Danish composer Per NØrga°rd (born 1932) had a big impact on music in Denmark as he continued to pursue the study of music. His use of the metamorphosis and infinity methods were often unpopular when first presented to the public but later became classics in the history of Danish music.
Per NØrga°rd was born in Gentofte, Denmark, on July 13, 1932. His parents, Erhardt and Emmely, owned a wedding dress specialty shop called Eva. They lived near the shop. His aunt and grandmother lived around the corner, and he spent a lot of time with them. He also spent time with his brother, Bent, who was five years older than he was, but otherwise he did not have much contact with other children.
Artistic Skills Unfolded
NØrga°rd's family enjoyed music. His parents had a radio to listen to and a gramophone to play records on. His father played the accordion, and the family would sing along. A piano was purchased, and both boys took lessons, with Per beginning at age seven. NØrga°rd loved to draw, but he especially enjoyed developing cartoon characters, and he and his brother would provide performances with the cartoons. NØrga°rd would draw the characters and write the music, while Bent would create storylines and text. They called them 'Tecnics.'
NØrga°rd was showing a strong talent in music at a young age, and in 1942, he was admitted to the Copenhagen Municipal Choral School. The school had a strong music program, but no grammar school, so in 1944, he was sent to the Frederiksburg Grammar School. Europe was in the middle of World War II, and often this affected NØrga°rd. On March 1, 1945, English planes bombed the French School in error. The Frederiksberg Grammar School was also damaged.
By the time NØrga°rd reached his teen years, music and drawing were his main interests. However, when he was 16, his brother was called into military service. NØrga°rd lost interest in working on cartoons without him and began to focus on music. He was a shy young man but was comfortable playing music in front of people. By 1949, at age 17, he was certain that he wanted to become a composer, and he wrote his first piano sonata.
Began Serious Study of Music
Despite his shy disposition, he made a very bold move. He called up Vagn Holmboe, one of the most prominent Danish composers, and asked to be taken on as a student. After Holmboe reviewed some of NØrga°rd's work, he agreed to accept him. NØrga°rd received private lessons from Holmboe until 1951 when he was admitted to the Academy of Music.
The first public performance of one of NØrga°rd's pieces took place on March 30, 1951, when the Young Musicians Society included his Concertino No. 2 in a concert. Elvi Henrikson played his piece on the piano. The entire concert received poor reviews.
From 1952 to 1955, NØrga°rd studied at the Royal Danish Academy. Holmboe was again his instructor in composition. While studying, he met two other young musicians, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen and Ib Norholm. The three had very different music styles, but worked together to promote music in Denmark. They became very good friends. NØrga°rd began to become successful during his student years. The Royal Danish Academy was a very conservative school. NØrga°rd's work from this time was also conservative.
By 1953, NØrga°rd became very interested in the work of Jean Sibelius. Sibelius was not regularly accepted as a musician because of his unorthodox music, especially the concept of metamorphosis. Metamorphosis is a method of taking a common phrase or strain of music and changing it little by little, until it has become something else. This was very non-traditional and shunned by the conservatives, but NØrga°rd was intrigued. He sent a letter to Sibelius on July 2, 1954, assuring him that his type of music would endure. Sibelius sent him a thank you note. NØrga°rd later dedicated his choral work Aftonland op. 10 to Sibelius.
In April of 1955, the Erling Bloch Quartet performed NØrga°rd's "First String Quartet" at a concert. The work received very positive reviews. Additional good reviews were received when his "Aftonland No. 10" was performed by the Academy of Music Madrigal Choir on October 19, 1955. NØrga°rd was beginning to experience a string of successes.
When NØrga°rd completed his exams at the Academy of Music, he married Anelise Brix Thomsen. They later had two children. Jeppe was born on January 17, 1959, and Ditte was born on May 27, 1961.
On January 17, 1956, the Royal Danish Academy of Music put on a composer's evening consisting entirely of works by NØrga°rd. Following this debut, he left for Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, the well-known music teacher in France. He has been recommended by Holmboe and received the Lily Boulanger Award to help to finance his stay. NØrga°rd and his wife lived in Paris from January 1956 to May 1957.
Began to Teach
In 1957, he became a lecturer to the Funen Academy of Music in Odense. He also began writing music critiques for a newspaper called the Politiken. By 1960, he also began teaching at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, leaving Odense in 1961.
NØrga°rd and his friends from his study days, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen and Norholm, felt there was a need for new thinking about music in Denmark. They attended the ISCM World Music Days music festival, in Cologne, Germany, together in 1960, where a large number of modern works were performed. After they returned to Denmark, they established a study circle in order to explore new techniques and ideas. They began to meet to discuss these new concepts once a week. He also began working again with his brother, Bent. Together they wrote a children's oratorio, "And It Came to Pass in Those Days." This further led to them working together to write an opera, entitled "The Labyrinth," in 1963.
