from Western Norway
In the early 1990s, having seen his name mentioned and his music discussed in a number of publications, I became interested in the English composer Havergal Brian (1876 – 1972). While on tour in England with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in the spring of 1991 I bought a CD of the first ever recording of Brian’s music: the 10th and 21st symphonies played by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra. The music intrigued me and, naturally, I began to look for literature about Brian.
I found one book in the Bergen Public Library (this was in pre-internet days). The book in question had a whole chapter dedicated to Havergal Brian, with special focus on his legendary Gothic Symphony. This was very good indeed. However, the book came with an unexpected bonus: five other composers where discussed in it. Of these I was already familiar with three: Fartein Valen, Allan Pettersson and Vagn Holmboe. The other two were completely unknown to me: Kaikhosru Sorabji and Matthijs Vermeulen. Reading about these two creative giants was a revelation and opened a new door for me. An old chord was struck anew. I had often become interested in composers and artists by reading enthusiastic reviews or surveys of their work, and now it was happening again.
The book was, of course, “Opus Est” by Paul Rapoport.
Few books on music have made a comparable impression on me.
More on this later.
I moved to Bergen, Norway, in 1987, after five years of study in the United States. I immediately began to teach violin and chamber music at the Bergen Music Conservatoire (now Grieg Academy), where I remain to this day. A very large incentive towards my decision to settle in Bergen was having met Harald Sæverud the previous summer. He was 89 at the time and the impact which that meeting had on me was so deep that I decided that, were it possible, I would wish to be in Bergen after finishing my studies and learn from him for as long as possible. Being the age he was, it’d better be sooner rather than later.
It seems a given to me that, when a musician settles into a musical environment, it is that musician’s obligation to engage directly with that environment. If the musician happens to be a performer, he or she will, sooner or later, encounter a number of active local composers. Depending on his or her level of curiosity, our musician will choose to explore (or not) this readily available pool of creativity.
I have been exceptionally fortunate to cooperate with many Norwegian composers in the past 27 years. Not only because they have been many, but because of the extraordinary quality of their work. The vast majority of these have been from the western part of Norway. This is only natural, considering that that is the part of Norway where I mostly operate. There is, however, another reason for this.
If you, dear reader, have not been born, or spent a large part of your life, in Scandinavia, and Norway in particular, you may not be aware of the marked cultural differences between the different Norwegian regions.
Arguably the strongest cultural difference in Norway lies between the Eastern and Western regions. And more specifically between Oslo and Bergen.
Bergen was, since its foundation in the 11th century, Norway’s bona fide capital city. Its placement in the south west coast of the country made it into a veritable centre of commerce during the hanseatic period. However, king Håkon V, during his reign in the early 14th century, decreed Oslo to be the capital. Strange as it may seem, the rift can be felt to this day. Light-hearted and humorous though its expression may be, it is always lurking under the surface. The Oslo people are fond of speaking of “bergensers” as not being truly Norwegian but constituting a nation unto themselves, while the Bergen people love to poke fun at the Oslo dialect, where all sentences end with an upwards sweep.
Also, consider this: is it not remarkable for a country of some five million inhabitants, such as Norway, to have two official languages? “Bokmål” (the classic written language, which shares many similarities with written Danish) and “Nynorsk” (New Norwegian, the creation of the philological genius and writer Ivar Aasen, 1813 – 1896) are nowadays fairly evenly represented among the different regions of Norway, with the western part leaning more heavily towards Nynorsk. There are, in addition to these, a plethora of dialects, some of which are all but unintelligible to all Norwegians except to those who hail from the region where they are spoken.
I mention all this because, in my view, it follows that a small country that has the nerve to have two official languages (and which has, incidentally, twice refused, by popular vote, to enter the European Union) should also be a fertile ground for the eruption of extraordinary talent. Even a cursory look at some of the great Norwegian names of the past will leave us in awe at the single-mindedness with which these people achieved and embraced greatness: Ole Bull, Edvard Grieg, Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Munch, Roald Amundsen…to name but a few. There is something of the proverbial Viking obstinacy in all these men: an iron will to succeed against all odds.
