Singing Secrets is a thoughtful and profoundly lyrical album which is both a strikingly original statement and a splendid addition to Dacapo Records' extensive Nørgård catalogue. The programme demonstrates the range of Nørgård's compositions, with chamber and vocal pieces illustrating some of the distinctive steps of his musical journey.
By Søren Schauser
A professor for many years, Per Nørgård has been loudly praised and awarded great prizes around the world. His music, though, can be relatively quiet in its exterior and searching by nature. Per Nørgård holds his senses open to signals from the planet and the cosmic miracle. This Danish Nestor works not so much for deafening fanfares or death by double bar lines — so, ‘when do you begin to get things finished?’, as his mother once sighed!
For this reason his pieces may require a little extra attention. A work by Nørgård comes to life when its listeners attend to it with just the right amount of openness. Our receptiveness is rewarded tenfold as pleasure in responding to the works, and in the longer term by a generally enhanced attentiveness.
The Quintet, Op. 1, was written in the early 1950s, just after Nørgård’s school days. He began his studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen with Vagn Holmboe, and used his teacher’s style as a model. The students worked with ‘motivic metamorphosis’, where a motif emerging early in a piece might change itself into another. The teacher compared this romantic principle with ‘the larva’s way of transforming from maggot to fully unfolded insect’, and suggested a Nordic sound as the ideal. Interestingly enough, the result is evident in a couple of later works by the student, in his symphonies and other works: the first movement with the long opening and a solo high flute and the second movement with the abysmal harmonies are combined at the end into something completely new – far from both!
But there was a snake in paradise: although the modernist mode of Holmboe’s time had already been overhauled by the avant-garde in other countries, Per Nørgård continued along his teacher’s path for decades, discovering a broader sky beyond the northern lights.
The breakup began in 1959 with his participation in a music festival in Italy. His Konstellationer (Constellations, 1958) for strings was performed, and he met a number of the leading figures of the international avant-garde. From the new perspective he developed at this time, he saw Vagn Holmboe’s insistence on metamorphosis and the Northern viewpoint as forever backward-looking. The young composer later wrote, in Politiken, that Danish music’s isolation ‘can lead to inbreeding that the rest of the world cannot be interested in, and which in the end fails to nourish us, too’. ‘We could use fresh air, that can blow us out of this laziness and caution we have treated as a virtue’. His new position led to an artistic clash with Holmboe, and five years later, to Holmboe leaving the Conservatory. From this point, Denmark became a leader of the European avant-garde, to a substantial degree through Nørgård’s contribution.
One strand from the universe of the northern mind still lingers. Per Nørgård continues to open his music with a motivic germ and let the rest grow from its genes. He had refined the motivic metamorphosis from his predecessors’ vague sensations to growth in a more systematic way: the pieces form quite literally like a hushed Big Bang, taking off from something singular and then continually broadening on all fronts.
The renowned ‘infinity series’ was the most concrete result of this development. Per Nørgård discovered the series in 1959, and since then has been inspired by its potential over six decades. A motivic cell, typically of two or three notes, is played over and over, staying close to the original form and releasing an endless number of linked new cells which take greater space. A melody of this kind can develop in many ways, and depends entirely on the cell’s size and the chosen scales, just as one can sing the ‘same’ children’s song in both major and minor. The composer has used the series in widely different ways in hundreds of works, and works with some particular characteristics at one time in his life, quite different characteristics in another.
The series of six works with the shared title, Fragment, were written around 1960, just after Nørgård found that he had the blessing of the avant-garde for his ideas. The first four works are for piano alone, and technically a comprehensive exploratorium with vastly different approaches in play. The sixth work is for a large orchestra divided into six groups, which caused a fuss in the mid-60s because of the music’s extremely modernistic mode of expression.
The short Fragment V (1961) for violin, with or without piano, remains the most frequently performed piece from the set, and was probably Nørgård’s first encounter with the infinity series. The work’s romantic motto is the lyricist Rainer Maria Rilke’s lovely, ‘Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, dass sie nicht an deine rührt?’, and a greeting to love’s miracle: one can ‘compare two lovers with two strings on a violin’, Nørgård wrote in his programme note. ‘Together they have the capacity to produce one note…! The short piece knits itself to Rilke’s metaphor through a music in which the two musical voices are woven from the same thread, the same melody’.
