Gunnar Berg was
born in St. Gallen, Switzerland, on 11th January 1909 to Danish-Swedish
parents. A few years after the death of his father in 1914 his mother went to
Austria with three of the children. The 5-year-old Gunnar remained in
Switzerland because of a serious asthmatic condition, until he had to go with
his mother and the other children in 1921 to Copenhagen, where he was placed in
a children's home. After his confirmation in 1924 he was sent to Davos in
Switzerland, and from there, via a short stay in Paris, he returned to
Copenhagen in 1928. There he was awarded a grant to study at the School of
Commerce; but music took more and more of a hold on him, and a performance of
Wagner's Tannhäuser at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in 1931 became a watershed
experience. In 1932 and 1935 he attended the Salzburg Festival; in 1935 he was
given access to Bruno Walter's and Arturo Toscanini's orchestral rehearsals and
attended Herbert von Karajan's Bruckner course.
In January 1936 Gunnar Berg was admitted
to the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, but he left again after the
discontinuation of teaching there at the end of the year. He then studied piano
with Herman D. Koppel, and for a period frequented the composer Herbert
Rosenberg. Of the greatest importance to Gunnar Berg's musical development,
however, were his piano studies in 1944-47 with Elisabeth Jürgens.
first works are from the mid-1930s - the piano works Fantaisie and Toccata-Interludium-Fuga and Ti japanske træsnit (Ten Japanese Woodcuts) for
song and piano after Hokusai's famous woodcuts One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. In the piano suite Feldspath from 1943-44 he conducted his first real experiments with form,
sonority and rhythm and with a static principle of composition: the repetition
of a figure in ever-changing ‘lightings'.
During the war Gunnar Berg was active in
the resistance. On 12th January 1945 he was presented in a concert at the Odd
Fellow Palæ, and in August 1945 he went on a tour to eleven Red Cross camps in
Jutland where he played Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Claude Debussy, Béla
Bartók, Arthur Honegger's Sept pièces brèves and his own piano suite Feldspath.
January 1947 at the young composers' society DUT he and the singer Jolanda
Rodio premiered Ten Japanese Woodcuts. His music was in general not
particularly well received; nor was his Piano Sonata, which he gave its first
performance at the beginning of 1948. In the autumn of 1948 he accepted the
consequences. With grant support from among others the Danish Composers'
Society and the Hjerl Foundation, he arrived on 22nd November in Paris to study
in Arthur Honegger's composition class at the École Normale and to attend
Olivier Messiaen's analysis courses at the Paris Conservatory. On the way he
gave concerts in Karlsruhe in Germany and had encouraging comments about his
compositions from the conductor Hans Rosbaud in Baden-Baden.
The encounter with
Paris, with new musical idioms - not least Olivier Messiaen's Technique
de mon langage musicale and Edgar Varèse's music -
made a strong impression and led to artistic collaborations with new people and
friendships with musicians and composers like John Cage and above all Jean
Étienne Marie. Berg put some of his earlier works behind him or took them up
for revision. With Suite for Cello from 1950 he composed his first 12-tone
work, and with Cosmogonie from 1952 and Filandre from 1953 he created his first consistently serial compositions,
where all the parameters of the music are totally subjected to the serial
method of writing.
Berg's compositions were performed in radio-broadcast concerts in Paris, and in
a concert of 19th April 1951 at the École Normale the pianist Béatrice Duffour
performed his Piano Sonata. The meeting between composer and pianist led to
marriage in 1952, and the same year the couple visited the famous summer
courses for contemporary music in Darmstadt together. His meeting with
Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez confirmed Gunnar Berg in the validity
and relevance of his own musical experience, which led in 1954 to Volume 1 of
the large piano work Éclatements and the piano concerto Essai acoustique. A number of concert tours and radio recordings
took the couple around Europe, in 1957 with support from the French Foreign
Ministry to Germany and Scandinavia with Scandinavian first performances on the
In 1958 Gunnar and Béatrice Berg came to live in Denmark and embarked
on intensive concert activities at Danish Folk High Schools, where the
introduced the new music - for extended periods they lived at the High Schools
in Uldum, Askov and Herning. In these nomadic years they enjoyed great support
from Ina and Tage Rossel from Uldum, Ib Planch Larsen from Vejle, Bitten and
Aage Damgaard from Herning, the then principal of the Royal Danish Academy of
Music in Århus, the composer Tage Nielsen, and Danmarks Radio's head of music
at the time, Mogens Andersen. During those years he composed among other works
the major piano work Gaffky's I-X and the piano concertos Pour piano et orchestre and Frise.
