Carl Gustav Sparre Olsen (1903-1984) received violin instruction from Herman van der Vegt in Oslo, and later worked as an orchestra violinist during the years 1923-33. He studied composition with Fartein Valen during 1926-30, later travelling to Berlin to study with Max Butting in 1930. From 1934 to 1940, he taught at the Bergen Conservatory of Music, and he conducted the Bergen Trade Unions Choir during the same period. Sparre Olsen also worked as a music critic in the newspaper Bergens Tidende. He received the State Income for Artists since 1936.
An important part of Sparre Olsen's production is vocal music - larger works for choir, some with piano or orchestra, and smaller songs for choir or soloist. The following authors, among others, can be mentioned for the texts used in his works: Olav Aukrust, Tore Ørjasæter, Inge Krokann, Tor Jonsson and Jan-Magnus Bruheim. Recurring themes in his works have been Norwegian nature, folklore, and folk traditions, in addition to more philosophical themes and religious longings.
The period of the 1920's was inspired mostly by folk music, but between Norwegian folk songs the composer's personal and original talent can be heard, with the harmony showing an influence from Grieg. In the 1930's, texts by Aukrust figure prominently, and Sparre Olsen composed the first of the larger instrumental works at this time. In 1937, he experienced a breakthrough with the piece Draumkvædet for song soloist, mixed choir, recitation and orchestra. Several cantatas and three scenic works also stem from this period. In addition, Sparre Olsen has composed works for orchestra, choir and orchestra, piano, and chamber ensembles. Among Sparre Olsen's most important works since World War II are the Seven Songs to Poems by Krokann, the orchestral work Nidarosdomen, Ver sanctum for choir and orchestra, Frå Telemark (folk song suite for piano), Nine wood-reliefs with colours by Dagfinn Werenskiold, Leitom-suite for piano, Three Love Songs and Music for orchestra.
Sparre Olsen's music contains certain clear modal traits, but the harmony is otherwise undefinable and later develops into a form of "free-tonality". This development held melodic possibilities that Sparre Olsen exploited in a manner rich with ideas. The melodies are unconventional, yet easily sung. The mixed tonality can perhaps be traced to the influence of Norwegian folk music.
There are elements of free tonality particularly in the orchestral works. In the works from the 1950's, a certain amount of chromaticism can also be felt. With this follows a lyrical expressiveness that clearly distinguishes this music from his more entertaining style of the earlier years.
As both a composer of choral works and a conductor, Sparre Olsen has been of great importance in the development of Norwegian choral singing. He received the St. Olav's Order in 1968.