'I feel each of my symphonies is a whole continent in itself,' the Danish composer Per Nørgård (b. 1932) has said. One of the greatest symphonists of our time, his music stems from an insatiable urge to explore the phenomena of the world and the possibilities of music. His eight symphonies stand as milestones over the course of six decades, and this 4 CD box set contains spellbinding performances which harvested a bumper crop of critical superlatives on their initial release. These recordings provide a fascinating insight into the symphonic thinking of Nørgård, the composer of the ‘infinity principle’.
Per Nørgård and the symphony
by Jørgen I. Jensen
Per Nørgård's symphonies are on the one hand part of a prolific, exuberant and -appa-rently inexhaustible flow of works from his hand; he is now in progress with his 400th work.
On the other hand the symphonies as such are milestones, summations at intervals of several years, "reports on the state of the universe" - that is, clarifications of new possibilities and new paths in the composer's musical universe.
Anyone beginning to listen to Per Nørgård can be wholeheartedly recommended to start with the symphonies; they involve so many layers of expression that the listener can choose his or her bearings freely. The symphonies offer particular potential for considering what is at play in this music - even though the music can never be captured by explanatory words.
The very first challenge lies in the fact that Per Nørgård, who has renewed the language of music in every way, still maintains and develops the symphony as a genre. This of course involves a declaration of solidarity with the classical concert-hall culture; but it is not the same as saying that the composer simply resumes work on the forms of the past.
Per Nørgård was only 23 years old in 1955 when he finished his first symphony, Sinfonia Austera. This work of his youth, which is still valid today, marked an indepen-dent appropriation of the Nordic tradition in which Per Nørgård grew up musically.
Of crucial importance was the encounter with the music of Sibelius, in which Per Nørgård has had an intense interest right down to the present day. While in the avant-garde period of the 1960s Sibelius was the pet hate of many people on the musical scene - as the great reactionary composer - Per Nørgård refused to be affected by this, but pointed out again and again that the great Finnish composer - within the bounds of his personal tonal and perhaps Romantic sound-universe - had created the greatest innovations in musical form: in polyphony, in the rhythmic displacements within the individual periods, and in the relationship between the details and the overall form.
In his symphonies Per Nørgård has to a great extent gone further with these possi-bilities of symphonic art. On the one hand he wants to create the large overall form - the form where, when the work is over, one can think back to one great transfor-mation, and can grasp that in a certain sense the world has become different; while at the same time, during the actual listening, the totality is not what one is thinking of, because what happens from moment to moment captures one's whole attention.
In Classical music the motion of the larger form and the details of the moment are based on the same kind of tonal regularity. With twelve-tone music, what happened in the details and what happened in the larger form were separated; serial music was first and foremost able to regulate the details in new ways.
There is no doubt that Per Nørgård, against the background of a brand new set of conditions, wanted to recreate the contact, the analogous relationship, between the over-all form and the details. The process begins in Symphonies nos. 2 and 3, but before they are discussed it must be emphasized that Per Nørgård's interest in Sibelius is not a matter of what we normally call ‘influence'. It is rather a dialogue, even though in the course of both Symphony no. 3 and Symphony no. 7 one can glimpse associations with the sonorities of Sibelius, nods to history which give the listener a sense of being a parti-cipant in the great saga of symphonic music in Scandinavia. In his music Sibelius him-self had points of contact going back to Beethoven - so here too we find an affinity with the great classical tradition. But it is under Nordic auspices; that is - and this is true of Sibelius, of Carl Nielsen and quite decidedly of Per Nørgård - it looks more towards the music of the east than does much Central European music.
Of course the whole challenge of the large form with several movements or phases has a quite different outcome in the individual symphonies. Symphony no. 3 is epic in scope, no. 7 is more dramatic in its form.
Symphony no. 3 (1972-75)
In the 1960s Per Nørgård developed the so-called infinity series. This was a principle of musical motion that represented an alternative to the serial music of the period; in seve-ral of its versions it was easy to grasp, while it progressed in several tempi at the same time and could create both heterophony and polyphony. The infinity series in its ‘classic' form proved itself, so to speak, by constituting the unifying motion of a whole symphony - Symphony no. 2 (1971-72).
After that work Per Nørgård took certain crucial steps: he linked the infinity series and its unique potential for continuity with the natural harmonic and subharmonic series, and coupled all this with a new rhythmic principle based on the Golden Section. It is this new world-picture that is summed up and celebrated in Symphony no. 3 with its chorus, a work that has frequently been performed since and which already now stands as one of the classic works of Danish music.
The beginnings of each of the two movements of the work also tell us something about their structure. The first movement begins with a note in the depths, the second with notes that descend from the heights. The first movement moves on to descending figures, to multidimensional, cascade-like falls that spread to the whole orchestra and in the end summon forth the natural harmonic series in the brasses in an ascending, acce-le-rating figure. This is the first climax of the movement.
The second movement, on the other hand, moves downward in something that recalls a minor subdominant interval, later a very characteristic feature of Per Nørgård's music. It is formed in accordance with the inversion of the harmonic series, the subharmonic series. Here new melodies are called forth, but with a strange lustre, as in another world.
