I wrote these variations in two weeks after Martin had informed me of the tragic destiny of Yodit. The Norwegian folksong ‘Å, den svalande vind’ (‘Oh, the cooling wind’) is a tune I have used for many improvisations at the piano. With that experience in mind, it was easy for me to write the piece in quite a short time.
Å den svalande vind
Stryk om heiane inn,
Friskar opp i min sorgtunge hug
Å den svalar vel godt
Men det hjelper ikkje stort
Denne sorgi hev falle meg so tung.
Oh, the cooling wind
Sweeps in from the heaths
And freshens up my grief-stricken soul.
Oh, it is so very refreshing.
But it does not help much at all,
For my sorrow is so very heavy.
The melody is said to be from Telemark (In the central-south of Norway), but there are some who argue that it is from the west coast. The song was sung by the folk-singer Johan Austbø (1879–1945) from Sogn (to the north of Bergen) and recorded by the NRK (the Norwegian state broadcaster) in 1939. Austbø claimed to have written the text himself – but the melody from Telemark is quite different from the Sogn version, and so perhaps it is a song which has ‘wandered’, changing with the landscape and the temperament of the people. The Telemark version seems to me a bit more sophisticated and logical in its form, and so I adopted this one.
The introduction, Un poco adagio, is a kind of encircling of the theme, a development that comes before the event or an ‘improvisation’ on the subject. Originally the theme is in 4/4 and in E minor, but I have given it a looser structure than it might be given when written down in a songbook. The first variation, Più mosso ma non troppo, is in 12/8 and presents a simple figural variation in the violins. In Var. II the melodic line continues in the cellos with an augmented fragment of the theme high in the violins. Var. III is in a slow tempo (Adagio) and every phrase ends up with a dissonance. Is something going to happen? The fourth variation, Andante semplice, changes the mood: suddenly the theme appears as a plainsong in E flat major, almost like a simple and happy Salvation Army tune, which changes to an even more heavenly variant in the fifth variation in the violins and violas. With Vars. VI and VII, both Allegro moderato, comes more dramatic music, with aggressive questions answered as if from another dimension. The eighth variation, in the same tempo, is a prayer or meditation, with questions from the full body of strings answered by four solo violins. In the ninth variation, Subito allegro drammatico, the theme is broken into fragments in a kind of calm before the storm. The drama loosens its reins in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth variations, and the climax is reached in the middle of Var. XIII. The fourteenth and fifteenth variations represent the sorrow after a terrible disaster. The latter has even fragments of a funeral march. A repetition of the theme in its original form ends the piece.