Composers seldom write ballet music unless it is commissioned in advance - or they are inspired by working with a choreographer. It was no different in 1836 when famous Danish choreographer August Bournonville was looking for a composer to write the music for his new ballet La Sylphide.
The ballet had been staged in Paris some years before, but the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen could not afford to pay for the score composed by Frenchman Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer (1785-1852). That situation still sounds familiar today.
It wasn’t easy to find a willing composer at a time when “serious” composers refused to have anything to do with ballet music. Choreographers usually took existing music and arranged it to suit their purposes, but Bournonville (1805-1879) did not want to do that. He wanted an original, dramatic, illustrative score that would raise his ballet to the level of poetry and provide rhythm for the dance and descriptive music for the mime.
He was introduced to the 21-year-old Norwegian composer Baron Herman Løvenskiold (1815-1870) and, in close cooperation with the choreographer, Løvenskiold wrote a score that was the forerunner of the great music that was to follow in this genre. His music for La Sylphide is the oldest living example of a comprehensive, romantic ballet score. And it really is a living score; up to now, this ballet has been performed nearly seven hundred times at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen (more than eighty times in Løvenskiold’s own lifetime) and has even been performed more than sixty times in Norway – a country with such short ballet traditions. La Sylphide is danced regularly wherever a classical ballet company exists and, thanks in large part to the music, it is the ballet which does the greatest justice to the romantic style.
Løvenskiold’s work begins with a long overture reflecting all the moods of the ballet. The wicked witch and the death of the sylph are illustrated by powerful horn themes, while the quick sections depict the light sylph, dancing unceasingly. A subsidiary theme, based on the Scottish folk tune Auld Lang Syne, provides local colour. Løvenskiold was never regarded as a great composer, but he was to become the most performed of Norwegian stage composers.
In 1853, Bournonville wrote the ballet Brudeferden i Hardanger (Bridal Journey on the Hardanger Fjord), inspired by the famous national-romantic painting by Norwegian artists Tidemand and Gude, which was a great success. The plaudits from the critics included the comment that we Norwegians enjoy seeing ourselves portrayed on stage, particularly when we are so beautifully improved. To Bournonville’s bitter disappointment, there was little interest in this ballet in Norway, but that was hardly surprising since we lack the long traditions of our neighbours, Denmark and Sweden. Only with the establishment of the Norwegian National Opera in 1958 did classical and modern ballet finally find a home.
Brudeferden has not been on the repertoire of the Royal Theatre since 1929, but it experienced a new lease of life at the Norwegian National Opera in 1982, with choreography after Bournonville by Danish Flemming Flindt. Norwegian and Danish folk tunes, which had also been used in the original version, were this time collected and unbelievably beautifully arranged by that versatile Norwegian musician, Egil Monn-Iversen. The Norwegian folk dances springdans and hallingdans are incorporated into the story, and the ballet’s success was largely due to Monn-Iversen’s light, melodic arrangements.
In the 1920s and 30s, there was a great deal of activity in Oslo’s cabaret theatres, and that was where dance was to be found. Ballet performances of a more artistic nature were less frequent; they ran at a loss and Norwegian music was seldom, if ever, used.
After the second world war, dancers were quick to produce their own performances. Two productions in autumn 1945 demonstrated that while classical ballet dancers were technically superior to modern dancers, audiences were most attracted to free dance. The classical dancers used Grieg and Ravel, while the music for the modern dancers’ Mot ballade was specially composed by Tore Sinding working in close cooperation with choreographer Gerd Kjølaas.
This was the beginning of the New Norwegian Ballet, a meeting place for both classical and free dance. The company had strong ties to England, but took its national roots seriously and achieved considerable success. The folk tale Veslefrikk med fela (Veslefrikk and his Fiddle), choreographed by Gerd Kjølaas to Norwegian folk music, was a typical example. It was later incorporated in Dans, ropte fela! (Dance, cried the Fiddle!), which was produced for the Bergen International Festival and toured Europe and the USA with great success in the 1960s.