So, back to that “other reason” I mentioned above, as to why most of the composers with whom I have worked have been from the western part of Norway…
While I am mindful of the adage “generalizations are odious”, I nevertheless propose to make a very wide sweeping statement regarding contemporary composers from Bergen and Oslo and the surrounding areas:
- Bergen-area composers have a stronger leaning towards the intuitive.
- Oslo-area composers have a stronger leaning towards the intellectual.
Or, to put it differently:
- Music composed in the Bergen area has the heart as its centre of gravity.
- Music composed in the Oslo area has the head as its centre of gravity.
I can almost hear the chorus of disapproval that is bound to arise as a consequence of this allegation: “Rubbish! What about so-and-so from Bergen who writes really cerebral music”. “Nonsense! What about so-and-so from Oslo who writes really intuitive music?”
The head and the heart are both very good, but they are at their best when working in harmony with one another.
Let’s also remember for a moment that, as King Solomon informed us some time ago, “there is a time for everything” (Ecclesiastes 3.1). And the popular saying: “there is no accounting for taste”.
Let it be clear that it is not my intention here to make qualitative claims about music on the basis of my personal tastes. My musical appetite is omnivorous. It spreads across all genres and forms of expression. I can as soon be enraptured by the bizarreness of a musical composition that is intellectually beyond my grasp as I can be moved by a sincere expression of feeling. Having said that, I am naturally more drawn towards music that moves me than towards music that puzzles me. Furthermore, when I have taken the time and effort to get to know it better, puzzling music has often acquired the power to move me. Based on these assertions, it is only natural that I, over time, have worked very intensely with some composers and less so with others. I make no apology for this, as I see no reason why anyone should apologize for being the way he is.
* * * * * * * *
The present book is about the music of five composers from western Norway and about my experiences in working with them. Although I have had fruitful collaborations with several other excellent creators of music from that and other parts of Norway (and, to a lesser extent, Denmark and Finland and also Massachusetts, but that’s a story that deserves to be told elsewhere), the choice of composers represented in this book is anything but arbitrary. A look at their years of birth shows that they belong, roughly, to three generations:
Harald Sæverud (b. 1897)
Edvard Hagerup Bull (b. 1922)
Ketil Hvoslef (b. 1939)
Magnar Åm (b. 1952)
Kenneth Sivertsen (b. 1961)
There are certain connections between them.
Ketil Hvoslef is the youngest son of Harald Sæverud.
Edvard Hagerup Bull was, early in his career, helped by Sæverud, whom Hagerup Bull considered an influence.
Magnar Åm studied for a time with Ketil Hvoslef.
Kenneth Sivertsen studied for a time with Magnar Åm.
There are also certain similarities between some of them (Sæverud/Hagerup Bull, Sæverud/Hvoslef, Åm/Sivertsen) in their approach to composition.
The one attribute they all have in common, however, is their resolute insistence on doing things their way, independently of trends and “isms”…
…which brings me back to Paul Rapoport’s “Opus Est”.
The six composers Rapoport discussed in his book were all outsiders in one way or another. Except for Sorabji, who wrote mostly for the piano, the other five were, by and large, symphonists in an era where the symphony seemed to be falling into disrepute, or out of fashion, as a musical form. In spite of the efforts of many enthusiasts, who have created societies to promote their music, websites dedicated to their life and work, edited scores and subsidized recordings of their music, none of these composers have yet entered the mainstream. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is a question open for a very interesting discussion. I will address this at the end of this book.