The first movement has the character of a creation myth: first the tonal material is formed, and then the floating ‘golden' rhythms set in. From there a signal for trumpet chords leads into the main body of the movement. It forms a quite unique progression, almost a ‘Gothic' element in a present-day realization. It has a six-part texture where each part plays the same melody formed in accordance with the infinity series, but in different rhythms and in different keys determined by the natural harmonic series. The movement continues into an episode that recalls pointillist music but which is tonal in structure; it creates spiral motions that can evoke the motion of the planets and the music of the spheres. The motion is further compacted and becomes more dramatic before it finally bows out.
After the first performance of Symphony no. 3 in 1976, which caused quite a stir, there were those who thought it was not possible, in all honesty, to create original music with such beauty and with such ear-pleasing melodies as we hear in the second movement. But it turned out to be the case, and this is related to the fact that the melodies were derived from a larger, unified - and brand new - structure. For the first-time listener this becomes evident in the second movement, when the music moves through a succession of landscapes: it opens up both to a passacaglia-like pas-sage and to Latin American rhythms.
Slowly the great chorus, which has first announced its presence in the back-ground with chords from the tonal cadence (a version of the infinity series in a diatonic scale), begins to come into the foreground. The choir meets the orchestra in a musical interpretation of a medieval Marian hymn - until the human voices take over the whole initiative with Rilke's poem Singe die Gärten from the Sonnets to Orpheus (1922). Towards the end it quotes Schubert's Du bist die Ruh, not as a collage, but in a way that makes it seem to emerge from the music's own structure.
The work was performed in the last con-certs of the Jubilee Season of the Danish Natio-nal Choir - respectively at a Metro Concert and a Thursday Concert on 18th and 19th December 2007.
The composer himself was present at the rehearsals and at the recording just afterwards.
The performances of the work had been so successful and so innovative that Per Nørgård dedicated his Symphony no. 3 to the Chief Conductor Thomas Dausgaard, the DR Vocal Ensemble and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.
Ave Maris stella
Ave maris stella,
Dei mater alma,
Atque semper virgo,
Felix coeli porta.
Hail Star of the Sea
Hail Star of the Sea
Dear Mother of the God
And ever Virgin,
Happy gateway to Heaven.
Full of grace.
Sing, my heart, of unknown gardens poured in glass
Sing, my heart, of unknown gardens poured in glass,?
Transparent and unattainable.?
Fountains and roses of Ispahan or of Shiraz,?
Praise and joyfully sing of them, incomparable.??
Show, my heart, that you could never truly miss them, since?
It is you, alone, for whom their figs have ripened.?
That in your revery, envisioning powers heightened,?
You are kin to each flowering branch the sweet breezes evince.??
Avoid the error of thinking something dear was shed
In the transaction of your grave decision to be!?
You are part of the very weave, o silken thread.??
Whatever the motif constricting you internally?
(if only for a moment in the painful life you lead)?
intuit the full meaning of the glowing tapestry.
(Rainer Maria Rilke: "Sonnets to Orpheus" II, 21)
You are the calm, the mild peace
You are the calm, the mild peace,
You are the longing and what satisfies it.
I hereby, full of desire and pain, consecrate
my eye and heart to an abode for you.
We are covered by your protection.
(Sir Walter Scott: "Ave Maria")
Between no. 3 and no. 7
After the ‘harmonic' period in the 1970s Per Nørgård happened into a new and demanding world. He discovered the schizophrenic all-round artist Adolf Wölfli, who was confined for most of his life to a mental institution in Switzerland, where he demon-strated incredible creativity in images and texts, around the time when Sibelius, in a quite different part of the world and in a quite different state of mind, was writing his boundary-breaking symphonies.
In the 1980s Per Nørgård devoted a number of works to Wölfli, including a new symphony, Symphony no. 4, Indischer Roosen-gaarten und Chineesischer Hexensee. It is a counter-image in concentrated form to the second movement of Symphony no. 3. The new Symphony no. 4 (1980-81) merged with music that had to allow for the grotesque, the moving, the magical and the banal in the work of the solitary Wölfli.
Then in 1990 this was followed by the large Symphony no. 5. It had no title, like a sphinx, and was a great expanse of neomodernism that seemed like a great opening, although one did not quite know towards what.
But the new element emerged almost immediately afterwards; it became clear that we had entered a period when, artistically and presumably also in general, it was impossible to have any overview over what was happening. After 1990 one can no longer describe Per Nørgård's music as one grand narrative, as it had been throughout the preceding decades. There were now many narratives in the music, and a new grouping appeared with each work. The works were unpredictable, and announced their presence in their own right.
Per Nørgård thus intensified his reject-ion of modernism's criticism of the actual con-cept of the work, and he also worked ‘alternatively' in terms of the linear image of humanity that was gradually emerging in the new culture.
The renewed meaning of the concept of the work was evident from a simple but characteristic feature: Per Nørgård began to give each of his large orchestral works a special sound-emblem. It began in the piano concerto from 1996, Concerto in due tempi, when - quite unusually for him - he used a saxophone as an obbligato instru-ment. In the large, ‘classical' Symphony no. 6, At the End of the Day, which was written on the occasion of the turn of the millennium, Per Nørgård surprisingly deployed a large number of rarely used low wind instruments. And in the sister work, Terrains Vagues from 2002, it was the accordion that helped from the outset to give the work its own colouring and intensity.
