It is difficult to assess the importance of Edvard Grieg, both at home and abroad. To most Norwegians he was the composer and the style of some of his music became synonymous with Norwegian. Grieg claimed to have both a foundation in his own country and an open mind to the international world. Despite his open-mindedness and generosity, however, Grieg’s stature made it difficult for young Norwegian composers making their début around World War I to escape from his vast shadow and find a place in the sun of their own.
Those who succeeded chose one of two different strategies: some looked to Europe and the new aesthetics and styles emerging from Paris and Berlin, others wanted to nourish the nationalist tendencies in Grieg’s music and even make folk music and its “inherent manifestation of Norwegian nature and the spirit of the people” (common expressions at the time) a new and somewhat different basis for their music. This dichotomy led to a heated debate that lasted for a long time and faint echoes of it were still heard towards the end of the 20th century. Nevertheless, amidst all this dissention we find composers who ideologically, at least verbally, belonged to one camp but had their stylistic preferences in the other.
Norway had a small population (2.8 million in 1930) and finally won its independence in 1905. People still needed national symbols and icons to take pride in, especially as they felt that European and American popular dances, entertainment music and film music were invading some of the old arenas at the expense of the prevailing national music (although some of it had been imported in the first place) and that gramophone and radio to an excessive extent promoted newfangled dances and jazz. Traditional folk music, which had earlier been considered worthy of broad dissemination through the schools and used at important events, became marginalized and was relegated to the rural areas and ghettos in the larger cities.
Some reactionary groups were tainted by fear of everything foreign and some even by traits of racism. Others raised their voices against isolationism and provincialism, and luckily they were heard. Nevertheless, during World War II certain composers with excessive conservative or nationalistic inclinations collaborated with the occupants and the Nazis, with the result that their music was ignored for many years after the war.
Both in Bergen and Oslo the symphony orchestras were reorganised in 1919, which energized the already lively concert activities on the commercial market. This was the “age of the thousand lady singers”, who together with numerous pianists were giving recitals throughout the season. Many larger theatres were staging the occasional opera among the bread-winning operettas, and amateur choirs loved to perform the large oratorios.
Music education was either conducted on a private basis or at a conservatory, which was primarily a school for organists. Many young people seeking a musical education went abroad to study, Paris and Berlin being particularly popular. However, the majority of them returned to Norway with their conservative beliefs confirmed and an inclination towards Romantic music – and often with no understanding of the new, radical music.
Several music critics in Norway were also conservative and demonstrated their bias and ignorance in their writings. A common expression used for any modern music was “musical communism”, something to be feared. Abusive language was not uncommon, and the most cited excerpt from a newspaper review described Fartein Valen’s tonal orchestral song Ave Maria at its premier performance in 1923 as “blasphemous, meaningless sounds lurking like jellyfish in muddy waters; the whole thing was embarrassing, distasteful and ridiculous”. Some critics hinted at conspiracy and made sarcastic comments such as: “Does this composer also belong to the Society of Melodyless Composers?” or “the hoax of the untalented internationalists”.
The heated debate on modernism also included physical altercations. A journalist who had ridiculed a conservative composer was knocked down at the intermission of a symphony concert, and a couple of years later the open-minded chairman received a black eye during a board meeting of the Norwegian Society of Composers.
The radical composers of the 1920s
To simplify the issue we tend to say that the 1920s were the experimental years, jazzy and urban, while the 1930s were coloured by the recession and a more sombre national movement. The music of leading European composers like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Schönberg and Honegger was rarely performed. However, it was in the 1920s that the leading radical composers of their generation made a name for themselves.
Fartein Valen (1887-1952) published his first radical atonal music, although his most famous works were composed in the 1930s and 1940s (Le cimitičre marin, Violin Concerto, Symphonies). His name was synonymous with radical Norwegian music for many years and his impact as an ideal for younger Scandinavian composers was considerable. His atonal music was heatedly debated in the press around 1930-33. It was loved by an ardent group of admirers, and this created a more positive climate for his works in the concert halls than for other contemporary radical music.
