What makes the Nordic countries' attitude toward classical music different, and can we hear it in their music? Andrew Mellor thinks we can.
There is hardly an orchestra in Europe or America that hasn't photoshopped an image of serene fjords, towering mountains or the northern lights onto a concert listing to lure audiences in the direction of Grieg, Sibelius or Nielsen. Brand Scandinavia has been hijacked by classical music as much as by the tourism and wellbeing industries. More often than not, it's meaningless: inappropriate imagery attached to music that had universal aspirations.
Still, music from Scandinavia, Finland and Iceland does arguably have its own underlying identity, and you could also say the same of performances from the region and its natives. And if they came late to the classical music party, the Nordic countries are having their musical golden age right about now. Half the time you read about a prize for composing, it will be a Nordic composer who's won it; half the time you read about an orchestra appointing a new conductor, it will be a Nordic conductor who's got the job (if it's a BBC orchestra, make that all the time).
This is no coincidence. After World War II, the so-called "Nordic Model" led to the establishment of professional orchestras that stretched the length and breadth of the Scandinavian lands (and some of them are very long). It was a principle of the new post-war social project that everyone should have access to live classical music wherever they live – especially, in fact, if there was nothing else around – which means hopeful young conductors and composers are far more likely to have a local orchestra to practise on. Finland, which exports the most conductors of any country, has the highest ratio of professional orchestras to people of any multi-city country in the world.
The benefits of having everything provided for you are debatable. It can dampen ambition, nullify competition and lead to bland mediocrity. Economically, it engenders narrower income strata meaning most people earn more or less the same. It's also what lies behind that distinct Nordic disdain for showing off that can, in turn, foster a suspicion of individuality and eccentricity – that can make it hard for musicians to step up into leadership roles, and lead to the fetishizing of imported talent from "legacy" countries like Germany and Italy.
But the very idea of universal entitlement has made itself felt on Nordic music making just as it has on art and literature – and in positive as well as negative ways. Among the clearest examples is that of the unhurried approach to musical training. Young artists often don't feel pressured to "break through" so quickly, and, with education free up to postgraduate level across the whole region, there's no rush to finish your studies. The Norwegian pianists Leif Ove Andsnes and Christian Ihle Hadland, for example, took their time to learn their craft in small towns with few critics before emerging as confident, rounded musicians who still, to some extent, convey a sense of playing for nobody but themselves.
Taxes remain high in the Nordic countries as does, in comparative terms, public spending on culture. Just over half the symphony orchestras in Norway and Denmark play in beautiful, statement auditoria opened within the last 15 years, and this has had a proven effect on increasing general interest and attendance. When you surrender 48% of your income in tax, you feel a sense of ownership towards the institutions that tax is funding, whether hospitals, libraries or symphony orchestras – or avant-garde music festivals in provincial towns.
The availability of state money has affected the recording sector. Denmark's state-funded record label Dacapo, no stranger to international awards, has a remit to record Danish music and collaborate with the country's professional ensembles, whose players' salaries are paid by the state (a good deal for both parties). For composers, it means their music is more likely to be recorded, distributed, heard and programmed in an age when the global classical record industry is playing it safe. Little wonder the wider music world ends up commissioning more music from Nordic composers than from Germans and Italians combined.
But state stipends have also allowed composers in Finland to plough their own furrows without concern for satisfying commissions (and similar practices exist, to various degrees, in the other Nordic countries). The most obvious effect is to allow composers to experiment and slip down rabbit holes. Some might say it has nurtured an introspective streak, but it's delivered some absolute one-offs who have captured the wider imagination – composers who have not been forced to reconcile their particular worldview with prevailing trends.
Even at its most idiosyncratic, though, music tends to benefit from an awareness of what's happening in the rest of the world. The two famous Nordic symphonists, Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius, prove it. Nielsen was a Danish creative archetype: a working-class kid given the support he needed to access good training and make important contacts (even before social democracy, it was important for Danes to see and demonstrate that anyone with the right talent could succeed) and who, vitally, the whole country could relate to.
Nielsen went on to produce vital modernist symphonies with international relevance but a strong sense of "Danishness", while writing popular and absolutely Danish songs at the same time. Sibelius, in a more patrician way, did something similar, unwittingly becoming the "voice" of his people and ending up as a human institution, wheeled-out for state functions and the like.
As their countries' first internationally successful and representative composers, Sibelius and Nielsen became central, national figures – fixed in the collective memory of their small home countries in a way Bartók or Elgar could never be.
The idea of the composer as a figure of living significance, rather than of historical interest, might account for the prominent place enjoyed by contemporary music in the discourse of the Nordic countries. Avant-garde music festivals abound to the point of saturation (there are at least four a year in Copenhagen, a city of 600,000). At some regional orchestras in Finland, new music sells out while Brahms needs marketing support.
You can certainly connect the interest in new music to some sense of a national aesthetic. Denmark and Finland are countries with an intrinsic respect for design, whose citizens often gaze upon a new building and conclude that it "could have been bolder". Since Finnish modernist-Romanticism and Danish new simplicity dominated in the second half of the 20th century, the music of those countries has shot off in a multitude of directions, but New Nordic music is often functional and schematic and as lacking in calories as its culinary counterpart.
In Denmark, clarity and simplicity have proved stubborn trends. When everyone was banging on about "hygge" a few years ago, many bypassed its most obvious kernel of truth: there isn't much that's more beautiful than a single candle in a dark room. When listening to so much of Iceland's music, it's easy to conclude that this country's position halfway between Europe and America, its persistent darkness and light, and the heavy black rock on which its civilization is built have all played a part in the formation of a national musical aesthetic.
But it's also a practical, logical outcome in a small country with only one graduate-level music school. Iceland is tiny. In scale, Reykjavik's musical ecosystem probably resembles that of many European cities a century or more ago. Most musicians – across all genres – know each other, even those who have studied abroad or emigrated (many live in Copenhagen or Berlin).
The natural elements we hear in so much Icelandic music of the past 50 years – creaking tectonics, fearsome darkness, glistening light, tempos as slow as evolution itself – can also be traced in certain corners of the music of Finland, Sweden and Estonia. There are parallel organic design processes at work in scores by Per Nørgård, Magnus Lindberg, Jan Martin Smørdal, Sunleif Rasmussen, Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Jan Sandström, to name but one composer from each Nordic country. Further back in time, there is a litany of works linked to fiercely observed Nordic tradition and folklore, to the marking civic events, the cycle of the seasons and the opening of institutions.
With the emergence of so many globally active conductors from the region, we've also had the chance to witness the Nordic mindset operating in an international context. "Nordic Leadership" is a thing (there's even a book about it, which has a section on Sakari Oramo, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London), and it has synced perfectly with the wider global shift in orchestral culture. Conducting now often hinges on the idea of a "first among equals", an idea enshrined in the Nordic concept of "jantelov" – not believing you're intrinsically better than anyone else.
Which brings us to the matter of interpretation. We might align certain elements of self-control to what have been described as severe or "cool" interpretations from Nordic musicians. Might patience and the sense of unrelenting mental and physical resolve – which come from existing in a harsh climate and a society not overtly prone to congratulation – have something to do with it too?
Listen to Andrew Mellor's "Nordic Noir" playlists here
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