View Full Version : The History of Music in Norway

Monday, July 25th, 2005, 08:08 PM
Finds of bronze horns dating back to 1500 - 500 BC show that song and music have long traditions in Norway. The skaldic poems of the Viking Age, the carvings on the stave churches, and a number of other sources reveal that the music played in the Middle Ages was closely linked to the musical traditions of Central Europe. Gregorian melodies, used in the worship of Norway's patron saint, St. Olaf, have many similarities with those of the Parisian school of the 1200s. Of more genuine Norwegian origin is the St. Magnus hymn from the Orkney Islands, a Norwegian possession in the mid 13th century. The first description of church organs in Norway dates from the early 1300s, thus confirming the impression that music played a central role in Norwegian cultural life.

By Harald Herresthal

In the year 1380 Norway came under Danish rule. Without a monarchy, a royal house, or a nobility of its own, it was difficult for Norway to benefit, in the ensuing 450 years, from any of the higher forms of music encouraged in such circles. Nevertheless, in the country's ecclesiastical centres music still played a significant role, and through the custom of town musicians the towns and their immediate surroundings were provided with music for both everyday and festive occasions. In the country districts folk music unfolded freely.

The first known composers dated from the beginning of the 1700s. They were both Norwegian and foreign organists and town musicians, who in addition to music for dancing, also composed chamber music and cantatas; and in some cases instrumental music for sizeable ensembles.

Norwegian music made its first major step forward around 1800. In 1814 Norway and Sweden entered into a union. The Swedish royal family lived intermittently in Norway's new capital, Christiania (Oslo). When the royal court was in Norway musical life flourished, and visiting musicians played an important role. Senior officials, landowners, and the upper middle class gave musical and theatrical performances at private parties; accessible, however, to all with a gift for music. It was in these circles that the first musical talent became evident, and soon several of the most accomplished of the musicians chose to make music their career, rather than seeking a far more secure future as minister or lawyer.

Violin virtuoso Ole Bull (1810-1880) was probably the musician who most clearly influenced developments in the mid 1800s. Making his international breakthrough in 1834, "The Nordic Paganini", as he was called, laid Europe at his feet. Bull became a model for musicians and writers such as Grieg, Nordraak, Bjørnson, Vinje and Ibsen.

A number of foreign musicians settled in Norway in the 1840s, contributing significantly to raising the general musical level, as well as the musical receptiveness of the middle class. But it is interesting to note that the professional orchestras also recruited their members from the many fiddle players in the rural districts.

During the 1850s national consciousness waxed strong in the wake of the French Revolution in 1848. Furthermore, economic growth in Norway stimulated cultural developments too.

Summaries of the history of music often fail to mention the role played by women. As Norwegian musical circles were liberally inclined, women could quickly gain recognition and support -- as far as contemporary custom permitted. Works by women composers were published as early as the 1840s, at a time when the market was relatively restricted. Women were awarded artist stipends by the state, and several of them became performers of considerable repute.

By the 1860s accomplished Norwegian musicians started to take over the positions previously held by foreigners. Together with the organist and folk tune collector Ludvig Mathias Lindeman (1812-1887), Halfdan Kjerulf (1815-1868) was the central figure in laying the groundwork for a national music life. The 1870s and 80s have with justification been called the Golden Age of Norwegian music, with composers such as Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) and Johan Svendsen (1849-1911) as the most prominent.

One of the main distinctions of their music was its essentially national character. Ole Bull's promotion of the Hardanger fiddle players in the towns' concert halls, and Ludvig Mathias Lindeman's collection of Norwegian folk tunes drew composers' attention to the treasures to be found in Norwegian musical tradition. Most of the composers in the second half of the nineteenth century tried in various ways to incorporate some element of folk music into their works.

The collection of folk tunes continued until well into the twentieth century. Most composers drew copiously on these sources but, at the same time, they could hardly fail to be influenced by international trends. Norway still had few seats of learning, and virtually all its composers were forced to seek their training in Leipzig, Berlin or Paris. Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) and Christian Sinding (1856-1941) were among the best known composers around the turn of the century.

