Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.
Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson, and this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. When I started this podcast a couple of years ago, my intent was to have occasional episodes focused on the role of music in various countries and their cultures. They were going to be called Sound of Your Heritage episodes. The first of these episodes was a look at music’s role in Jewish culture and celebrations. That was way back in episode seven, and that episode has consistently been one of the show’s most downloaded episodes. I have not been very good about keeping up on these heritage features, mostly just because I have not crossed paths with the right people, so I’m really excited for the opportunity to highlight another country and culture in today’s episode, especially one that is so well represented right here in the Twin Cities where I live, and that is the Norwegian culture. In fact, my guests today also lives right here in the Twin Cities. Dr. Melissa Holm Johansen is a native of Haldon, Norway, and is a professional singer and award-winning voice teacher. Melissa majored in both vocal performance and music education at St. Olaf College and holds a doctor of Musical Arts degree in vocal pedagogy and performance from the University of Minnesota. She teaches at Shattuck St. Mary’s schools and also in her private studio. Welcome to enhance life with music, Melissa.
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:01:31] Thank you so much for having me.
Mindy Peterson: [00:01:34] The Twin Cities has a pretty unique relationship with Norway. Can you tell us a little bit about the Norwegian representation that we have here in terms of residents universities with Norwegian ties and Norway House in Minneapolis?
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:01:50] Of course. Yeah, I mean, it is definitely a home away from home for me, which is not surprising. You know, I had to actually like, Look this up and just get some more specifics on the numbers. And I wasn’t surprised at how large the Norwegian heritage is here, of course. But back in two thousand, they estimated that over to eight hundred and fifty thousand people in the state of Minnesota have Norwegian ancestry. Wow. And that’s pretty high. And the southeast part of Minnesota is highly represented, and that actually was the location where the first settlers came was southeast Minnesota and specifically in the town of Spring Grove, Minnesota. So I thought that was a little bit interesting. Yeah. And of course, after the American Civil War and with some time the settlers spread out across the state of Minnesota. And, you know, not surprisingly, in all the rural communities we have in Minnesota, I think we find the Norwegian heritage strong. Very strong. Mm-hmm. And then not surprising to most people like St. Olaf College, of course, in Northfield is probably the one college that pops in our mind and we think about Norwegian heritage. Also, my alma mater and St. Olaf was founded in eighteen seventy four by a group of Norwegian American settlers, colonial pastors and farmers, and it was, of course named by the Norwegian king and patron saint, all of the second of Norway. And he had that affiliation with the Lutheran Church of America. So both St. Olaf College and Augsburg College have today programs and degrees for students in both language and literature programs. And I think on average together, Augsburg in St. Olaf College graduate like somewhere between eight to 10 students annually in a degree program of Norwegian language and culture and literature. So I thought that was interesting. Yeah, and they both also offer overseas programs for studies. So in Norway? Correct.
Mindy Peterson: [00:04:03] Ok. Yeah. Well, and of course, here we have the Vikings football team also, and I saw that both of the country vice presidents with Minnesota roots Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale were the children of Norwegian immigrants, which is interesting as well.
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:04:20] Correct? Yes.
Mindy Peterson: [00:04:21] When we had the chance to talk earlier about some of the main categories of distinctly Norwegian music, you mentioned patriotic music, folk music and Lutheran choral music. Can you tell us a little bit more about each of these three categories of Norwegian music?
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:04:41] Yeah, I mean, I don’t think we have enough time to really dive too deep into all of the overview and an overview of a brief overview. Yeah, I think, you know, the Norwegian folk music is very strong and strongly represented today in classical music, in pop music. As well with references to traditional instruments and melodies and modality, et cetera, a very brief overview of the Norwegian traditional folk music is that it’s divided into two categories instrumental and vocal. And in the instrumental folk music genre, we find dance music primarily and in the region. Those are called slotted and spelled SL. O TTR slotted their social dances very often performed by couples. They’re divided into two categories of either being in a two beat or three beat pattern, or we think of it as double and triple and the double dances, which I think I mentioned to you before. Mindy are the howling h, a fly and G or the gong. The G A and G A.R., excuse me, Gunga. And then the three beat dance, which is. Then, of course, the triplet is called a Springer Spry and G Air, and to spring it just means to spring forth, spring up. So the spring is the three beat downs versus the others. Ok. And then, of course,
Mindy Peterson: [00:06:20] These dances or songs that kids learn in elementary school? Correct, right? Yes. So this is part of standard curriculum that students learn these folk songs
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:06:32] Exactly
Mindy Peterson: [00:06:32] Which is cool. I mean, there’s so many songs that I think of as traditional American folk songs that kids don’t even know anymore. Like, I’ll have students come and we’re talking about intervals and OK, the interval of a let’s say a third sounds like the first two notes of For. He’s a jolly good fellow and I play a little bit of the that tune and students kind of give me this blank stare like for he’s a jolly good, what you know. So I think it’s kind of cool that these folk songs are being kept alive and taught to kids in schools.