Symphony no. 7 (2004-06)
In the new Symphony no. 7 the surprising sound-emblem is 14 tuned toms which mainly appear at the beginning and end of the first movement and at the end of the third movement. In the first movement the 14 toms are used so to speak to fill in the gaps with the greatest liveliness and with constantly descending motions in ever-varying rhythms. The distinctive melodic-acoustic effect of the tuned toms recalls shadows or mime figures that keep up with everything that happens with their own movements. It takes great artistic skill with sonorities to orchestrate this so that the peculiar accom-panist can be clearly heard. And its descending figures also send a greeting back to the place at the beginning of Symphony no. 3 with the great descending cascades in the orche-stra. In Symphony no. 7 the motion is as it were individualized; it has become a way of finding one's bearings among all the other things that happen.
Symphony no. 3 was written at a time when the individual could feel over-whelmed by systems and ideas, and that was one reason why it had such a strong effect: it created music that, in one long symphonic progression, resembled what was in general called consciousness-raising in the individual. Today the situation has changed completely; the life story of the individual fills up almost the whole picture. And that is why the alternative must consist of lines of dialogue, events, motifs and signals, innume-rable impulses from various quarters - in short, something that has the effect of an erup-tion inward from the outside. Not that this makes it chaotic.
Symphony no. 7 was commissioned for the inauguration of Danmarks Radio's new concert hall in DR City in Ørestad. It was performed at the opening concert on 29th January 2009, the first new Danish music to be played in the new concert hall.
The beginning of the symphony has in all respects a character that suits the occa-sion: it begins with an intense fullness and strength - a generous sound. The doors are thrown open to everyone and everything, to all kinds of music. In the sound there is something that is a triad and something that is not, something that is harmonic and something that is off-kilter; the attention is drawn from the low burst of the tuba up towards the silver sounds of the violins, on to the trumpets that meet in blaring thirds - before it all thins out and the 14 toms make themselves heard for the first time. This lasts five bars, but long enough so one can hear that it is an introduction and at the same time an invitation, indeed a summons to the world of music itself.
Not only the first movement, but also the next two begin surprisingly. One shouldn't spoil a surprise, but there are such great differences between words and music that it will probably do no harm. At the beginning of the second movement we hear two bars with a clarinet solo and then two bars for oboe solo. After this there suddenly comes what the score calls "an overwhelming chord in the strings" with brasses in the back-ground. It is unmistakably C major, but a generous C major - that is, there is room for a couple of other notes as consonance with added, fresh dissonances. This columnar sound plays a recurrent role throughout the movement, even when the movement shifts to other kinds of developments with faster rhythms and various chamber-music motifs, including a brief but clear harp solo. This procedure too is characteristic of all the three movements of the symphony. They begin on the classical pattern, respectively fast - slow - fast. But each of the movements works towards its opposite along the way.
The third movement begins just as surprisingly with dancing music in 3/4 time; but no more than three bars pass before it is succeeded by a speaking, dialogue-like figure from the strings and woodwinds.
One could go on emphasizing details, because the work, quite unlike Symphony no. 3, almost exclusively creates the large whole out of short motifs that move in over one another and weave a network of impulses that hold the attention of the listener from second to second.
The ending is unique, because several endings are begun, so to speak. Some way into the movement a caesura appears and sounds begin which could thin out and become an ending. Then we hear a new ending with hectic runs on toms, piano and cello. This is followed by a general pause, itself followed by string tremolos that become a singing, rhythmically music-making swarm succeeded by two bars of flute trio with harmonics, as if in Wonderland. And then - after a pause - the last ending: four horns with a chord that is echoed by four trumpets and again by four trombones - an echo world of unstressed figures that are kept under close scrutiny and interfere with other rhythms and stresses.
These final bars have a peculiar effect on the totality; it is as if one has been waiting for them without knowing it. This is because they form an arch in the work - an arch going back to the end of the first movement. There, in the first movement, the development - after the first section's discharge of innumerable ideas and inexhaustible energy, and after a characte-ristic shift to a more oriental sound and rhythm - moves into a slower tempo with long loops on that unstressed, ‘unregarded' accompaniment chord in classical music. Gradually it expands so that at one point the music sounds like a brass band that to its own surprise has discovered its own monumental or sublime potential in these association-rich tetrads. It is here too, in the first movement, that one encounters the motif that ends the whole work. As if the end of the work consists of this motif ‘coming to itself'.
The symphony can thus have an entirely satisfying outcome, and clarity in its overall form. The symphony's innumerable -episodes, dialogues and signals have created one great transformation on the way to the new world that can be opened up. It is not the fact that a motif from one movement is repeated in another that is important in itself; it is the fact that before it comes the symphony plays on the way we can perceive general pauses, caesuras and breaks as new beginnings of the ending - until the whole symphony comes to cohere and forms its own musical and subtle alternative to all that in the spirit of the times may seem grey on grey.
The composer himself was present at the recording sessions in June 2008.
Symphony no. 7 is dedicated to DR's former choir and orchestra director for 19 years from 1988 until 2007, Per Erik Veng.
