- Scandinavian Song: A Guide to Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish Repertoire and Diction by Anna Hersey
From college and university recital halls to professional concert halls across North America, voice recitals have traditionally consisted of songs sung in German, French, and Italian, with the occasional English song (whether British or American) thrown in for good measure. Virtually unknown in such venues, especially in their original languages, is the vast wealth of songs from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. While the best-known composers from these countries, particularly Norwegian Edvard Grieg (1843–1907) and Dane Carl Nielsen (1865–1931), do make an occasional appearance on orchestral programs, they and their countrymen are largely ignored when it comes to their piano, chamber, and vocal works. In Scandinavian Song—an expansion and reworking of its author's 2012 doctoral essay on Swedish art song—Anna Hersey attempts to help rectify this situation, specifically regarding the classical music genre known simply as the "art song." Typically composed for a single voice with piano accompaniment, usually setting an independent poem in the composer's vernacular, and ideally demonstrating an equal partnership between music and text, the art song rose to prominence during the nineteenth century and maintained its popularity well into the twentieth. Such is the historical focus of Hersey's study of Scandinavian art songs, which are known as romanser (sing. romans) in Swedish and Norwegian, and romancer (sing. romance) in Danish.
Hersey sets forth with an interesting, albeit brief, discussion of the seemingly elusive "Scandinavian style" in music. In doing so, she touches on the problematic distinction between the terms "Scandinavian" and "Nordic," though without reaching a clear conclusion or adequately justifying the exclusion of both Finland and Iceland from her study, stating only that [End Page 423] the "linguistic profiles" of Denmark and Finland, "one Indo-European, the other Uralic—could hardly be more different" (p. 1). Nevertheless, her supposition that the "Scandinavian style" in music is largely based on the uniqueness of the Scandinavian languages, rather than on music theory alone, is supported by recent research, some of which she cites. Hersey further states that such research focused on this "music-language connection" (p. 2) clearly supports the importance of performing art songs in their original languages, especially those of Scandinavia, rather than in translation to a more accessible language. Unfortunately, as she justly laments, this has traditionally not been the case with Scandinavian songs, with even those of such nationalistic icons as Grieg being relegated to translation and performance in German or English. The author proposes that "performing in foreign languages is a rewarding challenge for any singer, and lyric diction of the Scandinavian languages is not inherently more difficult to master than German or French diction" (p. 3). Hersey's point is arguably accurate. The problem with performing Scandinavian vocal music in its original language rests not with the languages themselves, but in the unfortunate reality that they are not widely taught in North American colleges and universities. Further, these languages are not the subject of typical diction classes in higher education music departments, schools, and conservatories.
To this end, Hersey squarely focuses the first part of her book on the "Diction of the Scandinavian Languages" through a brief introductory chapter and individual chapters on Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish lyric diction, each of which details the intrinsic challenges of the respective language. As is the case with the seeming majority of publications concerning diction, especially those geared toward musical performance, Hersey's book takes for granted that the student will quickly become comfortable with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This is intended to be accomplished through the three aforementioned chapters, although the end result will clearly rely on the singer's phonetic and linguistic abilities, as well as his aptitude to grasp the complexities of the written IPA. Despite numerous charts and illustrations, the author's explanation of Scandinavian diction is quite dense and highly technical, and she assumes that the target audience is already familiar with such terminology as morpheme, schwa, plosive, sublingual, glottal...