Olav Anton Thommessen is a composer and a cultural personality of distinction. He is considered to be among the most important Norwegian composers and he has received commissions from all the larger Norwegian orchestras and festivals as well as from institutions abroad. His great knowledge of music history and film music has made him a much sought after teacher, lecturer and an object of numerous interviews, he holds a professorship in composition at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, where he has taught since 1972. He also lectured on opera history for many years at the National College of Operatic Art. In 1980, he started course in auditive analysis (sonology) at the State Academy.
Thommessen was born in Oslo on the 16th of May 1946. As the child of diplomats in the foreign service, he grew up largely abroad; this has strongly influenced his life and work. He attended schools in Germany, England and the United States. His formal music education in music began in 1964 where he attended the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. The next year he began composition studies at the Indiana University School of Music under Bernhard Heiden and Iannis Xenakis. He graduated in 1969 with a Bachelor of Composition degree. His studies continued in 1970 on a Polish state scholarship to study at the Music Academy in Warsaw under Piotr Perkowski. In 1971/2 he followed the courses at the Instituut voor Sonologie in Utrecht, the Netherlands under Werner Kaegi and Otto Laske.
From 1972 onwards, he distinguished himself more and more as a composer having performances of his works at festivals and by known ensembles. Some Sound was nominated for the ISCM festival in London 1972, Down-Up/Sunpiece was premiered by the Oslo Philharmonic in 1973 and the same year Mutually received the "Quality Prize" from Samtida Musik in Stockholm afterwards receiving a performance at the Bergen International Festival. After this breakthrough, he received several commissions: Stabsarabesk; Banners for Music; Maldoror; The Secret Gospel; The Overtone; A Concert Chamber are all important works from this period - also an early version of the chamber opera The Hermaphrodite received its first performance at Sweden's Vadstena Academy in 1976.
At the beginning of the 1980's, Thommessen began incorporating quotes from music history into some of his compositions. The first parts of his whole-evening's concert opera A Glass Bead Game were written which incorporate themes borrowed from Verdi and Beethoven. This shorter version was given its first performance by the Oslo Philharmonic in 1980. The Macrofantasy over Grieg's A Minor was performed by the Bergen Philharmonic in 1981 and Beyond Neon was performed by the Minnesota Orchestra under Neville Marriner in 1982. As the featured festival composer at the Bergen Internation Festival in 1985, his work for piano EingeBACHt received its first performance as did the final extended version of his opera The Hermaphrodite which was performed in a much acclaimed version by the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm earlier in the year. The same year he wrote music to Romeo and Juliet which was the inaugurial performance at the new Norwegian Theatre building in Oslo. The Emerald Tablet was first performed at the Henie-Onstad Art Centre and Gnostic Fragments and The Phantom of Light were commissioned by the Swedish State Concert Agency.
During the late 1980s Thommessen was accorded increasing attention. He received several larger commissions: the trumpet concerto The Second Creation; the chamber opera The Duchess Dies based on the Duchess of Malfi; the synthesizer concerto From Above; the viola concerto Near the Comet Head; and the double concerto for organ and cello Through a Prism. For this, he has received numerous prizes: The Critics Prize for 1987; the Family Wilhelm Hansen Legate (1987); the Lindman Prize for 1987. For Through a Prism, he received Work of the Year Prize from the Norwegian Society of Composers in 1989, a second prize at the Rostrum in Paris, as well as the Nordic Council Music Prize for 1990.
Thommessen has been a member of the board of Ny Musikk - Norwegian Section of ISCM, the Norwegian Society of Composers and has sat on the State Music Council. He was one of the instigators for the establishment of the Norwegian Music Information Centre and was its chairman of the board during the centre's important first years 1979-85.