Vintage Nordic Folk Tunes, With Strings Attached

Dec 5, 2017
Originally published on December 5, 2017 7:12 pm

Classical music has never lived in a bubble. For centuries, it's always found common ground with folk music.

Enter, the Danish String Quartet.

With scruffy beards and bohemian looks, you could mistake the young men of the Danish String Quartet for an Indie band from Brooklyn. They earned their stripes, and numerous awards, playing the usual suspects — Beethoven and Brahms. But it's the old folk songs and dances from their Nordic homeland which pull at their heart strings on the recent album Last Leaf.

Songs on the album represent a shifting and largely oral tradition, created by ancient fiddlers and cultivated by a new generation of folk enthusiasts. The waltz by Norwegian fiddler Gjermund Haugen called "Tjønneblomen" (Water Lily)," signals a transformation when folk fiddlers started testing their tunes in more formal venues, like churches and halls where audiences only listened, and didn't dance.

But dancing is the whole point of a song like "The Dromer." The tune was discovered in an 18th-century Danish collection, but its roots are Scottish. There's a drone underneath a prancing melody — a perfect stand-in for a bagpipe.

Some songs go way back, like "Drømte mig en drøm" (I Had a Dream). It's the oldest known secular tune from the Nordic countries. Written in ancient runes, the music is found on the last page ("last leaf") of parchment in the Codex Runicus, dating from around 1300. The Danish String Quartet's lead violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen doubles on glockenspiel, giving the song a mysterious, translucent touch.

Like painters, the young musicians of the quartet add a broad palette of colors to these old canvases. You can hear the shuffling feet of dancers and wheezy squeeze-boxes in these arrangements. They can be vigorous and earthy or evocative and wistful. Or both at once, like the tune "Æ Rømeser," from the village of Sønderho on the southern tip of the Danish island of Fanø. It's a dance, sure, but it dances with a tear in its eye.

On Last Leaf, the Danish musicians carry on Nordic folk traditions by refurbishing the old tunes and writing a few new ones of their own. Tonsgaard's "Shine you no more" was inspired by the 16th century English composer John Dowland, but plays out more like an Irish reel.

Although the album can serve as a fascinating history lesson in Nordic folk music, you don't have to be a Scandinavian musicologist to fall in love with Last Leaf. The music erases borders between folk and classical, suggesting that you can either kick up your heels or simply kick back and enjoy.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Classical music often has a lot in common with folk music.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANISH STRING QUARTET'S "POLSKA FROM DOROTEA")

MCEVERS: That is the Danish String Quartet. The group has been rummaging through piles of old Nordic songs and dances for its latest album. NPR's Tom Huizenga has been listening.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: With scruffy beards and bohemian looks, you could mistake the young men of the Danish String Quartet for an indie band from Brooklyn. They earned their stripes and numerous awards playing the usual suspects - Beethoven and Brahms. But it's the old folk tunes from their Nordic homeland which pull at their heart strings on the new album, "Last Leaf."

(SOUNDBITE OF DANISH STRING QUARTET'S "TJONNEBLOMEN")

HUIZENGA: That waltz is called "Water Lily" by Norwegian fiddler Gjermund Haugen. He represents a shift when folk fiddlers started testing their tunes in more formal venues like churches and halls where audiences only listened and didn't dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANISH STRING QUARTET'S "TJONNEBLOMEN")

HUIZENGA: But dancing is the whole point of a song like "The Dromer."

(SOUNDBITE OF DANISH STRING QUARTET'S "THE DROMER")

HUIZENGA: The tune was discovered in an 18th century Danish collection, but its roots are Scottish. Note the drone underneath the prancing melody. It's a good stand-in for a bagpipe.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANISH STRING QUARTET'S "THE DROMER")

HUIZENGA: Songs on this album represent a largely oral tradition created by ancient fiddlers and cultivated by a new generation of folk enthusiasts. Some songs go way back, like "I Had A Dream." It's over 700 years old and the oldest-known secular tune from the Nordic countries. The Danish String Quartet's lead violinist, Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen, doubles on the glockenspiel, giving the song a mysterious, translucent touch.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANISH STRING QUARTET'S "DROMTE MIG EN DROM")

HUIZENGA: Like painters, the young musicians add a broad palette of colors to these old canvases. You can hear the shuffling feet of dancers and wheezy squeezebox in these arrangements. They can be vigorously earthy or evocative and wistful or both at once, like the tune "Ae Romeser" from the village of Sonderho. It's a dance, sure, but it dances with a tear in its eye.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANISH STRING QUARTET'S "AE ROMESER")

HUIZENGA: On "Last Leaf," the Danish musicians carry on Nordic folk traditions by refurbishing the old tunes and writing a few new ones. But you don't have to be a Scandinavian musicologist to fall in love with this album. The music erases borders between folk and classical and suggests that you can kick up your heels or simply kick back and enjoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANISH STRING QUARTET'S "SHINE YOU NO MORE")

MCEVERS: The album is "Last Leaf" by the Danish String Quartet. And our review is by NPR's Tom Huizenga.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANISH STRING QUARTET'S "SHINE YOU NO MORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.