Fartein Valen was born in Stavanger in 1887. His parents were missionaries, and he spent five years of his childhood on Madagaskar. Valen was gifted with exceptional linguistic abilities, and moved to Oslo to study language and literature. In addition, he took organ lessons and studied composition, receiving an organ degree in 1909, the same year as his first composition, Legende, for piano was published.
Valen studied in Berlin from 1909-1916, the first two years at the Music Academy, and thereafter independantly. He delved deeply into the counterpoint technique of Bach, with the aim of developing a corresponding polyphony based on dissonance rather than harmonic progression. Preoccupied as he was with evolving his own, deeply personal style, Valen worked slowly during this period, composing a Sonata for Piano and a Sonata for Violin and Piano.
From 1916 to 1924 Valen returned to Norway, and except for occasional visits to Oslo, and a short trip to Italy in 1922, he lived on the family farm in Valevåg, near Haugesund. During this entire period he composed only two works: Ave Maria for solo voice and orchestra, on which he worked from 1917-1921, and the piano trio, which occupied him from 1917-1924. Valen also studied Schoenberg's twelve-tonal serial technique introduced in 1923, but though his atonal polyphony bears some similarity to Schoenberg's, it appears as though he developed this style quite independently.
Despite his tonal language undergoing certain changes later in life, Valen felt by 1925, after painstakingly composing only five works over a period of fifteen years, that he had developed the major elements of a style essentially his own. After arriving at his own personal style in the piano trio, he began to work more rapidly, composing over the following years many songs, motets for various vocal combinations, a series of single-movement orchestral works, and compositions for piano and organ.
In 1924 Valen moved to Oslo, where he earned his living by teaching music theory and working as inspector of the Music Collection at the University Library from 1927 to 1935. He was highly regarded as a teacher, and had a number of Norway's best-known composers as his students. Increasingly recognized, Valen was, in 1935, granted a life-long annual income by the Norwegian government, enabling him to devote himself entirely to composition. In 1938 he moved back to the family farm at Valevåg, and in the years that followed, composed the symphonies and concertos, in which his atonal polyphony and rich expressiveness were further elaborated.
Throughout most of his life, Valen met with a considerable amount of opposition. With few exceptions, his works were poorly received by the critics and were therefore seldom performed. It was only during the last few years of his life that Valen received wider recognition for his music, with Valen Societies being established in both Norway and Great Britain. His international breakthrough came towards the very end of his life, with the performances of Sonetto di Michelangelo in Amsterdam in 1948, and the Violin Concerto in London in 1948. Today Valen is one of the few Norwegian composers with an international reputation.
Fartein Valen never married, was a devoted Christian, Spoke 9 languages, and cultivated roses.
He died in 1952, while working on his fifth symphony.