Up-and-coming Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen considered a few different factors when he sat down to choose the pieces that would become Nordic Christmas. “I looked at works that have been personal favorites in my life and those I thought had the greatest potential in this larger setting,” said Arnesen, “but I also hunted for music that deserved more attention, both in the Nordic countries and internationally.” When it came time to shape the individual carols into Nordic Christmas, he enjoyed putting his own artistic mark on the works. “I find that making some drastic changes to the character of a song can bring out hidden aspects or emotions, leading the listener to discover new meanings in a text,” said Arnesen. “I tend to focus on developing a new character, tempo, and soundscape. This is why Lovely is the Dark Blue Sky turned into a slower, darker piece, and how A Child is Born in Bethlehem became a combination of polka, bluegrass, and French baroque with some elements from the Middle East! I can’t keep the composer in me from writing countermelodies, intros, and interludes. There are actually a lot of my own countermelodies and themes in this work.”
Arnesen discovered there was more to the carols he’d grown up with in Norway than he previously knew. “It was very interesting to learn that many of ‘our’ Christmas carols actually come from other countries,” he said. “That’s true for most of our popular carols, many of which combine a text from one country with music from another. The melody of O Yule, Full of Gladness is actually from Sweden, where it’s not known as a Christmas carol at all. Good Day, You Green and Glittering Tree is very popular in Norway, but it’s of Danish origin, where the melody is only known as a wedding hymn.
That particular carol proved to be the most challenging to incorporate in the arrangement. “I knew I couldn’t include the original harmony in all three verses of Good Day, You Green and Glittering Tree,” said Arnesen, “but to re-harmonize that piece was easier said than done. It turned out to be quite tricky— maybe the style it was originally written in is too far from my tonal idiom. The harmonization of that carol became a puzzle, almost a math problem, where the solution was how to keep it musical, organic, and to my liking. I didn’t want it to become ‘quirky,’ but I did want to bring out the melody in a new way by making some surprises harmonically.”
The attentive listener has more to “watch” for, too: “One small fun fact is that I’ve hidden bits of three very popular English Christmas carols in the work,” said Arnesen. “They are obvious if you hear them, but they go by quickly and might not be easy to recognize the first time you hear the piece!”
Ultimately, the music is about sharing a special moment together and making the memory of that moment linger. “I want the audience to experience the celebration, the mystery, and the spirit of Christmas in this work,” said Arnesen. “All these carols mean so much to me, since I’ve basically grown up with them, singing them in choir in the church or school as a child, or at Christmas Tree parties. These are all carols that can make me cry because they are so beautiful. In Minnesota, many in the audience will be familiar with Nordic culture, so I hope the music will connect with that shared history and heritage. Also, it would be wonderful if they discover a new favorite carol! Whether they play the music at home, sing it to their families, or share it with a choir they sing in, I’d like these Nordic jewels to reach a wider audience.”