Publisher: Edition Wilhelm Hansen
Photo © Morten Løberg
Everything should sing
Arne Nordheim – a musical explorer and a leading figure in European music. He is known, admired, and sometimes criticized within and outside Norway through nearly half a century. The composer and his art, which consists of almost all genres and embraces widely different aesthetical positions, cannot be disregarded. His musical language imparts always a humanistic message.
“Musical composition does not consist merely of writing down notes. Living a creative life involves expressing the restlessness in one’s soul. Composing is not only making sound. It is philosophy, silence, speed, rhythm, everything", Nordheim declared some years ago. This straight- forward characterization, correspond to Nordheim’s way of thinking about music and life – to his perception of self as well as to his courage to induce thought-laden processes to mental vibrations. Arne Nordheim is an eager and daring sound experimentalist, regarded for several decades as Norway’s most prominent figure on the international scene of modern music.
Nordheim is rightly considered to be the one of the most innovative composers of our time. This status is affirmed by almost every work of his impressive output, which provides clear evidence of his inspiring pioneering spirit and supreme command of the compositional craft.
Nordheim’s openness and international orientation, his willingness to receive musical impulses from abroad and his constant search for new means of expression and new musical forms and ideas, became a worthy alternative to the prevailing national-romantic movement in Norwegian music. It is Nordheim’s merit that new doors were opened to creating music – young composers especially learned through Nordheim that there was a worthy world to explore intensively outside Norway. Viewed in the light of these facts, it is not unreasonable to maintain that Nordheim’s pioneer work became of vital importance for the development of new music in Norway. The musicologist Kjell Skyllstad thus describes Nordheim as “the great reformer and restorer of Norwegian music after the Second World War”. Hallgjerd Aksnes, and expert on Nordheim’s music, calls him “a romantic and lyrical modernist, a literary oriented composer who likes to express his musical stance in extra-musical terms”. Finally, Nordheim’s Danish colleague, Per Norgard, has hailed Nordheim as “the innovator of not only Norwegian music, but also of Scandinavian music as such”.
The creative impulse
Arne Nordheim was born on June 20, 1931 in the town of Larvik on the Oslo Fjord. He was educated at the Music Conservatory in Oslo and had originally contemplated for himself a career as a church-organist. At the same time, he frequently received guidance in composition by the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe. The idea of becoming a composer came to Nordheim as a kind of revelation during a performance of Gustav Mahler’s second symphony Resurrection in April 1949 in Oslo.
The aesthetic movement originated from the philosophical, human and prophetic statement manifested in Mahler’s musical heritage has been emphasized by several writers a distinguishing feature of Nordheim’s music and thinking. In his review of the latest Nordic Music Days in Finland, Anders Beyer writes of a moving performance of Nordheim’s mighty Violin Concerto (1996) interpreted by the young violinist Jaakko Kuussisto: “Nordheim takes the tradition from Mahler as his point of departure and writes apocalyptic music with great expressive power”. Nordheim from his side never contradicted his admiration for Mahler’s music. The first encounters with Mahler’s music – especially with Das Lied von der Erde and the song cycles – made a tremendous impact on the young composer and stimulated him. Just like Mahler, Nordheim is also deeply concerned with the eternal themes, which evolve around loneliness, love, death, nature, and the fundamental questions of life and human existence.
As early as 1955, Nordheim heard musique concrete in Paris, and in 1959 he studied electroacoustic music in Bilthoven in the Netherlands. In the early 1960s, he began to write his own electroacoustic works. In the years 1967-1972, he made several journeys to Studio Eksperymentale in Warsaw, where he gradually was able to master the technique of electronic music. Some of the important electroacoustic works and compositions with combinations of electronic and traditional instruments were created in Warsaw. Nordheim has since been a leading figure within the electroacoustic music in the Nordic countries. Works such as Epitaffio for orchestra and electronics elements (1964, revised 1978), a key work based on the poem Ed é subito sera (And suddenly it is evening) by Salvatore Quasimodo, the first pieces in the “Response” series, and the works for electronics alone, Solitaire, Warszawa, Pace and Poly Poly (written for the World’s Fair in Osaka 1970) are from these years. In these early works too, Nordheim in nevertheless conscious of the necessity of inspiration and of a lyrical singing quality through his music. It is no coincidence that his motto is “Everything should sing”.
