2008 Norwegian National Championships - Preview: Test Piece review

6-Feb-2008

4BR looks at the test piece Arthur Butterworths colourful Odin' - a piece that fully deserves to be heard more at the highest level.


OdinThere are some test pieces that for perhaps unknown reasons never quite capture the fancy of conductors and players alike – and they invariably come from composers who bring a slightly different musical intelligence to writing for the medium. 

’Odin’ is one of them.

Inspiration

Perhaps the reason lies with its inspiration as the composer himself wrote in the preface to the work when it was commissioned for the 1989 National Finals of Great Britain.

”In the mist and darkness of the long harsh winters of Iceland in the ancient day, flourished the ‘old religion’, a baleful and all powerful influence on the lives and destiny of those who inhabited Scandinavia and those remote and forbidding northlands.

It was a barbaric age of superstition, pagan belief in magic and violent heroics. In a wild and hostile land was practised the secret ritual of ‘casting the runes’, those mysterious stone carved hieroglyphic symbols, said to be possessed of magic powers and capable of foretelling the future.

The cult of Odin was a dark and malevolent one. He was the god of the occult and of war; the lord of all the northlands, guardian of the mystical secret of the runes and all-omnipotent among the gods.

We are to a large extent direct descendents of those early Viking marauders from across the North Sea and beyond, whose Nordic culture remains deeply ingrained in many aspects of our own way of life even to the present day. Some of the spirit of the aggressive, challenging heroics has come down to us in the ceaseless struggle for supremacy, still pursued symbolically in the prowess displayed in musical performance. 

This is particularly so in the cult of the brass band whose music of such heroic caste has long flourished as one of its salient features. The mystical rites of casting the runes might be said to be still observed in the solemn drawing of lots, the numbers of which are even thought by some to be imbued with dark and prophetic qualities, foretelling the outcome of the imminent conflict. 

The lettering of the score cover is based on authentic carvings found on the Ragnarok Stone at Kirk Andreas in the Isle of Man. It is believed that this was made sometime in the 1100’s by Gaut, a Viking sculptor. It depicts the Raven, a symbolic creature in Viking mythology, commuting with Odin who is being devoured by the ferocious wolf, Fenrir, while the serpent entwines the both.”

Got all that?

No wonder we haven’t really got to grips with the piece since 1989 then.

Influences

Butterworth’s music is influenced by modern composers such as Birtwistle (who also has a healthy interest in all things slightly fantastic and mythical), as well as the lineage of the great ‘English’ tradition such as Vaughan Williams, Bliss, Bax and Elgar. It is some intellectual mix.

Butterworth himself wanted ‘Odin’ not only to show the emotional character of the music and its dark inspiration, but to also explore as he said ‘…the particular genius and immensely powerful potential of the present day brass band: the kind of thing it is best at doing’. He certainly succeeded.

The dark malevolence of the Odin character (he may have been nice to his mother and pet dog, but he was someone who could put the willies up you) is shown right from the start with a deep downward plunging descent into the abyss from which he came. The writing thereafter is full of energy, mischief and darkly hued motifs as the character of Odin develops. Small fanfares and rhythmic pulse gives the music an angular, cold feel – there is ice in the veins.

Grass hopper

Butterworth at the time stated that the symphonic structure of the work was very specific, whilst the development of the musical material was controlled and full of economy. Nothing is wasted on frippery or what he termed, capricious ‘grass hopper’ musical thought. 

That is self-evident as the piece develops – there is no misplaced sentimentality, obsequious technical hurdles or lazy repetition – there is a specific aim about everything that is written – ‘like a welded railway line’ as he said.  Many of the original small musical ideas grow organically throughout the piece – Butterworth acknowledged the Sibelius influence of this on his writing.  

The second movement is more contemplative and has a surprising parallel in constructive thought from the composer’s ‘A Dales Suite’ written in 1964 for youth band. This is no juvenile pastiche however and the powerful deep seated melancholy has a dark, disturbing edge, richly harmonised. The theme though is pure Butterworth and can be heard in a number of his works – a powerful signature of sorts. 

For those of a technical bent the climax of the movement sees an inverted and twisted variant of the tritone motif set out at the beginning of the movement – a contrary motion that surprises in its intensity.

Power

The final movement is an ever increasing, almost frantic, headlong descent back to the abyss as Odin is finally overwhelmed. This is immensely powerful writing, Nordic in flavour and once more dark, sinister and deeply effective. The sense of menace is palpable as the battle for supremacy results in a conflict of barbarous intensity. Angular, asymmetric and rhythmically persistent it reaches a final, blood-curdling climax.

’Odin’ is a work of power and importance that has almost been criminally forgotten over the past 20 years. Thankfully it has been revived here to be played in all its kaleidoscopic glory in an environment that perhaps understands its inspiration better than anyone else. 

Iwan Fox.

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