David Monrad Johansen - Biography

David Monrad Johansen

David Monrad Johansen (1888-1974) occupied a central position in Norwegian music in the 1920's and 30's. During this period music was strongly influenced by nationalism, and Monrad Johansen was a leading personality within this movement. A strong emphasis on the national aspect of music can easily lead to stagnation, but thanks to an exploring and curious artistic mind, Johansen managed to unite contemporary currents with the "genuine Norwegian".

David Monrad Johansen was constantly striving to expand his musical horizons, and his career as a composer can fittingly be described as a melting pot. He started his studies at Oslo Music Conservatory, and his first pieces are clearly based on the Norwegian Late Romantic tradition. In 1915 he applied to the Berlin Conservatory and studied there with, among others, E. Humperdinck. Later, after spending a few years in Norway studying the French Impressionists, which his works reflect, he left in 1920 on a grant for Paris. There for the first time he heard the ballet music of Igor Stravinskij which made a powerful impression on him. Stravinskij's search in early Russian history clearly inspired him, because upon his return to Norway Johansen immersed himself in Norwegian folk songs. These fascinated him and led him much further back in time than the Norwegian national romantic music he had been so familiar with: "...these verses took me futher back, back to the distant past, to medieval times. There was something fantastic about them, not the least because of the mythical character of the language in which they were presented, which implied more than it actually said". Using texts from both medieval times and antiquity he composed several works during the 1920's. The most well known are: "Draumkvædet" (based on a medieval visionary ballad) for male choir, and "Voluspå" (prophecy of the seeress, based on a poem from the old Nordic mythological epic Edda) for soloists, choir and orchestra.

During another period of study in Paris in 1928 his interest for Honegger was awakened. Of even greater significance was his acquaintance with the Norwegian composer Fartein Valen, who inspired him to study atonal counterpoint. He incorporated this technique in his personal style as well, most prominently expressed in the university cantata "Ignis Ardens".

Johansen felt a persistent need for further education and arranged for thorough studies in classical counterpoint with Herman Grabner in Leipzig. Afterwards, he developed his own personal expression in a more Neo-Classical direction while retaining traces of earlier sources of inspiration. An example of this is perhaps his most frequently performed work "Pan", written for the 80th anniversary of the author Knut Hamsun in 1939. In this piece Neo-Classicism is united with both Impressionism and current polyphony.

Johansen maintained his artistic search and renewal throughout his life, as evidenced in his last two chamber works from 1967 and 1969.

David Monrad Johansen maintained his artistic search and renewal throughout his life, as evidenced in his last two chamber works from 1967 and 1969.

Monrad Johansen also maintained a strong profile as both musicologist and writer. For many years he was a member of the Aftenposten staff (Norwegian newspaper), and was considered a respected music critic. He also wrote a series of articles reflecting upon music in his contemporary time, both for Aftenposten and other publications. His most significant written opus is the biography of Edvard Grieg, which for many decades was considered the authoritative work about this composer.

Translation: Palmyre Pierroux
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