Love & Death

Arne Nordheim’s music changed the Norwegian aesthetic in the post-war period, both through the underlying concept, i.e. Nordheim’s concept of form, and through his inner ear. However, we are unable to grasp exactly how radically he has changed our musical understanding unless we imagine Norwegian music without Arne Nordheim, and that is impossible.

Arne Nordheim 2 (foto: Lisbeth Risnes)

He is the most important Norwegian composer of the post-war period. From the time of his breakthrough towards the end of the 1950s until the present day, Nordheim has made a decisive impact on Norwegian cultural life, both through his art and through his influence on cultural policy. While his most important works have been milestones in contemporary Norwegian music, he has managed to maintain the broader perspective and is very much aware of the importance of the creative artist for society at large. Nordheim’s most important works so far are ECO for soprano, choir and orchestra (1972) for which he received the Nordic Council’s music prize, and the ballet Stormen (The Tempest, 1979) which, having been performed more than one hundred times, must be the most frequently played Norwegian theatrical work in the last fifteen years. Furthermore, he has provided many of the country’s best ensembles and soloists with excellent chamber music for all possible combinations of instruments.

Nordheim understood the potential of the new electronic music at an early stage and has composed many works for this medium, or for electronic music in combination with traditional instruments. In 1977 he was awarded the Prix Italia for the radiophonic work Nedstigningen (The Descent), based on a poem by his contemporary Stein Mehren which he has recently re-issued, this time for soloists, ensemble and electronic music. In 1981, Nordheim was awarded a lifetime tenancy of the honorary state residence, Grotten, in the Royal Palace Park in Oslo.

Norwegian arts journalists have been writing about Arne Nordheim for the last forty years. As enfant terrible, feared critic and merciless opponent and debater, he was a focus of controversy and debate throughout the 25-year period from 1956 to 1981. He was also a sharp cultural politician, manning the barricades in all the important conflicts concerning the rights of artists in post-war Norway. More than anything else, however, he was the epitome of the “composer”: “Nordheim music” was something frightening, it was the unknown dimension of life in Norway in the 1960s, music’s answer to the Christian concept of sin. As he himself describes running the gauntlet of Norwegian cultural debate at the time:

“I was criticised for what Finn Mortensen did, Finn was criticised for what I did, and we were both criticised for what Stockhausen did!”

Since 1981, on the other hand, he has been presented as a kind, good-natured demi-god who occasionally steps down from Parnassus to teach us, mainly through long interviews in the most influential media. Furthermore, all his new works are performed as soon as they are completed, and you will be sure to find him at his desk next morning, continuing his life’s work. In brief, he has reached a position achieved by few other contemporary composers in their native countries. If we were to ask him why, I know what he would answer. I don’t even need to call Nordheim to find out why there should have been such a drastic change in our opinion of him:

“Is it you or we who have changed, Arne?”
“It’s you!”

When other composers were subjected to scathing criticism from musicians, Arne Nordheim was there, defending his colleagues. When an unpopular decision had to be made – and at that time composers seldom experienced a popular decision – it was Arne who bore the brunt of it.

I still remember the fearful respect in which we high-school students held the Arne Nordheim phenomenon – and at that time he was still in his mid-thirties and we were less than 20 years younger. My first meeting with Nordheim took place in a book store in 1969 when I was looking through the shelves of new novels and for the first time heard his mildly reproachful voice behind me: “Well, well, are you humming MAHLER!?”. I turn and stare up into that friendly, enquiring face with the untidy hair and horn-rimmed glasses and stammer yes, actually it was Kindertotenlieder that was running through the subconscious mind of a 16-year-old. I little imagined that we had a common interest in a composer who had hardly ever been performed in Oslo at that time.

I was reminded of that first meeting the other day, when I called Nordheim to tell him that the Ministry of Culture seemed likely to change its commissioning policy towards other countries and international composers. “Change their policy?” Arne interrupts, with a friendly correction, “I didn’t know they had a policy!” Part of the reason for his unique position in Norwegian cultural life is this spontaneous ability to analyse the problem and isolate the main issue. Nordheim is gifted in the art of rhetoric, and who knows what he could have achieved in other fields if he had had to. Luckily he didn’t have to.

First and foremost, however, Arne Nordheim’s life is devoted to music, and it is through music we must describe him. Making an acrostic of his name, I find that it covers many of his major works. But Nordheim has produced so much over the years that very few of us can be said to have a complete picture of his production.

The A in Arne represents the cascade of sound in the opening of Aurora, that wonderful moment when everything is born. Aurora springs from one enormous explosion of sound which is released at the opening moment and the rest of the piece is an echo of the big bang in this musical universe.

R stands for Respons in which the focal point is the interaction between the electro-acoustic medium and live performance, a series of works which Nordheim has also adapted to changed technological parameters. He did the same in cooperation with the BIT 20 Ensemble and organist Harald Herresthal a few years ago, in the first concert to be digitally transmitted in real time, where the organ part was played in the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim and sound and images were transmitted to the Håkon Hall in Bergen.

N stands for Nedstigningen, the descent into the material, going beyond the simple thought. Hardly any other artist has criticised simple solutions more strongly than Nordheim, and hardly anyone has been exposed to the same ritual patricide as he was, even repeated on radio, where he was accused of using excactly this type of simple solutions.

But N could also have stood for No! – his favourite answer. “I have the answer. The answer is No! What is the question?” Nordheim said many times, until one bright student asked him “Do you like your own music?” Then even he was briefly stuck for a response.

