As a composer, Ludvig Irgens-Jensen (1894-1969) was in many ways both creating something genuinely new as well as conserving tradition. He started to study philology at the University of Oslo at the same time that he took piano lessons with, among others, Nils Larsen, then Norway’s leading piano teacher. He undertook all of his musical studies, apart from the piano lessons, on his own and he never had a teacher in composition. As time passed, thorough studies of musical scores and topics in music theory took all his time. He also had short periods of study in Germany, Denmark and France.
His debut as a composer in 1920 was with a number of songs which attracted considerable interest, and in those days they seemed quite radical to many listeners as well as to Norwegian critics. Vocal music became an important part of his production. Perhaps most familiar is the song "Altar", written to a poem by Halldis Moren Vesaas. On the occasion of the 900th anniversary celebrations in 1930 to commemorate the death of the saint-king Olav and the subsequent christianisation of Norway, the oratorio Heimferd, a "dramatic symphony" for solo choir and orchestra, won first prize in a national competition. The work (with text by Olav Gullvåg) created enormous enthusiasm and, in the first months following its premiere, was performed twelve times in order to accommodate public demand. Heimferd is considered a national monument because of both the content and the musical material, and represents a major work within the Norwegian oratorial tradition. Other great vocal works to be mentioned are Der Gott und die Bajadere (Text: Goethe), a cantata from 1932, and Japanischer Frühling (Japanese Spring, with Japanese poetry), a vocal cycle from 1957.
Irgens-Jensen began to compose larger instrumental works early in his career, and orchestral works such as Tema con variazioni (1925/34) and Passacaglia (1927) are considered essential works in the Norwegian literature for orchestra. One of the few works for orchestra where national traits are noticeable, is the orchestral suite Partita sinfonica (1939), which builds on his stage music for Hans E. Kinck’s drama Driftekaren (The Drover).
The war years made a strong impression on Irgens-Jensen, and he composed several songs and choral works to patriotic texts; works that due to the Nazi rule were distributed anonymously and illegally. During the occupation he also wrote his Symphony in D minor, which won first prize at a secret competition held in 1943, on the occasion of the 25 year Jubilee of the Society of Norwegian Composers.
Ludvig Irgens-Jensen kept himself apart from the musical fashions of his time, even though his music was concerned with current directions and is readily characterized as Neo-Classical. He was an important contributor to the reintroduction of polyphony as both a formative element and a means of expression in Norwegian music during the period between the wars. His strong focus on the strictly logical-dynamic in a well-proportioned form, his refined literary taste and sensitivity, together with his ethical seriousness and philosophical inclination, have left their mark on Norwegian music. Today, he is seen as one of the truly important Norwegian composers of the twentieth century.