Niels Viggo Bentzon must be said to be one of the most important figures in twentieth-century Danish musical history. As a pianist, author and composer with more than 650 works to his credit he had a crucial influence on Danish musical life. Today Bentzon enjoys the status of a kind of cultural phenomenon, thanks not only to his great artistic impact but also to his strong commitment in writing and speech to the ongoing aesthetic discussions of the latter half of the last century.
Niels Viggo Bentzon was practically born into music – he was the first generation of a ‘merger’ of two of Denmark’s greatest musical families – Hartmann and Bentzon. Against this background it seemed only natural that his musical tutoring at the piano by his mother resulted in his studying piano, theory and organ at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. As a composer he was self-taught, but despite this he won wide recognition from the musical establishment at the earliest possible juncture; specifically in the composer Vagn Holmboe’s review of his debut work Piano Fantasia op. 1a, which dates back as far as 1939.
Although the character of Bentzon’s music changed over decades under the influence of various currents, one can safely speak of a Bentzonesque idiom that flows as an undercurrent through his extensive oeuvre. True, the works sounded more expressive and compact in the 1940s than in the clear, simple and sometimes transparent Neoclassicism of the 1970s; and true, Bentzon went on a decided artistic excursion in the 1960s as the main figure behind a number of Fluxus-like happenings; but it is as if the core of the music is sufficiently rooted in his personality to sound characteristically through superficial fluctuations. Bentzon himself described the first two chords in the above-mentioned Piano Fantasia as “the hieroglyph of the whole” – the musical seed material that in some fantastic way remained both cause and effect throughout his life. In that sense it is easy enough to understand Bentzon’s quite special view of making music; he compared the process to going to the toilet, and throughout his life he insisted on the similarity between composing and improvising; the substance and the material are the same – the only difference is the composing’s slightly tighter organization.
Niels Viggo Bentzon’s relationship with his Danish contemporaries was something special; partly because his activities as a composer extended over more than sixty years – so there are many to compare him with – but partly also because his musical idiom has consistently been uniquely Bentzonesque, while at the same time he experimented fruitfully with the various artistic devices the age had to offer. In this context Bentzon’s music can be seen as an alternation between his own strong will and inspiration from the contemporary scene of which he was an openly debating part, but which he also ignored when necessary; Bentzon wrote sonatas throughout his life, regardless of what the age thought was comme il faut. To this we must add Bentzon’s experiments in the dodecaphonic, for example as the author of a textbook in 1953, when the institutions of the day were hermetically sealed off against German modernism in favour of the legacy of Carl Nielsen and a Nordic sound. Nevertheless Bentzon proclaimed metamorphosis to be “the form of our age” in consort with his composer colleague Vagn Holmboe in the 1950s; he arranged sound collages, wrote ‘mobiles’ and participated in happenings in the 1960s alongside people from the more established Fluxus movement, and he was still neo, when 1970s composers, with Karl Aage Rasmussen at their head, re-opened the gates to classicism. In this way Niels Viggo Bentzon remained himself, while his music changed more or less disinterestedly between being in and out of fashion.