Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) was prominent in Norway's music life during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Born in Drammen, he began playing the violin at the age of nine, and his musical talent quickly became apparent. Christian Jehnigen, director of the local National Guard Music Corps, noticed the budding young musician and recruited him to play the piccolo. Jehnigen also gave him violin lessons. Desiring greater musical opportunities than those available to him in Drammen, however, Halvorsen went to Oslo. In 1881 he was accepted by Paolo Sperati as a cadet in the Second Brigade Music Corps and he also obtained a position in the Möllergaten Theater orchestra. In 1883 he went to Stockholm to begin a formal course of study in music. He received a full scholarship at the music academy there, where his teachers included Johan Lindberg in violin and Conrad Nordqvist in harmony. During his years at the academy he was also concertmaster of the Royal Dramatic Theatre orchestra. In 1885 he became concertmaster of the Bergen Harmonic Society orchestra. After just one year in this position, however, he went to Leipzig for further violin study with Adolph Brodsky and there became concertmaster of the conservatory orchestra.
Halvorsen left Leipzig in 1887 and began an unsettled period of fairly constant travel. He spent a year in Aberdeen, Scotland, and in 1890 went to Helsinki, Finland, where he remained for three years as a teacher at the conservatory and a frequent concert soloist. Several times during this period he visited St. Petersburg, where he appeared as a soloist and studied violin with Leopold Auer. In 1893 he went to Bergen as conductor of both the orchestra at the National Stage and the Bergen Harmonic Society orchestra. Therewith he began the array of activities that eventually took him to Oslo in 1899 and was to be his for the rest of his life: theatre conductor, symphony conductor, and composer.
While still in Bergen he had demonstrated his talents as a composer with incidental music for the Indian play Vasantena and the popular march Entrance of the Boyars, which soon became and international success. After becoming conductor of the National Theater orchestra in Oslo in 1899 he continued to be a higly productive composer of stage music, writing music for a total of about thirty plays. Halvorsen arranged some of this music into suites for concert use; examples are the Suite Ancienne (from the Holberg Play The Lying-in Room), The Water Sprite, Norwegian Fairy Tale Pictures, Vasantena and others.
Halvorsen also wrote a number of pieces unrelated to the theater. His best-known composition is Entrance of the Boyars, but several other have also become quite popular, such as his Passacaglia on the Theme of Handel for violin and viola, Veslemöy's Song for violin and orchestra, and Bergensiana - a set of variations for orchestra on the popular Bergen melody "I Took Up My Newly Tuned Zither".
His larger works involving the orchestra were written during the later years of his life. His first large instrumental composition was a violin concerto that was performed in 1909, but he was not satisfied with it and later destroyed it. His three symphonies from 1923, 1924 and 1929, however, have been preserved. He also composed two Norwegian Rhapsodies for orchestra, one in 1921, the other in 1922.