Niels Viggo Bentzon was, perhaps, the most versatile Danish composer of the 20th century. With over 600 opuses comprising virtually every imaginable genre, he composed as naturally as he breathed. The Dacapo Records debut of pianist Ramez Mhaanna presents a fresh and stunningly original take on four of Bentzon’s early piano pieces. They are lush, romantically spirited and among the last century's most technically challenging and creative piano compositions.
Niels Viggo Bentzon – Virtuoso and Genius?
By Jens Brincker
‘There are two Danish composers who are geniuses: Rued Langgaard and Niels Viggo Bentzon. And they both have a condition.’
That was said to one of his students by Vagn Holmboe, one of the twentieth century’s most signficant Danish composers and teachers of composition at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. The remark must have been made between 1950, when Holmboe began teaching at the Academy, and 10 July 1952, when Langgaard died.
The four works for piano recorded here stem from the years between 1941 and 1950. The three earliest (Toccata, Op. 10, Passacaglia, Op. 31 and Partita, Op. 38) from between 1941 and 1945. It is virtuoso music, which Niels Viggo Bentzon played himself at full blast in order to showcase his talents at the prestigious events celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Academy in 1942 and the international ISCM festival in Copenhagen in 1947. No-one could be in any doubt that he was a virtuoso on the piano. But was he a composer of genius? Which was more decisive? The keys or the music paper?
He returned to this issue later in his life. When he was approaching his 70th year, he was interviewed for an article by Bertel Krarup ( Dansk Musik Tidsskrift, 1988/89, p. 21) and said:
‘The only thing I can do […] is to put my paws to the keyboard in the way I feel is right from the outset – that shows itself, too, in most cases, to be the right thing to do – and then my paws move a little. Trusting the hands to get it right. Certainly, the brain is engaged in the playing too, but […] if you want me to think over what it is I’ve done, I bloody well can’t do it […] actually, for me there is no difference between composition and improvisation.’
The three early works recorded here (Toccata, Passacaglia and Partita) deal with the issue, each in their own way. We can hear a Baroque affinity acknowledged in the Bachian titles of the works. We can also note the development in these works, which overtakes pianistic virtuosity and points instead toward compositional genius.
A trilogy for piano
In 1976–1977, Niels Viggo Bentzon compiled a brief overview of the three works himself:
‘Cheered by […] my first public success [Toccata] I soon had the urge to get on with new works for piano. These were thePassacaglia and Partita. Together with the Toccata, the works form a trilogy in which the late Baroque style forms the technical basis of the musical composition.’
The Toccata is an introduction. It was often used in this way by Bach, when it was followed by a fugue. It was a virtuoso introduction to a brilliant composition. During his lifetime, the genius Bach became overshadowed by Bach the organ virtuoso and improviser. Niels Viggo Bentzon’s Toccata is first and foremost a virtuoso improvisation, where Bach’s subsequent fugue is replaced by scattered fugal details along the way. Besides, Bach is not Bentzon’s only inspiration: Paul Hindemith’s ‘neo-baroque’, with its expanded tonality, which breaks the limitations of the tonal system and opens itself up to dissonance, runs through the Toccata. Bentzon’s Toccata from the beginning of the 1940s is more ‘neo’ than ‘baroque’, ‘Entartet’ in German, ‘degenerated’ in English. Hindemith emigrated from Germany to the USA because Hitler did not like his music. He had been offended when a star in one of Hindemith’s operas sang an aria while lying in a bathtub, and was disgusted when Hindemith played string quartets with a Jewish musician.
The hands were not the only distinction of Bentzon’s Toccata. The heart is there too.
We can see the brain at work more clearly in the next piece in the trilogy. The Passacaglia takes its starting point from one of Bach’s passacaglias for organ. In this form, the main theme is played repeatedly in the bass while the treble accompanies the bass with new and contrapuntal voices: the piece takes the form of a series of variations over the repeated bass.
Bentzon’s Passacaglia begins in this way too: first we hear the bass theme alone, and then four variations in which the bass is repeated in varied contexts. But then something unexpected happens: the bass theme is played upside down, with the falling intervals played going upwards and vice versa, while the theme is moved around the keyboard. The original theme returns, sometimes with the inverted variant, and at other times as a part of a symphonic development that culminates in a climax and a coda. The goal is not only a series of variations but also a compositional whole, ‘a work’.
With Partita, Op. 38 Bentzon takes his leave from the Baroque as his dominant inspiration. The title and the three outer movements (the first, second and fifth movements) point back toward the Baroque tradition, but Bentzon adds another two movements, entitled Intermezzo I and II, that are not rooted in the Baroque partita. Instead, they correspond to a development which is characteristic of the music of the twentieth century, with Intermezzo I at the centre of an arch form, with the first and fifth, and the second and fourth movements, standing in relation to each other in a symmetrical whole.
Partita is not only a farewell to the Baroque, but also an open door to something contemporary and new. Herein lies a contrast, maybe also a conflict, which the notes, rather than the form, are witness to, something which is interpreted by the end of WW2. The Partita was completed in 1945, the year when war turned to peace, and worry turned to hope. Happiness emerged from depressive blackness.
The conflict between darkness and light is the main subject in Partita, in which the bass register dominates the first two movements with hefty, dark sounds and insistent tone repetitions which suppress and hinder the treble’s attempt to strike a light. In the third movement, Intermezzo I, the picture changes: the music moves from the deep register of the bass to the descant, the tempo settles down and the insistent note repetitions become lyrical melodies. The fourth movement returns to the allegro tempo of the second movement, but moves its centre of gravity from the bass to the treble. The finale contrasts the dark themes of the first movement with the luminous melodies of the third movement.
