Per Nørgård by Eva Hvidt
Per Nørgård (born 1932) is Denmark's great, original composer in the period after World War II. With his vital, emotionally rich imagination and his ingenious structures he has shifted boun-daries, opened up new musical vistas and made discoveries that challenge the musicality of the musicians and the listeners.
Per Nørgård plays with language, both when he speaks and when he composes. He works with stresses, motion, vocal sonorities and subtleties. This feature of his personality has been interwoven in interesting ways with the principles surrounding his so-called infinity series and with his rhythms, which are often formed from the proportions of the Golden Section. As a choral composer Per Nørgård has written a long succession of works. Some are hymn-like in character, some are virtuosic a cappella works, other pieces have accompaniment. One of the earliest vocal works, You must plant a new tree (1967 with text by Piet Hein), exists as both a song and a choral piece. This intuitively written song bears the marks on the one hand of the youth culture's flower-power cult of the natural and the collectivity, and on the other hand of something deeply rooted in the almost modally harmonized song. At the other end of the expressive spectrum one finds the highly expressive, virtuosic, free choral works, including Wie ein Kind (1980), which was inspired by the schizophrenic Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli.
Per Nørgård has spent most of his life in Copenhagen, where he was born. But he has also travelled widely in the East and in the West, and he has spent many days and nights in his holiday home on the island of Langeland. In his student years at the Academy of Music Per Nørgård was a pupil of Vagn Holmboe, and at the same time was a great admirer of the music of the Finn Jean Sibelius. Later, like other composers of his generation, he explored the seria-list music of Central Europe. This was the background for Per Nørgård's invention in 1959 of his unique ‘infinity series' on the basis of the fractal theories of the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot.
Per Nørgård's tone-rows and patterns grew out of a vision of 24 columns of harmonic and subharmonic series. At the horizontal level the melodic structures of the infinity series and the rhythmic dynamics of the Golden Section could move on a number of -simultaneous but stag-gered planes and thus generate melodies and chords; a hierarchical system whose prin-ciples could to a great extent be found in nature and in the so-called Fibonacci numbers. In some strange way Per Nørgård came back towards diatonicism by this route, at a time when major-minor tonality had fallen into great discredit among the avant-garde. Against this back-ground Per Nørgård composed a large number of works, among which the opera Gilgamesh (1972) and the Third Symphony became monumental high points of the method of composition derived from the system and from his thoughts on the cosmic interrelationships of everything. Other similar and minor works from the 1970s that can be mentioned are Libra, the piano work Turn, the trio Spell and the choral work Singe die Gärten, which is incorporated in the ending of the Third Symphony.
Around 1980 Per Nørgård began to extend his compositional palette, looking for means of expressing himself more deeply and finding his way into the darker sides of the human mind. To this end he created a number of Wölfli-inspired works, including a series of choral works and the Fourth Symphony, which alternates between idyll and disaster, order and chaos.
Libra (1973). In some periods Per Nørgård has taken an interest in astrology as a pheno-menon. This is reflected in his Third Symphony, whose first movement runs through all twelve signs of the Zodiac musically, and in Libra. Libra is a cantata-like work in ten movements, which despite its very varied parts is thoroughly structured.
Per Nørgård writes: ‘In accordance with the meaning of the title the elements of the music are treated on the basis of the harmonically balanced. The fundamental material is the same, but it is split into forms which at once contrast with and balance one another'.
The tonal material is a fragment of Per Nørgård's ‘infinity series', in which motifs appear, disappear, return and are reflected in overarching tempos. The texts consist partly of Rudolf Steiner's strophe ‘Die Welten erhalten Welten' about love, harmony and balance, partly of extracts from the psalms of David. The composer calls it love music for tenor solo, guitar, 2 choirs, an cappella choir and a chorale choir, as well as 2 vibraphones and winds ad libitum. The ten movements alternate such that against the lively guitar introduction one hears a calm chorale, against the solo singing a choral piece at a tempo four times slower, etc. In the eighth movement the singers accompany the guitar by singing exclusively on vocalized phonetic syllables, which produces a sensation of singing in harmonics. The work culminates in the ninth movement, with all singers and musicians performing a music that offers a synthesis of all material brought into play so far. The poem by Rudolf Steiner is presented at a slow tempo; the delivery is calm, sonorous, controlled. The tenth movement is a fast, festive choral apotheosis where the two choirs sing different texts with an ornamented accompaniment from guitar and -vibraphones.
