Per Nørgård (b. 1932) is one of the most frequently played composers of his generation. He has written more than 400 works in all genres and inspired innumerable colleagues in Denmark and abroad. This album presents all of Nørgård’s music for the Oscarwinning Babette’s Feast film version by Gabriel Axel of Karen Blixen’s short story – not just the snatches of it one can hear in the film. One can also get to know the hypnotic Spell, the ripples and bubbles in Whirl’s World and Trio Breve, which according to the composer himself are to be regarded as three short expressive phrases – dream-like pictures – that change between light and dark, fast and slow but with introvert melodic features in common.
Expansion of Consciousness While Fully Conscious
by Søren Schauser
A day spent in the company of Per Nørgård is endlessly fascinating. The Danish composer seems to act as a live satellite dish for the world’s signals: one suddenly hears the trees sing like aeolian harps and the waves strike the shore like strains of music. One sees, notes and reflects, and can easily feel giddy at the perspectives, in both a personal and cosmic sense.
Nørgård’s music possesses the same qualities. It can admittedly be both amusing and entertaining and never comes with a disclaimer. The listener often simply ends up with open senses and an open mind – ready for what the composer himself has called an ‘expansion of consciousness while fully conscious’.
Per Nørgård’s present oeuvre of six operas, eight symphonies, 11 solo concertos and an endless series of pieces in other genres have gained him a large audience and are played throughout the world. The works differ considerably, yet all of them seem to be driven by the same longing for a secret condition. No matter whether one listens to his ‘Nordic’ works from the 1960s or the pieces inspired by the schizophrenic Adolf Wölfli in the 1980s, they all move in the same direction. The composer always fantasised about quite specific effects to be achieved and has developed one ingenious system after the other in his search for the entrance to the land of dreams.
His discovery of the infinity series in 1959, in particular, has had a significance quite impossible to assess. The series is a melody with profoundly fascinating characteristics, and he makes use of it in many of his more than 400 works to date. It can be compared to a rubber tape measure and therefore it never sounds completely the same from one time to the next: a millimetre on such a measure can vary from a millimetre to a centimetre – and the infinity series can likewise sound crawling at one moment and wildly frolicking at the next! The particular qualities of the melody Per Nørgård refers to as ‘hierarchical’, prodigiously incorporating the existence of an endless number of melodies into the melody.
The musical material he discovered is something like such well-known toys as the Russian babushka dolls or Chinese boxes, and to this day he continues to explore its genetics and musical secrets. But there was a reason why he fell for the infinity series. Per Nørgård has an even more elemental driving force and probably sees the infinity series at most as a kind of provisional answer. The humorous composer likes to talk about his life as a ‘slippery slope’ and goes on to fantasise about music on the rim of the possible – of a spirit with a body, of something distant yet present at the same time, of effects with whose permanent state is one of floating and hovering.
When one listens to Spell from 1973 for clarinet, cello and piano, one hears two pieces of music at the same time. The notes played by the clarinet are quite simply identical with the solo piece Turn from the same year! Per Nørgård uses this procedure in a number of works during the 1970s, and each time he makes use of the characteristics of the infinity series: To put it simply, he can place the infinite melody in one instrument, after which he can allow other instruments to ‘fill it in’ with precisely the same melody. His fantastic Third Symphony from 1976 culminates, example, with the choral work Singe die Gärten from 1974 ringing out from within the surge of instrumental music.
The infinity series is, however, only half the story as regards Per Nørgård’s music from the 1970s. The works are just as much borne by certain rhythms and particular relationships between notes in general. The most characteristic rhythm is reminiscent of a table tennis ball from being thrown up to finally resting on the table: the rhythm starts slowly, becomes ever more intense and, on some other planet, would perhaps end infinitely rapidly. But even though it seems extremely clear and immediately recognisable from everyday life, this cannot really be captured in musical notation – the musicians must rely on their ears for direction!
Spell was written for the American Mantagnana Trio, and it combines all these ideas from that period: Initially, one hears one note at a time, then other musicians insert more lines, and finally one finds oneself in a whirling game with old layers on their way out of focus and new ones on their way in. Per Nørgård himself has compared the effect with the dancing of the clouds in the sky – for even if the single form or ‘cloud’ can appear to be very simple, the cloud constantly forms new patterns when meeting others.
