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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Hervararkviða, or the Incantation of Hervor

Sea Tangle: Songs from the North

You might find this difficult to believe, but I am primarily a composer and not an amateur historian or archaeologist or theater builder/owner or whatever. To prove it, this year I wrote some music? Actually quite a lot of music, if I put it all together, although I am still way behind in my goals, because I will never be good enough and yes I do hate myself for it although I am trying to work on unrealistic expectations of myself in therapy thank you.

One of these pieces is being officially birthed into the world today (that is, Wednesday, December 21, 2016)! And if you are in the Philadelphia area, you are welcome to come witness its emergence in person, which will be beautiful and non-bloody and not at all like a real human birth. This piece was conceived way back in January, when I was approached by dreamy mezzo-soprano Maren Montalbano, she of the gorgeous silver curls and even prettier velvety silver voice, whom I knew through her work at Opera Philadelphia (we performed together in ANDY: A Popera),  Choral Arts Philadelphia (I wrote O Oriens for them last Christmas), and Twitter.

Maren commissioned me to write a 15-minute song cycle for an album she was crowdfunding, Sea Tangle. The piece, with the slightly unusual instrumentation of mezzo, violin, and harp, would focus on Hervor, a badass Viking warrior princess immortalized in Old Norse Poetic Edda, particularly one in which she raises her father from the dead to demand a cursed sword that is her birthright. She is basically the complete opposite of frightened indecisive fellow Scandi dead-father-chaser Hamlet. Maren tells Hervor's story in this video, so best let her give a quick primer:


As you may have gathered from past projects, whenever I take on something like this, the first step is text research, which I threw myself into for a few weeks. I wasn't 100% happy with any of the English translations of the original poems, but by comparing each of them to each other and to the Old Norse, I was able to construct my own translation/adaptation. If you're interested in a few of the crazy linguistic tangents that sprung up while I was wading through this process, here is an excerpt from an e-mail I sent to Maren in July:
The word "Hervararkviða," which is usually translated as "the incantation of Hervor" breaks down to "Hervarar" (of Hervor) + "kviða." "Kviða" means "epic poem"—the word is appended to several other epic poems about major characters in the same fashion (Völundarkviða, Hymiskviða, etc.).

But when I enter "kviða" into Google translate, it gives the literal modern Icelandic interpretation of it as "anxiety," which I think is really interesting! There are also theories that it is tied to a similar word that means "lament" and that the tradition of skaldic poetry has its roots in funeral poetry, which makes some sense; you compose a ballad of heroic deeds when a hero dies and pass it down so history remembers them.

Based on this Old Norse glossary, the difference is there is a short i in "kviða" (narrative poem) and a long i in "kvíða" (anxiety)  Also on that page: "kvein," meaning to wail or lament. It may be pure coincidence, but part of me wonders if there is any linguistic connection to the Yiddish "kvetch"! Total speculation on my part, probably completely coincidental, but it does make me wonder. (Also on that Old Norse page: "kveinka" (complain), although I was under the impression that "kvetch" comes from a word meaning to squeeze? Maybe they all have a common root!)

So "kviða" doesn't specifically mean "incantation." But it seems clear that Hervor is summoning her father in a supernatural context. The word that would seem to be most associated with what she is doing, in my limited research, is "galdr" in Old Norse (modern Icelandic spelling: "galdur"), which is a word that literally means "magic" but is about spells and incantations. There are galdr-specific meters, which I only very vaguely tried to copy by shortening the meter of each line in my lyrics.

It is practically impossible to easily find audio/video examples online of "galdr" that aren't modern neo-pagans trying to recreate them without real historical data, or Scandinavian metal bands using the word to invoke paganism, hahaha. I wish I could find an ethnomusicology-minded person who has collected some of them, because surely they exist. There's a nice tidbit on the galdr wiki page that Odin knew 18 different galdr - 18 is a significant number in Old Norse magic, which gives a lot of weight to the number 3 and 9 and other multiples. (I actually discovered this after I decided to put the main "chant" part of the third song [the incantation] in 9/8, at which point I felt quite pleased with myself.)
The most ambitious thing I did was try to write the text for the second song in the meter and alliterative verse of a rímnahættir! The text I wanted to translate for this song made me think of a total up-ending of Marlowe/Raleigh's conversation between the Shepherd and the Nymph, and I think the skewering works even better within a more formal stanzaic structure. You can see the entire text I put together here. The 7-5-7-5ish meter I chose is not apparent in the original Norse text, but it felt right, especially after immersing myself in Steindor Andersen's album rímur for days on end.

The history of the recitation or performance of Norse epic poetry is debated and fragmentary, and boils down to: nobody is quite sure how Norsemen expressed these poems when they were written. There is a traditional concept that these poems were sung in the manner of minstrels, but this may well be an 18th-Century romantic fictionalization. Some of these rímur are sung today (obviously, see Steindor Andersen), but the melodies used probably date to after the appearance of Christianity in Scandinavia in the 11th Century because they all seem to be in church modes. The introduction and propagation of liturgical music muddied all the waters, and even though I spent hours chasing this rabbit down its hole, reading various scholarly articles until my eyes crossed, I had to finally conclude that at this point, after multiple centuries of these traditions being lost and found and mixed up with ecclesiastical modes, maybe the best thing to do as a composer is just keep mixing. Mix myself into it, why not. The mixing of old and new is absolutely in keeping with how this art and these stories stay alive anyway.

The first rehearsal of Hervararkviða was back in August, where Sharon Torello filmed some of the first read-through with Rebecca Harris and Elizabeth Huston, and also the interview at the top of this post. There's some more here, in which I focus on how this piece relates to the history/archaeology/theater-building I am doing in my spare time (spoiler: the answer is MYSTERIOUS LOST SWORDS):


I love that I got to do this project with these amazing women! Other composers on the album include Emily Lau and Kamala Sankaram (who is also a singer and has performed one of my pieces as a member of Anti-Social Music. There are more previews of their fabulous pieces on Maren's YouTube channel. The CDs are pressed and ready to go; the album is already available on Apple Music. Or you can just come to the concert:

Sea Tangle: Songs from the North - A recital and album release
When: Wednesday, December 21, 2016, at 8PM
Where: Philadelphia Ethical Society, 1906 Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, PA 19103
Tickets: $15/$10 online ($20/$15 at the door)

Look what I picked up today!! #seatangle #squee

A photo posted by Maren Brehm (@supermaren) on

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