Storgårds and Nørgård
by John Storgårds
The first time I came into contact with Per Nørgård’s music must have been in connection with the Nordic Music Days festival, back in the 1980s, while I was performing in many of those festivals as a violinist. Back then, I didn’t perform any music of his, but I heard various things, for example choral pieces, that somehow grabbed me. I also studied a bit of composing in those days, which of course made me a concentrated listener and a searcher for inspiration.
Later on, also in connection with one of those same festivals, I learned one of his pieces properly as a still fairly inexperienced conductor. I was asked to conduct Constellations for 12 solo strings with the Finnish Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, for which I was concertmaster in those days. I realized then that I was dealing with a quite fascinating, unique and demanding composer.
The definitive point when Per Nørgård became really important to me was during the Avanti! Orchestra’s 14th Summer Sound Festival in 1999 in Borgå, Finland. The conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste was the artistic director of this festival. I was personally involved in organizing Per Nørgård’s period as ‘composer in residence’ for that year’s festival and was accordingly involved with numerous performances of his music, both as a violinist and conductor. I will never forget the intense late night rehearsal sessions as leader of the Avanti! String Quartet, in a sports hall with Per Nørgård himself present, so inspirationally supervising our work on his 7th and 8th string quartets. The main piece by him which I conducted at the same festival was his wonderfully tricky and exciting Piano Concerto In due tempi with Per Salo as soloist.
I had now become a big fan of Per Nørgård and we also became friends. Having been in touch with his music regularly ever since, I just happened to call him exactly at the right time some years ago. I wanted to ask him to compose an orchestral work for a world premiere with the Helsinki Philharmonic with myself as chief conductor. This led to a visit to his lovely home in Copenhagen and to the commissioning of his 8th Symphony. What a masterpiece it is! As a dedicatee of the work and having had the privilege of conducting its world premiere in Helsinki with the composer present, this will forever remain one of the main highlights in my life as a musician. The private readings of the symphony with Nørgård alone – first of his own manuscript at his piano and later of the full score just before the final editing and the world premiere – were equally great, unique and very special moments between just him and me.
And now, recording his Symphonies Nos. 2, 4, 5 and 6 with the great Oslo Philharmonic and the brilliant producer Preben Iwan has been like a continuation of a beautiful dream for me. The recordings in May and June 2015 of these four symphonies were simply excellent sessions, with fully committed, focused and wonderful people. In addition, knowing his 7th Symphony very well (I conducted its British premiere at the BBC Proms) and the 1st and 3rd symphonies as a listener and score reader, I can say without any doubt that for me, Nørgård is the greatest symphonist of our time. All his symphonies are individual, concentrated masterpieces. Every single one has its totally distinctive, crystal-clear logic, differing from the others in a way that only Sibelius’ symphonies, before Nørgård’s, do. There are also other similarities to discover. More about that another time.
John Storgårds, 2016
A Liberating moment of chaos
by Jens Cornelius
Per Nørgård’s works stem from an insatiable urge to explore the phenomena of the world and the possibilities of music. His list of works is huge – over 400 of them – and the eight symphonies stand as pillars of his production. They are milestones along the course of 60 years and the range, from the gloomy Nordic Symphony No. 1 to the ethereal Symphony No. 8, is simply vast. Perhaps only Nørgård’s Nordic predecessor Sibelius has to the same extent composed symphonies of such great variety.
Indeed, Nørgård has always had a close relationship with Sibelius, but it is by no means imitation of his music that constitutes the influence. “What I think has been the most profound lesson from studying Sibelius’ symphonies is the extent to which each of the works is really in a class by itself. This permeates my own attitude to composing symphonies. I feel each of my symphonies is a whole continent in itself,” Nørgård has said.
Symphony No. 5
Symphony No. 5 was given its first performance in 1990 by Esa-Pekka Salonen (to whom it is dedicated) and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in a concert where the rest of the programme was the fifth symphonies of Sibelius and Carl Nielsen. More than the number five and the Nordic element connects the works: for each of the three composers the fifth symphony was a breakthrough after a crisis. In the 1980s Nørgård had been through a period when chaos shattered his holistic world-picture. The greatly polarized Symphony No. 4 is a central work from those years. But with his Symphony No. 5 Nørgård showed with supreme courage that he could look all the chaotic forces in the eye however violent they might be.
The mighty work has an unprecedentedly powerful expressive force. From the beginning of the symphony Nørgård shows that he dares go to the edge of the volcano with an awareness that he can face it. The forces of nature are not tamed, for control and chaos exist at the same time in this music – two opposites in what otherwise seems an impossible embrace.
Nørgård takes the view that it is up to the listener to decide on the number of ‘movements’ in the symphony. It can be perceived with the contours of a traditional symphonic form with a large dynamic first movement, a quick second movement, a slow section (or two) and in the end an unstoppable, wildly rushing final movement. But it can just as easily be heard as one great development of the dynamism set in motion by the innumerable eruptions of the music at the beginning. The dynamic upsurges are intense and irregular, as if they come from an unpredictable geyser or a bubbling sea of lava. And the silence betwee the eruptions is full of powerful tension, for what will the next phase be like?
The second section is typified by quivering spasms in the strings and grotesque manifestations in the woodwinds, which among other things play on loose reeds. The beginning of ‘Jingle Bells’ even pops up from the material as an objet trouvé, and the dynamic cascades reach absurd heights. Nørgård refuses actually to call this section a ‘scherzo’, but it is certainly a burlesque world that the symphony has developed into here.