In 1905 the union with Sweden was dissolved. This event gave added urgency to the composers' needs to define a national identity. A strengthening of ties to Norway's former days of glory -- before the union with Sweden -- was only natural. The celebration of 900 years of Christianity in Norway in 1930 further deepened interest in the Norwegian Middle Ages, and the results were apparent in most forms of art. David Monrad Johansen (1888-1970) was a trendsetting composer. Seeking inspiration in poetry and legends from the Middle Ages and basing his work on the late German romantic period and French impressionism, he tried to create a monumental style of music, consciously founded on musical archaisms.

This trend was continued by Geirr Tveitt (1908-1981), who, through his choice of theme and compositional technique, for a period developed a type of Norse primitivism. Folk music as a source was far from exhausted, but one characteristic of musical development in the interwar years was the need to build durable compositional techniques onto a base of folk music. Geirr Tveitt, Bjarne Brustad (1896-1978), Klaus Egge (1906-1979) and Eivind Groven (1901-1977) based their compositions on folk music. Ludvig Irgens Jensen (1894-1969) and Harald Sæverud (1897-1992) belong to the same generation, and each in their way represent a peak of development. As early as the late 1930s musical trends were starting to swing in a more international direction, but the war years of 1940 to 1945 naturally put a brake on this development, and extended the national romantic period by several years.

Fartein Valen (1887-1952), and a few others, were the only exponents of a more internationally orientated line in the interwar years. Working on a base of late German romanticism, Valen gradually moved towards the atonal composition technique, with no trace of national elements. During his own lifetime he received scant recognition. It was not until the 1950s that the public started to understand his works. In this context, the works of Pauline Hall (1890-1969) should not be omitted. With her deep roots in French music, she wrote compositions of genuinely impressionistic style.

In many ways WW II represented a break with the past. The old ties between Germany and Norway were cut. A new generation of composers went to study in Paris or the USA. Among the many talented newcomers were Edvard Hagerup Bull (1922-), Johan Kvandal (1919-1999), Egil Hovland (1924-) and Knut Nystedt (1915-). Unlike their predecessors, they were not searching primarily for a national identity. Quite the contrary; what they needed was to internationalize their musical language. As neo-classicism had never become firmly established in Norway, the 1950s were strongly influenced by this trend, modelled after Paul Hindemith and French neo-classicism. From the 1940s, Béla Bartók's influence clearly played a decisive part in the further development of many composers. Finn Mortensen, a leading figure in this period, soon started to employ the 12-tone technique, becoming the main representative of serial music in Norway.

The technological revolution of the 1950s strongly influenced developments in music. Both light and serious music expanded at an unprecedented pace, accompanied by rapid changes of style. The 1960s were the decade of avant-garde and experimental music, with Arne Nordheim (1931-) as an important, central figure. Electronic music, serial and aleatoric music, sound effects, instrumental theatre, and experimentation with quarter tones are examples of the varied music forms and styles that the public had to appraise. All this happened during a period when the traditional institutions of music had still not progressed beyond performing the most well-known works from the beginning of the century: Schönberg, Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky.

Naturally enough, these novel forms of music met negative reaction and even aggression from some quarters. A bemused public tried in vain to understand the many extra musical inventions of Korean composer Paik. Symphony orchestras refused to play scheduled pieces, string quartets neither wished to sing while they played, nor drum on their expensive instruments. The parochial church councils were unwilling to rent out their churches for performances of avant-garde music, out of fear that the organ might be damaged or the church itself profaned.

Nevertheless, a young, new public gradually appeared, and its numbers swelled during the 1970s. Just as more and more people started to accept and accustom themselves to modernism, the pendulum was poised to swing back. The days of avant-gardism in Norway were brief. First came a pursuit of simplicity, as a reaction to the complexity of serial music, with composers like Kåre Kolberg (1936-) as a typical representative, and later a strong wave of new romanticism. Although composers of the latter category, such as Alfred Janson (1937-) and Ragnar Søderlind (1945-) reintroduced the formerly taboo triad, tonality and stylistic elements from the late romantic period, this was not with the aim of idealizing the music or rendering it innocuous. Neither was it a reaction to the many avant-garde composers' attempts to bring the world's frightening realities into the concert hall. Like most other composers of their generation, they really only wanted to give their music a political and topical content. However, communication with a broader public was an important goal. Alfred Janson dedicated his violin concerto to Chilean president Salvador Allende. Søderlind's "Trauermusik" was composed in the wake of the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Biafran war.

