Nancy Dalberg’s String Quartets

6220655 - cover

WP 2019 - 2DALBERG: String Quartets Nos. 1-3 / Nordic String Quartet / Dacapo 6.220655

Nancy Dalberg (1881-1949) is not a name that will light up marquees in the classical world; in fact, most people outside Denmark have never heard of her; yet she was one of Carl Nielsen’s prized pupils and wrote orchestral works and songs in addition to these string quartets. Still, her output is not large, and since it all came into being between 1909 and 1930 there is no real demarcation between an early or late period for her. All of her music is good, and all of it is consistent in style and tone.

This CD marks the first time that her first and third string quartets have been recorded, even in her home country, and it’s a shame because it is clear from listening to them that she was a musician of high quality. From the liner notes:

Nancy Dalberg, née Hansen, was the daughter of the enterprising pharmacist and manufacturer Chr. D.A. Hansen, who established a technical-chemical laboratory in the 1870s and became an extremely wealthy man. She was born on her parents’ Zealand estate Bøstrup near Slagelse in 1881, but grew up on her family’s other estate, Mullerup, in Gudbjerg on the island of Funen. As a child she learnt to play the piano, and after marrying the engineer officer Erik Dalberg at the early age of 20 and settling in Copenhagen she continued her advanced piano studies with pianist Ove Christensen. This did not, however, lead to a career as a concert pianist, as she was unfortunate enough to contract chronic tenosynovitis [inflammation of the fluid-filled sheath that surrounds a tendon, typically leading to joint pain, swelling, and stiffness]. At a private concert she gave for charity in 1907 she played demanding works by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, which underlines her ambition to make her mark within the traditional classical-Romantic repertoire – if only her physique had been able to cope with this.

Her marriage to the artistically gifted Erik Dalberg remained childless and was not a happy one, despite the fact that they shared a passion for music, which, among other things, was expressed in texts he wrote and which she set to music. In 1909, Nancy Dalberg began to study the theory of music and composition under the Norwegian composer and Kapellmeister Johan Svendsen. After his death in 1911, she continued her studies under the composer Carl Nielsen. Here she gained a thorough grounding not only in harmony and counterpoint but also a practical one in musical analysis and orchestration. Nielsen required her, for example, to orchestrate a piano adaptation of Mozart’s G minor Symphony, K.550, and after a while she became so familiar with his way of orchestrating that she was able to assist him. Parts of Carl Nielsen’s Funen Springtime were actually orchestrated by Nancy Dalberg during a summer stay at Mullerup, where Nielsen himself was a welcome guest.

Nancy Dalberg 2So there you have it—a very gifted composer and arranger, but not a prolific one. From the first notes of the first string quartet (1915), the mark of Nielsen’s teaching is evident, yet she does not copy him. Her music, at least in the first movement here, has a certain feeling of melancholy not normally found in her teacher’s music, although it is developed, like his, along classic lines and has a good amount of passion and energy in it. Her handling of harmony, like Nielsen of this period, is in the late-Romantic tradition. The music sounds typically Nordic but is not mushy or sentimental, as were the works of other women composers of her time. You’d never guess that this was the work of a “woman composer”—but then again, you could say the same thing about the works of the immensely gifted Lili Boulanger. Towards the end of the first movement, the tempo suddenly increases and the music becomes very passionate indeed, ending on a D minor chord with the cello emphasizing the fifth or A. This proves to be notable since the second movement, a scherzo, is n A major. The third movement “Adagio” has a minor-key melody that will break your heart in a Schubertian vein. The last movement, a “Vivace,” is both energetic and slightly edgy at the same time, with a slower minor-key interlude in the middle. This is very fine music by any standard.

The second quartet, from 1922, shows her growth as an artist. The first movement here, which begins slowly and moodily in the minor, suddenly explodes passionately. There’s a certain quality about it that reminds one of Schubert in his more personal and pain-filled music, yet the harmonic language, though still tonal, is more advanced. She then forged a melody that is somewhat memorable but somewhat distorted as if from personal pain, which is developed by the quartet. The mood and tempo shifts continue on to the end of the movement. This is followed by the “Allegro scherzando,” which uses swirling figures in the violins played against a melodic line in the viola and pizzicato cello, with even more interesting chord changes. In this quartet, the slow movement is more pastoral in feeling, less melancholy, with a gently rocking motion in its simple but effective melodic line. But then the tempo suddenly increases a bit and the cello croaks out a 7-note motif that is repeated before the upper strings re-enter, now playing in a more emotional manner. Although the last movement is marked “Allegro molto e con spirito,” there is more molto than spirito in this music as it alternates between energetic but not happy movement and sad minor-key themes.

In the third quartet, written in 1927, Dalberg  throws in some interesting harmonic change in the first movement, which is in G minor, and the fast second movement is quite edgy, not at all bucolic. In the middle of the movement, Dalberg heightened the tension via a series of rising chromatics, leading to a sad, forlorn, falling melody. By this time, she was already having problems with her husband, who by this time was suffering from an undiagnosable mental disorder and spent the last years of his life in psychiatric clinics. Nancy didn’t divorce him until around 1941, staying with him through all those years of madness, and one can sense some of her melancholy in the ensuing “Allegretto simplice.” The third movement, “Tempo giusto,” follows immediately on its heels and is a bizarre, angular piece, also in the minor, with edgy downbow attacks from the upper strings while the cello plays a mad, continuous pizzicato beneath them. At around 3:45 we get an ostinato rhythmic figure played by the viola while the violins protest against it in their upper range.

Nancy Dalberg was quite obviously a fine composer who deserves wider recognition. The Nordic String Quartet plays with a bright tone and excellent feeling for the music, which makes this an exceptional release in every respect.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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