"We just decided that we wanted to be composers. Overwhelmed by our choice, we allowed it to happen", wrote Øistein Sommerfelt in a Festschrift on the occasion of his colleague, Finn Mortensen’s, 60th birthday.
He also related how they were humiliatingly thrown out of the Oslo University Aula, formerly Oslo’s main concert hall, and immediately decided to hold a joint début concert there. “We had already written a great deal of chamber music and believed we complemented each other as composers.” The concert took place on 26 April 1954, attracted a full house and was rewarded with magnificent reviews.
Saying that they complemented each other was an understatement. In aesthetic terms they were diametrically opposed. Finn Mortensen (see LTN 1993 no. 1) was the personification of Norwegian serialism and modernism. Øistein Sommerfeldt was solidly planted in the neo-classical sphere and was the first name anyone thought of when referring to Grieg’s heritage. At a time when polarisation between composers may appear insurmountable, it is tempting to approach a description of Øistein Sommerfeldt by pointing to the decades of friendship and cooperation between these two representatives of such very different genres.
Øistein Sommerfeldt (1919-1994) trained at the Oslo Music Conservatory, where he took the conductor’s examination in 1947. For a time, he studied composition with Fartein Valen, who had developed his own personal version of twelve-tone music. However, the really important influence on his development as a composer was two periods of study under Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
Despite his relatively radical teachers, his most important sources of inspiration were the Norwegian tradition and Norwegian folk music. The religious folk tunes were particularly important to him. This is where the line from Grieg becomes most clear. Like his great compatriot, he liked to ramble and find inspiration in the Norwegian countryside. Moreover, like Grieg, his production is largely devoted to songs and piano works. In these two genres, several of Sommerfeldt’s compositions have become part of the standard Norwegian repertoire. Of the songs, we might mention Two Hamsun Songs, op. 26, Three Lyrical Pictures, Op. 33, of which versions were written for both piano and orchestra, and From Kathleen Raine’s Poetry for High Voice and Piano, op. 55. Of his piano works, the five sonatinas and three Fabel suites are perhaps the best.
His love of the human voice is most clearly demonstrated in his many choral works and chamber music such as Om Kjærlighet (About Love), op. 46 for mezzo-soprano and cello, and From William Blake’s Poetry for high voice, recorder, guitar and piano. His chamber music is frequently featured on Norwegian concert programmes. He also composed a number of pieces for solo wind instruments. His most popular pieces are undoubtedly Vårlåter (Spring Tunes), op. 44 for solo flute, Elegy for Trumpet and Organ, op. 27 and Little Suite for Piano Trio, op. 40.
Sommerfeldt’s most frequently performed orchestral work is the light, elegant Ouverture op. 11 and Sinfonia la Betulla, op. 12. The symphony was written during a period he spent in northern Italy, when he lived in a room overlooking a beautiful birch wood (betulla = birch). It inspired him to write: “As the birch puts out shoots and grows, so must the creative process be – constant growth, an organism developing”. Another orchestral work that should be mentioned is the piano concerto with the beautiful title Mot en lengsel (Towards a Yearning), op. 50.
You might think that a yearning natural romanticist like him would have enough with himself and his art, but Øistein Sommerfeldt was active in many areas of Norwegian musical life. He held important positions in the Norwegian Society of Composers, was on the board of several important cultural institutions, including the interim board for the establishment of the Norwegian State Academy of Music, had a “smiling”, sharp pen, and was a frequent contributor to radio and newspapers.