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Chamber Music Works with Piano

Gunnar Berg

Chamber Music Works with Piano

Erik Kaltoft, Signe Asmussen, Torben Snekkestad, John Ehde, Kenneth Larsen, Arne Balk-Møller, Niels Ullner, Søren Monrad, Per Morten Bye

The Danish composer Gunnar Berg (1909-1989) was part of the international modernist milieu in post-war Europe, and his music has only recently become known and acknowledged in earnest in his native Denmark. This premiere recording of a number of Berg’s chamber music works with piano from the 1950s and 1960s offers unusual instrument combinations including saxophone, trumpet, bass clarinet and marimba; in addition, a mezzo-soprano sings in the major work Tøbrud (Thaw) from 1961: a piece whose title can now be said to have taken on symbolic meaning given the renewed interest in the composer.

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"The performances here are stunning."
Ira Byelick, American Record Guide
"The melodic contours rather defy you to grasp their shape but they are full of potential energy"
Peter Quantrill, Gramophone
Total runtime: 
61 min.
Gunnar Berg's Chamber Music with piano  by Jens Rossel

2009 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gunnar Berg and the year sparked a rediscovery and reassessment of the Danish composer as one of the most important Danish representatives of musical modernism on the international scene. More than 50 performances and events were held in Denmark, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Finland, Ukraine, USA, China, France, Northern Ireland and Scotland, with Berg's music played, discussed and written about to an extent never experienced by Berg in his lifetime; his drawings were also exhibited and his music released both in print and on CD.

Gunnar Berg was born in St. Gallen in Switzerland on 11 January 1909. His Danish father died in 1914; Berg's youth in Switzerland and in Denmark was marked by illness and frequent moves, and he did not have much contact with music. In 1934 Berg graduated from business school in Copenhagen, despite having been so deeply affected by a 1931 performance of Wagner's Tannhäuser at the Royal Danish Theatre that he vowed to devote his life to music. In the summer of 1932 Berg bicycled from Copenhagen to attend the Salzburg music festival, where he attended the Mozarteum course given by Austrian music critic Paul Stefan. The course opened a door for Berg to rehearsals, concerts and other courses as well as decisive first encounters with the music of composers such as Debussy and Stravinsky. Berg returned to Salzburg in 1935, where he was granted access to rehearsals led by Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter, and where he attended Herbert von -Karajan's conductor course.

Berg's time in Salzburg was of landmark importance to his musical orientation and position, which placed him closer to the music culture of Europe rather than a specific Danish-Nordic aesthetic. His Salzburg stays doubtless set his 1936 studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen in relief; Berg's idea of establishing a study group for new music was met with blank refusal from the conservatory, causing Berg to leave for good at the end of 1936. He then studied piano with pianist and composer Herman D. Koppel, and from 1943 on Berg would study with Elisabeth Jürgens, an unusually gifted teacher of Swedish birth who had lived in Copenhagen for decades.

Berg's first works date from the mid-1930s - with Zehn japanische Holzschnitte (Ten Japanese Woodcuts) for voice and piano from 1938 considered his first major work. During the German occupation, Berg was active in the Danish resistance movement and after the liberation he was involved in music teaching projects at numerous refugee camps in Denmark and gave concerts featuring his own works, classics, and new music including Stravinsky, Satie and Honegger.

In January 1945 he presented himself as a composer in Copenhagen, but won no recognition for his music and he began to prepare to go abroad. He travelled to Paris in autumn 1948 in order to study with Arthur Honegger and Olivier Messiaen. He ended up staying for almost 10 years and his time in Paris would have a decisive influence on his development as a composer. In 1952 Berg married the French pianist Béatrice Duffour, and their honeymoon was spent at the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, where Berg's meeting with Karlheinz Stockhausen served to confirm the validity and immediacy of Berg's own musical experiments. The couple did a number of concert tours around Europe featuring the leading composers of the time. In 1957 and 1958 they toured Germany and Scandinavia funded by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after which they settled in Denmark where they were among the first to introduce the new music of the European avant-garde.