The third section builds up to yet another eruption of cascades, after which a chaconne-like foundation is firmly laid. The subsequent development comes close to running amok, and after a final culmination the music falls calm and fades out. But it is too early to write off the activity of the forces of nature. Like the awakening of a slumbering dragon the discharges of energy break out in the last section and the billowing cascades are once more in full flow. In the concluding minutes the ecstatic fanfares are transformed into a manic version of the end of Nørgård’s own First Symphony, written 35 years previously. After which it is all swept away as by the wave of a magic wand.
In the symphony Per Nørgård has developed his technique with the infinity series into a complex system he calls “tone lakes”. The principle does not, like the infinity series, form fractal repetitions, but opens up tonal material that has developed from 12 notes to 36, 108 etc. For Nørgård it was a natural development to abandon the well tried principle of the infinity series. “Techniques are quite simply modalities, tools for achieving results. They must be refined – or abandoned if they become too restrictive,” he said. And if there is music without irksome fetters it is decidedly this Fifth Symphony, where Nørgård juggles all the balls in the air at the same time.
“That has been the fascinating and frightening thing about composing the work,” Nørgård explained. “How long can it go on? Where it is going? Since something has always been going on, while something else is in the making, you experience a constant restlessness.”
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 4 comes from a period when Nørgård shattered the visions of a cosmos in harmony that he had presented in his Second and Third Symphonies. The main reason was his encounter with the Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930). For most of his life Wölfli was a patient in a mental hospital, where he created thousands of texts, images and musical fragments which with their intense creativity give the impression of a split personality. In his layer-on-layer art swarming with details and perspectives Nørgård could recognize himself – just with the poles reversed: the dark side with chaos and agitation instead of system-building according to a natural order.
“I knew that this was a liberating moment,” Nørgård said about the encounter with Wölfli’s art, speaking at the Louisiana Museum of Art at Humlebæk, Denmark, in the autumn of 1979. Wölfli’s chaos became a direction indicator for Nørgård in a period that can reasonably be called his crisis years. The first work was the three choral songs Wie ein Kind to texts by Wölfli. Other major works from the period are the opera The Divine Circus and Symphony No. 4, which for many of Nørgård’s adherents were a surprising and perhaps also disappointing break with the intoxicating world-harmonies of the preceding works. But amidst all the Gothic horror Nørgård found a new rhythmic dynamic that took him a long way in the course of the following years – now with the focus on the misfit and the loner, including himself. “Irreconcilability is my position today, and that can hardly be called a classic doctrine,” Nørgård said in an interview in 1982.
In 1912 Wölfli had laid plans for a musical work with the title Indischer Roosen-Gaarten und Chineesischer Hexen-See (Indian Rose Garden and Chinese Witch Lake). For obvious reasons it was not realized, but the title alone was enough for Nørgård. “Such precision in the expression of polarity is rare,” as he remarked. The result was the closest Nørgård has come to a programme symphony: the symphony Wölfli himself never managed to write. The subtitle is Hommage à Adolf Wölfli, and Per Nørgård has aptly spoken of it as “a handshake with a friend, with thanks for a good idea.”
The symphony constitutes a balance of oppositions. There are two movements – the rose garden and the witch lake – each of which involves something of its own opposite. Nørgård compares it to the yin and yang symbol, which has a black eye in the white ‘fish’ and a white eye in the black one.
The first movement begins on the foundation of a melody Nørgård had written for Wölfli’s poem Abendlied (Evening Song). The words of the song, Traulichem, Alleine sein (“Sad it is to be alone”) form a descending motif that is transferred here to the violins and takes on disintegrating, collapsing forms – in fact, quite peacefully, but with an unreal calm. We are in a sanctuary – for something. The second part of the movement builds on the birdsong motif of the African robin-chat, which is first manifested softly in the piccolo and then in the solo violin. It is the most important theme of the symphony. Nørgård took the broad view of the fact that that the bird is neither Indian nor Chinese – it was the musical qualities that counted. “The theme fascinates me, because it has something that goes beyond any system, it so to speak contains the existential, paradox of joy and sorrow.” The ambivalence becomes all the more striking when Nørgård lets the theme spread to the brass and the dark woodwinds. That is when we experience “the black eye in the white fish.”
The transition from the rose garden in the first movement to the witch lake in the second is quite abrupt. “It is the rest of us who are mad if we do not know that we are living atop a catastrophe every second,” Nørgård has explained, and now the catastrophe breaks forth without warning. From the first note the witch lake has fiery, warlike rhythms. The unreality has become hair-raisingly horrific. Quotations from foreign music appear in the development of the music. The old salon waltz Fascination, known from Mantovani’s saccharine orchestra, penetrates into the brass in a grotesque version. Crazy Swiss Ländler music breaks out, an echo of another Wölfli song by Nørgård. The falling thirds of the melody even have something in common with the “inextinguishable” theme from Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, another symphony that is a life-crisis work with conflict and irreconcilability as a bearing principle.
Relentlessly we are brought to the brink of the burning water of the witch lake when, at the ultimate cliffhanger moment, we hear a new opening. The five last notes of the symphony are a small glimpse of the birdsong motif. A sensation of the rose garden that has been there all the time. The white eye in the black fish.
© Jens Cornelius, 2016