December 10, 2009


Asger Hamerik: Symphonies Nos. 1-7; Requiem. Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra (Nos. 1-6) and Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choir with Randi Stene, mezzo-soprano (No. 7; Requiem) conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Dacapo. $49.99 (4 SACDs).

     He was born in Frederiksberg, Denmark, near Copenhagen, as Asger Hammerich. He started using Hamerik, the less German-sounding version of his name, as part of Denmark’s nationalistic upsurge after the Second Schleswig War (also called the Danish-Prussian War) of 1864. He was the best-known Danish composer of his time after Niels W. Gade, and traveled even more extensively than Gade did. But where Asger Hamerik (1843-1923) really flourished was in the United States – specifically in Baltimore, Maryland, where he was head of the Peabody Institute of Music from 1871 to 1898. In that remarkable 27-year period, which firmly established the Peabody as a preeminent force in American musical education, Hamerik created all seven of his symphonies as well as the Requiem that was his own favorite work. (Baltimore was important to the genesis of the Requiem: Hamerik was not Catholic but was a close friend of the city’s Cardinal Gibbons.)

     Little known today outside Denmark – and not especially well known even there – Hamerik is one Romantic-era composer whose small output (about 40 opus numbers) is well worth reconsideration. He studied with Berlioz and was heavily influenced by him; he also studied with Gade, and adopted some of that composer’s Sturm und Drang and lyricism; and he studied as well with composer J.P.E. Hartmann and conductor Hans von Bülow, the latter becoming a lifelong friend. All these influences and more permeate Hamerik’s seven numbered symphonies (an early one in C minor, written before No. 1, is lost) – from a first work that sounds a great deal like Gade to later ones that occupy some of the sonic and harmonic territory of Bruckner and Mahler, although without their length (none of Hamerik’s symphonies lasts more than three-quarters of an hour).

     Hamerik gave his symphonies singularly pleasant titles that, by and large, accurately reflect their moods – and that are reminiscent of the symphonic titles of Sweden’s Hans Berwald. In fact, each composer wrote a “Symphonie Sérieuse” in G minor (Berwald’s No. 1 of 1843, Hamerik’s No. 5 of 1889-91). Hamerik called No. 1 “Symphonie Poétique,” No. 2 “Symphonie Tragique,” No. 3 “Symphonie Lyrique,” No. 4 “Symphonie Majestueuse,” No. 6 (for strings only) “Symphonie Spirituelle,” and No. 7 “Choral Symphony” (it includes a solo mezzo-soprano as well as the chorus). His Requiem, written between Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4, calls for a contralto solo – but Randi Stene manages this part as well as that in Symphony No. 7 quite admirably under Thomas Dausgaard’s baton.

     Dausgaard, a fine and fluent conductor, is a strong advocate for Hamerik’s music, which he paces very well and from which he extracts all the emotion that the composer included – without adding anything extraneous. Hamerik’s first six symphonies all follow the classical four-movement model (the slow movement placed sometimes second, sometimes third). No. 7 is a three-movement work whose text was written by Hamerik and his wife, Margaret, daughter of a Tennessee landowner; it was originally called “Life, Death and Immortality,” and the words have a strong spiritual cast without being directly religious.

     Every work in Dacapo’s four-SACD Hamerik cycle is worth hearing – even the weakest symphony, No. 1 (in which the strings are so dominant in presenting and developing themes that the rest of the orchestra takes on a subsidiary role), has a magically transformative moment as the main section of the finale gives way to the coda. The symphonies are uniformly well scored, and Hamerik clearly knew how to get the sound he wanted from an orchestra. No. 4, the most outgoing of the works and the most popular during Hamerik’s lifetime, is a particularly fine example of a skilled composer taking rather unpromising thematic material and building a strikingly effective work around it. No. 5 has an especially affecting and emotionally satisfying slow movement. Several of the symphonies make substantial use of an idée fixe, about which Hamerik learned from Berlioz. The solo and choral forces in both No. 7 and the Requiem are very skillfully deployed. There is always a sense here of music with something to communicate – with the composer using an economy of means and strength of orchestration to do so.

     So why has Hamerik’s music fallen into obscurity? That too is clear from listening to this excellent set. Hamerik was more an absorber than an innovator. Although his music does have a unique sound, it is essentially mainstream European Romantic music with a touch of Nordic flair: for all his years in the United States, Hamerik never attempted to use American tunes or rhythms, as Dvořák did during his much shorter stay in the New World. What Hamerik learned from his mentors, especially from Berlioz, is clear enough so that Hamerik’s own work sounds a bit old-fashioned. There is surely nothing wrong with the frequent use of an idée fixe as a structural device, but Berlioz did so in 1830 and Hamerik was still doing so – admittedly in a somewhat different way – into the 1890s. Also, some of the well-wrought touches of Hamerik’s Requiem, such as the brass fanfares announcing Judgment Day, tie directly to the Berlioz Requiem of 1837 – 50 years before Hamerik’s. So even though Hamerik developed his musical ideas differently from the way the composers who influenced him developed theirs, Hamerik’s pieces seem more like modest extensions of what came before than like genuinely new works of art.

     Yet for all that, this Baltimore-based Nordic symphonist does not deserve his obscurity. Musicians may carp about Hamerik’s borrowings and the similarities of his music to that of other composers, but listeners coming to Hamerik’s music without preconditions or specific expectations will find in these symphonies and this Requiem a great deal of highly involving music, well performed and emotionally satisfying – and worth hearing repeatedly, not being consigned to oblivion.

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