The development of music over the last 25 years has been marked by post-modernism with a pluralistic attitude towards music and music expression. Olav Anton Thommessen (1946-) is one of the composers who have tried to embrace this trend by regarding all musical expressions as a common arsenal of sounds and musical ideas. Historical and contemporary music are a shared inheritance and treasure, which the composer can mould and shape into something new. A typical feature of these years is that it can accommodate highly diverging forms of music. Serialists and minimalists create their music alongside the new romantics and those who attempt to integrate elements from jazz, pop and rock. Most composers of the first post-war generation embraced the experimental period of the 1960s, using it as a platform for moving in an individual direction. In this context we should mention Magne Hegdal (1944-), who ever since his meeting with Jon Cage's music has worked by random principles and with unconventional forms. Ketil Hvoslef (1939-) is another interesting composer who despite his work with different styles, has always maintained the idea of allowing music to flow from a central core which can be developed with the help of a rhythmic and sonorous metamorphosis technique.

An interesting trend of recent years has been the a fresh wave of interest in folk music. Lasse Thornesen (1949-), at present professor of composition at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, is through his use of untempered scales and characteristic elements of folk music, in the process of creating a new trend in musical development. This can scarcely be called accidental, at a time when technological revolution in the media threatens to erase all cultural identity.

The expansion of musical activities has brought in its wake a greater breadth, and a higher quality among young Norwegian composers. The list of notables includes Tor Halmrast (1951-), Nils Henrik Asheim (1960-), Glenn Erik Haugland (1961-), Rolf Wallin (1957-), Asbjørn Schaatun (1961-) and successful women such as Åse Hedstrøm (1950-) and Cecilie Ore (1954-). Internationally recognized through competitions and concerts, they are representatives for a new generation.

Under the direction of Olav Anton Thommessen and Lasse Thornesen the composition programme of the Norwegian State Academy of Music has been in constant development and proved highly stimulating for the new generation of Norwegian composers. While still in school, several of its students have already made a mark for themselves with works that have earned national and international recognition in the form of prizes and frequent performances. Eight of them, Mark Adderley (1960-), Ragnhild Berstad (1956-), Henrik Hellstenius (1963-), Jon Øivind Ness (1968-), Helge Havsgård Sunde (1965-), Peter Tornquist (1963-), Gisle Kverndokk (1967-) and Rune Rebne (1961-), decided in 1995 to release a joint debut CD, Definitely Pling-Plong (Hemera HCD 2909), which shows a high level of craftsmanship and an engaging and personal style. In the foreword, Professsor Lasse Thornesen characterized them as follows:

"This is a group of composers who have not chosen a modern musical language in protest against something older and established. They speak the language that is most natural to them. It is not their intention to produce absurdity in order to attract attention as enfants terribles, quite the contrary. They want to communicate, without, however, offering their message for sale. Their music makes a positive statement; it is not primarily negative in its commentary. If negation, alienation and fragmentation were the hallmarks of traditional modernism, integration, synthesis and constructiveness characterize this generation of composers. Experimentation is not a message but is part of the way they work."

Contemporary music

If folk music is excepted, the culture of professional music was long restricted to the towns. Up to WW II composers were dependent on earning their living as music teachers, critics and musicians. Oslo provided the best opportunities for this. In the 1920s cinemas and cafes employed many serious musicians. When the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) started its transmissions in 1925, it provided much-needed jobs for musicians.

For many years, the music department of Norwegian radio, and later television, contributed to the promotion of Norwegian music through a deliberate choice of Norwegian soloists and a clearly defined programme policy. The greater competition caused by the rapid expansion of radio and TV channels has had a negative impact on noncommercial media, and the supporting role radio and TV have played for Norwegian music has consequently undergone change. The Norwegian Radio Orchestra is based in Oslo, and was founded as an entertainment orchestra in 1946. In recent years it has received a wide range of assignments in radio and television and has gained a reputation for performing contemporary music.

