The Tempered Piano
The Tempered Piano
During his own lifetime, Niels Viggo Bentzon (1919-2000) became the very symbol of modern music in Denmark. An unstoppable creative force which, right from his breakthrough in the early 1940s, was in a category of his own. Per Salo, the pre-eminent Danish interpreter of Bentzon, here turns to Bentzon’s huge-scale piano cycle The Tempered Piano, with a personal compilation of preludes and fugues from the many volumes that Bentzon wrote with direct inspiration from Bach. Riotous digressions, musical worlds of unbridled fantasy, loosely constructed blowholes – everywhere Bentzon broke new ground – ground far from the golden mean.
In a Category of His Own
by Jens Cornelius
During his own lifetime, Niels Viggo Bentzon became the very symbol of modern music in Denmark. An unstoppable creative force who, right from his breakthrough in the early 1940s, was in a category of his own. In the 1960s, he almost became Denmark’s ‘national modernist’, for better or for worse, and he retained that status even among those who had never heard his music. No one could keep up with everything he composed, for his enormous oeuvre numbers 700-800 works – and there is still no clear overview of it.
In addition, there was his ardent life as an improviser who often erased the borderline between the now and what was written down. Niels Viggo Bentzon composed at lightning speed and was able to write down entire works in the twinkling of an eye. He was well aware of the fact that his working method did not guarantee that all the opus numbers were of the same calibre. On the other hand, his best works could also come into being within an incredibly short space of time, e.g. the benchmark Volume 1 of his series The Tempered Piano, which was composed in only a fortnight. Bentzon was bipolar and openly revealed that he worked round the clock when the ideas came and had to be written down because he knew only too well of periods when it was impossible for him to create anything at all.
Niels Viggo Bentzon was born in 1919 into a family with deep intellectual and musical roots. His father was a professor of law and briefly rector of the University of Copenhagen. His mother was a pianist, a grandchild of the 19th-century key figure in Danish music, J.P.E. Hartmann, whose paternal grandfather, the composer Johan Hartmann, had immigrated from Germany in the 18th-century. Over the years, the Hartmann family had become intertwined with such other Danish composer families as Gade, Hamerik, Horneman and Langgaard to form one large composer genealogical tree. Niels Viggo Bentzon’s cousin, Jørgen Bentzon, was also a composer.
Niels Viggo Bentzon studied piano, organ and the theory of music at The Royal Danish Academy of Music in 1938-42 under teachers from Carl Nielsen’s circle of associates, including the pianist Christian Christiansen and the music theorist Knud Jeppesen. As a composer, on the other hand, Bentzon was self-taught. His vast created world of music started almost like a bolt from the blue in 1939, the same year he had his debut as a pianist. In 1942 he had his breakthrough with the Toccata for piano, and in 1947 he created a sensation at the ISCM Festival of new music with his piano work Partita. The floodgates had been opened and the music poured out. In the 1940s with mainly neo-classicist works inspired by Stravinsky and Hindemith, and in the 1950s with many works based on the idea of musical metamorphosis.
Around 1960, Niels Viggo Bentzon and other composers of his generation were confronted by a new avant-garde – the serial and electronic music from Central Europe, and he started to wonder if his music was suddenly no longer ‘modern’ enough. This marked the beginning of his most tumultuous period, the 1960s, during which, with inspiration coming from such sources as the Fluxus movement, he threw himself into experiments that broke new ground, with a preference for the absurd and the surreal. Happenings in the public space, improvised TV and radio broadcasts, visual art and imaginative literature were among his forms of expression, and Bentzon emerged as the obvious front figure for a culture in change. But the urge to be provocative also gave him the undesired role of a modernist clown, and that image started to get in the way of his output of more classicistic works. From now on, his audience was never quite sure if his music was seriously intended or not, and, despite their high artistic quality, the works from the earlier decades began to be put on the back burner.
Artistically speaking, however, Bentzon was liberated by the process. He discovered that he was now able to work with inspiration coming from the entire inheritance of musical history. He referred to it himself as ‘symbiotic music’ because he had merged with his predecessors and idols, such as Bach, Brahms and Schönberg, on which his life as a musician was based. With the great span of his genius, Bentzon could be both an outsider and a classical composer at one and the same time.
For almost 60 years, Niels Viggo Bentzon was extremely active as a concert pianist. His many piano works were mainly written for his own concert repertoire, and even though he had supreme mastery of the symphony orchestra, piano music was his most important mode of expression. ‘I am fused with the piano – it is so physical to me,’ he himself said – and that also was what it looked like when he played.
