On paper – Andrew Mellor: The Northern Silence – Journeys in Nordic Music and Culture (Yale University Press)

The Northern Silence – Journeys in Nordic Culture and Music by Andrew Mellor

Yale University Press [hardback, 320pp, 16 b/w illustrations, ISBN 9780300254402, £18.99]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

With their generous levels of state funding and – outwardly at least – a high degree of social cohesion, the Nordic countries continue to set the bar for might be thought of as ‘advanced’ societies. That much of what has been written (English or otherwise) about them is derived from internal sources adds to a feeling of self-sustaining complacency which Andrew Mellor, having worked as a freelance music journalist in or around Copenhagen for almost a decade, is well equipped to consider, corroborate or, when necessary, correct in The Northern Silence.

Its subtitle, Journeys in Nordic Music and Culture, is variously significant – Mellor having made it his brief to travel as extensively and cover as inclusively as possible the many outlets which exist in Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) as well as Finland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Although much of the volume’s content ostensibly derives from articles or interviews written for numerous magazines and journals (not least Gramophone, of which he was reviews editor before heading northwards), Mellor has been scrupulous with organizing then integrating his material so there is never any sense of sources thrown together arbitrarily. Rather, the five main chapters unfold as a sequence of topics or subjects related, even if only tangentially, to the heading in question and can be read sectionally or complete as preferred.

The first chapter duly proceeds as overviews of those four larger countries as experienced by a sympathetic outsider and focusses on four musical works whose attributes could be taken as exemplifying a national context. Thus, the bracing harmonic interplay of archaic and modern in Grieg’s Four Psalms, more provocative fusion of tradition with sophistication in Sibelius’s En Saga, head-on confrontation with ingrained parochialism in Nielsen’s Sinfonia Espansiva, then the acerbic sideswipe at bourgeois conformism in Atterberg’s Dollar Symphony. Not all of these ‘case studies’ are pursued throughout what follows, but their underlying premises as typifying the essence of Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden holds good in each instance. Icelandic music is represented by the juxtaposing of characteristics as found in Jón Leifs and Björk, whose output (if not personas) may have more in common than Mellor cares to admit, and Sunleif Rasmussen exemplifies that of the Faroes in terms of a culture whose making up for lost time might yet result in the most potent amalgam of any Nordic state relative to size.

Nor is ‘culture’ defined in exclusivist terms – Mellor always mindful to probe the connection between music and the plastic arts, most notably architecture or design, through which these countries are known even more directly to the wider world. The sixth chapter is particularly valuable in this respect, and those who have marvelled at the design of Helsinki’s Finlandia Hall while cringing at its acoustic will likely derive food-for-thought on reading about Alvar Aalto’s architectural convictions being a latter-day parallel to those of Sibelius as composer. That the aural and the visual have often had so close an accommodation in these countries is hardly a surprise given its common derivation from their environment, and the ease by which Mellor points up such lateral associations is a testament to his immersion in all things Nordic.

That said, it is those musical legacies of Nielsen and, above all, Sibelius which dominate the discourse almost a century after the death of the one and the ‘silence’ of the other. Admirable as Mellor is in identifying Nielsen’s emergence against a backdrop of Austro-German norms, his desire to convey that of Sibelius from a similar vantage means the crucial role of Russian music in the honing of his idiom is overlooked; odd given the acknowledgment elsewhere of Finnish culture being forged from the crucible that was Russian political dominance. In other ways this is evidently a book of its era – composers such as Rosenberg, Holmboe or Sallinen get short shrift, though the ‘dark horse’ that is Fartein Valen warrants discussion through his masterly Second Piano Sonata. Of more recent figures, Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg are not unreasonably surveyed, but Mellor proves no more immune to the blandishments of Anders Hillborg than most; when Sweden has any number of fine second-rate figures such as Anders Eliasson, to emphasize so passably third-rate a figure seems the more unfortunate.

Elsewhere, Mellor can be (surprisingly?) selective as to his inclusions. The evolution of Per Nørgård through to his trail-blazing Second Symphony is well detailed, but there is hardly a mention of his volatile later music – not least the Fifth Symphony which reassesses the genre as decisively as any such piece from the late 20th century, though its 21st-century parallel in the Third Symphony of Seppo Pohjola is included. A comprehensive survey of Nordic music is hardly Mellor’s intention, as he mentions near the outset when ‘‘…by necessity, plenty of talented and important musicians are left out’’, but a feeling persists such omissions may be because they do not accord with the Nordic perspective that he is keen to convey. One hopes his thoughts on such inspired misfits as Rued Langgaard find their place in a future volume.

In other respects, Mellor might be thought misguided in his even-handedness. Sympathetic as Atterberg may have been to aspects of Nazi-ism, to criticize him for rendering the term Volk as ‘people’ rather than Aryan ignores the fact the latter definition had been in common usage in Europe, United States and, moreover, the Soviet Union over several generations. Also, his criticism of Danish paper Jyllands-Posten for its Mohammad parody misses the point that the confronting of institutions, religious or otherwise, is necessarily a facet of vibrant democracy.

As stylishly presented as the Nordic textiles on its cover and admirably edited (but just what is Sibelius’s String Quartet in E minor?), this absorbing read says a great deal for Mellor’s breadth of outlook and his depth of sympathies. In the Prelude and Postlude, the reaching-out of Sibelius’s masterpiece Tapiola towards silence is pertinently considered as exemplifying Nordic culture. Hopefully this book’s authorial voice will stay resilient for a long while yet.

For information on purchasing this book, head to the Yale University or Waterstones websites. You can also listen to a podcast interview with the author at the Gramophone website