When present-day choreographers are hunting for music, they spend a great deal of time playing through existing compositions, and trawling CD shops. For most choreographers, it is almost unthinkable to enlist the services of a living composer, primarily because the apparatus involved is of such dimensions that only the major institutions are capable of the necessary administration. Paradoxically, it is not only a matter of financing; the composer’s fee can often be covered by various grant schemes. For the choreographer, however, it may be considerably more difficult to find a steady income for a reasonable period of time. Specially composed music is therefore seldom used by smaller ensembles or project-based groups. Nor can a ballet music tradition be created without continuous production. But where does one find this type of tradition?
Tchaikovsky (1840-93) composed his ballet music in close cooperation with choreographer Marius Petipa (1818-1910) and these ballets still have a strong position today. The same applies to the magnificent composers with whom impresario Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) surrounded himself in Paris during the Ballets Russes period: Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov, Fauré and Satie.
The reason why so much immortal ballet music was composed during these two periods is the initiative that was taken to bring artists from different genres together to cooperate in depth. Today it is still unusual for a composer to write ballet music without a prior contract with a ballet company or a choreographer. Dance needs composers more than composers need dance and choreographers.
Who needs music for dance in Norway today, and where is it needed? There are few job opportunities for choreographers, and many of them therefore form free dance groups where they can control their projects themselves. Most of them discover that there is little time for what they really want to do, i.e. create dance. The artistic aspect suffers and thereby also the energy to seek cooperation with composers. What should have been a positive element in the progress of a new ballet instead becomes exhausting; existing music is easier and safer to relate to. There is another consideration too, expressed by one choreographer as follows: “The ideas come first, and I need music to support them. In this situation the simplest solution is to look at the music that already exists.”
With two dance companies supported by government funds - the Norwegian National Ballet in Oslo and the New Carte Blanche company in Bergen, plus at least ten free dance groups which receive public funding, there should be a market for unknown, newly-composed music, and composers do sporadically receive commissions. Even without the desired continuity, a considerable amount of music has been written for ballet and dance over the years, music that is dependent upon and linked to the stage performance.
There are clear differences between the preferred composers for the various categories of dance. Modern dance requires a contemporary form of expression and often seeks composers working in the field of electronic music. Perhaps this is not a conscious consideration, but it is probable that the choreographer will receive the result on tape – a necessity for all the modern projects which take place outside the institutions and lack both money and space for musicians. The external parameters also play a part in dictating the choice of music and how it is created. When the major institutions need new music, the commission usually goes to a composer who writes for live musicians, particularly in the case of the National Ballet, which has access to the Norwegian National Opera orchestra.
Edvard Grieg’s (1843-1907) music is used less for dance than might be imagined, perhaps because younger choreographers have little or no contact with the romantic style he represents. In 1993, the year of the Grieg anniversary, some ballets were produced to his music, either based on the music as such or using his life as the dramatic narrative force. New Carte Blanche produced the performance Vev (Weave) which consisted of two independent ballets that complemented each other. Kjersti Alveberg’s task was to produce a ballet to Grieg’s music as it stands, while Ina Christel Johannessen was to create a work based on Grieg’s life and music.
The results were extremely unusual and exciting. In Ekko (Echo) Alveberg used Grieg straight, but she asked pianist Jon Balke, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and singer Lynnie Treekrem to perform the music in their own personal style. Grieg was there, but was lifted into the present. Johannessen’s work Har du sunget den for Grieg? (Have you sung it for Grieg?) was based on a slåttevise (folk song) which milkmaid Gjendine Slålien actually sang for Grieg on a mountain farm. The choreographer and composer-percussionist Kjell Samkopf created a sound backdrop, a landscape portrait of Grieg 86 years after his mountain excursion, a picture of his life and his art. The resulting compound of music, sound and visual effects was extremely effective on stage, but the music is unlikely to survive as an independent work. (For those who are particularly interested, the sound backdrop has been recorded on CD (dBUT 010).