In 1965 Béatrice and Gunnar Berg moved
into the old school at Lindved 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.
Béatrice Berg died on 20th May 1976, and in 1980 Gunnar Berg moved to
Switzerland, where he experienced a strong response to his music. Gunnar Berg
died on 25th August 1989 in Bern, and the couple are buried back in Denmark in
Rårup Churchyard, not far from the old Lindved school. The beautiful tombstone
was created by the Swiss artist Christine Schär, with whom Gunnar Berg lived
during his final years.
- in black and white
Gunnar Berg's two
major works for solo piano - Éclatements (1954-88) and Gaffky's (1958-59) - are both of a size that places them among the most
voluminous manifestations in the Danish piano literature in the second half of
the twentieth century.
This is music that can at first be
difficult to understand, with its complex sonorities and the absence of melody
and pulse. But on his death in 1989 Gunnar Berg left a large number of
abstract, non-figurative ink drawings, and these may serve as clues to the
composer's musical universe as it was played out behind the piano's black and
white keys and the black notes on the white paper. As an artist Gunnar Berg
registered with both eyes and ears.
The piano collection Éclatements was begun in 1954 in Paris. The title has many meanings: explosions
or the bursting of something that is suddenly or violently shattered into
smaller parts or opens up, often with a bang. It may be glass breaking, tyres,
exploding, a nut being cracked. It may also be an outburst of emotion such as
laughter or crying.
For Gunnar Berg the encounter with
dodecaphony and serialism in Paris in 1948 and over the next few years was a
revelation in his search for a composition technique with which he could
realize his musical visions. Several work titles from these years indicate that
something new had happened to him in earnest. Cosmogonie (for 2 pianos from 1950-51; Dacapo DCCD 9007), for example, means
"an account or theory of the origin and development of the universe".
If learning a
serial composition technique was thus crucial to Gunnar Berg, his meeting with
and marriage to Béatrice Berg was just as epochal. Between the composer and
pianist there arose a fruitful collaboration which over the years resulted in
the two great works for solo piano and four piano concertos - with Essai acoustique from 1954 as a wedding present.
Éclatements is a preliminary study for Essai
acoustique - with Éclatement
2 directly interwoven. The tonal material for Éclatements was so colossal in size that Gunnar Berg planned three volumes - cahiers - each with five movements, that is a total of fifteen movements
with a combined playing time of about one and a half hours. The genesis of the
work was long. The first five movements were finished and written out in score
form in Paris in 1954, the other ten were begun at the beginning of the 1960s,
and would presumably have remained as tables and columns had not Erik Kaltoft
contacted Gunnar Berg in 1980 and got him to resume the work. He was able to
fair-copy eight movements before he died, and Erik Kaltoft was responsible for
the performance of the whole of Éclatements 1-13 in 1990 in Bern with further concerts in Lausanne, Basel,
Paris and Denmark.
Gunnar Berg was
not keen on inviting scrutiny of the way he composed, and he only rarely
accompanied his music with analytical or explanatory comments. "My works must
stand on their own feet, and they must answer for themselves," he asserted
However, among his posthumous papers there
are 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. And they 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 the 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 such that he could ‘cut'
the individual movements out.
1 opens with a powerful five-part chord played
staccato, which explodes into smaller chords and single notes of different
durations and descending volumes and then falls calm - only to explode again
suddenly in firework-like eruptions that go on and on. The contrast with the
static Éclatement 2 is great. Each of the thirteen movements has its own basic
character, and the whole work can be experienced as a huge ‘mobile', where
every single note and rest has its place and plays its role in a sonically
differentiated and extremely complex structure in balance. Where time and space
In general it is worth comparing it with
tendencies in contemporary visual art. Gunnar Berg's music - and his graphics -
recall the dissolution of the picture into points and the
constructivist-abstract formal worlds. The Asger Jorn expert Troels Andersen
thinks that Gunnar Berg's graphics belong in a tradition that is primarily
demarcated by Paul Klee: "Whereas Klee drew parallels with the musical and
worked with concepts like measure and rhythm, Gunnar Berg goes the opposite
way. His drawings are the graphic expression of the musician's and the composer's
conceptual world and as such are unique."
Jens Rossel, 2007