The philharmonic orchestras in Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Stavanger have expanded in recent years. Right in the forefront stands the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, which under conductor Mariss Jansons' leadership through 20 seasons (1999), is viewed as one of the world's best symphony orchestras. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra was established as far back as 1765. Today it is one of the pillars of the Bergen International Festival, which despite the growth of other Norwegian music festivals, has managed to retain its position as Norway's foremost music event. The Trondheim and Stavanger Symphony Orchestras each have about 70 permanent members. Under the direction of conductor Franz Brüggen, the latter has specialized in a Baroque and classical period repertoire. All of the orchestras have emphasized touring and recording, which in turn have increased their artistic level.

Norway has seven professional military bands, and there are a number of good chamber ensembles which have sprung from the musical environments surrounding the symphony orchestras. The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1975. Under the leadership of Terje Tønnesen and Iona Brown it has won international acclaim. Cikada started in 1977 as the Ny Musikk (New Music) association's ensemble for contemporary music and comprises nine permanent musicians under the direction of Christian Eggen. Oslo Sinfonietta was established in 1986 by the composer Asbjørn Schaatun and is an outgrowth of contemporary music circles at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, inspired by London Sinfonietta and Ensemble Inter-Contemporain. The Bergen-based BIT 20 ensemble has released several excellent CD recordings. Because the major orchestra institutions have chosen to maintain a relatively conservative programme profile, much of the new Norwegian music in recent years has been created for new ensembles, which despite a limited number of musicians can yield a large symphonic effect.

The Norwegian Baroque Orchestra and Pro Musica Antiqua (Oslo) are ensembles that have specialized in faithful renditions of Baroque and Renaissance music. There is no lack of recruits in the wind instruments sector in Norway, and this has enhanced the standard of wind quintets and brass ensembles. Other groups of special merit include the Oslo Trio, consisting of cellist Åge Kvalbein, pianist Jens Harald Bratlie and violinist Stig Nilsson. Another group, the young and promising Grieg Trio, made an international breakthrough at a trio competition in France in the spring of 1989, and have since confirmed their reputation through extensive touring and several CD recordings. Besides the Norwegian String Quartet, the Oslo String Quartet and the Vertavo Quartet have received much attention.

Norway has a large number of soloists. The violinist Arve Tellefsen has held on to his position as one of Norway's greatest musicians. Beside him is a long list of singers and musicians who have made a mark for themselves internationally. Included in their ranks are singers Elisabeth Norberg-Schulz, Solveig Kringlebotn, Randi Stene, Anne Gjevang, Knut Skram, Arild Helleland and Oddbjørn Tennfjord, cellist Truls Mørk, pianists Leif Ove Andsnes, Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, Einar Henning Smebye and Geir Henning Braaten, viola player Lars Anders Tomter, trumpeter Ole Edvard Antonsen and lutanist Rolf Lislevand. In addition, a number of young soloists including violinist Henny Kraggerud are on the verge of an international breakthrough.

Composers and musicians in the jazz and pop genres have attracted international attention, too. One standout is saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who has made an international name for himself, both as composer and performer. The same can be said of the guitarist and composer Terje Rypdal. Another jazz musician enjoying great international success is the trumpeter Nils-Petter Molvær. The folk music sector features a long list of talented artists, and in recent years the Sami (Lapp) singer Mari Boine has garnered considerable international attention.

Den Norske Opera (Norwegian National Opera) was established in 1958, and the present ensemble includes several internationally renowned soloists. The desire for a new opera house is high on the list of priorities. The Norwegian Opera is not only an opera for Eastern Norway, but is also a national opera. Every year, the ensemble regularly tours the country, appearing in a number of towns. Its performances are often arranged in co-operation with local choirs and orchestras. In Kristiansand and Bergen local professionals and amateurs join forces to produce operas. Theatres in the larger towns regularly present operettas and musicals. The city of Bergen has had its own ballet ensemble, Nye Carte Blanche, since 1988.

There is only one professional choir in Norway, the choir of the Norwegian Opera. However, several amateur choirs are of professional quality. A number of children's choirs and youth choirs have repeatedly been awarded international prizes, and choirs such as the Norwegian Soloists Choir, Oslo Cathedral Choir, Oslo Philharmonic Choir, Oslo Chamber Choir, Bergen Cathedral Choir, the university choir, Grex Vocalis, and the Trondheim Chamber Choir have gained considerable recognition both at home and abroad. One of the latest sprouts is the choir Via Cantus, which has won many choir competitions in the past two years.

