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A symphony of Nordic sounds

Profiled composers from two different generations are juxtaposed in this concert of Nordic music.

Arne Nordheim and Per Nørgård meet Jean Sibelius and Edvard Grieg in the Bergen International Festival signature concert: the concert with Grieg’s A minor Piano Concerto.

The young composers Nørgård and Nordheim met early in their careers and struck up a lifelong friendship. They became the foremost composers of their generation in Denmark and Norway respectively.

These two leading figures in Norwegian and Danish contemporary music not only communicated with each other in correspondence and conversation but also attended each other’s premieres. Nordheim’s orchestral work Floating, commissioned by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in 1970 and first performed in Norway at the Bergen International Festival, was dedicated to Per Nørgård.

Tradition and renewal

Both composers have received the Nordic Council Music Prize, and were involved in a lifelong critical dialogue regarding tradition and recycling of treasures from the storehouse of music history. Both may be seen as musical kleptomaniacs in the best sense of the word – as Stravinsky said: ‘Lesser artists borrow: great artists steal’.

Independently of each other Nørgård and Nordheim wrote a work entitled Aftonland (Evening Land) in their first creative period. Per Nørgård composed the choral suite Aftonland in 1956 to Pär Lagerkvist’s poem, and dedicated it to Sibelius, his first great source of inspiration.

Arne Nordheim was present at its performance, and may have been inspired by it, along with his interest in literature, to seek out other poems by Lagerkvist. Both Nordheim and Nørgård had studied composition with Vagn Holmboe. Nordheim’s breakthrough work, Aftonland for Soprano and Chamber Ensemble, composed in 1957, received its world premiere in Copenhagen in 1959 and its Norwegian premiere at the Bergen International Festival in 1960. Nørgård also recycles his own material. This often appears in ‘satellite works’ – smaller works revolving around a larger mother work, which nourishes the smaller ones. We also see that the composer reviews earlier works for re-working and re-instrumentation, as in Three Nocturnal Movements, based on his Viola Concerto Remembering Child from 1986.

Three Nocturnal Movements is the Bergen International Festival’s gift to the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra on the occasion of its anniversary: a Double Concerto for Violin and Cello by Per Nørgård, which receives its world premiere in this concert.

Contact with eternal values

I met Nordheim for the first time on 14 April 1998, at the Norwegian Embassy in Copenhagen, where Thorvald Stoltenberg, the ambassador at the time, had invited guests to pay tribute to the Norwegian composer. Nordheim responded by paying tribute to Denmark. Amongst other things, he said Thank you Denmark for accommodating Edvard Grieg in Søllerød so that he could write his A minor Piano Concerto. We know that the concerto had a special significance to Nordheim from his review of Robert Riefling’s performance of the work in 1959, in which he claimed that ‘Grieg’s creative force was in contact with eternal values’.

As previously mentioned, as a young composer Per Nørgård committed himself to an association with Nordic music. He says of his fascination with Sibelius:

‘Sibelius’s music was a new discovery for me; I have not got over it yet. There are places in Sibelius – for instance in the seventh symphony – where it is almost impossible to analyse what is actually happening. It is a form of heterophony which I am unaware of in other composers: a timpani part may suddenly start operating with an individual rhythm. Sibelius’s entire relationship to rhythm is very alive indeed, and extraordinary.’

Arne Nordheim was in his lifetime, and Per Nørgård still is, a traveller in music. Their journeys however are not aimless explorations, but rather starting points for reflection, images and sounds, describing conditions in the same way as in the music of Grieg and Sibelius. An important part of the reflection on these conditions is recollection, which turns up under way, but not demonstratively; subtlety is ever-present. In this way their music acquires not only its characteristic preliminary feel, but also meaninglessness, gallows humour and a ground-breaking nature in relation to musical logic.

Anders Beyer
English version: Roger Martin

Read more about Nordic Prism here.



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23 May - 06 June 2018
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23 May - 06 June 2018
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