “Animalen” I wrote the many comic episodes in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as well as the short operas “Gudars Skymning” and “Kvinnogräl” (Catfight)—so now I feel the need to be serious for a while…

Before “Animalen,” you wrote the little scenic revue “Flower Power”, which was your first Tage Danielsson text, and which I remember from the Musical Drama School, and also "Varieté", a quartet parody which is well known not least because of TV. What was it like to make fun of your own seriousness in “Pentagram”?
-It actually felt quite good, and it is always educational to challenge biases and behavioral patterns. At the same time, it is of course important to be able to make fun of yourself and your own patterns… But the best thing is when you can also communicate the seriousness underneath the joke!

Finally, the obligatory question in these “work interviews:” Deep down inside, what do you want to do with your music?
-Ask instead what the music wants to do with me. I am her prisoner and slave…


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