Suite – from ‘Babette’s Feast’ from 1987 was written for the film version of Karen Blixen’s short story. The quiet-paced narrative could be read for the first time in the collection Anecdotes of Destiny from 1958, which deals with common people encountering great art. Gabriel Axel shifted the action from Norway to the west coast of Jutland but apart from this kept close to the gallery of characters in the narrative and to its message in general: Two dean’s daughters with a colourful past live in a life-denying and Pietist-influenced fishing village. One day, Babette knocks on the door and tells them of her own background as an activist during the Paris Commune in 1871 and her immediate need of a place of refuge. The mysterious woman of this small town has now been working as the sisters’ cook for about 15 years and has gradually transformed a humble diet of porridge and herring into pure delicacies. And when she one day wins 10,000 francs in the lottery, she celebrates this in her own way: She has quail and fine wines sailed up to her new home on the Danish coast as a token of gratitude for the good treatment she has received from the people of the small town.
The pious inhabitants, however, are scared of Babette’s extravagant attitude to God’s gifts and they take the decision to consume her gastronomic sensation with reluctance and in silence. So when the ex-sweetheart of one of the sisters, in the form of a nationally known general with access to the court and experiences from the whole world, appears on the scene, the dinner takes an unexpected turn for all concerned. The general is unaware of the fishermen’s agreement and talks away the whole time. And, strangely enough, he has tasted Babette’s fantastic menu at the Parisian Café Anglais many years previously!
The honorary guest leaves the table quite mystified and rides off – while the unassuming local people around the table seem to be transformed. They have had the experience of a lifetime, with delicious food and vintage wines, and are now able to forget centuries of mistrust and enmity and hold each other’s hands. Babette finally confirms the general’s suspicion: the fantastic chef at Café Anglais back then was none other than herself. She has even used her entire win to pay for the wonderful meal and therefore will have to continue to live in the village. And when the sisters are sorry for the heroine’s poverty now and for all the years to come, she shakes her head and utters the famous words: A true artist is never poor.
In 1987, the film won the first Oscar ever awarded a Danish film, and in 2006 it was included in the Danish Culture Canon for essential kinds of cultural heritage. Gabriel Axel only found room for a tiny fraction of Per Nørgård’s lyrical and many-facetted music. If one happens to like the soundtrack of the film, the composer’s suite is sheer heaven – for it has almost ten times as much music in it as the film itself!
The work begins with impressions from the barren sand dunes of the region, after which it portrays Babette’s preparations and, in the Pastorale, the guests around the table. The imperceptible shifts from one movement to the next and the weightless rhythms of the music tell a story of the villagers’ simple life between sea and sky. The most important motif of the music is a gentle soaring leap followed by a gentle fall, and this runs through practically all the music like a horizon of innocence and timeless living conditions.
Trio breve from 2012 for violin, violoncello and piano is one of the most recent numbers in Per Nørgård’s catalogue of works – and at the same time one of the simplest. Despite this, listen to it in the best possible sound quality and with open ears! Many notes are played at the same time by, for example, the violinist and pianist, resulting in a heavenly echo. The composer himself feels that the music is introvert and has compared the three movements with fragments for a mosaic.
More help in understanding the work might be found in the subtitle Three Fragments with the addition After a Dream. Some of the earliest numbers in Nørgård’s catalogue of works are in fact a series from the 1960s with the common title Fragment and they have for a long time been a source of great inspiration to him personally. Several of them, for example, build on ideas he has only investigated further as a mature composer – and Fragment V from 1961 for violin and piano is one of the first works with the infinity series on a larger scale. The dream has also always played a major role in Per Nørgård’s working method. Titles such as Dream Play from 1975, Dream Songs from 1981 and Dream Duet from 1991 are obvious examples in this connection. Although he has rarely dreamt a melody – with the much-sung You shall plant a Tree from 1967 as a striking exception – Per Nørgård is a composer with an open heart for the unknown and in close contact with the subconscious.
Whirl’s World was written for Danish Wind Quintet in 1970, since when it has been recognised as one of the ‘great’ wind quintets of the century. It starts as festively as the French composer Erik Satie’s circus music and implodes a moment later into static surfaces that at first hearing seem to be without warmth or soul. The key lies in the shadowlike world of sounds between the notes. One is only meant to listen to the individual notes from the musicians’ instruments with half an ear. What one is to enjoy with the other ‘half’ of one’s ears are the so-called difference tones in the space around the musicians. Two musicians playing one tone each create a third tone together – and Per Nørgård creates complete melodies out of the new tones!
He was very much preoccupied with this phenomenon around 1970 and it sometimes acquires a ghostlike quality. The famous openings of Voyage into the Golden Screen from 1968, Symphony No. 2 from 1971 and the opera Gilgamesh from 1972 also base themselves on the interaction with difference tones. This interaction in Whirl’s World is built up from slow music to something swiftly whirling and then back again – so that everything – to use the composer’s own words – can be heard as ‘a water-world of ripples and bubbles’.
Søren Schauser, writer and Associate Professor, Music History, the Royal Danish Academy of Music, 2019