Prophecy of the Seeress

J.P.E. Hartmann (1805-1900), words: Fr. Winkel Horn (1845-1898)

By Finn Gravesen, writer and editor, 2006

The creation of the world and its destruction 

Following the orders of Odin, the Gods create the earth out of the sea (Minor key. Mysterious piano, sombre mood, the double basses rise from the depths). Chaos is transformed into order. The sun rises and the first human beings arrive on the scene. (Theme in all four voices. Light key). Fight between the Gods and the giants, Odin slings his javelin and general strife breaks out. (March theme and hefty chords, full blast). The mighty meet (powerful trumpets). Lies poison the air giving rise to a storm of indignation (music grows, march in deeper strings). The Twilight of the Gods, the great battle, cleanses the world (hammering, sharp chords) and the good assemble in paradise (harp chords, beautiful piano melody). The powerful come down from the heavens to make their judgement and pronounce on what is to be made sacred on earth (Quiet ending. Peace and pianissimo). 

The Sibyl’s prophesy 

This is the vision of the creation of earth, its destruction and salvation according to the Old Norse Sibyl’s Prophesy saga dating from around the year 900 AD - put to music by J.P.E. Hartmann in 1872. A “sibyl” is a soothsayer or prophet from Old Norse times. A mysterious figure, just the sort of thing which turned on romantic souls like Hartmann. The more mysterious, the more distant the subject matter, the better. And the music followed of its own accord. The public loved these exotic stories and were utterly moved by the music’s dramatic expressiveness. 

Industry and choral music 

1872 was the year when the Nordic Industrial Exhibition was held in Copenhagen. Inside the industrial pavilion specially built for the occasion there was a large crystal palace, which was very well-suited as a concert hall for a very large symphony orchestra, the local Danish student singers and their colleagues from across the Sound in Lund, who were invited to take part in the grand première of the exhibition. Their participation underlined the “Nordic” aspect of the project. With industry as its backbone, the exhibition expressed a definite belief in the future. 

Odin and Vølven. Drawing by Lorenz Frølich from The Elder Edda's History of God. Retold by Karl Gjellerup, 1895.
Score Music

Did you know?

Source: August Bournonville: Mit Theaterliv, CA Reitzel, 1848-78.

Big talents may recognize each other in the pack: Already, at the age of 15, Hartmann played violets in "The Society for the Distribution of Music" together with the peer August Bournonville, who later became the father of Danish ballet.

The committee's justification

By the committee for Music, 2006

The story of the Prophecy of the Seeress (Vølvens Spådom) found in the Old Norse collection of poems known as the Poetic Edda has fascinated artists from ancient times right up to the present day, where Suzanne Brøgger has rewritten the text and Per Kirkeby has expressed his fascination in a series of lithographs.
In 1832, when 27-year-old J. P. E. Hartmann set Oehlenschläger’s work ‘Guldhornene’ to music, it was the start of a new and special page in his musical development which lasted 50 years. This style, which was perceived as a special Nordic style, developed through the music composed for Oehlenschläger’s tragedies Hakon Jarl, Olaf den Hellige, Knud den Store and Yrsa, reached a new high point in the music for Bournonville’s mythological ballets ‘Valkyrien’ and ‘Thrymskviden’, and culminated in Vølvens Spådom for male choir and large orchestra composed for eight verses of Fr. Winkel Horn’s interpretation. 

The early stages in this development were all purely instrumental; however, Hartmann then focussed his musical strength on four vocal movements which perfected the musical ideas of his major ballet scores: ideas about the prehistoric world and the battle between gods and giants, music as if hewn from granite, with dark ringing tones, huge modulating changes, intense drama and a breathtaking ride of the Valkyries – all of these intense bursts lead towards the vision of paradise-like Gimlé, an apotheosis in A major that ends in a clear pianissimo. For Hartmann, this concluding new world “says what is holy on earth” is more important than the great Ragnarök that creates it.
Along with the lyrical, idyllic folk-inspired opera Liden Kirsten – the most frequently performed Danish opera – Vølvens Spådom is Hartmann’s undisputed masterpiece. Perhaps it was this work that once prompted Richard Wagner to say that he considered Hartmann to be the greatest composer of his time.

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