Libra was composed for the guitarist and singer Ingolf Olsen and exists in several versions. The so-called ‘integral' version which can be heard on this CD was originally per-formed in Lysekil Church (Sweden) on 8th November 1973 by Ingolf Olsen, the Gothenburg Chamber Choir and Collegium Musicum conducted by Gunnar Eriksson.
Rêves en pleine lumière (1989/2002) was originally one chorus of a large work for double choir with the title La peur - As it were to (concurrently sung) texts by Paul Éluard and John Cage. This large work was later withdrawn, but the Paul Éluard part had its own life and later became the independent work Rêves en pleine lumière (Dreams in broad daylight). In this work Per Nørgård has gathered a selection of the French poet Paul Éluard's (1896-1952) texts. The first poem "La peur" (Fear) can be compared in terms of content to Picasso's great painting Guernica. The stanza that has given its name to the choral work, Ses rêves en pleine lumière, is about the desire to live rather than die. For these sensual, surrealistic French texts Per Nørgård has composed a series of closely connected movements in a very free, sensually expressionistic vocal texture. Minor and major thirds clash with one another, almost as an image of the concern of the texts with life and death. The struggle for life seems to be reflected in the parts, which range over very large vocal leaps and registers. The melodies seem thrown up and down between the octaves. The sopranos aspire upward, the middle-range voices cling to the text, while the basses lay down an extremely low foundation. There is whistling and playing on finger cymbals and claves.
The melodies in Rêves en pleine lumière may be highly complex and virtuosic, but the structures are relatively simple. In the other two works on the CD, Libra and Cycle, the situation is almost reversed. Here it is the melodies that are relatively simple and the structures that are highly complex.
Cycle (1977) is a work that develops and changes along the way - also in terms of the part-structure, where there is an alternation between unison and 12-part. Per Nørgård writes of this and other related choral works to texts by the Danish poet Ole Sarvig (1921-81): ‘When I had finished my Third Symphony (1972-75) I wrote a number of simple melodies to texts by Ole Sarvig (especially the poems "The Year" and "Choral Hymn"). The melodies had originated in the same fundamental material as the second part of the symphony, and they could be harmonized together and expressed in several different tempo layers at once - today one would say fractally - which inspired me to write several choral and instrumental works over the next decade, including Frost Hymn, Winter Cantata, Cantica, Now snow covers the whole earth and others. Each work thus has its own distinctiveness - like a prism or a crystal, in which light can create an endlessly variable play of shapes and colours.' One of the melodies, ‘As the year passes', is in the standard Danish hymnal Den Danske Salmebog (no. 720)
In Cycle three melodies are combined and unfolded: the chorale-like hymn ("It is so quiet on our earth"), a descending, more dancing song stanza ("A heaven-germ on winged foot") and a longer, winding theme ("We walk in circles in great forests"). The melodies were created by extracting selected notes from the infinity series. Per Nørgård has also formed the structure of the movements differently: ‘spiralling' in "Circles and spirals" (1st movement) through constant tempo increases and glissandi. From the centre out in the movement "Germ and crystal", as well as dynamically from the quite silent to the very loud. In the last movement, "Circles and reflections", the music and text fragments from the beginning of the piece are taken up again in changed and reflected forms. Cycle was originally composed in six move-ments, but the second movement has been omitted at the wish of the composer, since it consists exclusively of a silent sequence where the songs change places.
Eva Hvidt, cand. mag., is a music journalist and external member of the project staff of the Danish Centre for Music Publication (DCM) at the Royal Danish Library.