Son of a missionary, Valen spent his early childhood in Madagascar. He received his music education in his native town Stavanger, Kristiania (known as Oslo since 1925), where he studied organ and composition, and at the Conservatory in Berlin, where he studied piano and composition. One of his teachers was Max Bruch. Valen loved Berlin and lived there for almost five years. His first works, such as Piano Sonata No. 1, reflect the style of late German Romanticism and the influence of Brahms, Bruckner and Reger.
After returning to Norway, Valen spent nine years studying the music of J. S. Bach. During this period he gradually developed his own distinctive atonal style, independently of Arnold Schonberg. Valen's Trio (opus 5, finished 1924) marks the turning point in the development of this style, in which he could freely express him-self in a modem idiom. Unlike Schonberg, however, he never became a true expressionist, but remained an espressivo composer.
In 1924 Valen moved to Kristiania, where he worked part-time as a curator at the Music Collection of the University Library. He also taught music theory. Although he was highly respected as a teacher and for his knowledge and skills, the innovative, radical music he composed during the 1920s and 1930s never really appealed to the average concert-going public.
During his first years in Oslo, Valen devoted most of his time to writing small-scale works such as songs, choral motets and two string quartets. However, by around 1930 his studies in "dissonant counterpoint" began to bear fruit and he wrote nine single-movement orchestral pieces with titles such as Sonetto di Miche-langelo, Nenia, An die Hoffnung, Le cimetière marin, Epithalamion and La isla de las calmas. Several of these works were composed or conceived during a six-month stay in Mallorca in 1932-33. Then followed piano and organ pieces as well as more motets.
During these years, Valen's music was met with antagonism on the part of conservative critics and composer colleagues who had their roots in the strong nationalist movement that prevailed in Norway at the time. Valen himself felt a closer affinity with the young modernist painters and was more at home in their company. However, some of his works were warmly received, and in 1936 the Storting (national assembly) granted him an honorary annual income for life. This was a great honour, which had only been bestowed on six musicians previously. Valen felt that this was a true sign of recognition, and the grant made it possible for him to move away from the hectic life in Oslo to his ancestral farm at Valevåg, a beautiful but secluded place north of Haugesund on the west coast of Norway. He settled there with an unmarried sister in 1938 and did not even leave the area until two years after the war ended, and then only for brief periods.
Valen's self-imposed isolation again brought about a change in his style. He now began to compose large-scale works: four symphonies, a violin- and a piano concerto, and a second piano sonata. In these works he refines his atonal counterpoint and gradually turns back to simpler, more ‘classic’ forms. His themes are longer and often employ all twelve chromatic notes. Although he uses a modified ‘row technique’, he is never a dode-caphonist in the Viennese sense. The music reflects his intense inner life, but is at the same time marked by grace and humour, and sometimes even by wit.
Far from the hustle and bustle of the capital, Valen lived a quiet life, seeking inspiration and cultivating his interests in literature, languages (he mastered nine), philosophy and the pictorial arts. He also drew inspiration from his deep religious faith, which had certain undercurrents of mysticism. He found a third source of inspiration in nature, which he regarded as a manifestation of God's mercy and greatness. Valen also had a more direct aesthetic relationship to nature. His garden was known for miles around. He cultivated roses and once received a prize for a new hybrid.
During his last years, he felt the taste of success both in Norway and abroad. A remarkable performance of The Churchyard by the Sea at the ISCM Festival in Copenhagen in 1947 led to a shower of letters and invitations. At the next festival, which was held in Amsterdam, his publisher once more coaxed him out of his isolation and persuaded him to attend the successful performance of his Violin Concerto. There he met new colleagues and acquired new friends, among them the British composer Humphrey Searle and the Polish-British pianist Alexandr Helmann, who commissioned the piano concerto, which was to be his last work.
However, Valen was unable to cope with all these invitations and performance opportunities, which would have been coveted by many other composers. Although he was pleased with the recognition, he returned home to finish his work. This shy and reticent man had an incredible inner strength. Few would understand what it cost him to follow his calling. He lived a secluded life, convinced that he had an obligation to make full use of his extraordinary talent, creating with his universal, contemplative music a world of beauty, rich in subtle expressive details. He knew that the time would come when musicians would be technically skilled enough to play his music and at the same time open-minded and knowledgeable enough to grasp his musical language.
Valen encountered a great deal of opposition throughout most of his life, and only in his later years did he experience wider recognition and some success. Valen societies were established in both Norway and Great Britain, and they have done much to make his music known in his own country and abroad. His art still does not appeal to the general music public, but remains a rather exclusive body of music for the chosen few who regard it very highly.