The Andrée Expedition

Dominick Argento – “The Andrée Expedition” / “Isjungfrun
(Words by Helena Munktell [1852 – 1919]) / “
Upp genom luften” (March for Piano by Herman Ahlberg) / “Luftsegling” (Piano pieces by Carl Axel Strindberg [1845 – 1927]) / “Vid Nordpolen” (Polka for Violin & Piano by Adolf Nordholm)
Bengt Nordfors (tenor), Bengt Forsberg (piano), Nils Erik Sparf (Violin on “
Vid Nordpolen”)
Nosag Records CD 021. Duration: 60:01.

Few scientific expeditions have drawn as much attention and excited our fantasy as much as the totally failing Andrée Expedition of 1897. On 11th July 1897 the three participants – Salomon August Andrée, Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel – left Svalbard in a balloon, headed for the North Pole, and nothing was heard from them in thirty-three years. Their remnants were found on the island of Hvitön in the eastern archipelago of Svalbard in 1930. Along with the bodies the diaries the men had kept and the undeveloped photographs they had taken were salvaged, and of course this is the stuff antique dramas are made of. All the ingredients of a magic fairy-tale of heroes and heroic deeds are present, as well as aspects of love and death and the strength – right up to the moment of the final defeat – of the fighting human spirit, losing its grip out in the polar darkness, finally succumbing to the overwhelming forces of nature and the desolate situation of the three men.

Many things have been written about this tragedy. As indicated above, the event has all the characteristics of a Hollywood movie, with the exception that this one is not made up, but actually constitutes a concrete story out of real life, as improbable as it seems. It also has another quality to it, in the suspicion that the members of the expedition must have expected the venture to fail – and yet they went! This has something to say about the way the human spirit is set up to work, and I suspect this is the spirit that in fact will send a crew of gallant riders on an expedition to the planet Mars, with equally slim chances of survival – and yet… they will go…

The starting point at Svalbard with the balloon house

It makes me wonder, makes me fall back into a meditative state… I just watched Lennart Nilsson’s movie of the creation of a human being, right from the merger of sperm and egg cell to the birth of a child, and I couldn’t help glancing at the picture of planet Earth that I have on the wall, taken on the way back from the Moon, thereby getting the feeling of the microcosmos and the macrocosmos with us right in between in one wholehearted feeling! It’s all a mystery, and I love to dwell on it, getting things into perspective – a weird perspective… and God lurks in the wings, and in the back of my mind…

Per-Olof Sundman wrote a novel – “
The Flight of Engineer Andrée” – that was filmed by Jan Troell. The book also inspired Dominick Argento to write a song-cycle – “The Andrée Expedition” – that is presented on this CD from Nosag Records.

The textual basis for Argento’s work is mostly authentic, right out of the diary and unsent letters of Nils Strindberg, and the diaries of August Andrée; one official, scientific, and one personal. No written documents of Knut Fraenkel were discovered – perhaps he didn’t write any – but his parts in the score were assembled via citations from Strindberg’s and Andrée’s notes.

It’s fascinating to listen to these texts in this setting, as a song-cycle in the vein of Schubert’s “
Winterreise”. The musicians do a good job. Renowned pianist Bengt Forsberg accompanies the tenor Bengt Nordfors in decisive and forceful gestures of the keyboard, and the singer accurately moulds the story - those direct wordings of the doomed men - in a spellbinding performance. When these texts, jotted down in an increasingly impossible - finally lethal - situation out on the polar expanses, under hostile stars, reappear in the guise of a song-cycle of a classical tradition, they grow in importance, taking on icon-like values, never intended when admitted to paper. This in turn shows us the inherent value in all that we say, all that we write, all that we do – since one day those haphazard actions may prove to be of utmost importance to someone else, or to ourselves; who knows… So there are many angles to a text like this, a song-cycle like this.

Listen to this, from Andrée just after taking off with the balloon:

It is not a little strange to be floating here above the Polar Sea. To be the first that have floated here in a balloon. I can not deny that all three of us are dominated by a feeling of pride. We think we can well face death having done what we have done.”

Later on Nils Strindberg writes this in one of his unsent letters to his Anna:

Well, now your Nils knows what it’s like to walk on polar ice! We had a little mishap at the start: while crossing from one ice floe to the next, the first sledge went crooked and fell in. I jumped down in the water and held the sledge so that it should not sink. It was with difficulty it was saved. Andrée was angry that I had taken such a risk. Since we have two more sledges and provisions enough. Of course he did not know that in the first sledge is my sack with all your letters and your portrait”.

The last entry in Andrée’s second diary is salvaged only in fractions, like the fragments of Sapho or Pindaros:

the middle of the nightshadows on the glacierthe flaming outsidenot of innocent white dovescarrion birdsbad weather, we fearto escapeout to seacrashgratingdriftwood…”

Having these texts appear in a song-cycle is indeed interesting in many ways. In addition to “The Andrée ExpeditionDominick Argento also set music to a few other shorter pieces that also appear on this CD. It’s a good thing that label director Stellan Sagvik has the guts to produce CDs like this one. Keep on keeping on!