In the 1920s Ludvig Irgens-Jensen (1894-1969) composed his free tonal and almost atonal songs and his more traditional Tema con variazioni (orchestra) before writing his more classical Passacaglia, the most performed new Norwegian orchestral piece after Grieg in the first half of the century. His large “dramatic symphony” Heimferd (Home-coming), almost like an oratorio with choir and soloists and based on a text about Saint Olav, the king who converted Norway to Christianity, was considered the most prominent of national music, despite its contemporary European style. It is interesting to note that Irgens-Jensen’s music was considered modern between the wars, even though some of the more nationalist-inclined composers wrote music in a much harsher, more radical harmonic style. During World War II, Irgens-Jensen’s music for patriotic poems (disseminated illegally during the occupation through the underground resistance network and anonymously for fear of reprisals) was considered crucial to the formation of an additional spiritual resistance.
Harald Sćverud (1897-1992) was also associated with the musical resistance. He had learned from the music of both modern Germany and Eastern Europe and his first symphony was first performed in Berlin in the early 1920s. Some of his later orchestral music, including the anti-romantic music to Henrik Ibsen’s drama Peer Gynt, and some of his best piano music evidence a truly original composer.
David Monrad Johansen (1888-1974) showed radical French tendencies in his early works and was at the same time a spokesman for the national movement both in his writings and in his oratorio Voluspĺ (The Prophecy of the Seeress), based on a text from old Norse literature. However, he was open and amicably inclined to certain radical European and Norwegian music and he shied away from the most ultra-nationalist movement. Later in the 1930s he found a new path in a mixture of his old style and German and French neo-classicism.
These composers developed their individual styles and became leading figures. With the younger Eivind Groven (1901-77) and Geirr Tveitt (1908-81) they have all been frequently performed and won recognition abroad. The latter two had an aesthetic foundation in Norwegian folk-art and stylistic roots in its folk-music but adhered to European tendencies.
There is another group of composers, less frequently performed abroad, who also merit recognition and whose music may be heard on CD records. Pauline Hall (1890-1969) was for many years the leading lady of Norwegian music as composer, critic and organiser. She detested and strongly criticised dilettantism and superficial national composers. One of her famous proclamations focused on an incident of national infighting. She paraphrased a reference by Grieg to his own music, which he characterised as “reeking of cow pats”. In the debate in question, she sarcastically said, “it is not enough that the music should reek like a cow shed, but the manure must also have the smell of the correct county’s cows”.
Pauline Hall’s interest in French music is obvious in her orchestral Verlaine Suite, with some respectful dues paid to Debussy and Ravel, but her generous musicianship, humour and wit are illustrated in her neo-classical Suite for Winds (quintet) from 1945.
Impressionism was scarce in Norway. In addition to Pauline Hall’s early works, however, some fine specimens are found in the music of Alf Hurum (1882-1972), who left Norway in 1924 to found and conduct the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. After 1930 he devoted most of his life in Hawaii to painting.
The young Bjarne Brustad (1895-1978) also had a brief affair with impressionistic music, but he is more like a Norwegian Béla Bartók. His violin concertos and his Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra are major variations on the style found in his popular chamber music. His Fairy Tales Suite for violin solo and his Capriccii for violin and viola are among the finest chamber works from the 1930s and found in the repertoire of the great stars.
Extending the national aspects
Olav Kielland (1901-85) was a successful conductor who had difficulty in finding time to compose. Although it is problematic to compare a composer’s personality with his music, in this case there is a high degree of correspondence. The music is vigorous, direct and somewhat edgy. Unfortunately his best orchestral piece, Concerto grosso norvegese, has not been available on record since the 1950s.