Norway has several institutions of music which continue the musical education started in the primary schools. In 1997 the Storting, Norway's parliament, decided that all Norwegian municipalities have an obligation to establish municipal Cultural and Music Schools. The task is far from finished, but the decision is an important incentive to the further development of music education in Norway. The 1994 reform of upper secondary education furthermore requires all counties to offer music, dance and drama courses as a prerequisite for admittance to post upper secondary performing arts institutions. Norway also has state music conservatories in Bergen, Trondheim. Stavanger, Kristiansand and Tromsø in addition to music programmes at several education colleges. The music conservatories are either tied to the regional college system or are, like the Grieg Academy in Bergen, a part of the university. The Norwegian State Academy of Music is an independent institution and is one of seven scientific colleges and universities in Norway which can award doctorates. The universities in Oslo and Trondheim have musicology institutes, and a musicology department is under development at the University of Bergen. The Oslo National College of the Arts houses the state opera, ballet and theatre colleges.

Music organizations are a vital supplement to formal training. The Norwegian Band Federation was founded in 1918. Through a series of courses held both summer and winter it has built up a comprehensive training system. With its 120,000 members it can now boast of being the world's largest of its kind, in relation to population.

Choir organizations and associations for school and symphony orchestras also offer a wide spectrum of courses. Associations for jazz, rock and other forms of popular music also abound.

The folk music sector too is rapidly expanding. Both the traditional folk music, and newer forms of it have flourished, thanks to competitions, large summer meets and festivals. In 1978 all the amateur music organizations joined forces to form the Council for Music Organizations in Norway, whose objectives are to co-ordinate efforts and put pressure on the authorities to allocate funds.

Norway has more than four million inhabitants spread over 324,027 square kilometres. In extent it stretches 1,752 kilometres from Lindesnes in the far south to the North Cape in the north. If every Norwegian is to come into contact with live music, activities must be deliberately decentralized, so that the remoter areas can also be reached. This was the background for the establishment of the Norwegian Concert Institute in 1968, an institution which over the years has taken on a large number of functions. The Institute works with amateur groups, music organizations and schools to arrange more than 9,000 concerts per year. Its main activity is school concerts, and in cooperation with counties and National Education Offices in the counties it organizes concerts for children and adolescents in 362 of Norway's 436 municipalities. Each year more than 700 musicians are engaged to do major and small tours, including public concerts outside schools.

The Institute also commissions works from composers, stages events to launch young promising artists (including the Young Musician of the Year award), and works with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NORAD on major music projects abroad. The Institute works in all genres, and in recent years music from Africa, Asia and Latin America has been a special focus. The Institute provides touring funds to freelance artists with finished programmes and also subsidizes locally organized concerts. Thanks to this financial support, regional church musicians are able to engage professional soloists and orchestra musicians to perform in major oratorio productions. The Institute furthermore manages several other music subsidy programmes in Norway, including financial support for Norwegian music festivals, tours, festival and transport subsidies for rock and related music forms, and funds for folk music programmes.

Another central institution is the Norwegian Cultural Council. Important pilot programmes, such as the Norwegian Music Information Centre and the Purchase Scheme for New Norwegian Phonograms, were initiated by the Cultural Council before they were found worthy of state funding. With the funds at its disposal, it has been possible to build up comprehensive series of gramophone records of Norwegian music, and in association with these to support financially the publication of sheet music and other Norwegian music literature.

Since its start in 1979 the Norwegian Music Information Centre has been an important tool for Norwegian composers; storing and disseminating their unpublished works. It also functions as an information centre for Norwegian music at home and abroad.

The thriving state of musical activities in Norway is also reflected in a growing number of festivals. The best known among these is the Bergen International Festival, which is held every May. Other festivals or music days are held in Harstad, Kristiansand, Trondheim (St. Olaf Days), Elverum, Vestfold and Risør. Oslo has a jazz festival, chamber music festival and the Ultima festival for contemporary music. The jazz festivals in Molde and Kongsberg have earned an international name, but are now competing with a growing list of new places eager to have their own festival. A number of folk music festivals featuring different types of music have become very popular. Today Norway has more than 90 festivals, of which 30 banded together in 1998 to form the Norwegian Festivals organization.

The author, Harald Herresthal, is a professor at The Norwegian State Academy of Music.

Produced by Nytt fra Norge for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.