Grieg’s music is more often used outside Norway than by Norwegian choreographers. In the 1960s there was a great deal of debate about whether it was right and proper to create a ballet based on Grieg’s A minor concerto. The choreography was by Frenchman Joseph Lazzini, and the soloist was Kjell Bækkelund. At the time, the critics and the public agreed that it was difficult for a non-Norwegian to give the concerto the “correct” dramatic interpretation. Some went a step further, maintaining that it was sacrilege to choreograph a dance to this music. The performance “lacked understanding of the genuine Norwegian element”, whatever that might be.
Many contemporary Norwegian composers have actually written pieces for dance, but only very few to such a degree that they have built up a routine in this profession. Many composers feel that writing music for the theatre, and particularly ballet music, is a separate discipline.
In 1969 the Bergen International Festival commissioned a ballet to music by Alfred Janson, Mot Solen (Towards the Sun). The theme was the life of Edvard Munch and the music was composed in close cooperation with choreographer Edith Roger and director Barthold Halle. The result was powerful dance theatre. Alfred Janson was the rehearsal pianist and he and the musicians were therefore able to experiment in cooperation with the dancers. The entire rehearsal period was spent in Munch’s old studio at Ekely, the artists’ colony just outside Oslo. The artists involved, including saxophonist Jan Garbarek, more or less lived there for almost two months, and the inspiration of working in the painter’s own environment probably contributed to the excellent result. Largely due to its coherent form, the work achieved great success and still stands as a milestone in the history of Norwegian dance. But Alfred Janson has never written another ballet.
Nowadays Jan Garbarek’s own music is often used for dance productions. His melodic rhythms and exotic elements are a source of inspiration and are well suited to dance. The saxophone has a dramatic sound which enhances the expression of the movement.
Right from the start, the Norwegian Television Corporation played an important role in encouraging dance. Unfortunately, it does not fulfil this role today, but several works were commissioned for television in the 60s and 70s. Gunnar Sønstevold (1912 - 91) started out as a jazz musician in the 1930s and was one of Norway’s most impressive composers of film music in the post-war period. During the war he lived in exile in Sweden, where he was taught by Hilding Rosenberg, and he subsequently studied composition in Vienna. Sønstevold wrote several ballets, and in 1976 his greatest ballet score, Peer Gynt, choreographed by Birgit Cullberg, was recorded for Norwegian television.
Most ballets in the first decade of Norwegian TV were created by Edith Roger and Henny Mürer. Harald Sæverud’s piano works provided the musical foundation for Mürer’s På silkesokk (On silken sock), Eyvind Solås wrote the music for her Skogens øyne (Eyes of the Forest) and Antonio Bibalo for Flammen (The Flame), which concerned the burning of witches. As early as 1967, Bibalo wrote the stage music for Pinocchio, which will be performed by the National Ballet with new choreography by Arne Fagerholt in 1998.
In the field of large orchestral works, Ragnar Søderlind has almost reigned supreme. His many ballets are all based on literary themes, the first being Hedda (1978). With choreography by Kari Blakstad, it was performed with a full orchestra at the Norwegian National Opera in connection with Henrik Ibsen’s 150th anniversary celebrations. The next was Kristin Lavransdatter, first performed at the Archbishop’s residence in Trondheim in 1982. Sigrid Undset’s text provided the basis for Kjersti Engebrigtsen’s choreography, which included movement by the singers to complement the dancers.
Söderlind took the final step and wrote a full three-act ballet, Victoria, based on the novel by Knut Hamsun. André Prokovsky, the well-known dancer and choreographer, created the ballet, which was commissioned by the Norwegian National Opera and first performed at the Bergen International Festival in 1986. The music to this neo-classical work is truly grand; it has power and force, dramatic climaxes and beautiful lyrical passages for the young lovers.