Following a different path from Norwegian nationalist music, C.G. Sparre Olsen (1903-84) was more soft-spoken. He was a lyricist with a special gift for melody and colourful harmonies. Unfortunately, few of his larger works are available in modern recordings but his chamber music, songs and piano works find favour with a large audience. Groven, Tveitt, Kielland and Olsen took a positive creative path in their music. Not content with arranging or recomposing folk music, they found a way of utilising some folk music elements and making them integral elements in symphonic frames.
Some composers have the misfortune to be remembered solely for one composition, as was the European-oriented Harald Lie (1902-42), whose orchestral song Skinnvengbrev (Bat Letter, text by Aslaug Vaa) was recorded by Kirsten Flagstad and lived on. Since he made a late start to his musical career and was ill during the latter years of his life, Lie’s list of works is short, but some of his symphonic music is found on a CD.
Olsen and Lie were students of Fartein Valen, as was Klaus Egge (1906-79). He was a dominant personality both as a writer, 27-year Chairman of the Norwegian Society of Composers, and composer. His first compositions are an extension of the nationalist movement, his piano sonata on the melodies from the ancient ballad Draumkvedet (The Dream Lay) forming the peak of these years. He chose a neo-classical path in the late 1930s, and after his wind quintet he developed a new kind of free tonality based on certain elements from Norwegian folk music. His first symphony and his second piano concerto were composed during World War II, but were not premiered until the occupation came to an end.
Those mentioned here are just a few composers who were respected and had some success during their lifetime. Norwegian orchestras and musicians performed many of the new works composed before 1950. Irgens-Jensen and Monrad Johansen were the composers whose larger works were most performed abroad before World War II, and their music attracted attention in leading circles both in Europe and in the USA. This is somewhat remarkable, since Norway is such a small country. While Monrad Johansen had some of his music published in Germany, Irgens-Jensen did not have a publisher until 1934, and then it was a Norwegian company with limited distribution.
After the war, Valen, Irgens-Jensen, Sćverud, Egge and to some extent Tveitt also had the good fortune to be frequently performed abroad and earn commissions from foreign symphonic societies. The composers of the inter-war years were the first to be recorded on the new LP records during the 1950s and, thanks to performances by leading musicians and conductors, their music continued to be heard and appreciated for some time, both in concert halls and on the radio.
A new generation
The soft-spoken, reticent Fartein Valen became the ideal for the young generation, and a second generation of modernists was established during the 1950s with composers like Knut Nystedt, Řistein Sommerfeldt, Johan Kvandal, Finn Mortensen, Egil Hovland and Arne Nordheim. Some of the old polarisation between the modernists and the folklore-inspired composers was still evident, but without the ascerbic comments and harsh antagonism in the public debate.
However, there was a gradual change of focus during the 1960s. The new, younger generation of composers wanted a place for themselves and to obtain this they had to get rid of the old generation and their “moth eaten” nationalist music. They did not denounce specific works or persons, but by vigorously claiming time for any new music, they caused older music to be left out, often without any aesthetic evaluation. The older composers were ousted out of offices, and sorely neglected when music was chosen for major performances and recordings. This dramatic shift in policy led to a further loss of knowledge of the older music, especially that of the generation that made its début before World War II. Young producers in the radio stations also tended to ignore this generation due to their lack of knowledge and their belief in the opinions of the young radicals, who belittled this music and called it “outdated”. This self-centred, short-sighted policy created a schism not only between composers, but also between composers and a musical audience who could not understand why their older, beloved national music had disappeared.
The performers and teachers in our music schools and academies are also to blame. For a long time, they have neglected to teach this music, believing that it was not part of the current repertoire, and thus we have lost the continuous performance of this music and the necessary gradual development of interpretations of these works. Moreover, with the abundance of music recordings and all the institutions, musicians and composers clamouring for attention and recognition everywhere, it is difficult to re-establish a platform for these early 20th century composers, which they deserve and we need. Go and listen for yourself and play this music without prejudice; much of it is absolutely worthy of a new audience.