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Harald Sæverud (1897 - 1992): Born in a Graveyard

Publisert: 10/01/2002 av Lorenz Reitan


"As Norwegian as Grieg, but in his own way," was Carl Nielsen's description of Harald Sæverud. The object of this year's centenary celebrations drank sea water for his health, fought the Nazis with his composer's pen and wrote his own folk songs. In his opinion, "Electronic music can be entertainment for robots."

Harald Sæverud (120x199)

When Harald Sæverud died in 1992, the last Norwegian composer with one foot in the last century fell silent. Three years old in 1900, Harald Sæverud was to create music for almost an entire century. With his considerable age, he gradually became known as the eternal grand old man of Norwegian music, and in the course of his extremely long creative period, he progressed through most stages between “enfant terrible” and popular classical composer. When he left this world, his funeral was worthy of a statesman.

Harald Sæverud was born in Bergen, just as Edvard Grieg had been 44 years before. Bergen, which many people call the only real city in Norway, has an unusually colourful, varied architecture and has been Norway’s window to the world for centuries; it is an open, lively city with ocean trading links to most corners of the globe. And this is where the cultural impulses landed, too. The first permanent orchestral society in the country was founded here – the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra is actually believed to be one of the oldest in the world – and Norway’s first national theatre was established here. The subsequent establishments of the country’s International Music Festival in Bergen was almost a foregone conclusion.

In spite of this lively, colourful city, however, Harald Sæverud had rather sombre beginnings. He seldom hesitated to relate that he was conceived and born in a house built on a disused graveyard. It was located close to Bergen’s old Gallows Hill, where murderers, thieves and witches were buried alongside the town’s poor. Was it surprising that as child he already had a special relationship with the darkest, saddest hymns? At least that had to be one of the reasons why so much of his music would later be composed in a minor key, believed the superstitious composer.

Although Edvard Grieg was Bergen’s unrivalled musical master, Harald Sæverud was in no way a Grieg epigone. He was too strong an individualist for that. Grieg preferred he small format. Sæverud began composing a symphony when he was still a pupil at the music conservatory in his home town. When the first part was performed in Christiania (Oslo) in 1920, people suddenly discovered that this young autodidact could rival considerably more experienced colleagues. This resulted in a state grant which enabled Harald Sæverud to study at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, where he remained for two years. In his view, that was plenty.

In Berlin, the rest of the symphony was first performed by no less than Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Youthful “Sturm und Drang” in the broad brush-strokes of late romantic orchestral music. The work was kindly received in the musical metropolis. Leopold Schmidt, the city's leading music critic, wrote that Sæverud was “a constructive force, a talent who determinedly starts out along his own road”. More important for the young composer, however was a letter from Danish composer Carl Nielsen, who encouragingly maintained that “Your composition was able to retain my interest from the first bar to the last, an occurrence which I seldom experience (...) I expect much of you.” Like his Danish colleague, Harald Sæverud was also to become a symphonic composer; for him the attraction lay in the orchestra and the large formats.

At that time, it was impossible to make a living as a composer. He therefore gave music lessons, wrote music reviews, and for a while was also a pianist in a cinema orchestra. But he was only interested in composing. Symphonies! His first five works included three symphonies, unconventional in form, with two or three movements, and in a musical language that became increasingly dissonant and expressionistic. By 1930 he was on the borderline of atonality, but did not exceed it. He was too committed to the melody as the driving element of the music for that, and to tonality as the glue that bound it together. Mozart, Haydn and Shubert increasingly become his ideals, and his style gradually becomes more simplified and clarified. At the end of the 1930s he must almost be regarded as a neo-classisist.

Harald Sæverud was an urbanite who loved nature. He was increasingly attracted to the barren, rocky landscape that surrounded Bergen. Thanks to his marriage to a rich Norwegian-American in 1934, his dream of a house in the country was fulfilled. The house that was built on a 50-acre natural site outside Bergen, now surrounded by the city, was called “Siljustøl”. But it was not an ordinary house. For the composer who loved rocks (his professor in Berlin told him, “There is so much rock in your music”), granite had to be one of the most important building materials, together with pine-wood. The family had 900 square metres at its disposal, and the design of the house was inspired by the most traditional farms in the Norwegian valleys. With its 63 rooms, 86 doors and 6 lavatories (including one of the “hole in the ground” type based on the south European style), “Siljustøl” was strongly reminiscent of the royal manors of Norwegian fairy tales.

But most important of all was Sæverud's “musical laboratory”; the large estate with trees, water and rock formations where he spent as much time as in his studio. In the mornings, he used to go out onto the grass in his bare feet to feel the forces of nature rise through his body, and every day he fortified himself with a dram of sea water which he was convinced contained all the minerals his body needed. But it had to come from 40 metres below the surface!

Now a new side of Harald Sæverud began to emerge. He began to concentrate seriously on piano pieces; small, melodious tone pictures inspired by nature, the animals on the farm and his own children. Rondo amoroso is the best known of the early works, also called Ville blomster på en barnegrav (Wild flowers on a child's grave). Several have titles reminiscent of Norwegian folk music: Småsvein gangar and Vindharpe-slåtten. He would later compose collections of piano pieces which he entitled Slåtter og stev fra Siljustøl.