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:07:06] Absolutely. And like I mentioned to you here, a so much influence in which contemporary Norwegian choral music, contemporary Norwegian song and piano music, you know, folk music is such an important part of the musical tradition in Norway, and I love that we can still hear that in all of the classical music and the contemporary choral music and even pop music today. Not not, you know, it’s not all the time, but it’s definitely there.
Mindy Peterson: [00:07:36] So I think tell me more about the pop music connection.
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:07:40] Well, I was I was listening to a lot of variety of pop music around the 17th of May, which is the Constitution Day in Norway. Yeah, and a lot of the pop music that came on Spotify was very folk music inspired, and I just thought that was really surprising, but also wonderful to hear. So I think it’s going back to the roots. You know, everything kind of goes in cycles. And I think one of what I’ve read about and what I hear a lot in Norwegian contemporary pop and jazz music today is that the younger generations have so much interest in going back to their roots and learning about these dances that I just mentioned, or these vocal music genres called stem and covered. And and what what those are are very they were very often improvised short little melodies, which could sound very model, and I can get into that in a second talking about the minor modes. But anyway, you hear the inspiration of these short little improvised melodies and very modal melodies that you hear in Norwegian folk music. And I love that you can still hear that in pop music today.
Mindy Peterson: [00:08:52] Ok. And so the pop music that you’re referring to, that’s pop music by Norwegian or correct? Yes. Ok. Oh, that is cool. That’s interesting. Well, for listeners, Melissa loaned me a copy of this book. It’s a collection of Norwegian folk songs. It’s a beautiful, gorgeous book. I’ll take pictures and put them in the show notes. But she loaned that to me in preparation for this episode or conversation, and it was fascinating to look through this. There are so many cool illustrations, plus this collection of all of these folk songs and then really great information. Texts and descriptions about each of these songs to you kind of alluded to the different modalities a minute ago. I noticed in the book it did say that most of Norway’s folk tunes are in a minor key, which I found kind of interesting because here in the U.S., we tend to think of the minor mode. It kind of hits us as sounding sad. And when I think of folk music, I think of something that sounds upbeat and cheerful. So talk to us a little bit about that in Norway. Do people does that minor mode not really hit them as being sad?
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:10:04] I think that’s part of it. I think that’s a very big part of it. I think it’s just because it’s traditionally what was, I guess, orally distributed among the people to. And because the Norwegian folk melodies originated from traditional folk instruments and we don’t have enough time to go into all the details about those instruments, but these instruments employed non tempered intervals. So what we refer to as blue notes. You know, the blue note scale flat, flat, three, flat, six, that kind of stuff. And these intervals don’t typically modulate and therefore they don’t require this automatic function. And the more I kind of thought about that, it makes sense. I don’t always think that these melodies need to modulate or go somewhere. They just they can be what they are and stand independent. So I think that rather than thinking of the tunes as being sad in nature, if we can, by listening more to this music, we can kind of hear it more as modality. And these melodies being model, they’re more nonfunctional. But then it. But then because of that non functionality, they just have more uniqueness to them, if that makes any sense.
Mindy Peterson: [00:11:24] So it almost sounds like they’re not necessarily fitting into a strict modality of major or minor. It’s almost like this in between grey area where they sort of just have their own unique sound. Exactly. It doesn’t fit into the the strict box of either one. Oh, interesting. Well, let’s see. So that was Norwegian folk music. Anything else you want to say about that before we talk about either patriotic music or the Lutheran choral music?
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:11:51] No, I can come back to to, you know, the importance of Edvard Grieg in his writing and how he and how so many of his songs feature exactly that. Those melodies.
Mindy Peterson: [00:12:03] So tell us a little bit more about patriotic music. Norwegian patriotic music.