At the very beginning of “Opus Est” Rapoport states, as one of his main aims with the book, “[…] to question certain assumptions about 20th-century music and its history”. He goes on to question the meaning of the concept “leading composer”. “Leading”, he says, “may imply high quality, which is by no means easily defined. It also implies that a particular composer […] deserving that adjective has gained some prominence through influence on many others […]”. Yet, as Rapoport goes on telling us, the idea of “influence” covers many areas beyond the purely (in this case) musical. Psychology, sociology, economics and politics, he tells us, may all be involved in the extent to which artists or artistic styles exert their influence. He then becomes even more specific: “What sort of influence might Schoenberg, Bartók and Stravinsky have had if they had never left [their respective countries], or if they and many others had not gone to the U.S.A.? What if they had not found congenial publishing arrangements or if gramophone reproduction had been invented somewhat later than it was?” The purpose of these, and several other, as he calls them, “preposterous questions” is to “[…] suggest that the history of music, especially but not only in the 20th century, is to a large extent the history of its transmission and not just of its composition”. )
We live at a time when the problem is rather the opposite of what it was in the first half of the 20th century, when Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky, Hindemith and many others were building their reputations. For those composers, being in the right place at the right time and finding the appropriate means of dissemination for their music, by way of recording or publishing, was indeed a stroke of good luck. In “our time” (late 20th century/early 21st), the Internet has managed to seemingly reduce the size of the world in which we live. There is too much, rather than too little information available about all and everything. And it is at our disposal by way of a simple mouse click. Music lovers do not even need to buy physical recordings anymore. A mind-bogglingly vast amount of music can be accessed inexpensively and, more or less instantly, be downloaded right into our computer, tablet device or mobile ‘phone.
There are sufficient recordings and published scores available of the work of the five composers discussed in this book to help anyone interested become familiar with their music. The reason why these composers are not better known than they (as I hope to be able to convincingly argue for) plainly deserve to be, must, thus, lie somewhere other than in lack of availability. I will touch on this sorry state of affairs again also at the end of the book.
AN AIM AND THREE REASONS
I am unsure of whether I can be as bold as to state an aim for this book. That would imply that I expect it to have a definite effect. If I do have an aim with writing this book, it has to be this:
“To help create interest for the further exploration of these composers’ work
among the international public”.
An extension of this would be:
“To motivate orchestras, ensembles and soloists worldwide to program and
champion the music of these composers”.
This “extension” is, I realize, very ambitious indeed (one is allowed to hope and dream?)
I do, in any case, know why I am writing the book:
Firstly because I love these composers, as people and as artists and it is natural to wish to share one’s enthusiasm with others.
Secondly, because I wish to contribute towards their recognition. I am here using the word “recognition” in both its meanings: a) in its verb form, “to recognize”, that is, to be able to distinguish something or someone for what it, he or she is, and b) in its noun form, “recognition”, in the sense of “positive attention”.
These two reasons go hand in hand. I cannot conceive of anyone writing at length about an artist or a piece of art out of obligation. There are, in my mind, two prerequisites when writing about art or artists:
1) To love it or them
2) To know enough about it or them.
Regarding the first prerequisite, as I wrote earlier, reading enthusiastic reviews or surveys about the work of diverse composers and artists has, time and again, motivated me to become familiar with a lot of music that might, otherwise, have escaped my attention. I remain endlessly grateful to those who have opened new doors for me in this way. I firmly believe that one should abstain from writing about art or artists one either despises or is unable to understand. I see no reason why one should waste one’s time in publicly expressing negative opinions about the work of others. That which we cannot digest may be someone else’s main diet. ) Let’s also keep in mind that negative reviews may even generate unpleasant consequences for the artist being reviewed, as we shall see, particularly, in the case of one of the composers in this book. And so, I choose to use my energy in writing about composers I love, performing their music and holding lectures, conferences or small festivals dedicated to their work. I would do none of these things if I did not feel a deep personal connection to the composers and their work, even if I happened to find them “interesting”.
As for prerequisite no. 2, i.e. “to know enough about that which one is writing about”, I certainly cannot claim to “know everything” about the composers in this book. There are various works by most of these composers that I have never heard or been able to study. Do I know enough about them to write a book? Well, I feel that, after 27 years of performing and studying their work and having spent considerable lengths of time with each of them, I have gained enough insight into what makes them unique and special to be able to communicate it to a wide public.
The final reason for writing this book is the fact that practically all available material (a lot of it really excellent) about these composers and their work is in Norwegian. This greatly limits its accessibility. I have, thus, chosen to write the book in English, so as to give it a better chance of reaching a wider audience. Having said that, recently the possibility of reading about these, and many other composers, in English has increased, thanks mostly to multilingual CD sleeve notes and to the services provided by the Norwegian Music Information Centre. I must make a special mention of the composer Magnar Åm, who hasalways been extremely generous in sharing his philosophy of life and music with the general public, often both in Norwegian and English.