Introduction by Helene Gjerris
Exactly 25 years ago I had my first intense encounter with Per Nørgård's music. I had just been accepted on trial by the vocal ensemble Ars Nova, and one of the first jobs on the programme was Nørgård's Wie ein Kind. My qualifications for rehearsing music with this degree of difficulty were close to zero, but I struggled determinedly to learn my part, and my amazement, joy and excitement were great when I was at last able to hear all the parts united in a totality. At the time, of course, I was not aware that the experience was to be of great importance to the direction my artistic career was to take later.
Subsequently I have had many opportunities to work with Per Nørgård's music in solo contexts - with among other things the opera Nuit des hommes and the cantata The Will-o'-the-Wisps Go to Town. The unmistakable Nørgård vocal lines have continued to appeal to my urge to explore the possibilities of my voice and to make use of expressive devices that are otherwise rarely justified in the classically trained use of the voice.
In the winter of 2008 I drove to Langeland and visited Per Nørgård. My idea was to do a CD with a collection of vocal works from the whole of Per's production, as an opportunity to sum up all the experience I had gained from his music over the years. During the next few months we exchanged ideas for the repertoire on the CD and arrived at the result that is now presented here.
It has proved a strange and wonderful journey through time in Per Nørgård's vocal music, where rich, sophisticated chamber music instrumentation illuminates the poems in the different languages, and where we meet a composer who, ever since the earliest works, has tried out recitational and declamatory effects in the use of the singing voice; a method that culminates in the works from the 1980s, in which he makes explicit use of these elements.
It has been a constant challenge to work with the material, but there is no doubt that Per Nørgård's music is to a very special degree reflected and echoed in me, and that there was a deeper meaning in my experience of the encounter with his music 25 years ago.
Helene Gjerris, July 2012
Per nørgård by Eva Hvidt
Per Nørgård (born 1932) is Denmark's great, original composer from the time after World War II. With his lively emotional imagination and his ingenious musical structures he has shifted boundaries and opened up new musical landscapes and modes of awareness that challenge the musicality of the performers and listeners.
Per Nørgård was born in Copenhagen, where his parents had a shop selling wedding dresses and other ladies' wear. He has lived most of his life in Denmark, but he has also travelled widely in both East and West. In his student years Per Nørgård was a pupil of Vagn Holmboe; at the same time he was a great admirer of the music of Jean Sibelius.
In those years Per Nørgård worked with the idea of "the universe of the Nordic mind", understood as a feeling that nature and the light in the northern regions helped to unite our cultures. Later, like other composers of his generation, he explored the serial 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. Skewed rhythms, in many cases based on the proportions of the Golden Section and interference phenomena, also became important elements in his music.
Around 1980 Per Nørgård began to extend his compositional palette once more, looking for means of expressing the darker sides of the human mind. To this end he created a number of works inspired by the schizophrenic Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli. These works included a good deal of highly expressive vocal music as well as the Fourth Symphony, which alternates between idyll and disaster, order and chaos.
The vocal works on this CD were composed in the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1980s. For Per Nørgård the texts were to a very great extent the crucial inspiration for his vocal compositions. They are powerful, and come from a variety of countries and language areas. The accompaniment to the songs is highly varied, as is the choice of instruments and the sophisticated way they are used to bring out the sonorities and structure of the music.
About the works
In 1953, long before Jess Ørnsbo made his debut as a poet and Per Nørgård had his debut concert, Per Nørgård composed music to Ørnsbo's poem Solen så jeg (I saw the Sun). This short, intense song is about maturing enough to love. The instrumentation, with flute, violin, viola and cello, was done in 2010 in connection with the recording of this CD.
Over the next few years Per Nørgård composed a number of ‘Evening Land works' to texts by the Swedish poet Pär Lagerkvist, specifically the choral work Aftonland (Evening Land) from 1954, Two Recitatives and Songs from "Evening Land". The last of these is five songs about grief, longing and departure. Per Nørgård's idea of ‘the universe of the Nordic mind' found its form during the composition of these Lagerkvist songs, and the inspiration from his great exemplar Jean Sibelius is unmistakable in the orchestral-sounding instrumentation of the almost folk-like song lines.
Per Nørgård's music from the 1960s is represented by two works. In Three Love Songs a very short poem by Arthur Rimbaud is combined with two poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Three Love Songs was originally composed for soloist and orchestra. For this CD recording Per Nørgård has adapted the instrumentation of the songs to the ensemble of musicians who play in the other works on the CD. The work Trois chansons de "L'Amour la poésie" was composed to texts by the French Surrealist poet Paul Éluard. They revolve around the relationships between sleep, ravens and the orange-blue earth and with the beloved. The musical idiom is subdued: the erotic intensity is concentrated around the closely interwoven lines of the singer and the solo flute.
There is a great expressive leap from the early works to the vocal work Plutonian Ode, which Per Nørgård composed to fragments of the American Allen Ginsberg's poem from 1978 with the same title. Here the poet and composer lash out on the issue of the terrible taboo of the time - total nuclear annihilation - with great verbal intensity. Under the inspiration of some stays on Bali, Per Nørgård saw his rendering of this poem as a kind of exorcism. Per Nørgård described this wild, sprawling aria as "... a rhythmically intense threnody to plutonium, viewed as the basic emptiness of total destruction - opposed to the indefatigable will of the human spirit to create connections and meaning. The constant ambivalences of the rhythm are united here with the transformations of words in gradual shifts of meaning (for example "at last" - "Atlas" - "alas")."
Day and Night from 1982 has texts by Ted Hughes and William Shakespeare. Ted Hughes' poem, "A Kill", is a description of the pangs of coming into the world, of being born. Shakespeare's balmy declaration of love, on the other hand, also calls night and darkness to mind and is a brief extract from Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene III.
Entwicklungen (Developments) was composed to two poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. The first poem, Kindheit (Childhood), revolves around the remote, lost, long afternoons of childhood. The second poem, Die Genesende (The convalescent), describes how life plays with the invalid until healing arrives as a soft, sensitive caress.
The last item on the CD, Schlafen gehen, Schmerz und Not is a free version of
Nørgård's choral piece Abendlied (from Two Wölfli Lieder from 1980). In this 2012-style ‘re-mix' Helene Gjerris herself recorded all four choral parts, while Gert Sørensen added -gamelan instruments.
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.