Born: Jul 13, 1932 in Gentofte (near Copenhagen)
Genre: Chamber Music, Choral Music
Per Norgard (pronounced "Pair Ner-gore") has emerged as perhaps the most important Danish composer since Nielsen. His music has paralleled and contributed to avant-garde developments in European music since the 1950s, evolving from a Nordic Romanticism derived from Vagn Holmboe and Jean Sibelius, through a short period in the later 1950s when he used collage and other then-fashionable techniques, into a period in the 1960s and 1970s during which Norgard invented the forward-looking "infinity row." He became a professor of music at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus in 1965, and has been influential as a teacher; through the work of his students (Hans Abrahamsen is perhaps the most famous), Norgard inspired the Danish "New Simplicity" movement in the 1960s. Since the late 1970s, Norgard has been inspired by the writings and drawings of the troubled Swiss artist Adolf Wolfli (d. 1930). Norgard is extremely prolific and has written in every genre, from the major classical forms to amateur choral music.
Norgard studied theory, music history, and composition at the Royal Danish Conservatory from 1952 to 1955, and continued his composition studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger in 1956 and 1957. His early music shows the strong influence of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, and especially of Sibelius' characteristic working-out of motives. The Symphony No. 1 and Constellations are highlights of this period. After brief experiments with collage in the later 1950s, Norgard in 1960 developed the infinity row, a way of generating a constantly expanding melody from an initial two-note motive. Infinity row melodies are self-similar (for example, the second, third, and fourth pitches return as the fifth, ninth, and thirteenth pitches), and Norgard uses self-similarity to create a hierarchical structure: a piece may be divided into four large sections of 1024 notes each, then into sections of 256 notes, and so on. Norgard's early pieces using the infinity row (such as Voyage Through the Golden Screen are essentially orchestrations of an infinity row melody. However, in later pieces, Norgard extended the technique to generate harmony as well.
Norgard abruptly changed direction in the late 1970s under the influence of the writings, paintings, and musical ideas of Wolfli, who spent the last 35 years of his life in a Swiss asylum. One of the first results was the Symphony No. 4: Indischer Roosengaarten und Chineesischer Hexensee ("Indian Rose-Garden and Chinese Witch-Sea" - Wolfli was fond of doubling vowels). Though Norgard continued to use the infinity row, his obsession with Wolfli has to some extent colored all his works since 1980. The Wolfli music, in contrast to the slowly changing textures of Norgard's earlier infinity row music, is marked, in the terms Norgard has used to describe Wolfli's art, by abrupt shifts "between idyll and catastrophe."
In the 1990s, Norgard explored the idea of interference (the pattern that results when two or more regular patterns are played together or otherwise combined) through the use of thickly layered rhythmic and melodic patterns. This period has also been marked by the writing of many concertos, from works for each of the main stringed instruments to the Concerto in Due Tempi (1996) for piano and orchestra, and Bach to the Future (1997) for percussion and orchestra. In 1996, the premiere of Nuit des hommes, an hour-long "opera(torium)" based on poems by Apollinaire, marked an attempt to create a new kind of opera, without dramatic tension. The work exemplified the two forces which have driven Norgard's music: a use of very eclectic sources (from Babylonian myth in the ritualistic opera Gilgamesh (1972) to the Beatles, in Doing (1968)), and a need for constant self-reinvention.
- David McCarthy (All Music Guide)
Danish, born 1932. One of Denmark's most famous composers, Norgard has written symphonies, operas, and a substantial body of choral music. His use of the so-called 'infinity series' has played a fertile role in his work in conjunction with proportional relationships such as he describes below. Another important influence has been the surrealistic paintings and writings of Adolf Wolfli (1864-1930), a schizophrenic Swiss artist who lived the greater part of his life in a mental hospital. One of the works inspired by this encounter, Wie ein Kind (also using text by Rilke), has become one of the most performed choral works in Scandinavia-but as it has already been so often recorded I decided not to include it in this series.
Winter Hymn (Vintersalmer) is an arrangement by the Swedish choral conductor, Gunnar Eriksson, of Norgard's Winter Cantata, incorporating material from a family of works, including the larger scale Frost Psalm. The original hymn-like text by Ole Sarvig is in Danish, but the poet himself made an English version so that the music might be more accessible to choirs and audiences in other countries. I had the pleasure of meeting Norgard in 1997 when I conducted the first performance of this English language version with the Danish Vocal Group Ars Nova.
Norgard writes: "Just as we all live amidst a multitude of fast and slow activities at the same time, the melodies in Winter Hymn unfold in several time relationships across one another - and yet together - not unlike the ideas behind the proportional canons etc. of certain of the Renaissance composers... Thus the music approaches the many time-progressions of nature and of the mind which Ole Sarvig's simple yet profound hymn texts are about."
And Sarvig: "'Hymns' do not form a genre among other poetic genres; rather they are an intensification of experiences. The few 'hymns' or 'psalms' I have been able to write so far are intended for 'two or three voices, possibly a few more or a few less'; that is, they are not for a congregation.