New art, which after eras springs from a remote and almost forgotten past world, in the case of Nordheim from the musical and historical storehouse, reflects hidden memories and experiences. Nordheim masters the instrumentation and notation techniques of modern music, and he has a delicate feeling for sound combinations. Nevertheless, he was formerly considered an enfant terrible by the Norwegian musical life. Over the years, however, these early works have gradually been accepted by the public and gained recognition in wider circles.
A literary composer
Many of Nordheim’s major works reflect directly and indirectly a deep interest in poetry and literature and they are based on literary sources concerning the great mysteries of life. He always prefers to use original texts in their original language, as he emphasizes the sonorous qualities of the language itself. It seems as if Nordheim employs texts in order to find inspiration to set his musical imagination in motion. As he said in 1989 interview with this writer: “I like to blend languages from different countries, different cultures and different ages. This is the case in my work Wirklicher Wald , in which I blend the old text from the Book of Job (in Hebrew) with the relatively new German text of Rilke. The texts bespeak the same eternal truth: Life is short. Some of the first works, I composed in my early youth, are written for poems. Since then, I have been deeply occupied with poetry. It is a joy for me to work with the human voice. Oddly enough, most of the texts, I work with, are not from Norway – a country otherwise so rich in literary tradition. I live and work in Norway but choose often for my works poetry from many different sources which all express the same fundamental questions of life”.
Three vocal works are regarded as milestones in Nordheim’s production: Aftonland and Doria, two song cycles with orchestra accompaniment, and Eco for soprano solo, children’s choir, mixed choir and orchestra. Along with such early orchestral works as Epitaffio, Canzona per orchestra, Floating and Greening, these works have established Nordheim’s international status.
Most of Nordheim’s works have philosophical and literary themes. His music can therefore also be viewed as a direct inheritor of European tradition and ideas of this tradition. Nordheim thinks quite often in terms of the continuation of the Romantic music, which also preserves the link to the past, which is of such importance to him. It is characteristic of Nordheim that even if he is far-reaching in his experiments with strongly contrasting sounds, he is never interested in the sound as such, in the sound for its own sake. The sound is and continues to be means of expression – means to rediscovering forgotten perceptions and images of the soul.
Nordheim has never professed to any certain ideology. His music is personal and independent of any particular school. The composer seeks to express ideas, which are not only abstractly musical but also humanistic. He wishes to create music with inner intensity and a universal meaning. Wirklicher Wald (1983) - one of Nordheim’s most moving works – may serve as a fine introduction to Nordheim’s music and world of ideas. His production embraces nearly all genres: purely instrumental works – symphonic pieces, chamber music (with or without texts), choral works, as well as electronic music, film scores, and music for ballet, theater and radio plays. But it seems as if his favorite domain is the orchestra.
Among Nordheim’s great works through the last decade, we find Nidaros – an all-embracing dramatic oratorio, his stage music to the play Draumkvedet (The Dream Ballad), Violin Concerto, Suite for Solo Cello, second string quartet Stages, and Confutatis – Nordheim’s contribution to Requiem der Versohnung (Requiem of Reconciliation), a composition written by world-famous composers from various countries to mark the 50th anniversary of he end of the Second World War. Over the years, Nordheim has received many prizes and distinctions, and among them The Nordic Council’s Music Prize, The Norwegian Culture Council’s prize of honour, The Prix Italia, and the Anders Jahre’s Culture Prize. Nordeim has been appointed Honorary-Member of ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) in 1997.