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:12:07] Yeah, patriotic Norwegian music came what we know of as the national romantic scene. Every country has national romanticism. Norway had it as well, and it came out of for many reasons. But the independence that Norway gained in 1814, the Constitution 1814 and gaining its independence from Denmark was a big reason for why this national romanticism burst out. You know, it came to be and also known as the golden age of Norwegian music. And in this patriotic music scene and national romantic music, you hear folk music, which I’ve already talked about the music of the the rural parts of Norway, the peasants. And it was so important for the composers and the poets at the time to represent Norwegian folklore and have it be part of their compositional style. And this connection to folk tunes and wanting to promote Norwegian folklore and not necessarily only going with the European trends, but keeping with the Norwegian traditions that continued way into the into the 19th century and also into the 20th century and through the wars the World War one and World War Two. You still hear Norwegian classical music very much featuring folk music, and it wasn’t actually until the late fifties. Nineteen fifties, where you see a big shift in how composers, which kind of styles the composers of the time chose to write in. So I thought that was really interesting. It’s just been such a strong component of classical music, you know, with composers like Edward Greig and actually the first major Norwegian composer. His name was Bill Bo, the ukelele, and he was a violinist and single handedly responsible for not just convincing Greig to keep studying and to travel to Europe to study, but also responsible in big part of his international and, well, European success first, but then international success after that. So he was a very important name in Norwegian classical composition.
Mindy Peterson: [00:14:35] That’s really interesting that all of this patriotic music, which is a huge component of Norwegian music, really had its genesis in 1814, which isn’t that terribly long ago, but that makes sense with the country becoming independent. One thing I found really interesting that you told me is that this patriotic music is not only sung at sporting events, which were very familiar with that concept here in the U.S., but it’s also sung at. Baptisms and graduations and confirmations, which I thought was really interesting, because that’s not something that’s common here in the U.S., right?
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:15:08] You know, it’s kind of a combination of these patriotic songs and folk songs and what we had spoken a little bit about Mindy, where the guests for a particular occasion show up with their own written texts to familiar songs that everyone knows. Yeah, that where they specifically highlight the person being celebrated, whether it’s a child graduating or who’s been baptized anyway. And so this is a huge part of Norwegian get togethers and coming together and celebrating and having parties that you sit together around a big table and you sing these songs that everyone knows the tunes everyone else, but with unique texts that are specifically directed to the person being celebrated. And that is such a big part of my upbringing, and I love that I thought it was unique and it’s so special because it becomes becomes more about that.
Mindy Peterson: [00:16:06] Yeah, tell us more about that, because my understanding is that if somebody say it’s their birthday or like you said, they’re they’re being baptized or graduating, people will show up with this familiar tune that everyone knows so everyone can sing along with it. But then they’ve come up with their own, like you said, their own tax and their own lyrics, and everybody sings this together, and this is real common at gathering. It is
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:16:30] Right. It is, and that’s one thing that I really missed after moving to the states, although, you know, Americans love to sing and when they come together as well.
Mindy Peterson: [00:16:39] So would it be sort of like if we got together for a birthday and somebody was assigned to give a toast and instead of a toast, it was OK? Here’s a tune we all know Twinkle Twinkle Little stars, let’s say that. And I’ve composed my own lyrics to this, and everybody knows the tune. Here’s the lyrics We’re all going to sing this together in honor of this person. Would it be sort of
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:17:02] Comparable to that? Exactly. Yeah.
Mindy Peterson: [00:17:04] And do people just show up with these lyrics on their own kind of like they would write a birthday card and instead of the card, they write these this text? Or is that like somebody assigned to do this almost like someone would be assigned to give a toast at a wedding?
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:17:18] Yeah, you know, these booklets that are being put together as both somebody, you know, it’s usually the host family that that assembles all these different lyrics and you put them to put it together. And so it’s a little booklet for each of the guests around the table. So everyone is, you know, kind of reading through the booklet together. Yeah, it’s just a great tradition. And that’s definitely one thing I miss a lot.
Mindy Peterson: [00:17:45] Yeah. Well, sounds so meaningful. I mean, just to have that memento of the occasion, to have the the text that somebody specially wrote this for you, it would be sort of like a very meaningful card that somebody wrote. But then music just has such a bonding effect. And when you have this group of loved ones and friends who are all singing this together, I’m just I’ve never experienced that, but I can imagine it would be incredibly meaningful and bonding.
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:18:15] Very bonding. Yeah, I mean, I think that the love of choral music and the love of singing has has been around for such a long time, you know, and in Norway, it dates all the way back to the 12th century, actually. So in terms of the choral music, and it’s important.
Mindy Peterson: [00:18:32] So yeah, tell us a little bit more about the Lutheran choral music that’s so important to Norway.
