Interview: Thomas Dausgaard on ‘composer roots’


First published in The Herald on 20 September, 2017

When it was announced that Thomas Dausgaard would be replacing Donald Runnicles as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, various commentators pointed out that Runnicles would be a tough act to follow. The Scottish Wagnerian had the grandeur, the clout of top-flight opera houses, the romance of local-boy-done-good. What mark could Dausgaard, relatively demure, relatively unknown, relatively generalist in his repertoire, make on City Halls?

As the Danish conductor begins his second year in Glasgow, an answer is starting to emerge. Running through the BBC SSO’s new season – which opens tomorrow – is a strand called Composer Roots, and this strand has Dausgaard’s creative stamp all over it. The concept is simple. The orchestra will present a major piece of symphonic repertoire in the context of music that influenced it. Influences might include folk music, sacred chant, renaissance polyphony, certain key composers who paved the way.

There are various aims here. One is that when we listen to (for example) Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, we also listen to sounds that Beethoven and his audience would have had in their ears when the piece was fresh – in a sense, it becomes an act of authentic listening practice. Another aim is appealingly eclectic, to do with getting folk music into the concert hall in a way that feels non-tokenistic and non-hierarchical. There’s an acknowledgement of lineage and causation, of the fact that – no matter how much it suits our cultural mythologies to label composers as mavericks and lone wolves – classical music does not, and has never, existed in a vacuum.

If you heard the orchestra’s Rachmaninov Prom in July you’ll know what I’m on about. The Latvian Radio Choir sang Russian Orthodox chants while processing around the Royal Albert Hall. These chants seguewayed into two of Rachmaninov’s best-known orchestral pieces: as the singers faded out and the orchestra faded in, the Proms audience let out a collective breath, recognising the sombre chant Grob Tvoy Spase as almost identical to the opening theme of the Third Piano Concerto.

You might say: so Rachmaninov was influenced by church music; what’s the big deal? I would argue that the orchestra played the melody differently having just heard the way the singers phrased it. The whole atmosphere of the concerto seemed to darken and deepen in its new context. A piece that can sometimes feel like a bit of a rammy – thanks in no small part to the film Shine, which forever associated that melody with pianist David Helfgott’s mental breakdown – suddenly appeared serious, mysterious, gleamingly new.
For Dausgaard, this is the gist of it. “The project comes from my own curiosity,” he says. “My need to feel refreshed and gain new insights into well-known pieces. We often focus on how a famous work led to what came next. We are preoccupied with a forward-looking trajectory – the idea that things are always a steps towards something later. I want to turn that around and look backwards and sideways rather than always ahead…”

The first concert in the season culminates in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony but begins a good 250 years earlier. The programme opens with Palestrina and journeys to Beethoven’s 1824 Ode to Joy via Bach, Handel, Gluck, Mozart and Haydn. “I’ve never done a programme like this with Beethoven 9,” Dausgaard admits. “It’s an attempt to take us back to Beethoven’s inner ears. What he was listening to at the time.”

He explains his programme choices. Palestrina, because “as a music student you couldn’t go far without studying Palestrina. That idea of the perfect balance of voices, how to balance the horizontal and the vertical.” Bach, because of the fugal writing. Handel, because Handel was “the master of grand-style chorus and orchestra.” Haydn, because Beethoven had lessons from him, and “even though that didn’t go particularly well, there is a similar humour, a similar abandon.”

The last movement of the Ninth Symphony is where, says Dausgaard, Beethoven gathers “a whole universe of influences. It’s a wild mixture of all kind of styles. It’s his mind exploding in so many different directions that go beyond the domesticated term ‘variations’. I imagine Beethoven wouldn’t want us to think of him as a lone revolutionary. He deeply admired those who came before him. He diligently copied out the music of other composers as a way of learning from them. He wanted to be heard in that lineage.”

Perhaps that isn’t a particularly sexy narrative, I suggest, given it refutes the notion of Beethoven as a creative genius whose talent was simply magicked out of the air. “Or maybe it is more enticing,” Dausgaard argues, “because by understanding what Beethoven was building on, we can more easily admire just how far he took things.”

Elsewhere in the season we get variations on the theme. There is another chance to hear that Rachmaninov/Orthodox chant combo, and Carl Nielsen’s Third Symphony and Violin Concerto are paired with traditional Danish folk songs and fiddle music – something that hasn’t even been done in the composer’s native Denmark, says Dausgaard. “At home we are too keen to promote Nielsen as a heavyweight erudite composer, which he was, but he was also a fiddler in his dad’s dance band. At that period [the turn of the 20th century] the aspiration was to go from countryside to city, illiteracy to literacy, from village band to sophisticated art music. Nielsen made a huge social leap, moving to Copenhagen from the small island of Funen. Luckily for us, he managed to keep both identities running parallel in his music.”

An obvious contemporary to Nielsen – born the same year, in fact – is Finland’s Jean Sibelius, whose epic choral symphony Kullervo will be performed by the BBCSSO in the company of Finnish folk music. And while Nielsen’s folk sources can be tricky to pinpoint, Sibelius was precise in his quotations. “His way into it was different,” Dausgaard explains. “Nielsen grew up with folk music in his blood. It was his first language, whereas Sibelius studied it. In Sibelius, the tunes are obvious. In Nielsen, we’re still having fun working them out.”

Then there is Bela Bartok, whose name is impossible to ignore in any series exploring the intersection between folk and art music. Bartok was one of the first composer-ethnomusicologists who travelled extensively, armed with new recording technologies and a genuine respect for folk cultures. His field recordings influenced his own compositions profoundly, but never in a cheap or approximate way: he adopted the rogue rhythms of vernacular songs, the untameable angles of dances, and his writing became increasingly taught and jagged as a result. He invented a new kind of folk-informed musical realism.

Dausgaard has invited Hungarian musicians Nori Kovacs and Parapacs to play original versions of tunes Bartok encountered on his travels and later set for orchestra. The BBCSSO will perform the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, the Third Piano Concerto, the Concerto for Orchestra – but when it comes to folk-influenced music, Dausgaard could have chosen almost anything Bartok wrote. “Ah!” he exclaims. “I’m so glad you said that, because that’s exactly what we’ll be doing over the next few seasons…” Bartok fans, Hungarian folk fans, take note.

Thomas Dausgaard conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s season opening concert tomorrow night at City Halls, Glasgow