King Harald’s Saga : Becoming King Harald (and seven other characters too)

About a year ago, I started learning and studying King Harald’s Saga by the British (and living!) composer Judith Weir. This grand opera for unaccompanied soprano includes three acts, an epilogue and eight different roles all sung by one soprano. It tells the epic tale of Harald Hardrada, a Viking king and warrior who fought many battles, triumphed over his enemies, conquered many cities and ultimately died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. It was commissioned by soprano Jane Manning and premiered on May 17, 1979 in Scotland.  The music is atonal, unaccompanied, and very challenging. 

I began learning this piece about a year ago, and made a recording last spring. I am preparing to re-record it this semester, so I am diving back into the score. Because the music is so tricky, I’m really having to re-learn a lot of it to get the intervals back into my ear.

Musical Characteristics 

  1. Atonal, dissonant intervals, unaccompanied: no piano/accompaniment or key signatures
  2. Huge range: F# below middle C to high C above the staff and phrases that quickly move throughout the whole range (in dissonant/non-triadic, non-diatonic intervals)
  3. Tessitura: entire sections that sit in the very low/chest voice tessitura, or very high/all above the staff (This could be helped by transposing the entire piece which Weir permits, but because of the enormous range it’s pretty unhelpful to transpose.)
  4. A TON of text: (including spoken narration at the top of each Act), specific and eventful plot to unfold while handling the musical challenges as well 
  5. Melismatic sections: complex, dissonant, modulatory, atonal, wide range/tessitura, repetitive but subtle changes
  6. Dramatic challenges of portraying eight different characters: quick changes between characters and musical style/material 
    1. King Harald ‘Hardradi’ of Norway
    2. Earl Tostig, brother of King Harold of England
    3. St. Olaf of Trondheim, King Harald’s brother
    4. Elizabeth, King Harald’s wife
    5. Thora, another wife of King Harald
    6. A messenger
    7. A soldier
    8. The Norwegian Army
    9. An Icelandic Sage

**My favorite part of the entire opera is probably the end of Act II duet between King Harald’s wives — It is maybe one of the hardest moments musically and dramatically… And it utilizes two twelve-tone rows happening simultaneously!!**

Coming back to this piece, I’m realizing how much of a challenge it is going to be to get it performance ready again. My voice has changed and grown since the last time I recorded it and it’s difficult not to fall back into old habits. I went through the entire piece today and played through section by section to get the phrases and intervals back into my brain. Usually when learning a new piece, I play the melody on the piano and then sing it back, marking (singing down the octave). This is a great way to practice because you can get the melody learned without making it a physicality in the voice. The tricky thing about King Harald’s Saga is that the range jumps around SO much that marking is almost impossible to do. One thing that has been helpful in learning this piece is actually transcribing the notes into a one-octave range and making the intervals closer together (doing this exercise is how I figured out the Wives’ duet was double twelve-tone rows). 

Another big challenge is memorizing all the text. Acts I and II are pretty straightforward, but the Norwegian Army chorus at the top of Act III has such repetitive motives with subtle changes in the text, rhythm, and harmony that I never was able to successfully get that section memorized. The same issue occurs at the end of Act III when a Soldier is describing the final battle scene. The intervals are so jarring and seemingly random, which musically depicts the chaos and struggle of physical fighting really well. Adding the syllabic and detailed text to the music has been very,  very tough. Many words like “flinching, kicking, jolting, rearing, tripping, falling, shouting, roaring” are easy to get mixed up! 

My next task in this process of re-learning this piece is to write down all of the text in paragraph form separate from the score. I think finding some delineated sections within the poetry may help me find the form in the musical material. It will also be helpful to just memorize the libretto away from the music so that I can better understand and portray the story.

Another task I would like to do to aid in memorizing melismatic sections: Transcribe the phrases twice: once as-written and another condensing the melody into a one-octave/smaller range. After transcribing I think it would be helpful to find the harmonic structure or underlying “tonic” within and throughout each phrase. 

Additionally, I need to examine the score markings with great focus again. There are very specific and numerous details given by Weir concerning dynamics, tempi, style, breathing, articulation and so on. As it is my second time preparing and performing this piece, I want to execute those details with as much precision as possible and find meaning in these details in connection to the text. 

I’ve done some preliminary research as I am also writing a paper on this piece. I’ve saved many articles and have begun reading the Icelandic saga “Heimskringla” by Snorri Sturluson, which the opera is based on. There are a few topics that I know I want to dig further into and include in my research. 

  • Norwegian folk music/melodies: how Judith Weir incorporated this native music 
  • History of King Harald: which events are depicted, understanding the context and stories of King Harald and all other characters
  • Judith Weir – her connection to this piece, musical style, composition approach, history and output
  • Detailed musical analysis: key centers/areas, dissonance, compositional techniques

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