For a number of years they embarked on a unique project with residences, lectures and concerts at the Danish Folk High Schools. In 1965 Béatrice and Gunnar Berg moved into the old school at Lindved, a small village located between Horsens and Juelsminde in Jutland. There they created an unusual cultural venue where the people of the region were often invited to memorable concerts of contemporary and classical music. A few years after Béatrice Berg's death in 1976 Gunnar Berg travelled around Europe, finally settling in Switzerland, where he would experience a significant surge of interest in his music. Gunnar Berg died in Bern, Switzerland, on 28 August 1989.

Only very rarely did Gunnar Berg add analytical or explanatory comments to his music: My works must stand on their own feet, and they must answer for themselves\, he asserted.

Berg put forth his own musical credo in 1972:

Absolute freedom is no freedom

Amelody presupposes melody

Arhythm is rhythmic movement

Atonality is without sound, as sounds will create tonality

The stringency of the work of art is not simple,

        is not complex

             - stringency is everything

                                             within bounds

However, among his posthumous papers there is a wealth of slips of paper with columns of figures and letters, note names, volumes and durations, which grant us some insight into his composition workshop. They also confirm the limited number of analyses of Gunnar Berg's works that have attempted to map out his working method. The point of departure was Olivier Messiaen's division of the twelve chromatic notes of the tempered scale into groups, the so-called ‘modes with restricted transpositions', but expanded to apply to all the parameters of the music. The result is a meticulously calculated structuring of durations, pitches, volumes and instrumentation, which was precisely a major theme in Darmstadt in 1952. Gunnar Berg described his method as ‘static', and he spoke of ground rules where by means of techniques such as mirroring, reversal and transposition he established a basic body of material which he ordered in a way that enabled him to ‘cut' the individual movements out.

Gunnar Berg came too late to studying the piano to attain a professional career as a pianist. But his experiences at the piano had a decisive influence on his compositional thinking, as it was reflected in his piano compositions - from the numerous educational small pieces to the four virtuoso concerts for piano and symphony orchestra - Essai acoustique, Frise, Pour piano et orchestre and Uculang. The two major works for solo piano - Eclatements (1954-88) and Gaffky's (1958-59) -- are both of a size that places them among the most important contributions to Danish piano literature in the second half of the twentieth century.

This CD contains some of Berg's chamber music works with piano spanning a 20-year period that allows the listener to follow the composer in reverse, from a mature 60-year-old to the man of 39 who, after experiencing many vicissitudes, came to Paris in 1948 to study with Arthur Honegger.

TRONQUÉ pour marimba, violoncelle et piano - Vejle 1969

The East Jutland city of Vejle was quick to show interest in Béatrice and Gunnar Berg after they arrived in Denmark. The local newspaper reviewed the Bergs' first concert performed at Uldum Folk High School in 1958 and followed the Bergs over the years, concluding with an extensive interview dated 17th April 1982, which was to be Gunnar Berg's last interview with a Danish journalist. Four outstanding concerts featuring Berg's music were performed in Vejle during his lifetime. The driving force behind these initiatives was a teacher named Ib Planch Larsen, the dynamic chairman of the Vejle Music Society, whose efforts in support of contemporary music attracted attention. With support from the Danish Arts Foundation, the Society celebrated Berg's 60th birthday with a live radio broadcast of a concert held at Vejle Theatre on 20th April 1969, featuring the music of Berg and Stockhausen. For the occasion, the Society had commissioned a new work from Gunnar Berg: Tronqué for piano, xylorimba and cello, performed by Béatrice Berg, Suzanne Ibstrup and Jørgen Friisholm on the three instruments.

The title of the work is taken from the French verb tronquer, which means to remove something, to shorten or to reduce. The title has indisputable relation to the way in which Gunnar Berg has treated the serial material in this work. Something has been removed or cut away, and what is left is a torso, a tree stump, a truncated cone - or in musical terms, a seventh, which is obtained when an octave is reduced by a second. Indeed, the minor seventh plays an important role in Tronqué, which opens with what for Berg at that time was an unusually crisp and refined sound. In music, the concept of ‘truncation' can also be explored in a play on long-sounding and short notes, and that is what Berg does here - even in the way the piece opens and then develops. After that hushed, deliberate prelude in all three instruments, the piano hammers in with harsh short notes, and the stage is set for a scene where the idiomatic qualities of the instruments are beautifully played out against each other within the boundaries of true chamber music. The cello sings and moans and lingers, with the piano providing occasional deep notes for support but generally siding with the marimba in a lively, even brusque exchange of mostly high short notes and chords. Till the action ends, and the cello is back where it started, on the note of its highest string, ‘a', but now assertive (fortissimo, bowed and plucked) rather than tentative (mezzoforte con sordino). The ring closes, but we are not really where we were: Time has passed, and things happened. Tronqué is dedicated to Vejle Music Society.