© Jørgen I. Jensen, 2008
Symphonies that cannot be repeated
by Jens Cornelius
“The music I would have liked to hear wasn’t there.” This is how Per Nørgård explains why he became a composer, and his attitude has remained the same ever since. Throughout a long life Nørgård has produced some of the most visionary music in the Nordic region, including eight symphonies written between 1953 and 2012. They have their origins in his unique ability to find and express new connections, making him one of the greatest symphonists of our time.
The two symphonies on the CD are his first and his last so far. Different as they are, they share several features; both internal phenomena such as a spatial dimension in the music, and external factors such as the connections with Denmark’s Nordic neighbour Finland. In Symphony no. 1 we hear a link with Finland’s great composer Sibelius, and in 2012 the Eighth Symphony was given its first performance by the Helsinki Philharmonic, the orchestra which a century earlier premiered most of Sibelius’ symphonies. The symphony is dedicated to the chief conductor of the orchestra, John Storgårds.
Symphony no. 1
Nørgård’s very distinctive creative talent came more or less out of the blue – his parents had a drapery shop, and there were no musicians in the family. But in his boyhood years he was already writing music, and at the age of 17 he became a private pupil of the great Danish composer Vagn Holmboe.
Holmboe’s life close to nature and his ideas on musical metamorphosis were of huge importance to the young Copenhagener, and Holmboe’s masterly Symphony no. 8, Sinfonia boreale (“Northern Symphony”) from 1953 actually changed his life. It gave him the idea of writing a symphony himself, and sparked off notions of a Nordic world of music: one that he had a strong urge to define in more detail.
At that time Nørgård knew only a couple of Sibelius’ seven symphonies – Holmboe had given him the score of the First Symphony shortly after they met – but now he went to work on all of them, and in Nørgård’s own words this was “a shock of an encounter that struck something deep inside my mind.”
In 1954 Nørgård summoned up courage and sent Sibelius a long letter of homage which included an analysis of his style. In contrast to the age’s view of Sibelius as a dinosaur from National Romanticism, Nørgård admired his sophisticated musical structures.
“Your music is, in a way that far exceeds your contemporaries, in touch with the elementary, innermost and quite timeless forces of existence, with nature in the broadest sense. I felt this mystical connection with existence at the same time as I became aware of my nature as indefinably northern. The pure northern air, the powerful darkness and the crystal-clear, undimmed light; this, the Nordic feeling for nature, is today one of the most precious things in my life.”
Sibelius replied approvingly: “I am surprised to see how deeply you have delved into my music. Only rarely have I received letters that show such an understanding of my creation.” At the same time he praised the Quintet op. 1 that Nørgård had sent with the letter, and in a subsequent letter Sibelius accepted the dedication of Nørgård’s choral work Aftonlandet (The Evening Land).
The last chapter in the story of this meeting of composers followed the same year when the 22-year-old Nørgård was a member of a Nordic delegation and visited the 89-year-old Sibelius at his home Ainola – but he did not dare make himself known to the older composer …
In 1955 Nørgård finished his First Symphony, his largest work so far, which he gave the title Sinfonia austera (“Austere Symphony”). In the symphony Per Nørgård does nothing to conceal the link with his Finnish model. It begins with a bass clarinet and a timpani roll, not unlike the introduction to Sibelius’ First Symphony, and a few minutes into the movement it quotes the ‘bird cry’ from Tapiola, Sibelius’ last orchestral work about the Nordic nature-universe.
But Sinfonia austera is not an imitation – it is inspired by and further develops Sibelius’ thoughts and structures, marking the emergence of a new composer’s personality. In this youthful work we already sense the ambivalence that is so characteristic of Nørgård’s music: motifs that shift place without settling; rhythmic layers that open up a new dimension; metamorphoses with an undercurrent that is sombre and mysterious. It is a vibrant version of “Nordic Noir,” a powerful, unorthodox drama of mankind and the elements.
Sinfonia austera was unfortunately long in finding its audience, and it has always been a neglected work. The first performance was a studio production with the conductor Lamberto Gardelli, broadcast on national Danish radio in 1958. Not until 1963 was the symphony played in a concert, and by that time Nørgård had moved into a quite different artistic phase. His interest had veered from the Nordic landscape towards central European serial music, and a break with his mentor Holmboe had become necessary.
Today, more than half a century later, it is clear that Nørgård’s First Symphony is not an isolated work of his youth, but the beginning of a lifelong development of fundamental ideas. A specific example is the conclusion of the symphony – its most radical section – which turns up in a multifarious, chaotic version as the conclusion of the Fifth Symphony from 1990. Nor has Nørgård ever rejected his first work in the genre:
“The austere character, in its earnestness, is undoubtedly very youthful. But since life and music are in so many ways just as indubitably youthful, I see no reason to dissociate myself from – or kill off – my First Symphony.”
Symphony no. 8
The leap from Per Nørgård’s First Symphony to the Eighth Symphony seems enormous, but it is not solely a matter of chronology. “Each of my symphonies has its own personality, which cannot be repeated,” he says himself, and this is very much the case with Symphony no. 8, whose character does not have much in common either with its closest predecessor, the aggressive Seventh Symphony from 2006.
Symphony no. 8 is bright and playful, more transparent and airy than any other Nørgård has written. At the same time it is a highly Classical symphony. Its three separate movements are archetypes from the Classical tradition: a full, active first movement, a slow second movement and a fast final movement. “The three possible states,” Nørgård calls them.