In its time, Nedstigningen was a signal of the new Nordheim, the man who emerged as a post-agitator, many even called him a late-romantic. It is true he had been on his way there for a long time, but the public wasn’t aware of the fact. So it was in this radiophonic montage that he seriously exposed himself, in a work which allowed him to unite the orchestral treatment of the Polish-inspired style of the 60s with electronic processing of various languages.

So N stands for Nedstigning, the descent towards the deeper layers of consciousness, towards the great artists of the past, authors as well as composers.

E stands for Epitaffio, epitaph, but it could also stand for “... ed e subito sera” – “... and suddenly it is evening”, the title of the poem by Salvatore Quasimodo upon which Nordheim based this work.

When you construct an acrostic, it is not compulsory to use the first letter. In the surname, I first choose Tenebrae, the cello concerto which Truls Mørk has played in so many concert halls and which exemplifies Nordheim’s aesthetic so excellently; the long lines which are gradually developed, the violent explosions, the demand for the soloist to be able to present the part as if from an inexhaustible inner source.

But perhaps we should also take this opportunity to look at Nordheim’s newest production. In brief, perhaps we should choose Nidaros, Nordheim’s latest major work, which was first performed in connection with the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the city of Trondheim at the end of May. Written for solo soprano, two choirs, a full symphony orchestra and electronic instruments as a one-and-a-half-hour-long cantata on the subject of Trondheim’s 1000-year-old cathedral, this work is a manifestation of how Nordheim manages to fill the great formats time and time again.

The O is found in Ode til lyset (Ode to Light), one of many works which brought Nordheim national recognition for his original ideas. Electronic music is transmitted through speakers fixed to a sculpture made in cooperation between the composer, sculptor Arnold Haukeland and a group of engineers from the University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. The music is played continuously and is affected by the varying intensity of daylight. The music was intended literally to teach the blind to “see” sculpture and light. The sculpture, now at the Storedal Cultural Centre for the Blind and Partially Sighted in Skjeberg, was unveiled in 1970. The music can still be heard, playing continuously.

R is found in Venit Rex, a salutation to his late neighbour King Olav V at the other end of the Royal Palace Park, for signal corps, mixed choir, symphony orchestra and bell chimes. The work lasts for approximately three minutes, but has already become herostratically famous thanks to the younger generation’s analysis of the work as an example of Nordheim’s “decline”.

But we also find R in the Wedding March for Rannveig, composed for the bells in the tower of the Oslo City Hall. As an artist with a strong interest in cultural policy, Arne Nordheim has said in other contexts: “A typically Norwegian one-off performance. The work is played only once and then forgotten by the general public”. As time goes by, few of his own works suffer this fate, but I assume that at least the recipient of the Wedding March – his wife – remembers this piece.

In D we find Dinosaurus for accordion and tape, one of many works which illustrate Nordheim’s willingness to move in new directions and create a repertoire for a new generation of performers. Edvard Grieg also considered using the accordion, but stated baldly: “The accordion sounds like pigs with sore throats”. On this point at least we can confirm that Grieg and Nordheim were on a collision course.

But D could also stand for Draumkvedet, his magnificent arrangement of a fourteenth century epic poem, perhaps the closest Nordheim has ever come to writing an opera.

H is found in The Hunting of the Snark for trombone and tape, a work Nordheim wrote for trombonist Per Brevig (see p. 20) which has since been followed by a composition on the return of the strange snark.

E stands for ECO, the monumental work that hardly anyone can remember because only an old recording from 1973 exists and the piece hasn’t been played in a Norwegian concert hall since 1975. In my view, this is a forgotten classic and a milestone, not only in Nordheim’s own development but in the music and aesthetic of the post-war period, a clear expression of the uniting of Mahler (again!) with the layers of sound of the 1960s Polis style which Nordheim embraced at that time.

The letter I is found in Idioten, theatre music for a long-forgotten performance of The Idiot. Nordheim’s theatre music from the 1960s is an unresearched area. I choose instead Wirklicher Wald for soprano, cello, choir and orchestra. In this work we find a text which confronts the experience of death in ancient and modern times, as described in the Book of Job and by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Death is a recurrent theme in Nordheim’s work that is also found in ECO, written ten years before in a far more relevant setting against the tragic background of World War II.
However, the letter I offers other possibilities. Nordheim once said “The only things worth writing music about are love and death”. The Violin Concerto written for Arve Tellefsen and first performed in February 1997 must in that case be a declaration of love, both for an old friend who actually took part in the first performance of Nordheim’s first string quartet forty years ago in Copenhagen and for the instrument which Nordheim has never quite managed to do without.

M stands for Minnebobler – en orgelreparatørs erindringer (Memory Bubbles – an organ repairer‘s memoirs), a crazy gag of a TV happening that took place in 1972 which the composer no longer wishes to be performed. A fat musician enters the stage and sets off as many self-playing instruments as possible while improvising wildly on top of it all. Not many people remember this work, which is now only available on a Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation recording. I have seen it, and can only state my demand here and now: Liberate Minnebobler! It is a unique and unpretentious document from the lean period of Norwegian musical history that can be classified as experimental.

We therefore see that his whole name is to be found among the many titles of works by Nordheim through forty years as a creative artist, and the titles are themselves signals from the consciousness that underlies them. Signaler is also the title of a work by Nordheim from 1967 for accordion, electric guitar and percussion, another work which intervenes and transforms the sound image of contemporary popular culture.

The critical reader will naturally point out that if his name had not been Arne Nordheim and he had been called something quite different, for instance Jens Hansen, this review would not have been the same. I agree in principle, but as the composer says himself “Somebody had to be Arne Nordheim too, and I am very pleased that the choice fell on me!”

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.5 - 1997 No. 2
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