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:18:36] So it dates back to the 12th century and like most European countries, it was cultivated in monasteries in Norway. The choral tradition consists of both Catholic and Lutheran reform, which I thought was really interesting being reminded of that, that I thought it was strictly from Lutheran reform. But there are traditions that go that also belong to Catholicism. And it wasn’t really until the 19th century before we see more of what the typical choral singing tradition looks like looks like. So it was until the 19th century before we saw that. And I think one thing when I moved here from from Norway right away, I knew how important choral singing was here and I could. I noticed right away the traditions that came from Norway in terms of the community and coming together and singing, and that wasn’t really a surprise to me. But what I thought was surprising were the lack of competitions in Norway. Competitive choral singing is something that’s existed since the eighteen fifties. And of course, here we have so much emphasis put on conferences and festivals and coming together and singing in large groups and mass ensembles, which I think is fantastic. But in Norway. Festivals are still a big, big part of it. But in Norway, the competition. We’re a little bit more highlighted, I should say, a little bit more important, so it’s different. But needless to say, choral music is something that is still very, very, very big part of Norwegian music. I was just reading just the other day that there’s a town in Norway, I think a mountain town in Norway with only six thousand people in it. And within this town of 6000 people, there were fifty five choirs. Oh my, wow. I thought that was really that’s mind blowing, you know? So they love their choirs, and I think it’s I think it’s coming together. It’s community. It’s as we know it’s healthy, it’s being healthy, it’s good for the soul, it’s good for the physical and mental state and all of that.
Mindy Peterson: [00:20:43] Right? Yeah, there’s so much research that backs that up. And it’s interesting that Norway has really recognized that and for whatever reason, has just a really strong emphasis on that. Well, tell us more about the important Norwegian holidays and the role that music plays in celebrating them. And we talked a little bit already about special milestone events like graduations and baptisms and things like that. But tell us a little bit about the big holidays and how music plays into those celebrations.
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:21:12] Yeah, and I think I alluded to it already. The Constitution Day in Norway is setting them I that is May 17th, which reflects our independence on 18 14 from Denmark, where Norwegians get dressed in their national costumes, their parades, big parades in the capital city of Oslo that leads all the way up to the castle where you wear the royal family is standing on the balcony and waving lots of music for this entire day. It’s a holiday, whether it falls on the Tuesday or Friday. It’s it’s a holiday for every Norwegian, so you don’t go to work. And marching bands is a very big part of this, of course, with parades. And it’s a day where people just get dressed to the nines and celebrate lots of Norwegian flags and lots of speeches. And it’s just a festive, very festive day and very formal, very formal as opposed to our Fourth of July, you know, which is very informal. So I would say something to me is the biggest milestone in terms of our holiday. We do celebrate Christmas Eve. We don’t really celebrate Christmas Day, and that’s pretty traditional for most of the world to celebrate Christmas Eve. Most people go to church on Christmas Eve. Again, it’s it’s a service that’s reflected with lots of music and lots of candle lights, so it’s more of a coming together and being in a quiet, peaceful, dark place. And that goes back to traditions of Yule, where it’s more families coming together and, you know, around the Christmas tree and having candle lights and singing to each other and more of that cozy feeling which which of course, is a big part of Norwegian winter traditions.
Mindy Peterson: [00:22:58] Yeah. What’s that hoga or how do you pronounce?
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:23:01] Well, what you get here is the Danish word for it. And that’s OK. In Norwegian, it’s cool. But kousoulis?
Mindy Peterson: [00:23:09] Yeah, OK, yeah. Tell us about the Christmas Eve dance around the Christmas tree that you mentioned to me earlier.
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:23:15] Yeah, sure. So people get up and they walk around the tree holding hands, and you could have like one chain of people going around and the other group of people going the opposite direction and you sing sing songs around the Christmas tree. Very often you will have an accordion player present for this.
Mindy Peterson: [00:23:33] So it’s kind of like concentric circles of people holding hands and going around the Christmas tree, sometimes in opposite direction
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:23:40] From each other. Yeah. And nursery rhymes, children’s Christmas songs, folk songs, a little mix, but very much more upbeat and kind of directed towards children.
Mindy Peterson: [00:23:54] Yeah. Ok. As you’re talking about these different holidays and ways of incorporating music into celebrations, one thing that is really hitting me is it sounds much more participatory in Norway in terms of people entering into making music themselves, rather than it being a spectator. Sport like somebody else is entertaining me and I’m watching and listening to them singing. In Norway, it sounds like it’s much more participatory. Is that accurate? I think
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:24:22] So. Absolutely.
Mindy Peterson: [00:24:24] Ok, well, tell us a little bit more about Edvard Grieg and why he is so important in the Norwegian musical canon.