Livets dans (The Dance of Life) is the third ballet about the life of Edvard Munch to have been performed at the Norwegian National Opera over the years. It was commissioned and produced for the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994, with choreography by Anderz Døving to music by Ragnar Söderlind. This time the ballet was not based on a literary text, but on the title of a painting.
For dancers, Söderlind’s dramatic, symphonic, eventful music is extremely inspiring to work with. It has a special ability to produce the right emotion and expression in movement. Söderlind says that this can only be achieved through close cooperation with the choreographer. The composer must reach a point where he almost feels the choreographer’s idea physically in order to find the musical expression which again creates the movement. His possible handicap as a ballet composer is that he writes for a full orchestra, plus additional instruments, which limits the possibilities for being performed in Norway to the National Opera.
In 1988, the National Ballet danced the first performance of choreographer Kjersti Alveberg and composer Synne Skouen’s Volven, a ballet based on Norse mythology. The music found its form in close cooperation with the choreographer, and during the process Synne Skouen had the same experience as other ballet composers before her: time, and the concept of time, suddenly take on an entirely different dimension than in the concert hall. Due to this realisation, in subsequent compositions composers have greater courage, allowing the notes to rest; the necessity of constantly hurrying on no longer feels so urgent. Music for dance must breathe, and breath, in purely compositional terms, must be given organic form. For movement, time can be stretched, while the same period of time may feel like a longeur in the concert hall.
Rolf Wallin, who writes a great deal of electronic music and has been used by the free dance groups for many years, has experienced the same thing. Working with dance has given him greater courage to rest and breathe in the music – the arches can be stretched. Because he works with electronic music, he can, if necessary, easily make changes, without going so far that the arches are destroyed. Several composers believe that their stage music must function in a context and not stand alone. “If it were to stand alone, it would have to be liposuctioned”, says Wallin. Stringency is not as important on the stage as in the concert hall.
Norwegian ballet music is seldom heard abroad, but Åsmund Feidje, the rock guitarist who became house composer at the National Theatre after his band, Rain, provided the music for a play there in 1969, has frequently been used by the free dance groups. Just this year, Finnish choreographer Jorma Uitonen has commissioned Feidje to write the music for his ballet Frostnetter (Frost Nights) at the Finnish National Ballet in Helsinki.
The composer who is most used, often without being aware of the fact, is Arne Nordheim. On a plane from Norway, he read in a Danish newspaper that a ballet to his music was to have its premiere the same evening. He was originally going to Hamburg, but left the plane in Copenhagen and bought a ticket for the performance. It was Stoolgame to his Solitaire, and this was the beginning of close cooperation with Dutch choreographer Jiri Kylian. Not all his experiences have been equally uplifting, but on the whole Nordheim is pleased that his music is used. Like other composers, however, he refuses to allow people to use parts of his work. The unity of the work must be respected.
Nordheim’s first ballet, Katharsis, was first performed at the Bergen International Festival in 1962 with choreography by Ivo Cramér, but the ballet that is primarily linked to his name is Stormen (The Tempest). The National Ballet has been dancing Stormen, which has almost become its trade mark, for over twelve years. Based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it was originally written for the British company Ballet Rambert and commissioned by the Schwetzingen Festival in Germany. The choreographer of this beautiful ballet is Glen Tetley, who has frequently worked in Norway. The composer has also written music for other choreographers, but he particularly points to his cooperation with Tetley (Strender (Beaches), Greening and Stormen) when discussing his ballet music.
The most important thing, says Nordheim, is the chemistry and the ability to understand each other, give each other input and persuade each other to go the extra mile. Geographical miles are no problem. Tetley and Nordheim sang to each other on the telephone across the Atlantic when the choreographer needed a few more bars.
Arne Nordheim emphasises that whether he is writing symphonic music or ballet music his artistic struggle is the same, and most of his stage music stands firmly on its own two feet. In the creative process, he is alone and must depend upon expressing his own inner drive. After that, it’s a matter of hoping that intuition and preparation, chemistry and inspiration will lead to a holistic result.