Music in a Free State - A century of orchestral upheavals

In an exclusive excerpt from the MIC publication "Music in a Free State", Erling E. Guldbransen takes a closer look at a century of orchestra upheavals

Music in a Free State

Numerous orchestral works have been written in Norway since 1905, a period that covers four or five generations of composers. The Norwegian Society of Composers currently has more than one hundred members, and it has strict membership requirements. The process of selecting twenty Norwegian orchestral works from the past century entails deselecting perhaps fifteen or twenty times as many, all of which would be worthy of inclusion.
So which works are important? Are they the radical, innovative ones or those with the most popular appeal? Are they the works that were recognised in their own time or those that were appreciated later on? Hjalmar Borgstrøm’s Tanken (Thought) aroused jubilation in Norway and Europe in the 1920s but subsequently disappeared from orchestral repertoires. Arvid Kleven’s music was loudly condemned in its time but is of great interest today as an unknown example of French-inspired expressionism. Both historical and contemporary judgements are complex and divided. The audiences’ opinion is one thing, the critics’ often another. The musicians’ opinion may be a third and the importance of a work for composers a fourth. Fartein Valen is a case in point, deeply respected by composers but seldom a favourite among audiences.


When does the twentieth century begin in Norwegian music? 1905 is a significant dividing line in purely historical terms, but more arbitrary from a musical point of view, despite Grieg’s death in 1907. We have tried to identify works that mark something new and unique to the 20th century. There are many transitional figures. Christian Sinding lived until 1941 but he was probably closer to the 19th century in terms of style and music. Hjalmar Borgstrøm and Gerhard Schjelderup were contemporaries of Sinding, but were in clearer opposition to National Romanticism. Or were they?
The question of what to select cannot be solved by concentrating on dates. A musical canon must cover the most important artistic events of the century. The lines must be drawn from here. Consequently, we cannot merely focus on individual names either; we must cover the central movements in the music of the entire century – modernism, neo-Romanticism, national and international trends. Or neo-classicism, avant-gardism, folk music-inspired compositions. None of the main elements must be left out. Thus, in some cases one composer may have to represent an entire direction or generation, even though such representation is impossible in art because each individual, creative soul has its own unique voice.

Old ensembles in a new century

Some names have seemed unavoidable from the start: Fartein Valen and Finn Mortensen as the major Norwegian modernists, both before and after World War II. Arne Nordheim, the grand old man of contemporary music, Geirr Tveitt’s patriotic orchestral colours, Harald Sæverud’s symphonies. Finnish-trained orchestral composer Ragnar Søderlind. Orchestra-lover Olav Anton Thommessen, who in this connection will experience the world première of his full-length work Et glassperlespill (A Glass Bead Game), divided between two orchestras.
Having selected a composer, shall we then choose his or her most famous work? The best-known pieces are the ones that are already played most frequently. Perhaps it would be better to find something new and unknown. But would it represent the period? The orchestra of the late-Romantic period is itself a 19th century phenomenon. Other types of ensemble became more common later on, after Schönberg and Stravinsky. Is it even a good idea to celebrate 20th century music with the help of five symphony orchestras?
We had to ask what we should consider to be orchestral music. It consists of more than suites and symphonies. Our definition of orchestral music is broad and pragmatic. We have included solo concertos, oratorios, ballet suites and film music, plus works written for large chamber ensembles, known as sinfoniettas.

Ideals and pragmatism

In the course of the selection process, the theoretically ideal has constantly collided with pragmatic considerations, such as the choice of orchestra, conductor and ensemble. The ultimate coordination of five independent orchestral institutions, each of which has a great deal of prestige in its own right, is one of the triumphs of this project. We have other orchestras in Norway as well, including those in Tromsø and Kristiansand. In recent years, the latter has focused particularly strongly on Norwegian orchestral music from the last century.
How should the hundred-year period be introduced and concluded? Johan Halvorsen’s cantata, which was written for the coronation of King Haakon and Queen Maud in Nidaros Cathedral in 1906, provides a starting point in both musical and historical terms. A new, commissioned work provides the conclusion: Lasse Thoresen is composing a piece for Hardanger fiddle, nyckelharpe and orchestra, due to be completed in 2005.
Many people will miss their own favourite composers. There was no room for Monrad Johansen, Bjarne Brustad, Eivind Groven, Sparre Olsen or Klaus Egge. Two selected works per decade is minimal. Some will miss Gunnar Sønstevold, Knut Nystedt, Johan Kvandal and Egil Hovland. How about female composers? We haven’t had many, at least not in the orchestral field, but Pauline Hall was a natural choice, as a key personality in musical life as well. What about all the composers who are alive today? Such as John Persen, Bjørn Kruse, Åse Hedstrøm, Cecilie Ore, Nils Henrik Asheim? The Nordic Council’s music prize has been won three times by Norwegian composers: Nordheim, Thommessen and Wallin. We included them. The youngest in the selection is Asbjørn Schaathun, who is already 43 years old and well established, both in Norway and abroad.

Receptiveness and wonder

Our selection of twenty Norwegian orchestral compositions is just one suggestion among many possible lists of works. Perhaps we can learn from René Magritte’s paradoxical logic, his painting of a pipe accompanied by the text “This is not a pipe”. Any suggestion for an artistic canon should bear the title “This is not a canon”. Nevertheless, we stand fully by the pipe we have drawn and allow it to stand or fall on the basis of its own design. A canon becomes good if it is well conceived and played.
Do celebrations and festivities provide a suitable context for a canon of art music? I am one of the people who doubt it. Important artistic works, whether they be in the field of music, literature, theatre, film or pictorial art, are something other than a social adhesive, pomp and ceremony. Fundamental existential questions, criticism and wonder, anxiety and shock are far more often the impressions left by artistic canons, whether they cover Shakespeare and Bach, Ibsen and Munch or Arne Nordheim.
Orchestral music is a strange thing. The works speak to the individual through musical nuances and spiritual intimacy, but they are performed in full public view by a hundred formally dressed musicians.
When the Norwegian nation celebrates its centenary in orchestral music, I personally hope that audiences will emerge from the concert halls not more self-satisfied and confirmed in their beliefs but more receptive and curious than when they entered.

Erling E. Guldbransen

Share the story on:
                    |     More


New acquisitions from the National Library (sheet music)

MIC-pages is managed by Aslak Oppebøen
Tel: +47 90175338 ·