Svend Westergaard

The story of the composer Svend Westergaard begins like many other stories of Danish composers: he trained as an organist at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, continued with private composition studies with Finn Høffding and abroad, became a reviewer in the press and later a theory teacher, and for a period was principal of the institution at which he had taken his diploma. But unlike most other composers, when the mode of the music changed and Denmark too acquired a modernist-coloured musical establishment, he remained true to his tonal, traditional idiom, and despite unmistakable composing skills and a clear aesthetic agenda, he was consigned to the oblivion reserved for composers who do not fit in with their times.

When modern music – and the avant-garde experiments – came to Denmark in earnest at the beginning of the 1960s, Svend Wester¬gaard was strongly critical of the new currents, and his pen and tongue were particularly sharp when it came to the uncritical absorp¬tion of the new foreign, systematic ways of composing. For Westergaard, modern music was something unheard-of, and he clearly had great difficulty understanding why familiar harmonic rules and what was euphonious to the ear could or should be replaced by pseu¬doscientific tables in serial music – or for that matter happenings and aleatory procedures inspired by the visual arts.

These views, and even more so opposing ones, emerge very clearly from the debates in a musical journal like Dansk Musiktidsskrift in the 1960s. And it is equally clear that Wester¬gaard quickly joined the minority: instead of preserving Danish music in its then traditional form, he had to concede that his agitation – which was about aesthetics – was met with ridicule, biting sarcasm and accusations that he wanted to freeze Denmark in a state of inconsequential, provincial conservatism. So it is tempting to believe that because Westergaard insisted on and practiced his aesthetic convictions, the number of performances of his music declined, thus decreasing his desire to compose, after which, in the last twenty years of his life, he wrote only eight works.

Later, though, a great deal has happened in Danish musical life which means that music is not disqualified out of hand on ideological grounds, which is why Westergaard’s music too can find a space to sound in so that its indis¬putable qualities can be heard and discussed without prejudice.

For throughout his oeuvre Svend Wester¬gaard’s music retained a number of ear-pleas¬ing characteristics that are worth listening to. As the first and most important, all his music is marked by a well developed sense of form that gives it clarity and audible rigour from first to last. Secondly, his music is always thematically/motivically structured such that the works, in various ways, are built up as variations, elaborations and experimental treatments of recognizable material, giving the music cohesive power and comprehensible logic. In that sense Westergaard’s music is based on long-standing principles involving independent parts that are twisted and turned, moved and varied with and against one another, not just as one melody with accom¬paniment. Although Westergaard is not avant-garde, nor does he experiment for the sake of experiment, his music develops quite audibly over the years. While the early works are based strictly on classical principles of form, filled out with contrapuntal work with a clear tonality in mind, over the years Westergaard seems to have moved more and more towards an overall freer structure in which the individual sections are rounded-off and independent, rather like tonal cells, while retaining the individual parts and the compositional dexterity.