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:24:30] Yeah, I mean, he’s definitely the biggest composer to come out of Norway, much to, you know, the credit of Bulbbul, which I already mentioned, but also poets at the time and at the time we’re getting was growing up and studying music. There was this humongous patriotism and national romanticism, of course, that I mentioned already kind of a build up with these poets like Ibsen and. The own son, Craig Craig. All these names. And so these poets had such close relationships with the composers at the time, so it was very much a working collaborative connection where the poets encourage the composers and vice versa, and they also supported each other and helped promote each other, which I thought was really, really fascinating to study up on. But Greg was born in 1843, and he spent most of his student life in Leipzig. He also studied for a little bit in Denmark, and then from there on he went from Copenhagen. He went on to Leipzig. And he, of course, is the biggest name to come out of Norway. We think of his giant music as his most important music, and of course, that’s what put him on the international scene. And much to the credit of Henrik Ibsen, of course, Ibsen, who really, if it wasn’t for the fact that this was Ibsen work, then it might not have been as popular. But once pigment became known to the to the musical world, his his fame was, you know, he just took off for him. So it is an important feature of Norwegian music. We we all kind of know a lot of his tunes, of course, many of his melodies from Kitigan to be here in commercials and hear him on the TV and the radio all the time. You know, these little tunes, little snippets of melodies taken from in the Hall of the Mountain King or
Mindy Peterson: [00:26:29] Morning are any of those melodies included in cartoons too?
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:26:33] You know, I believe they are. I think in the Hall and Lion King for sure has been featured in the cartoons. Yeah.
Mindy Peterson: [00:26:39] Well, is there anything else that comes to your mind that I haven’t already asked you about that? You’d really like listeners to know about Norwegians and the relationship to music?
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:26:49] I think we’ve covered pretty much probably like we haven’t covered everything, but we’ve covered a lot. And even and it’s kind of like scratching the surface, you know, it’s just, you know, if we had hours and hours, we’d get into the nitty gritty. But right, last thing you know, unless you were going to ask me about the CD.
Mindy Peterson: [00:27:06] Yeah, tell us about your new CD.
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:27:08] That’s yeah. And of course, good segue from talking about getting because it’s all about Greek. The CD that I recorded is twenty five songs by Edward Greig, and it’s
Mindy Peterson: [00:27:21] Quite a hefty
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:27:21] Album. It’s a hefty album. A lot of them are short, you know, blink and you miss it. You know, some of them are a minute and 30 seconds something. And then somewhere, you know, between four and six and seven minutes. But twenty five songs of his written in a wide array of his opus All the way back to Opus from Opus Five, which was his engagement present to Nina, his his fiance at the time, he was only 17 or 18 years old at the time when he wrote Opus five. Yeah. And then it stretches all the way up to Opus seventy one. So the CD covers a big span from Opus five all the way up to Opus seventy one twenty five of his beloved songs. But the uniqueness of this CD, of course, is that this is the first professional recording of his songs performed in English, so this is an entirely English translated project that I was very fortunate to do during the pandemic August of Twenty Twenty, just a little over a year ago where we use the landmark center, the basement of the Landmark Centre in St. Paul and recorded with me and my wonderful collaborative pianist Steve Swanson at the piano that was generously donated by Schubert clubs. So we had a beautiful nine foot Steinway given to us by Schubert Club and just the two of us on stage and the producer and the sound engineer were in a room next to us. So it was a really fabulous project to have and to dive into when we were, you know, all kind of tied to the house and locked up. So being able to have that project was very meaningful to me.
Mindy Peterson: [00:28:57] Absolutely, sir. And where’s the best place for listeners to go to learn more about that project and more about your work?
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:29:03] If you go to Norway, house their website, which is WW dot Norway org, you can click on the programs and under the programs and different things that Norway House offers, you will find the Edvard Grieg society. So if you click on the Greek society, you will get direct links to the recording. And the recording is called Songs from the Heart with myself and Steve Swanson.
Mindy Peterson: [00:29:28] Wonderful. And I will for sure include all those links in the show notes and also the link to your website for for listeners who want to learn more about you. Well, thank you so much for this fascinating information. I do ask all of my guests to close out our conversation with a musical ending a coda by sharing a song or story about a moment that music enhanced your life. Do you have a song or a story that you can close things out for us with today?
Dr. Melissa Holm-Johansen: [00:29:56] Well, I think that you are about to include the teaser. That was part of the concert promotion. The concert version, I should say, of the recording that I just spoke about. So I recorded the concert version in March of 2021. And the concert was released on Vimeo on the Norway House website, and you can still find a link to this concert and purchase this concert, if you wish.