THAW - Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen 1961

The world première of Cinq études pour double orchestre à cordes (1955-56) during the Nordic Music Days Festival on 8 September 1960 at the Stockholm Concert Hall performed by the Swedish Radio Symphonic Orchestra sparked significant interest in Gunnar Berg in Scandinavian music circles. The Swedish concert association, Fylkingen, led the way with a portrait concert in conjunction with its sister associations DUT (the Society for Young Composers) in Copenhagen and Ny Musikk in Oslo. Berg's recently composed Tøbrud set to a poem by Danish modernist Ivan Malinovski (1926-1989) was performed at a concert held at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm on 6 November 1961 and then at the University Great Hall in Oslo on 8 November. Performers included Helle Halding (voice), Tage Scharff (bass clarinet), Niels Nielsen (violin) and Béatrice Berg (violin). The planned performance of Tøbrud at the DUT concert at Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen on 22 October was cancelled due to illness, but Copenhageners would hear a sample on 28 January 1962 at Falkonér Centre, with Tamás Vetö at the piano and with composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen giving the cues. The occasion was the so-called "Dis-Armament Celebration" event after the demonstrations against the Moral Re-Armament-sponsored Formosa Chinese guest performance of The Dragon at the beginning of the year. The performance of Tøbrud was not intended to be merely a sample, but Berg's music and Malinovski's poem were literally howled off stage by the large audience who had gathered to celebrate the result of the demonstration, not to listen to new music and poetry.

The poem Tøbrud is the penultimate poem in Malinovski's breakthrough collection, Galgenfrist, which was released in 1958. As a translator, Malinovski was well-versed in new Russian literature, and there is no doubt that his Tøbrud refers to Russian author Ilya Ehrenburg's novel The Thaw, which would lend its name to developments throughout Eastern Europe after the death of Stalin in 1953 and the 20th Party Congress of the Soviet Union in 1956. Despite the title, Galgenfrist, whose dictionary meaning is a brief respite from something unavoidable and uncomfortable, referring to the time between the pronouncement of a death sentence and its being carried out on the scaffold, one nevertheless senses a sort of optimism in Malinovski's collection of poems.

The music opens with a series of outbursts that set the tone for the beginning of the three-part poem: "That night the egg of the skin burst / the last garb / chinking like ice / the twelfth stroke / fell like a plague / from the neon sky / set fire to this monastery". The plague that fell from the neon sky and set the world on fire, and the inferno heralded by the twelfth toll of the clock, refer to the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In their wake came a worldwide fear of atomic Armageddon; a fear that in the Denmark of the early 1960s led to Easter demonstrations with thousands marching to protest against the atomic bomb. Tøbrud is a modern poet's and a modern musician's reinterpretations of The Fall, once again manmade, but despite the depredations and harshness that we and the world are subjected to, there remains an unconquerable, invincible will to live.  

Gunnar Berg dedicated his Tøbrud to Hans Christian Steen Hansen (1902-1974), who led the "Dannevirke" resistance group with headquarters in Admiral Gjeddes Gård at St. Kannikestræde 10 in Copenhagen. In 1943 Hansen was arrested, and in a German reaction to the spontaneous strike of 1944 he and 28 other prisoners were sent to the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg, but survived and returned home shortly before the end of the war. Hansen's time in the camp, however, had scarred him for life. Both Berg and Malinovski were active in assisting in the escape of the Danish Jews to Sweden in 1943 and in the resistance movement.