Became Established as a Composer
During this time, NØrga°rd was working on "Constellations," a piece for strings which, at the time, was on the edge of traditional tonal relationships. In addition, in 1961, he entered his piece, "Fragment VI," for orchestra in the famous Gaudeamus Festival in Holland. He won 1st Prize for best foreign work. This accomplishment helped to establish his reputation on the international scene.
He gained further international attention in 1964 when he collaborated with Eugene Ionesco, the famous French dramatist who was looking for someone to compose music for his ballet. The Danish Broadcasting Corporation commissioned the work, and the final product was transmitted all over Europe on April 2, 1965. During the same year, NØrga°rd received the Danish Ballet and Music Festival Award.
Experimented with Music
NØrga°rd continued to struggle with the constraints of the conservatism at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. In 1965, he left to join the staff at the Jutland Academy of Music, taking his students with him. Around this same time he began experimenting more, as well as reaching out to different audiences. He moved away from writing concert music and was writing music for films and radio play.
Continuing his experimental streak, he wrote "Iris," an orchestral piece where he explored different sounds. It was commissioned by The Royal Orchestra and was initially performed May 19, 1967. A companion piece, "Luna," followed. In 1967, he also received the Harriet Cohen Medal for ballet music.
NØrga°rd's music became much more of an exploration of music than storytelling. He would be constantly exploring new ways of creating music. The Economist would later write, "The idea of continuous development has always held special fascination for Mr. NØrga°rd, both as it relates to his own position within the classical tradition, and in compositional terms."
One of the best-known Scandinavian compositions of the second half of the 20th century is NØrga°rd's "Voyage into the Golden Screen." The second movement specifically and logically unfolds the infinity series, a style that NØrga°rd became known for where he worked with different rhythms. It was performed for the first time in March of 1969. That same year he received the Anne Marie Nielsen and Carl Nielsen Commemorative Scholarship.
The Danish Broadcasting Corporation commissioned a piece to be used as background music for the test picture on Danish television. "Kalendermusik" (Calendar Music) was completed in 1970 and was based on the infinity series, expressing the seasons as they unfold. It premiered March 21, 1973, but only played for a few months because of complaints from viewers. His new music was not traditional enough for the common listener.
During this same period of controversy, the Academy of Opera in Stockholm had commissioned Gilgamesh. NØrga°rd completed it in 1972. The premiere was May 4, 1973, by the Jutland Operan Company. The performance was well received.
Despite his inability to sway the general public, many in the music world were impressed with his work. In 1972 the Danish Broadcasting Corporation commissioned him to write his Third Symphony, which he worked on until 1975. The piece was first performed on September 2, 1976. It was considered a masterpiece, although parts of it were so busy that some considered it chaotic. In 1974, NØrga°rd won the Nordic Council Music Award for the opera and his general work as a composer. After the Third Symphony, NØrga°rd began exploring conflict with more depth. He struggled with ways to express conflict to his satisfaction.
In 1979, NØrga°rd visited an exhibit at the Louisiana Art Gallery entitled "Outsiders," which displayed work by famous artists who were mentally ill. He was particularly intrigued by the work of the schizophrenic Swiss artist, Adolf Wolfli. This led NØrga°rd to become more spontaneous in his composing, writing some of his most popular work, including Wie ein Kind (Like a Child), in 1980; I Ching, in 1982; and The Devine Circus in 1982.
In the 1980's, NØrga°rd continued to produce music, providing Between for cello and orchestra; Remembering Child for viola and orchestra; and Helle Nacht (Bright Night) for violin and orchestra. He was the chairman of the Musical Arts Committee under the National Foundation for the Arts from 1983 to 1986. The Danish Broadcasting Corporation commissioned another Symphony in 1986. NØrga°rd worked on it until 1990, and the 5th Symphony was performed in December of 1990, in a concert where works by Sibelius and Carl Nielsen were also performed, honoring NØrga°rd as an equal to those he had studied and admired. In 1987 he was awarded the Wilhelm Hansen Family Scholarship and then received the Henrik Steffens Award in 1988.
In 1996, NØrga°rd won the international Leonie Sonning Music Award. This award garnered a great deal of attention and suddenly there were TV and radio shows about him, as well as coverage in the papers. In the late 1990s, NØrga°rd had become a legend, and some of his works, now considered classics despite the fact that the public had shunned a number of them, were now being re-recorded.
NØrga°rd's Sixth Symphony debuted on January 6th, 2000. Works from Sibelius and Carl Nielsen were also heard at the concert, and NØrga°rd was once again linked with his mentors.
Throughout his career, NØrga°rd was compelled to continue to discover and learn about music, even when it was unpopular with the public. American Record Guide, in the May/June 1997 edition, wrote, "He has created a sound world of his own, and no work of the last 30 years is an easy introduction to his music; but if it is the spiritual and intellectually challenging you want, then Per NØrga°rd's music is immensely satisifying."
Beyer, Anders, The Voice of Music, Ashgate Publishing, 2000.
American Record Guide, January/February 1993; May/June 1997; September/October 1997.
Economist, August 17, 2002.
"Biography," Per NØrga°rd web site, http://pernorgaard.dk (February 17, 2003).