The first movement is the longest, and has a content that develops luxuriantly. Glittering scales run both up and down – Nørgård compares this to spiral patterns or to the stepped pyramids of Mesopotamia – the ziggurats – while a horizon is maintained as a ‘floor’ in the midst of the music. The motions shift in lively fashion in many simultaneous layers without any sense of strict regularity. The process seems to take place all by itself.
The canvas of sonorities is stretched tautly from top to bottom, and Nørgård paints on it with wonderfully light, transparent brush strokes. Out of the growing mass of the orchestra individual masses are drawn in surprisingly concertante elements: four flutes are give a prominent role as the movement changes to a siciliano rhythm in 6/8, and towards the end a group of celesta, piano, vibraphone and glockenspiel emerges with something that recalls a solo cadenza.
After the thematic activity and drive of the first movement the slow second movement is pure being, where the reflections have the same point of origin. In Nørgård’s own words, the music is “sensually melodic,” but with innumerable facets added: not only orchestral layers, but also the way the main subject of the movement appears in three different variants. “Three revolving stages, each with its own mobile expression,” Nørgård calls it. In this way the movement takes the form of a rondo, where the presentations of the theme are separated by quick, dynamic interludes.
The last movement presents a third state: “The state where you have nothing to hold on to,” Nørgård has explained. The movement begins restlessly and with no fixed grounding, and the ascending scales from the first movement haunt it in hyperactive, restless form. In time the orchestra rallies round the previous material, and the instruments unite in an ecstatic, glittering climax marked Lento visionario. It is a transitory apotheosis where the music vanishes magically into higher spheres, as if it will continue there beyond our understanding.
It is not unreasonable to compare Nørgård’s Eighth Symphony with works from the same life-phase of the two great Nordic predecessors, Sibelius and Carl Nielsen. The lightness and playfulness typify Carl Nielsen’s last symphony, no. 6, whose deceptive title Sinfonia semplice covers a complex enigma. And for Nørgård writing an Eighth Symphony must also have been a pat on the shoulder to Sibelius, who had himself tried for years to write a Symphony no. 8, but only found peace when he threw the drafts on the fire. Nørgård’s creativity took a much more fortunate form: he has written over 400 works, wonderfully represented here by the span from the dark Sinfonia austera to the Eighth Symphony’s sparkling, dizzying spots in the air.
© Jens Cornelius, 2014
Storgårds and Nørgård
by John Storgårds
The first time I came into contact with Per Nørgård’s music must have been in connection with the Nordic Music Days festival, back in the 1980s, while I was performing in many of those festivals as a violinist. Back then, I didn’t perform any music of his, but I heard various things, for example choral pieces, that somehow grabbed me. I also studied a bit of composing in those days, which of course made me a concentrated listener and a searcher for inspiration.
Later on, also in connection with one of those same festivals, I learned one of his pieces properly as a still fairly inexperienced conductor. I was asked to conduct Constellations for 12 solo strings with the Finnish Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, for which I was concertmaster in those days. I realized then that I was dealing with a quite fascinating, unique and demanding composer.
The definitive point when Per Nørgård became really important to me was during the Avanti! Orchestra’s 14th Summer Sound Festival in 1999 in Borgå, Finland. The conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste was the artistic director of this festival. I was personally involved in organizing Per Nørgård’s period as ‘composer in residence’ for that year’s festival and was accordingly involved with numerous performances of his music, both as a violinist and conductor. I will never forget the intense late night rehearsal sessions as leader of the Avanti! String Quartet, in a sports hall with Per Nørgård himself present, so inspirationally supervising our work on his 7th and 8th string quartets. The main piece by him which I conducted at the same festival was his wonderfully tricky and exciting Piano Concerto In due tempi with Per Salo as soloist.
I had now become a big fan of Per Nørgård and we also became friends. Having been in touch with his music regularly ever since, I just happened to call him exactly at the right time some years ago. I wanted to ask him to compose an orchestral work for a world premiere with the Helsinki Philharmonic with myself as chief conductor. This led to a visit to his lovely home in Copenhagen and to the commissioning of his 8th Symphony. What a masterpiece it is! As a dedicatee of the work and having had the privilege of conducting its world premiere in Helsinki with the composer present, this will forever remain one of the main highlights in my life as a musician. The private readings of the symphony with Nørgård alone – first of his own manuscript at his piano and later of the full score just before the final editing and the world premiere – were equally great, unique and very special moments between just him and me.
And now, recording his Symphonies Nos. 2, 4, 5 and 6 with the great Oslo Philharmonic and the brilliant producer Preben Iwan has been like a continuation of a beautiful dream for me. The recordings in May and June 2015 of these four symphonies were simply excellent sessions, with fully committed, focused and wonderful people. In addition, knowing his 7th Symphony very well (I conducted its British premiere at the BBC Proms) and the 1st and 3rd symphonies as a listener and score reader, I can say without any doubt that for me, Nørgård is the greatest symphonist of our time. All his symphonies are individual, concentrated masterpieces. Every single one has its totally distinctive, crystal-clear logic, differing from the others in a way that only Sibelius’ symphonies, before Nørgård’s, do. There are also other similarities to discover. More about that another time.