‘... POUR VIOLON ET PIANO' - Viborg and Uldum 1960

The Uldum Folk High School became one of the Bergs' central venues soon after they decided to settle in Denmark in 1957. Uldum was home to a circle of music friends who actively contributed to helping the Bergs find opportunities for self-expression in -Denmark: high school principal Johannes Laursen Vig and his wife Edith; head teacher Tage Rossel and his wife Ina, and Dr Vagn Vogensen and his wife Gunhild -- all opened their homes to Gunnar and Béatrice Berg.

‘... pour violon et piano' is dedicated to Ina and Tage Rossel and was written at the same time as Berg's major piano work, Gaffky's. The first version of the piece is dated Uldum, July 1959, and the finished manuscript is dated Viborg, January 1960. The world première took place at the above-named DUT concert held on 22 October 1961 at Statens Museum for Kunst, a happy occasion for the composer Ib Nørholm. In his review for the daily paper Information on 23 October 1961, Nørholm wrote: "On second hearing the exceedingly complex violin and piano duo was also the concert's weightiest and most expansive work, lush and highly original both in form and content." DUT submitted the work to the ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) international jury and, together with Per Nørgård's Fragment VI, it was accepted to be performed at the ISCM Festival held in Copenhagen in 1964. Like at the world première, ‘... pour violon et piano' was performed on this occasion by Niels Nielsen (violin) and Béatrice Berg (piano) on 29 May 1964 at the Glyptotek Museum in Copenhagen.

In ‘... pour violon et piano', Gunnar Berg reveals his most stringent and uncompromising side, expressing himself within the complex idiom of musical modernism, including the use of quarter tones.  

‘... POUR DEUX VIOLONCELLES ET PIANO' - Geneva and Berlin 1958

The origin of ‘... pour deux violoncelles et piano' and the piano work Gaffky's speak of the Bergs travel and concert activity in the spring of 1958. On 7 January 1958 Béatrice Berg gave her first public concert in Denmark at the Odd Fellows Palæ in Copenhagen, and on 31 January the Bergs performed in Hamburg. Gaffky's 1 was composed in March 1958, partly in Berlin, where the Bergs visited Boris Blacher, whom Berg had met at the Seminar in American Studies in Salzburg in 1950; and partly in the tiny Swiss mountain village Leysin, where the Bergs stayed with their friends Bernard and Andrée Courvoisier of Geneva. The work with cellos was composed in Geneva and Berlin and is dedicated to Bernard and Andrée Courvoisier.

‘... pour deux violoncelles et piano' is in three movements. The first movement is notated as ¾ time but is definitely not a waltz! Aggressive atonal piano chords of five notes colour the tonal language, while the two cello voices intertwine with their use of quarter tones. The longer and slower middle movement in 4/4 time commences with a melancholic mood that with increasing intensity turns aggressive only to return to the starting point. The last movement, like the first movement, is fast and mechanical but more transparent. The piano mainly plays single notes. Cello #1 is notated as 2/4 time and cello #2 and the piano as 5/8 time, which gives the movement a fluctuating character.

‘... pour deux violoncelles et piano' had its world première on 18 October 1973 on the Danish National Radio by Alf Petersen and Jørgen Friisholm (cello) and Suzanne Ibstrup (piano).

PROSTHESIS pour saxophone et piano - Neuilly-sur-Seine 1954

After their wedding in 1952 Béatrice and Gunnar Berg moved into a small pavilion located at 70 Boulevard Maurice Barrès in Neuilly-sur-Seine, where they would gather the musical avant-garde of Paris for intimate concerts. For the first time in many years Berg would enjoy access to a desk and an instrument, which enabled him to work on larger projects -- including his wedding present to Béatrice, Essai acoustique for piano and orchestra from 1954.

Prosthesis was composed in January and February of 1954, and along with Cosmogonie for two pianos (1952-53) and Filandre for flute, clarinet and violin (1953) it is one of Berg's first compositions after he dedicated himself to the 12-tone composition technique in 1950. Cosmogonie is Berg's first true serial work, and its Greek title - the study of the origin of the universe - speaks of new artistic directions for Berg. After years of experimentation he had finally found his way forth to the musical tools with which he could realise his musical visions.

