Per Nørgård: Symphony no. 1, op. 13 ‘Sinfonia austera’

performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Leif Segerstam

I remember that every section of the symphony came to me, at strange moments, in a ‘complete vision’, like a sounding vision in time.

Quoted from the composer, here

Per Nørgård was born on 13 July, 1932 in Gentofte, Denmark and is still alive.

He studied with Vagn Holmboe at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, and later with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Anytime you see that woman’s name, I swear, there’s something of musical significance to be discovered. She was a queen of musical pedagogy, someone who changed the musical world of the 20th century perhaps more than anyone else (with the exception of a very small handful of other humans).

Aside from his influence from Holmboe, Nørgård is said to have been influenced strongly by the other significant Scandinavian composers, Sibelius and Nielsen, each the flagship composers of their nations. After this initial inspiration and some early work, he began to work in a far more modern idiom, and since these modern techniques (and his own ‘infinity series’ flavor of serialism) make up a large part of his career and compositional output, I reasoned initially that it made sense to use one of those pieces in our series this month, but I became so fascinated by today’s work in the context of the composer’s influence from Sibelius that I decided a symphony no. 1 was as good a place to start as any.

In total, Nørgård has written eight symphonies, two cello concertos, two harp concertos, two violin concertos, two percussion concertos, a cello concerto, a piano concerto, a viola concerto, an accordion concerto, six operas, among other works, including film music; you might know the Danish film Babette’s Feast, for which Nørgård composed the score.

Today’s work, begun in 1952 and completed in 1955, was quite early in the composer’s career, and it would be another decade and a half before Nørgård would compose his second symphony, in 1970. Some of his later work can be sort of intimidating (there’s the outrageously colorful and almost fairytale-like fourth, or the equally magical sixth), but in his first symphony, I hear the strong influence of Swedes. There’s obviously his fascination with Sibelius, and how Nørgård had heard only the Swede’s first before he was blown away by the man’s work, and apparently later devoured the composer’s other music, apparently setting his career in motion, but there’s also the kind of spark of life from a few simple gestures, like they’re branded into our memories, the same thing that I hear from some of Allan Pettersson’s work, and I’m a sucker for that.

Of Sibelius’ influence, Dacapo’s liner notes (written by Jens Cornelius) mention:

…Nørgård knew only a couple of Sibelius’ seven symphonies – Holmboe had given him the score of the First Symphony shortly after they met – but now he went to work on all of them, and in Nørgård’s own words this was “a shock of an encounter that struck something deep inside my mind.”

The composer mustered the courage to write to the composer whom he so admired, praising his work and showing a great understanding of it; along with his letter was Nørgård’s op. 1, a quintet, of which Sibelius also spoke highly.

As a result, Nørgård’s first symphony, completed in 1955, sounds like it could have been what Sibelius would have written decades after his seventh, that Nørgård is not just carrying on a tradition, but defining one. Even he said, “The music I would have liked to hear wasn’t there.” This symphony is a work with subtlety and finesse, but awesome power. There are sounds of nature, of the power of Mother Earth, of the elements, something raw and maybe even frightening, but also pristinely beautiful. Its first performance was a radio broadcast in 1958, and it didn’t get a concert performance until half a decade later, in 1963.

The above-linked source of the opening quote contains the score, available (and recommended) for reading here.

The piece grips from the beginning, calling quickly to mind the beginning of Sibelius’ own first symphony: there’s a quiet timpani roll, and slow, warm long lines of expression from bass clarinet and bassoon, giving the first outline of the contours we’ll hear as this piece develops. It’s unmistakable, cello underlines this figure again, and bass clarinet is first to finish this ‘sentence’ with a dotted figure emphasizing an interval that will appear time and time again, and already my heart is aflutter. It’s captivating what comes from these first few bars! The sense of delicacy, beauty, but almighty power in the music is already more than evident, as woodwinds continue to underline the earthen, organic sound of this music, as if coming from a brutal yet pristinely beautiful untouched landscape somewhere at the top of the earth, like a volcano spewing out lava that solidifies to form new ground.

This first movement takes up nearly half of the playing time of the symphony, and after seismic rumblings and fiery passages and heaving and moving, it ends serenely, surprisingly so, but it’s just part of the contour, the lay of the land in this environment we have yet to explore fully.

The second movement also begins with bassoon. What we here in this movement is, perhaps unsurprisingly somewhat like Holmboe, a strong continuation of what came before, another section in the same story rather than a delineated separate idea. There are strong brass calls here against the serenity of the woodwinds. This second movement is the shortest, and it also ends quietly.

The finale quickly bursts to life, its own entity, but again continuing from the previous content, a new act rather than a separate chapter, if that makes sense. The music swirls and clicks and swells, as if breathing, but cools down. The ‘austerity’ of the work is part of its charm, and the music, even in its most exciting or tender moments, is always tight, focused, and going somewhere. There are some new figures presented here, as well as a different kind of color, a layering of figures and sounds from the orchestra. Behind some of the chamber-like textures and colors, there are swells and undercurrents of upwelling power, a churning that turns the final movement of this symphony into the full glory and intensity that’s been brooding all along, ending in a wild climax that seems to be the final climax of the work, as if our volcano has solidified, taken its shape, been born from the sea or rose up from the earth, chaotic sounding but full of purpose and finality, carried mostly by the brass.

There are some pieces with such a compelling flow, a narrative (even if absolute music) that possesses the listener from beginning to end, demands to be heard, spellbinds in a way I can’t quite describe, and Nørgård’s first is one of those pieces. As you can see, I don’t necessarily understand the piece, but it sounds important, as if we’ve witnessed something grand, something deeply powerful and meaningful, but also intensely beautiful. This work does give that inspiring chest-filling breath of clean fresh air, something sublime and refreshing, as dark and brooding (and even menacing at times) as the piece may be. It’s a symphonic masterpiece.

Nørgård wrote seven more symphonies after this one, and they span the next half century of his career, the eighth being completed in 2011. There is clearly much more to enjoy from this composer, if the first is any indication of what he is capable of. It’s a stunning piece, and a very enjoyable listen, largely due to the fact that it’s really quite unique; there’s nothing I’ve heard quite like it.

This has certainly been one of the highlights of the Danish series this month, and there are only two pieces left, so stay tuned for that and we’ll see you soon.

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