Cover Image: The Northern Silence

The Northern Silence

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Member Reviews

I first came across the writings of Andrew Mellor in the (now discontinued) Classic FM Magazine and Gramophone, although he has also written for many other publications.  As he explains in an article for Gramophone, it was working for this latter magazine which led Mellor from his first musical loves – Wagner and Britten  – to his later enthusiasm for Nordic music.  It was an enthusiasm which would turn out to be, literally, life-changing.  In 2015, Mellor moved to Denmark where he is now “domiciled apparently for good” (Danish taxman take note!).   

All these years of reviewing recordings and concerts of Nordic music, traipsing from festival to festival within sight of the Northern Lights, and interviewing luminaries of Nordic music, have surely earned Mellor the title of “Nordic music specialist” rather optimistically thrust upon him by his editor at Gramophone in the incipient phases of his “obsession” with the subject.  This considerable experience – “15 years reporting from the region, 7 of them living there” – feeds into Mellor’s recently published book for Yale University Press – The Northern Silence: Journeys in Nordic Music and Culture. As its title suggests, this veritable labour of love is an exploration of Nordic music (chiefly classical music of the 20th and 21st century, with the odd foray into folk and rock/pop) within the wider context of the culture and psyche of the countries of the North.   Mellor tells us, “what I report on here is what I have seen with my eyes, heard with my ears and interpreted through the lens of my lived experience”.  

From its very first pages, this volume is an eye-opening one.  For instance, Mellor explains that:

References in the text to ‘Scandinavia’ refer to Denmark, Norway and Sweden – the three Scandinavian kingdoms bound by common linguistic and political roots. Finland and Iceland, regarded locally as separate from Scandinavia, will be referred to in the text as such. The term ‘Nordic countries’ incorporates all five nations together with the Faroe Islands – like Greenland, an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark”. 

This necessary and helpful clarification challenges at the outset some lazy prejudices or assumptions to which the casual reader or listener may be prone:  there are close links between the states of the region (and, frankly, there would otherwise be little point in Mellor’s book or, for that matter, the various festivals or recordings of “Nordic” music), but each of the countries generally included under the convenient “Nordic” label has its distinctive characteristics, as becomes increasingly apparent as one reads one.

Mellor is an assured and knowledgeable guide on this Northern journey. Suffice it to say that although I like to think of myself as quite well-versed in 20th century and contemporary classical music (for an amateur, of course), every few pages this book brought me across a composer who was new to me or a work which I was yet to explore.  My Spotify playlist has become much richer over the past two weeks!  

Yet, Mellor’s style is satisfying for both the specialist and the general reader – it never feels heavy-going despite the information packed into the volume.  Indeed, one of the challenges with such a book is how to organise all this learning in a way which doesn’t read like a data sheet.    Mellor opts for chapters which establish broad themes.  The first one – “Landfall” – introduces some key founding figures of Nordic music – luminaries such as Grieg, Sibelius, Nielsen, Atterberg.  The second chapter – “Performance” – focuses on Nordic orchestras and ensembles, and on the region’s attitudes to funding and arts management.  “Off Piste” looks at unusual approaches to composing and performing music, including the interaction between different genres and styles.  “Nordic Noir and Snow White” teases out some tantalising parallels between the phenomenon of Nordic dark and crime literature and the music of its composers, before moving to a quite detailed examination of the works of Hans Abrahamsen.   In a similar exercise, the fifth chapter – “Scandinavian by Design” – explores common elements between Scandinavian music and Nordic design and architecture, focussing especially on the structure of the works of Danish composer Per Nørgård and the Aarhus School (including Poul Ruders) as well as the nature-inspired similarities between the symphonies of Sibelius and the architecture of Alvar Aalto.  “Postlude. Silence” provides a brief epilogue in which Outi Tarkianen’s BBC Proms commission “Midnight Sun Variations” provokes meditations on nature and climate change (particularly hard-hitting in the Far North).   

This organic approach allows for recurrence of certain themes and leitmotivs – in particular, Sibelius’s “Tapiola” gives its name to the volume’s introduction or “Prelude” and remains a point of reference throughout the book.  

This book is essential reading for all lovers of Nordic music but should also prove illuminating to anyone interested in learning more about the countries and cultures behind the ubiquitous “Nordic” brand.
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