This is just my interpretation, built upon Bentzon’s own performance ofPartita in the years around 1950, but it does not pretend to be the explanation. The conflict between depression and happiness, darkness and light, is not tied to the world around us: it can find its own place in the human mind. More about this later.
The composer, Niels Viggo Bentzon
For the composer, 1945 marked the point at which the Baroque genres which he had found in Bach were overshadowed by forms from the Classical era, especially the sonata and the symphony. He turned from the style of the neo-baroque genres towards the form of the Classic and Romantic period which create works which are more than the sum of their individual parts.
For the pianist Niels Viggo Bentzon, this meant that he was playing for a new and broader audience. The starting point for this was Partita, which was one of three Danish works selected for performance at the international ISCM festival in 1947, which was centred in Copenhagen and the Swedish town Lund. This drew an international public who were excited by Bentzon’s work and his virtuoso performance of it. The doors of the concert halls of Europe and the USA were opened to him, giving new Danish music recognition abroad. In the words of the Swedish composer and reviewer, Sven-Erik Bäck:
‘Partita […] arouses, to begin with, one’s great admiration because of its brilliant compositional technique. But gradually you are gripped irresistibly by its spontaneity and the imaginative sublimity of its form. […] Bentzon is one of the really great names in Scandinavian music just now.’
On a professional level, this meant more engagements, commissions and prizes, both at home and abroad. He signed an exclusive contract with the publisher Wilhelm Hansen in 1949 and in 1950 was taken on by the Academy in Copenhagen as a teacher of, amongst other things, form. In 1954 he published the first Danish textbook on Schönberg’s twelve tone music. In 1957 he and his wife Gudrun went on a six-month trip to the USA, during which Bentzon gave lectures and demonstrations at a number of American universities.
Niels Viggo Bentzon became a well-known and appreciated composer who worked in the Copenhagen cultural milieu, with the restaurant Tokanten as a regular meeting place for artists, then gradually also for architects and musicians.
On a personal level, this period of his life was happy, and he was able to travel with Gudrun. Paris was a preferred destination as it was a good place to meet Danish abstract painters like Richard Winther and Gunnar Aagaard Andersen, whose interest in experiments with music Bantzon got acquainted with in Copenhagen.
But his personal life was not without challenges. Niels Viggo Bentzon was part of a family, on his father’s side, in which mental health problems were not unknown. His cousin Jørgen Bentzon, who was known for his chamber music and co-founded the public Copenhagen School of Music with the composer Finn Høffding, was a dozen years older than Niels Viggo Bentzon; he ended his life in Nykøbing Sjælland as a patient at the State Institute for Mental Illnesses.
After returning home from the USA in 1957, Niels Viggo Bentzon separated from Gudrun and was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. This illness marked his personality throughout his life, including through a number of hospital admissions: he sought to fight it through medication.
Træsnit (Woodcuts) – between poetry and noise-painting
The fourth work on this recording, Træsnit, was inspired by a Dada-ist group of artists called Linien II, and was first performed in 1950, in Den frie Udstillingsbygning (The Free Exhibition Building), with the composer at the piano as a member of Linien II.
Træsnit is a key work that binds time past with the future in a surprising way. The past shows itself immediately through the title of the work, referring to the poem Træsnit by Christian Winther, who had made his debut as an author in 1828. It deals with a loving relationship between peasant boys and girls, one which culminates in marriage rather than in sexual activity, so adopting the manners and attitudes of fine society. Winther introduces and describes, then, ordinary people’s feelings and fidelity in eleven poems that describe the pair’s problems with strangers who try to tempt the girl away; but the girls hold fast to their sweethearts, and the last poem closes with the warning, ‘So will you speak to Father and Mother tomorrow?’.
Niels Viggo Bentzon’s Træsnit contains, like Winther’s poem, eleven small and independent movements, with love as a thoroughgoing motive which is introduced in the first section and then repeated, often broken into single intervals, in the ten sections which follow. There is no Bach-like passacaglia here, or variations in the style of Brahms, but from shifting points of view there is, gathered at the end, a kind of reprise of the first section’s introductory motive.
In relation to the thematic working that characterizes Bentzon’s sonatas and symphonies from the second half of the 1940s, this kind of cohesion is a compositional simplification unparalleled in Bentzon’s earlier works.
The composer doesn’t go to music’s ‘Father and Mother’ to find inspiration: as mentioned earlier, he met artists from other disciplines at restaurants like Tokanten, where modern painters discussed ‘concrete, abstract’ art, and sometimes he heard music written or improvised by artists who were aiming to express the ideas behind the art in a musical form, as ‘noise-paintings’. The most extreme of the artists gradually came together in the group Linien II, which combined the visual experience of pictures with auditory elements in the years between 1947 and 1952, through exhibitions which included works by international guests. These exhibitions included the ‘noise-paintings’ of Richard Winther and Gunnar Aagaard Andersen or musical pieces by Niels Viggo Bentzon, performed by the composer himself.
These visual artists were not trying to compose music. They were aiming to release themselves from the fields and frames of the canvas in a kind of concrete and abstract expression in which lines and circles could stand free, as though they were floating sounds. Their products were not music but, according to Richard Winther’s phrase, were ‘noise-paintings’ in which the sounds coalesced into musical expression in the listener’s own head.
Now, almost 75 years later, it is possible to hear these ‘noise-paintings’ unfold (on the album Linien II, published by the Institute for Danish Sound Archaeology), and note the simplification and steady insistence on contrasting sounds and motives that can be found in Træsnit. Not as banal quotes, but as new inspiration for one of Bentzon’s main works, and as a background to the graphic scores which Bentzon composed later.
Holmboe was probably right.