John Storgårds, 2016
A Delta of other worlds
by Jens Cornelius
Per Nørgård’s works stem from an insatiable urge to explore the phenomena of the world and the possibilities of music. His list of works is huge – over 400 of them – and the eight symphonies stand as pillars of his production. They are milestones along the course of 60 years, and the range from the gloomy Nordic Symphony No. 1 to the ethereal Symphony No. 8 is simply vast. Perhaps only Nørgård’s Nordic predecessor Sibelius has to the same extent composed symphonies of such great variety.
Nørgård has indeed always had a close relationship with Sibelius, but it is by no means imitation of his music that constitutes the influence. “What I think has been the most profound lesson from studying Sibelius’ symphonies is the extent to which each of the works is really in a class by itself. This permeates my own attitude to composing symphonies. I feel each of my symphonies is a whole continent in itself,” Nørgård said when his Sixth Symphony was given its first performance in 2000.
Symphony No. 6/At the End of the Day
It was with a roguish smile that Per Nørgård presented the title of his new Sixth Symphony At the End of Day or, in Danish, Når alt kommer til alt at a press conference in 1999. Nørgård was then 67 years old, and men of his age retire. Had he written his last symphony, a summation of a lifelong immersion in the genre?
The symphony had been commissioned by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic to celebrate the Millennium, and the first performance six days into the year 2000 was to prove one of the self-renewals with which Nørgård has so often surprised us. For it is quite certain that no doors were closed in this symphony. On the contrary Nørgård is more exploratory, more playful and rhythmically ebullient than in any of his previous symphonies. For despite the two titles of the symphony (teasingly not-quite-synonymous as they are) the point is that the end never comes. Each closure is followed by a new beginning. Nørgård in fact underscored this quite specifically by following up with both a Symphony No. 7 and No. 8.
Symphony No. 6 is also one of Nørgård’s most classical symphonies, divided into three movements: a large, dynamic first movement, a slow second movement and a short, lively final movement. Despite the pauses between the movements the music develops in one long, fluid process, and Nørgård therefore prefers to call the movements in his Sixth Symphony “passages” and compares the pauses to bridges over an onward-flowing stream.
The first four minutes of the symphony form a restless statement recalling the exposition of a classical first movement. But the exposition ends at a standstill. After rumbling drum sounds the music dies out. After which the first of the symphony’s new beginnings immediately takes over! The restart develops with tremendous imagination into a game with the orchestral possibilities. The exuberance comes close to ending in anarchy, and then the orchestra drops into a gorge of dark timbres, produced by hordes of low-sounding, unusual instruments such as the double bass trombone, double bass tuba and double bass clarinet.
The dark, unreal sounds become the point of departure for the second passage, which starts with a very slow pulse. The bass chords function as a passacaglia, a foundation for a development over it which increases in tempo and in the number of layers. The flow moves the music onward in the mischievous third passage, where jerky riffs and the rolling, descending lines from the beginning of the symphony frolic with the listener. A humorous game with the infinite, until that development too sinks into the depths. Was that – at the end of the day – the ending? No – for at a quite unexpected point a narrow chink is opened up to new horizons. “A delta of other worlds,” Per Nørgård calls it. From here new journeys begin. A thousand new years wait ahead.
The symphony is dedicated to Nørgård’s wife, Helle Rahbæk Nørgård. After another performance in 2000 Nørgård revised the score along with the conductor Thomas Dausgaard, but by then he had already embarked on the pursuit of the “other worlds” that Symphony No. 6 had presented for him. The symphony quickly acquired a sister piece, a mirror-image in the form of the large orchestral piece Terrains vagues. It begins where Symphony No. 6 ends. But that, as usual with Per Nørgård, is quite another story.
Symphony No. 2 - In One Movement
In the 1960s Nørgård had discovered the principle he called the Infinity Series; a sequence which, translated into notes, combines modernist rigour with natural metamorphosis. The endless generation by the infinity series of new intervals emerges, among other ways, from the formation of the inversion of the series itself and of fractals. The intervals of the series can be found in other proportions such as every fourth note, every sixteenth note, every sixty-fourth note etc., and thus it develops so it can exist on several planes at the same time.
For Nørgård this was a revelation, and his quite personal path out of the experiments of the 1960s with the serial techniques that had a stifling effect on him. Instead the infinity series threw all the doors open wide. Its breakthrough was Voyage into the Golden Screen for chamber orchestra. The year was 1968, the hippie era was changing the world, and Nørgård too. He fetched the title of the work from a song by the singer/songwriter Donovan.
Voyage into the Golden Screen unfolded the infinity series in “a full round” of 1,024 notes. The result was so fruitful that Nørgård immediately resolved to write a whole symphony on the same principle. Symphony No. 2 – in one movement became the title, and it is a tribute to the power – both rule-governed and natural – of the infinity series.
“Instead of about 1000 notes of the series, I wanted to use about 4000 notes to exploit the potential for further immersion in the many layers and interval combinations of the infinity series. Instead of the ‘untouched unfolding’ of the tonal sequence and its orchestration I now wanted to ‘intervene’: to create melodies, take it to climaxes, to enlighten etc., but all with respect for the continuing flow and preservation of the special, timeless objectivity characteristic of the infinity series,” Per Nørgård explained.
The main course of the symphony is the first 4096 notes of the infinity series, which run as a constant strand in more or less uninterrupted quavers. The long one-movement sequence is composed of phases, specifically 16 phases each with 256 notes of the series. After each phase of the development Nørgård places a bell signal. A ‘round’ is completed and we have risen one level. After every fourth phase Nørgård marks the progress of the music with what he calls a ‘screen’ of brass fanfares. Great, deafening orgastic eruptions. They too are part of an order such that screens Nos. 1 and 3 and screens Nos. 2 and 4 are related pairs.
The symphony begins with a ‘birth’ of the infinity series. It develops gradually, first as pitchless air sounds, then unison sounds and after that quarter-tone intervals. The chromatic intervals are approaching. And the peal of a bell marks the starting shot for the unfolding of the infinity series. The music takes off, euphorically, almost psychedelically, as if it has been given wings.
For most of the symphony the quavers are played by the flutes, while the slower layers are usually pitched lower in the orchestra. Because the various layers of the music have the same origin, this gives the symphony a sense of totality that recalls ambient music. The non-stop rhythmic flow is also, one could say, related to the American minimalism of the time, although the rhythmic pulse in Nørgård’s Second Symphony has a different ‘swing’. But there are even lines back to musical precursors, for the growth of the symphony makes it a radical extension of the metamorphosis idea of Nørgård’s teacher, Vagn Holmboe, and their shared model, Sibelius. Nørgård’s Second Symphony and Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony are both demonstratively one-movement symphonies and originate in a scale presentation (C major for Sibelius and the infinity series for Nørgård!). And the trombone theme which marks the key points in Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony acquires a distant cousin in the form of Nørgård’s overwhelming brass ‘screens’.
A few years before Symphony No. 2 and Voyage into the Golden Screen Nørgård had even made a geographical break with conservatism by terminating his tenure at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. Instead he relocated with his best pupils to Jutland, to the Royal Academy in Aarhus, and in 1970 the Aarhus City Orchestra gave the symphony its first performance, conducted by Per Dreier.
At that time the world-famous Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache was a frequent visitor to the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in Copenhagen, and he had become very enthusiastic about Voyage into the Golden Screen. Nørgård played the radio recording of the new Second Symphony for him, and Celibidache stated that he had never heard such beautiful music in his life. An international success for the symphony, which Nørgård revised for the occasion, was in the offing. But Celibidache’s temperament got in the way; first when he demanded a whole 20 hours of orchestral rehearsals for the symphony, and then on a quite different occasion when he walked out on the orchestra in a rage. Celibidache never came to conduct a single Per Nørgård work, but by then the symphony had already been dedicated to him – and it still is.
© Jens Cornelius, 2016
A liberating moment of chaos
by Jens Cornelius
Per Nørgård’s works stem from an insatiable urge to explore the phenomena of the world and the possibilities of music. His list of works is huge – over 400 of them – and the eight symphonies stand as pillars of his production. They are milestones along the course of 60 years and the range, from the gloomy Nordic Symphony No. 1 to the ethereal Symphony No. 8, is simply vast. Perhaps only Nørgård’s Nordic predecessor Sibelius has to the same extent composed symphonies of such great variety.
Indeed, Nørgård has always had a close relationship with Sibelius, but it is by no means imitation of his music that constitutes the influence. “What I think has been the most profound lesson from studying Sibelius’ symphonies is the extent to which each of the works is really in a class by itself. This permeates my own attitude to composing symphonies. I feel each of my symphonies is a whole continent in itself,” Nørgård has said.
Symphony No. 5
Symphony No. 5 was given its first performance in 1990 by Esa-Pekka Salonen (to whom it is dedicated) and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in a concert where the rest of the programme was the fifth symphonies of Sibelius and Carl Nielsen. More than the number five and the Nordic element connects the works: for each of the three composers the fifth symphony was a breakthrough after a crisis. In the 1980s Nørgård had been through a period when chaos shattered his holistic world-picture. The greatly polarized Symphony No. 4 is a central work from those years. But with his Symphony No. 5 Nørgård showed with supreme courage that he could look all the chaotic forces in the eye however violent they might be.
The mighty work has an unprecedentedly powerful expressive force. From the beginning of the symphony Nørgård shows that he dares go to the edge of the volcano with an awareness that he can face it. The forces of nature are not tamed, for control and chaos exist at the same time in this music – two opposites in what otherwise seems an impossible embrace.
Nørgård takes the view that it is up to the listener to decide on the number of ‘movements’ in the symphony. It can be perceived with the contours of a traditional symphonic form with a large dynamic first movement, a quick second movement, a slow section (or two) and in the end an unstoppable, wildly rushing final movement. But it can just as easily be heard as one great development of the dynamism set in motion by the innumerable eruptions of the music at the beginning. The dynamic upsurges are intense and irregular, as if they come from an unpredictable geyser or a bubbling sea of lava. And the silence betwee the eruptions is full of powerful tension, for what will the next phase be like?
The second section is typified by quivering spasms in the strings and grotesque manifestations in the woodwinds, which among other things play on loose reeds. The beginning of ‘Jingle Bells’ even pops up from the material as an objet trouvé, and the dynamic cascades reach absurd heights. Nørgård refuses actually to call this section a ‘scherzo’, but it is certainly a burlesque world that the symphony has developed into here.