The primaeval force of his creative current meant that he was not afraid to characterise his way of writing as ‘a-intellectual’. But that is to belittle his unique talent, for Bentzon thought quite simply in complete musical forms and structures. His unique genius made him a lone figure, and there is hardly any other artist in Denmark who has staked his whole personality as a composer and musician in the way that he did, has dared everything and won most of it while allowing everyone to follow him in his life-long artistic process.
Jens Cornelius, 2019
The Tempered Piano
by Per Salo
‘All I do is write down what comes. Sometimes a huge amount comes, at other times nothing at all. I’m not in control.’ That is how Niels Viggo Bentzon described his own process of composing when I once asked him how he had planned and composed this enormous work. ‘They are almost frozen improvisations, and when I’ve written it down, I don’t do very much more with it. If it’s good or bad is something other people must decide.’
I have never forgotten these sentences. For precisely this statement, that ‘other people must decide what is good or bad’, is what gave me the idea for this recording.
Niels Viggo Bentzon (who always signed himself NVB) composed his first collection of preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys in 1964. The inspiration came from Johann Sebastian Bach’sDas Wohltemperierte Klavier, but also from Paul Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis (1942) and Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues (1952), which were both modern versions of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. Ten years later, NVB composed Volume 2, and over the years he continued to compose a number of complete volumes. The final collection, Volume 13, was composed as late as 1996. Unfortunately, only Volume 1 was printed and published, while the rest only exists in manuscript form that is extremely hard to read. This enormous cornerstone of Danish piano music has therefore never had the wide circulation that one could have hoped for.
I met NVB – or just Niels Viggo as he used to be called – for the first time in the late 1970s in a private family context. I was immediately fascinated by his vast knowledge and exuberant, charismatic personality. He had already been an institution for several decades by that time – both as a pianist and a composer, fields within which he gave me much good advice. Later on, at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, I and a great many of my fellow students had him as a teacher of musical form – a subject that NVB had made his own. Many of us from back then are sure to have had our awareness aroused by him of such composers as Scriabin, Bartók and Schönberg. Over the years, I got the opportunity to play many of NVB’s works for him, both organ and piano works as well as various chamber music combinations. Most intense, and rewarding for me, was our collaboration in the 1990s on recordings and performances of a whole range of his piano works.
To record a complete version of The Tempered Piano is a quite enormous assignment. As a result of NVB’s rejection of the idea that the individual pieces ought to belong together in a kind of overall structure within each collection, I have therefore constructed a cycle of 24 preludes and fugues. The pieces have been selected from seven of the thirteen volumes from the entire 1964-96 period, i.e. volumes 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8 and 13, in such a way that they form a single whole.
Is it possible to observe major stylistic and compositional differences between the various time periods when one selects pieces in this way that have been written during a span of 30 years? The surprising – but unequivocal – answer is: No.
NVB’s characteristic, powerful but at times extremely poetical style is to be found everywhere in his output, right from the early works of the 1940s to the late compositions from the 1990s. This fact has made it possible for me, when selecting to ‘shuffle the cards’ and construct a cycle based solely on the quality, expression, the balance between the pieces, constructional sequences, etc. For example, the CD ends on a note that is big with fate, but the Prelude & Fugue in B minor actually comes from Volume 2 (1976), whereas one of the most feather-light pieces, Prelude in F sharp major, was written as late as 1996.
To me, The Tempered Piano is one of the works by NVB which best illustrates the extreme contrasts to be found in his music. I have always felt that each prelude or fugue possesses a very sharply defined mood, which in most cases falls within the following fairly clearly demarcated categories or ‘archetypes’:
THE MANIC – JUPITERSQUE – FRISKY
Preludes & fugues in C major, D major, E flat major, F major, A major and B flat major
THE DEPRESSIVE – SAD – MELANCHOLY
Preludes & fugues in D minor, A minor, B flat minor, B minor and the preludes in F sharp major, F sharp minor, G sharp minor and the fugues in G major and G minor
THE ROGUISH – SARCASTIC – DEFIANT
Preludes & fugues in C sharp major and E major, the prelude in G major and the fugues in F minor and B flat major
THE VIOLENT – DIONYSIAN - CATASTROPHIC
Preludes & fugues in E flat minor, F minor, G minor, B minor and the fugue in G sharp minor
Apart from this, the individual pieces range widely when it comes to style, form and character. The fugues, in particular, are a fine study of how differently this form can be interpreted. Some of the fugues have been written in a strict Palestrinian vocal style, others resemble the two-part inventions of Bach, some are in twelve-tone-like chromatic style, some sound like jazz, others are completely free aphorisms.
To me, the best pieces in The Tempered Piano represent some of the finest and most inspired piano music from the 20th century. I hope that the selection on this release can help shed light on this great music, music that NVB himself referred to as his musical will and testament.
Per Salo, 2019