A Gender-Bending Viking Warrior Claims Her Birthright in Three Songs by Composer Melissa Dunphy

Mar 19, 2018

A young Norse woman dresses up as a man, sails to the distant island where her ancestors are buried and demands that her dead father hand over a powerful sword as her birthright.

No, it’s not a role-playing game. It’s Philadelphia-based composer Melissa Dunphy’s Hervararkviða​, or The Incantation of Hervor, a set of three songs for mezzo-soprano, violin and harp whose texts tell a story as unusual as the sound-world Dunphy’s score creates for it.

Listen to my recent interview with Dunphy, along with excerpts from Hervararkviða​, here:

Philadelphia-based mezzo-soprano Maren Montalbano commissioned Hervararkviða for her recording Sea Tangle: Songs from the North, a collection of new musical works inspired by Nordic history and legends. Performed by Montalbano, violinist Rebecca Harris and harpist Elizabeth HustonHervararkviða tells the story of the Nordic young woman Hervor and is based on texts from the Norse Poetic Edda.

“The songs are about this young woman and her journey to reclaim the sword of her father,” Dunphy said, “and because she’s a woman, she has been staying at home with her mother and isn’t allowed to go off and do all of these things that she dreams of doing. So she decides to go out into the world as a man and find her way.”

Over the course of the cycle, Hervor dresses as a man, changes her name to its masculine version (Hervarth), commands a Viking ship to take her to the island where her father rests in a haunted burial mound and fearlessly conjures his spirit, demanding the sword that, Hervor/Hervarth claims, no dead man should possess.

The songs’ stunning instrumentation gives voice to a journey unlike any other. The mezzo-soprano sings the gender-bending role of Hervor/Hervarth, accompanied by a Hardanger fiddle-style violin part and a harp part that extends the instrument from sounds reminiscent of a bardic lyre to frightening spectral noises created by all manner of extended technique, including one called a "thundergliss."

Please join me for selections from Dunphy’s Hervararkviða — The Incantation of Hervor on The American Sound, as part of our Women of Note series, featuring music by women composers during Women’s History Month. Tune in to The American Sound at 6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday on Classical 101.

Then next month, members from Women in Music Columbus will perform Hervararkviða at 3 p.m. April 15 in Capital University’s Huntington Recital Hall. Admission is free.