Bernt Kasberg Evensen – Musikk for Johanna. Version for string orchestra
(b. Tønsberg, 2 February 1944)
Bernt Kasberg Evensen was born in Tønsberg (Norway). He is essentially self-taught as a composer.
He has travelled widely and has lived and worked in several countries in the course of his life: Mexico, Scotland, Germany and, of course, Norway.
Evensen has, by and large, lived a life of service, always putting the welfare of others (family, friends and associates) before any concern for his own success. His years in Scotland established his competence and passion for working with the disabled and with psychiatric patients, as well as his close association to the Camphill and Anthroposophist philosophy and community, which continues to this day.
Evensen is also an excellent baritone singer and has performed extensively as such. He is a most certainly the only singer to have performed Schubert’s Winterreise and Pettersson’s Barfotasånger side by side. A recent, very moving performance of the latter (from November 2014) can be enjoyed on YouTube.
All the same, he knew that composition was his true vocation from a very early age. The Norwegian Music Information data base lists over 100 works by Evensen in many genres: symphonic, chamber, vocal, stage music, music for children…
For many years Evensen worked closely with the School Concert Department of the Norwegian Concert Institute (Rikskonsertene). This prompted him to compose several musical fairytales, which he performed at schools throughout Norway between 1976 and 1988.
His concert music includes some of the most fascinating material written by any composer in Norway.
Evensen has a very personal and unique tonal language. He has a keen awareness of the intrinsic tension of intervals and, although his music is often harmonically and contrapuntally complex, rare is the composition where he does not include one or several unison passages where intervals are allowed to stand starkly, creating a dramatic play of tension and release. Since the 1980s Evensen has experimented with scales derived from the writings of theosophist Anny von Lange. He has also used twelve-tone techniques in a free, personal way. Ravel has remained a favourite composer through Evensen’s life, an influence the essence of which he has assimilated into his music without ever resorting to idle imitation.
For a period in 1976 Evensen and his wife found themselves taking daily care of a small girl called Johanna Wissmann. The daily interaction with the toddler inspired Evensen to compose a piano suite comprising eight miniatures or “little tales” as he called them. Each of them was inspired by different aspects of the child’s personality or situations connected to her. Evensen arranged the suite for string orchestra shortly afterwards.
The original piano version was intended for young players and thus largely laid out in two-part writing, or as melodies with simple chordal accompaniment. The string arrangement afforded Evensen the possibility to expand the sonic palette of the music. He took advantage of the strings’ rich sound world by using harmonics, pizzicati, small glissandos and octave doublings. In the sixth movement, Herbst (autumn) he even creates a harmonic carpet behind the interlocking melodies that is entirely absent from the piano version. The larger format also encouraged Evensen to extend the length of the movements and discretely increasing the complexity to the counterpoint as well as adding repetitions (albeit never literal) that do not occur in the original.
The opening Es war einmal… (once upon a time…) is written without any accidentals, only with “white” notes. It is a simple, flowing melodic strophe in two parts repeated twice (a formal device he employs on several of the suite’s movements), much like a folk tune. It is highly evocative of the opening of a fairytale.
Lämmertanz (dancing lambs) is lively and full of innocent fun.
Einsam aber nicht allein… (lonely but not alone) is slow and brooding, perfectly capturing a kind of earnestness that only a child can exhibit.
Dornröschen (the sleeping beauty) is a tenderly lovely lullaby that perfectly captures the feeling of watching a child peacefully sleeping.
In Johanna tanzt (Johanna is dancing) the child is definitely awake and full of the joys of life, without a care in the world.
Herbst (autumn) returns to a child-like pensive mood. Our little princess is perhaps transfixed by experiencing her first autumn, with its subdued colours and fallen leaves.
Contemplation does not last long and the small girl springs back into action as she becomes enchanted by the capricious flight of a small insect in Kleiner Schmetterling (little butterfly).
On Lebewohl (farewell) it is finally time to say goodbye. A gently sad melody in the Lydian mode and with changing metres dissolves briefly into bittersweet bitonality before finally settling on a somewhat forlorn E minor chord. On the opening page of the piano version Evensen wrote:
“I must ask my young interpreters to forgive my making these pieces a bit difficult to play. The last piece ‘Farewell’ is particularly difficult, but it is difficult to part.”
Musikk for Johanna is a truly enchanting work that captures a child’s view of the world in a very convincing and captivating manner. There is no record of when the first performance of the piece took place but it has been performed several times by, among others, the Minsk Chamber Orchestra. A video of a performance given by the Grieg Academy Chamber Orchestra in November 2014 (marking the composer’s 70th birthday) can be enjoyed on YouTube.
The pictures preceding each movement in the score are Evensen’s own.
The dice numbers used to designate the movements are copied from the piano version of the work, where the dice are used to show the page numbers. As the number of movements is eight, I ended up with two meta-dice, as it were, with respectively seven and eight dots.
Ricardo Odriozola, September 9th 2019
For performance material please contact Musikproduktion Höflich (www.musikmph.de), Munich.