The title page of Prosthesis contains a quotation from Plato: 

"Quand une unité a été ajouté à une unité cette adjonction est cause du deux".

(When one is added to one, two is created by that addition.)

The quotation is ascribed to Socrates and appears twice (97a and 101c) in Plato's -Phaedo, in which Socrates, in his last hours in prison before he must drink the deadly cup of hemlock, talks about life and the immortality and indestructibility of the soul.

Prosthesis is dedicated to Berg's friend, the French musicologist and philosopher Fred Goldbeck (1902-1981), whom Berg met in 1949 along with John Cage. The dedication does not provide the concrete background for the Plato citation, but it is reasonable to assume that Plato played a part in the musical and philosophical dialogues and considerations that led Berg to his own brand of numeric serial composition and to Prosthesis, which means ‘addition'. The title may also refer to the bringing together of two different instruments -- the saxophone as an addition to the piano, or vice versa. But it may also reference one of Messiaen's composition techniques, described in "Technique de mon langage musical" (1944).

The two voices in Prosthesis are very different. The saxophone voice is melodic, dynamic and rhythmically richly differentiated with an extensive use of quarter tones. The piano timbre on the other hand is static and characterised by the repetition of individual notes and of heavy atonal chords throughout the work, which is brought to its conclusion by the saxophone alone. Prosthesis had its world première at a DUT concert held at Statens Museum for Kunst on 30 March 1974 with Christian Ancher Grøn (saxophone) and Anker Fjeld Simonsen (piano).

PIÈCE pour trompette, violon et piano - Paris 1949

Gunnar Berg arrived in Paris on 22 November 1948. On 21 December he wrote to Elisabeth Jürgens about his first lesson with Arthur Honegger: "This one lesson was worth the entire trip to Paris ... In Messiaen's class, Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps was -thoroughly examined ... A few weeks later I was told that several of my works were to be performed at a public concert at Pierre Schaeffer's Studio d'Essai - broadcast on the radio - at Honegger's suggestion." Musicologist Edmond Costère attended this concert, noting: "Gunnar Berg, Studio d'Essai, voice, piano sonata, captivating music, very distinctive, unerring originality due perhaps to a certain distinguishing ruggedness of character. Keep an eye on him!"

The doors to the Parisian musical avant-garde were open, and Berg quickly made contact with composers such as Darius Milhaud, Jean-Étienne Marie, André Jolivet and John Cage. The encounters with new forms of musical expression caused him to revise or abandon his earlier works, and the trumpet trio is the first new work he composed in -Paris. It is also the last work he completed before dedicating himself to 12-tone composition in 1950 with Suite for cello solo. In Pièce we find traits that point both forward and back in Berg's work. The piece opens with a melodic dialogue between trumpet and -violin, during which the trumpet introduces a rhythmically accelerating figure that proves important both thematically and for the structure of the piece. The piano enters with staccato 6-8-note atonal chords, reminiscent of the piano pieces Pierres solaires (1943) and Sonata for piano (1947). Not till near the end does the piano absorb melodic substance via the characteristic figure, thus attaining the same status as that of trumpet and violin. Pièce received its world premiere performance at a concert given by Aarhus Unge Tonekunstnere on 29 March 1973 by Tony Åstrand (trumpet), Ove Vedsten Larsen (violin) and Erik Kaltoft (piano).

Jens Rossel is a co-founder of Working Group Gunnar Berg and has for many years been active in the Danish music scene as a consultant for various institutions such as Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, Danish Music Information Centre, Danish Arts Agency, and Region Zealand.


Release date: 
January 2012
Cat. No.: 
Jewel Case
Track count: 


Recorded at The Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, Southern Denmark, in June 2009 (Tronqué), September 2009 (Prosthesis) and April 2010 (Tøbrud, ... pour violon et piano, ... pour deux violoncelles et piano)
Recording producer: Claus Byrith
Sound engineer: Claus Byrith

Cover image: Drawing by Gunnar Berg
Graphic design: Denise Burt

Publishers: Edition Switzer (Tøbrud, Pour violin et piano, Prosthesis) and Arbejdsgruppe Gunnar Berg,

This cd has been made in cooperation with The Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, Southern Denmark