Music and Ibsen join in message of forgiveness

The Habbestad Ensemble
The Habbestad Ensemble, a family of five, has set Henrik Ibsen's poem Terje Vigen to music for premier in Minnesota
Submitted photo

Long before Henrik Ibsen's critical success with Hedda Gabler, The Doll's House and other stage plays he wrote the poem Terje Vigen. The 43 stanza work is a melodrama filled with love, hate, harrowing scenes and action. It's one of Norway's most popular works since publication in 1862.

The story begins with a fun loving Norwegian sailor who gives up carousing with the boys, marries a pretty young woman who gives birth to their beautiful daughter and the sailor becomes a devoted family man.

Then events turn grim.

Ibsen sets his poem during the Napoleonic wars around 1810. The British have blockaded Norway's ports. No food is getting in. People, including the Norwegian sailor's family, are going hungry. Bill Halverson translated the poem from Norwegian to English.

"Terje Vigen, the hero of the story, rows in a little rowboat all the way from Norway to Denmark a distance of 75 to 80 miles," he says.

Here's a portion of Halverson's translation.

"...The tiniest rowboat could find he chose for his daring deed. Both mast and sail would be left behind. Two oars were all he would need..."

Henrik Ibsen
Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Pacific Lutheran University Language Resource Center

Vigen finds food for his wife and child and begins the treacherous trip back to Norway. Halverson picks up the story.

"On his way back to Norway he's intercepted by a British corvette. He becomes a prisoner, spends five years in prison, gets back to Norway. His wife and daughter have died. He's an embittered man," he says.

Embittered not only because of prison but also because his friends and neighbors accuse him of abandoning his family.

Fate intervenes. The embittered Norwegian sailor returns to the sea. One day he comes upon a boat foundering on the rocks and in danger of taking everyone on board to their death.

"A yacht in distress is skippered by the man who had been the captain of the corvette that had taken him prisoner," Halverson says.

Terje Vigan sees he controls the fate of the man who sent him to prison causing the death of his wife and daughter. But then he sees the man is accompanied by his own wife and daughter. He relents, saves the man and his family and forgives the man his past misdeeds.

Here's more of Haleverson's translation.

"...Those endless years in a prison cell made me sick in the depths of my soul. Since then I have been like a vagabond staring down in a bottomless hole. But now it is gone, we have settled the debt. You need fear no harm from this foe. You took all I had, you silenced my song, complain if you have suffered wrong to our Lord who created me so..."

Bill Halverson says the message of Ibsen's poem is that forgiveness heals the soul.

"The alternative is that you go around holding grudges, that you go around seeking revenge. That is not a recipe for a happy life in my opinion," he says.

Bill Halvorson
Bill Halvorson has translated Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen's poem, Terye Virgen, to English and the Habbestad Ensemble has set it to music for a premier in Minneapolis tonight, Wednesday October 18 and October 31.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Bill Halverson, who lives in Ohio, is more than the translator of the poem. He's part of the inspiration for setting the piece to music with a Norwegian group called the Habbestad Ensemble.

The ensemble is a family of five; a father, mother, two daughters and a son.

Inger Habbestad reads the poem to the music her husband has composed.

"It's nearly like film music, I think, because it really describes the different moods as the story passes on," she says.

Her husband and the composer, Kjell Habbestad, says his composition is influenced by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg and by jazz.

"There are jazz elements in the chords. My harmonic material is much influenced by that," he says.

Kjell Habbestad says he scored the piece for five and then the two Habbested daughters attracted a husband and a boyfriend who have found their place in the group.

"The family has grown a bit so we have added a synthesizer and a baritone singer, so Tejre Vigen himself is taking place in this piece now," he says.

The Habbestads are all conservatory-trained musicians. They make their living composing, performing and recording. The best way to arrange a rehearsal for seven adults all pursuing music careers?

"Well, I have to arrange a tour to the United States and then we come together for rehearsal," Kjell Habbestad says.

The Habbestad Ensemble premiers Kjell Habbestad's music to the Henrik Isben poem Tejre Vigen, in English, Wednesday night in a free concert at Augsburg College's Sateran auditorium. They perform it again October 31st in Minneapolis at the Norwegian Memorial Lutheran Church after 15 other appearances in cities around the region including Lacrosse, Park Rapids, Hibbing and Windom, among others.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.