Gangar and slått are the names of dances for the Hardanger fiddle, the Norwegian national instrument; stev is a short, vocal version. However, in Sæverud's case they all just mean “piece of music”. He was very interested in Norwegian folk music, referring constantly to his grandfather, who was a well-known fiddle maker. But folk music did not become a source from which he drew direct inspiration, as many Norwegian composers since Grieg had done. “I prefer to write my own folk songs,” he used to say, and much of his music gradually assumed some of the simplicity that typifies folk music.

World War II was a frenetically creative period for Harald Sæverud. He was not a violent man, but when the Germans occupied Norway he felt that his resistance effort must be to write music which reflected the current situation. His three “war symphonies” were composed during the five years of occupation. They were all inspired by the prevailing situation, but are nevertheless absolute music, in the sense that they stand firmly on their own musical feet. Symphony No. 5 is subtitled Motstandsviljens symfoni (Symphony of the Will to Resistance) - the title was not published until after liberation - and No. 6 Sinfonia Dolorosa. After the war he dedicated the latter to the memory of a friend who had been executed by the Nazis. Symphony No. 7, Salme (Psalm), appeared in the last year of the war and was not performed until October 1945. The violent expression of its predecessors has given way to lighter tones. It reflects the optimistic mood that prevailed among the Norwegian people when they realised that peace was close at hand.

His best known piece from the occupation period is nevertheless Kjempeviseslåtten (Ballad of Revolt), which came to Harald Sæverud with explosive force when he was travelling in the Norwegian fjords. In a place where he had least expected to find occupying forces, he suddenly saw the mountainside full of German barracks.

Kjempeviseslåtten exploded from him like an oath and was dedicated to “the small and great fighters on the home front”. The piece was first arranged for piano and later for orchestra. It has the same intensity as Chopin's Revolutionary Study and builds up like Ravel's Bolero. One of the most important works of Norwegian music, this piece also remained unperformed until after the liberation.

Just after the war, Sæverud was to have the delicate task of writing music for Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt. No easy assignment for a composer who lived in Edvard Grieg's home town. Grieg's Peer Gynt music was regarded as the only valid version and had achieved world-wide popularity. In the new production, the drama was even going to be played in the Norwegian country dialect, and the interpretation was to be “anti-romantic”. These were fairly radical ideas in a country with such a strong Ibsen-Grieg tradition as Norway. They also aroused heated debate.

However, Harald Sæverud accepted the challenge and in 1948 created one of his most popular works. He com-posed music to some of the same parts as Grieg had done, and to quite different parts as well. Like his fellow townsman, he arranged a selection of this music into orchestral suites which have been performed abroad many times with great success. The Swedish composer Sten Broman said of the Peer Gynt music: “From both a compositional and a dramatic point of view, Sæverud's music is clearly superior to Grieg's”. Harold Taubman of the New York Times was convinced of its dramatic qualities. “This is music for the theatre and it speaks with great dramatic impact”.

Harald Sæverud was now regarded as the most prominent contemporary composer in Norway. Already before World War II, he had been one of the co-founders of the Norwegian Ny Musikk Organisation (ISCM) and was several times represented at ISCM festivals. He also received flattering commissions from abroad, including a violin concerto for the Koussevitsky Foundation of the Library of Congress, and a symphony for the centenary celebrations of the state of Minnesota, USA. They wanted a symphony by a Nordic composer, and Harald Sæverud was awarded the honourable commission. For him, the first performance of the Minnesota Symphony in Minneapolis, conducted by Antal Dorati, was a major triumph.

The master from Siljustøl was a productive composer who was to continue to write music until the age of 92. Of the works he wrote in the final decades, we might mention the ballet Ridder Blåskjeggs mareritt (Knight Bluebeard's Nightmare), the bassoon concerto and Symphony No. 9. As an 89-year-old he was “festival composer” at the Bergen International Festival, and completed a major orchestral suite to Henrik Ibsen's drama Keiser og Galilæer (Emperor and Galilean). His final composition was a sonata for viola and piano, written in the neatest script.

Although Harald Sæverud for many years regarded the orchestra as his most important medium and found the piano a good number two, he suddenly produced a series of chamber pieces after he had long since reached what would normally be regarded as retirement age. Prior to 1970, his opus included little chamber music. Now he produced three string quartets and two wind quintets in rapid succession, as well as smaller chamber pieces, providing an exciting addition to the Norwegian chamber music repertoire.

In the course of his long life, Harald Sæverud received a long list of honours, including a artist's salary from the Norwegian government from 1953 onwards, and he was a Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav. He was also awarded Finnish, Swedish and Yugoslav honours. When he died, he was given a state funeral and he is buried at Siljustøl, which is now a listed building and will soon be a museum.

Not many composers experience becoming classics in their own time, but Harald Sæverud managed it. His unique musical language has something unmistakably Norwegian about it, but at the same time it has an appeal that transcends the borders of his home country. The British conductor Sir John Barbirolli often performed Sæverud's compositions and once described him as follows:

“Whether you like the music of Sæverud or not, there is no mistaking who wrote it, and this can be said of few composers of the present day.”

He was an individualist to his fingertips and almost fanatical about the “naturalness” of the expression. He was highly sceptical about atonal music and avant-gardism. “Electronic music will be prohibited for medical reasons because it may be life-threatening for some people,” he used to say, with conviction. And on the other hand:
“I know that nothing is as difficult as writing simple, good melodies with character. They just can't be written, they can only be created.” He was an incorrigible classicist and melodist, with more than a touch of the natural mysticist. But always in his own way. And he is regarded by many people as the most prominent symphonic composer his home country has ever produced.

Lorenz Reitan ©
Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.5 - 1997 No. 1

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