The third section builds up to yet another eruption of cascades, after which a chaconne-like foundation is firmly laid. The subsequent development comes close to running amok, and after a final culmination the music falls calm and fades out. But it is too early to write off the activity of the forces of nature. Like the awakening of a slumbering dragon the discharges of energy break out in the last section and the billowing cascades are once more in full flow. In the concluding minutes the ecstatic fanfares are transformed into a manic version of the end of Nørgård’s own First Symphony, written 35 years previously. After which it is all swept away as by the wave of a magic wand.
In the symphony Per Nørgård has developed his technique with the infinity series into a complex system he calls “tone lakes”. The principle does not, like the infinity series, form fractal repetitions, but opens up tonal material that has developed from 12 notes to 36, 108 etc. For Nørgård it was a natural development to abandon the well tried principle of the infinity series. “Techniques are quite simply modalities, tools for achieving results. They must be refined – or abandoned if they become too restrictive,” he said. And if there is music without irksome fetters it is decidedly this Fifth Symphony, where Nørgård juggles all the balls in the air at the same time.
“That has been the fascinating and frightening thing about composing the work,” Nørgård explained. “How long can it go on? Where it is going? Since something has always been going on, while something else is in the making, you experience a constant restlessness.”
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 4 comes from a period when Nørgård shattered the visions of a cosmos in harmony that he had presented in his Second and Third Symphonies. The main reason was his encounter with the Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930). For most of his life Wölfli was a patient in a mental hospital, where he created thousands of texts, images and musical fragments which with their intense creativity give the impression of a split personality. In his layer-on-layer art swarming with details and perspectives Nørgård could recognize himself – just with the poles reversed: the dark side with chaos and agitation instead of system-building according to a natural order.
“I knew that this was a liberating moment,” Nørgård said about the encounter with Wölfli’s art, speaking at the Louisiana Museum of Art at Humlebæk, Denmark, in the autumn of 1979. Wölfli’s chaos became a direction indicator for Nørgård in a period that can reasonably be called his crisis years. The first work was the three choral songs Wie ein Kind to texts by Wölfli. Other major works from the period are the opera The Divine Circus and Symphony No. 4, which for many of Nørgård’s adherents were a surprising and perhaps also disappointing break with the intoxicating world-harmonies of the preceding works. But amidst all the Gothic horror Nørgård found a new rhythmic dynamic that took him a long way in the course of the following years – now with the focus on the misfit and the loner, including himself. “Irreconcilability is my position today, and that can hardly be called a classic doctrine,” Nørgård said in an interview in 1982.
In 1912 Wölfli had laid plans for a musical work with the title Indischer Roosen-Gaarten und Chineesischer Hexen-See (Indian Rose Garden and Chinese Witch Lake). For obvious reasons it was not realized, but the title alone was enough for Nørgård. “Such precision in the expression of polarity is rare,” as he remarked. The result was the closest Nørgård has come to a programme symphony: the symphony Wölfli himself never managed to write. The subtitle is Hommage à Adolf Wölfli, and Per Nørgård has aptly spoken of it as “a handshake with a friend, with thanks for a good idea.”
The symphony constitutes a balance of oppositions. There are two movements – the rose garden and the witch lake – each of which involves something of its own opposite. Nørgård compares it to the yin and yang symbol, which has a black eye in the white ‘fish’ and a white eye in the black one.
The first movement begins on the foundation of a melody Nørgård had written for Wölfli’s poem Abendlied (Evening Song). The words of the song, Traulichem, Alleine sein (“Sad it is to be alone”) form a descending motif that is transferred here to the violins and takes on disintegrating, collapsing forms – in fact, quite peacefully, but with an unreal calm. We are in a sanctuary – for something. The second part of the movement builds on the birdsong motif of the African robin-chat, which is first manifested softly in the piccolo and then in the solo violin. It is the most important theme of the symphony. Nørgård took the broad view of the fact that that the bird is neither Indian nor Chinese – it was the musical qualities that counted. “The theme fascinates me, because it has something that goes beyond any system, it so to speak contains the existential, paradox of joy and sorrow.” The ambivalence becomes all the more striking when Nørgård lets the theme spread to the brass and the dark woodwinds. That is when we experience “the black eye in the white fish.”
The transition from the rose garden in the first movement to the witch lake in the second is quite abrupt. “It is the rest of us who are mad if we do not know that we are living atop a catastrophe every second,” Nørgård has explained, and now the catastrophe breaks forth without warning. From the first note the witch lake has fiery, warlike rhythms. The unreality has become hair-raisingly horrific. Quotations from foreign music appear in the development of the music. The old salon waltz Fascination, known from Mantovani’s saccharine orchestra, penetrates into the brass in a grotesque version. Crazy Swiss Ländler music breaks out, an echo of another Wölfli song by Nørgård. The falling thirds of the melody even have something in common with the “inextinguishable” theme from Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, another symphony that is a life-crisis work with conflict and irreconcilability as a bearing principle.
Relentlessly we are brought to the brink of the burning water of the witch lake when, at the ultimate cliffhanger moment, we hear a new opening. The five last notes of the symphony are a small glimpse of the birdsong motif. A sensation of the rose garden that has been there all the time. The white eye in the black fish.
© Jens Cornelius, 2016