Per Nørgård may have created his romance to Rilke’s words just before he wrote Fragment V, and it was many years later that he brought the song and violin together in ‘Zwei Saiten, eine Stimme’. In his music from the early 1960s, he seems to have been mostly taken up with the series’ horizontal or melodic characteristics. Maybe he pays relatively little attention to the differences between one work and another, yet the individual pieces with his new material can only be snapshots within an infinite continuum, and remind us a little of ‘open’ works, so his mother was, in a way, right again!
Everything then changed in the wild 60s. Composers like Henning Christiansen and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen threw themselves into a project with great consequences: the young composers wanted to combine the avant-garde’s love of numbers with something more tolerable and purely musical, and created the Danish ‘new simplicity’ movement. The combination of the modern and the very simple was seriously realised in the landmark works written in 1964, and has been something of a Danish speciality ever since.
Ole Buck’s Sommertrio (Summer Trio), written four years later, turned ‘new simplicity’ into decidedly beautiful music. This happened indirectly with Per Nørgård’s intervention: Buck was, for a time, denied access by the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen because of the poor quality of his work, the official reason given. So we can, from this distance, see Nørgård being furious with the Copenhageners’ ‘conservatory-conservatism’; he moved his teaching to Aarhus, where he became Ole Buck’s sympathetic alternate teacher.
The Romantic revival did the rest. The world around 1970 became a time with new warmth for strong emotions. People shifted themselves from orange sofa groups and waved red and yellow banners in the streets. The Danes discovered late Romantic outsiders like Gustav Mahler and the generally disliked Rued Langgaard, and bought tickets to pluralistic rock musicals instead.
Once again, Per Nørgård played a part in this surprising development. He taught and composed full time from around 1970, and created some of the epoch’s most emblematic music: minimalist masterpieces likeRejse ind i den gyldne skærm (Voyage into the Golden Screen, 1968) and his Second Symphony (1970) sum up this psychedelic period really well. His Third Symphony has a ‘cosmic’ opening of 365¼ bars, and since its world premiere in 1976, the great force of the symphony’s ending has been seen as one of Danish music’s strongest utterances.
The infinity series changed its character along the way: the simple base material in the Second Symphony is elevated to a theme, and in the Third Symphony to carrier waves for the world’s creation. Cantica (1977) for cello and piano and the little songs to Ole Sarvig’s lyrics sprang directly from the work on the conclusion of the Third Symphony. Nørgård’s primary fascination with the infinity series was now manifest in its hierarchic nature, so that its Russian Doll’s melodies are folded around themselves in an infinite number of tempi. The composer has, according to his own statement, kept his sound strongly related to ‘harmonic and tradition-based’ patterns, as a consequence making listening a little easier than usual. This gave listeners a better chance of hearing the music’s many layers; one hears ‘first one, soon the other melody’ being woven into the cello piece’s tapestry, so that they can, for example, notice the lengths of the notes and their relative proportions as belonging to the golden ratio and Fibonacci’s famous sequence.
Per Nørgård’s ideas changed considerably a few summers later, when he became fascinated by the early 20th century Swiss visual artist, poet and composer Adolf Wölffli. Nørgård worked intensively over a long period with the schizophrenic artist’s universe, but Wölffli’s swarming mind could not be easily integrated with the sensuous structures the composer had developed in previous decades, so most of the works of this period are an exception to everything else in Nørgård’s output.
The experiences led to a golden age in the mid-1980s, with an exciting ‘individualising’ of his works and musical technique: the increasingly well known composer fulfilled commissions from famous soloists and dived into new material, with note-pools as their working title. Melodies which look superficially like ordinary twelve-tone rows in Schoenberg are at the same time an inexhaustible creative resource employing fantastic fluctuations between major and minor.
Libro per Nobuko (1992) for the violist Nobuko Imai was one of the epoch’s most characteristic and easily recognisable works. The first part of the piece, the sonata, ‘The Secret Melody’, begins with glissandi like a quiet humming, continuing for the rest of the movements with some unusually beautiful motives on three notes. These motives often have a pentatonic flavour, like east Asian music, and may be a greeting to both the Vietnamese astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan, and to the international star Imai, who is of Japanese heritage.
A sentence by the scientist is taken as the work’s subtitle: ‘Nature sends us the notes of a music formed by a melody that will remain secret forever’. So the secret melody should probably not be understood as an ‘enigma’ like that in Edward Elgar’s variations, but rather should be heard as the composer zooms out through the movements, gradually revealing the piece’s structure, until the structure unveils itself as part of a larger context …
The secret melody! Nature’s eternally hidden music! We feel the decay of the body and the coming of death every single day. So the spirit emerges, with increasing strength, as the greatest secret and only reality of the universe.
S øren Schauser, writer and associate professor of music history at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen