Photo: MIC/Lisbeth Risnes

Arne Nordheim dies at 78

Norway’s foremost contemporary composer has passed.

Arne Nordheim, Norway’s foremost contemporary composer, b. 20th of June 1931, passed on Sat June 5th 2010.

His ability to write truly contemporary music, even at a late stage in his career -music that prevails in terms of audacity and profound originality- is evidence of a unique artistic mind. -A mind still unhampered by the patterns that so often seem to determine, and pre-destine thinking. Nordheim has from the start represented autonomy and points of reference and orientation that seem to transcend and even subvert existing paradigms. Nordheim is most definitely an artist who concerns himself with the furthest reaches of the human condition, and the utmost questions.

Nordheim’s affinity with the delimitations of reality is a recurring trait. And perhaps it is due to his always returning to this twilight that he had such a unique ability to create a-temporal expressions, fuse time-specific traits, and effortlessly embrace and merge extremities such as modern electronic technology with the oldest and profoundest archetypes of our culture. One such is the Norwegian epos Draumkvedet, (The Dream song), which he reissued in his own musical vision for the 1994 Olympics. The poem concerns the chasm of the night, the realm of dreams and of death, the dark abyss that must be bridged. And Nordheim made use of many different conceptions of this dark and undulation sea; the substratum on which reality helplessly floats, the realm to which dreams take us and from which art speaks:

“I am interested in depictions of hell, which I conceive as chaos. Fear is predominant, and I find fear a powerful source as it manifests in texts such as Draumkvedet and e.g. Divina Comedia. Very often I start with a text, “what is hidden herein?” “What melodies may be unveiled, and which should remain buried?”

But the transcendental, that which is beyond factuality and liberated from time, does not only represent fear, chaos and hell for Nordheim. He returns again and again to his favourite poem by the Swedish poet Pär Lagerquist, and quotes: My longing is not mine. It is old as the stars. “This longing is the essence of humanity,” said Nordheim, “yet it is not ours. There is a longing inherent then in the nothingness, and that shifts its character, away from darkness and fear towards something else.”

There is no question that Nordheim represented the ruminative side of art, and his own reflections on his ideas, work and career sheds some light on how age-old philosophical and religious considerations can come to expression in contemporary art. And, as he has demonstrated yet again, in his inspired mind such sources yield the most unpredictable, astounding and original music.

Arne Nordheim biography

Arne Nordheim (b.1931) was one of the most conspicuous figures in the musical landscape of Norway for more than fifty years, and was recognized as a very successful pathfinder. He received a large number of prestigious international prizes and honors, and was the tenant of the honorary residence offered by the State to the nation’s most outstanding creative artist. In 1997 he was elected honorary member of the International Society for Contemporary Music.

Nordheim studied organ and piano, music theory, and composition at the Oslo Conservatory during the years 1948-52. He wrote works in most genres, but his principal instrument was undeniably the orchestra. His early works, such as
Evening Land (1957), Canzona (1960), and Epitaffio (1963), were all inspired by the general European search for new sonorities within the traditional body of instruments; though Epitaffio also boasts taped electrophonics. Nordheim was absorbed by the electro-acoustic medium for a period, during which purely electronic works like Solitaire (1968) alternate with others, in which electrophonic sounds are opposed to percussion or other instruments.

In 1972 Nordheim’s
Eco for soprano, two choirs, and orchestra was awarded the Nordic Council Music Prize. During the last decades of his life he composed works on commission from all over the world: Greening (1973) for the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra; the ballet The Tempest (1979) for the Schwetzinger Festival in Germany; the cello concerto Tenebrae (1980) for Mstislav Rostropovich; Aurora (1983) for Electric Phoenix; and Magma (1988) for the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

In 1994 the music drama
Draumkvædet (“The Dream Ballad”) was premiered as a part of the official program of the Lillehammer Olympic Winter Games. Three years later his important Concerto for Violin and Orchestra was premiered by Arve Tellefsen and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the same year a commission for the 1000th anniversary of the city of Trondheim, Nidaros Oratorio, was premiered in the Nidaros Cathedral. Arne Nordheim's latest large-scale work being the trombone concerto Fonos, which was premiered by Marius Hesby and Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in 2005.

Following a period of prolonged illness, Arne Nordheim passed on the morning of Sat June 5th 2010.

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