Johan Halvorsen - Beyond the Transitory

Theatre is a transitory art form. It is created at one moment in time, and is doomed to a slow death as memory fades. Unfortunately many theatre composers suffer the same sad fate.

Johan Halvorsen

Perhaps that is why Johan Halvorsen, the Norwegian composer whose name, more than any other, is associated with the theatre, has never really achieved the plate in musical history that he deserves. He was a man of the theatre. But Beyond the transitory towers a lasting musical legacy.

There is something paradoxical about Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935). It is not only that he was conductor and theatre composer at the National Theatre from 1899 to 1929, and that he, the man who was to create “musical accompaniment” to the more essential action on the stage, is the one whose art has survived all his contemporary theatrical colleagues. Nor is it only that Johan Halvorsen - who is regarded by many musical theorists as merely a theatre carpenter and almost ignored as a composer - is one of the Norwegian composer- from the period around the turn of the century who has composed certain works that are still loved and listened to by large audiences today.

This applies, for example, to the orchestral piece Bojarenes inntogsmarsj (March of the Boyars, 1898), a world-famous composition and the signature tune of Ønskekonserten, a weekly request programme on Norwegian radio that has had its oven loyal cohort of listeners for half a century. It also applies to the piece for Bergen patriots Bergensiana (1921), Halvorsen's “rococo variations” for orchestra, that is played each year during the opening ceremony of the Bergen International Music Festival to rousing community ringing by a packed, standing audience in this west-coast town's Grieg Hall. And it applies to the National Theatre's successful annual Christmas play for children, Reisen til Julestjernen (Journey to the Christmas Star), where Johan Halvorsen still captivates round-eyed, wide-eared Norwegian children with his harmonious, dramatic, understandable fairy-tale music.

No, perhaps the most paradoxical thing of all about Johan Halvorsen is that he is regarded as a “classical romanticist”. This is a highly contradictory term. An almost impossible dichotomy, if we are to believe, for example, Robert M. Pirsig, author of the 70s and 80s cult book in Europe and America, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.

For Pirsig, the romantic and the classicist are two incompatible personalities. The romantic is a person who meets life with perception, experience and intuition, the classicist a person who fits the world into concepts, analysis and form.

The fact that two such schools of thought combine in Johan Halvorsen's music illustrates his dimensions. In his music, the form is always clear and sure, while the orchestral movements permeate the senses with their pyrotechnic, richly varied instrumentation. Pauline Hall, the influential music critic for the newspaper Dagbladet from 1924 to 1963, also regarded Johan Halvorsen as being “.... our most full-blooded composer of the 1920- and 30s" - in spite of his strict sense of form.

Johan Halvorsen touched upon this himself in an interview in 1923, when his Symphony No. 1 in C minor was first performed at the National Theatre:

“I do not use a programme. In my opinion, all music is programmatic. Do you think Beethoven composed his symphonies by chance because he discovered a theme? They are all coloured by experience. If I were to describe my thoughts as well, it would misguide people. If the composer feels what he writes so strongly that it affects the people who listen to it, then he has achieved his intention.”

He fully achieved his intention with the second of his three large symphonies, Fatum in D minor, first performed on his 60th birthday in 1924 and revised in 1928. Incidentally, a new recording of this mighty musical work, which Halvorsen called his “favourite child”, was released in 1991 with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ole Kristian Ruud. Dare to open wide your senses and you will find the whole of Johan Halvorsen's broad musical spectrum and monumental range in this symphony, where the symphonic is painted with broad brush strokes and the orchestration often approaches virtuoso proportions. Halvorsen could play almost any instrument in the orchestra, and this is clearly evident in his music.

There is a portrait of Johan Halvorsen, painted by impressionist Henrik Lund in 1914 at the time when people spoke of Halvorsen as one of the “big four” in Norwegian music, alongside Edvard Grieg, Johan Svendsen and Christian Sinding. In the portrait, Halvorsen stands as straight as a field marshal, in white tie and tails on the rostrum in front of his troops. The baton rests in his right hand, which leans on the music stand. His unblinking gaze penetrates the space between the orchestra and the auditorium. The mouth is determined under the handlebar moustache. The hair is wild and swept back as if by a Föhn wind. The figure exudes confidence and assurance, a musical authority that is seldom experienced.

Johan Halvorsen had humble beginnings. He came from a modest background in the small industrial and market town of Drammen, 30 km south of Oslo. He started playing the violin as a seven-year-old. A few years later he played in the local Civil Defence Band, where his instruments included the piccolo flute and the althorn. He made his debut as a violinist in Bergen in 1885, having been appointed leader of Musikselskabet Harmonien, now the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, after studying violin and theory in Stockholm. Incidentally, he played Beethoven's violin concerto at his solo début.

In Bergen he became acquainted with Edvard Grieg. This acquaintance-ship would gradually develop into a close friendship that also had important musical consequences. As a chamber musician, Johan Halvorsen had played with cellist John Grieg, Edvard Grieg's brother. John Grieg later became Halvorsen's father-in-law.

After Bergen and a few months in Leipzig and Aberdeen, Halvorsen lived in Helsinki for three years, from 1889 to 1892. He moved to the Finnish capital to teach violin at the Conservatoire and there he gained important impulses performing works by the young Busoni. At this time he also began to compose in earnest.

In 1893 he returned to Bergen, to the post of joint conductor of Harmonien and the Bergen theatre, Den Nationale Scene. The boards of these two institutions had undoubtedly taken a risk in appointing a person who had not trained as a conductor; there can be little doubt that Bergen's most influential musical authority, Edvard Grieg, had a finger in that particular pie.

The post of conductor occupied most of Johan Halvorsen's working day, but he still found time to compose. Bergensiana, Bojarenes inntogsmarsj and the respected chamber piece Passacaglia are all from this period. The latter composition, a duet for violin and viola on a theme of Händel, was originally written for a church concert. Halvorsen played the viola part, both at the first performance and on subsequent occasions.

In the second Bergen period, which lasted for six years from 1893 to 1899, Halvorsen's unbelievable talent for creating music based on existing texts sprang into full bloom. Bojarenes inntogsmarsj is the result of an article in an encyclopaedia which Halvorsen read after being offered a teaching job in Bucharest. Here's how he describes the origins of this popular work:

“Got hold of an encyclopaedia to find out what Bucharest was like. There I read about the art-loving Queen Carmen Sylva and the descendants of the rich, distinguished Boyars who invaded Bucharest so and so many years ago. ‘This would look good in the newspapers,’ I thought. And then there was the Queen! She would immediately summon me to the palace with my quartet. I had to find release, so I wrote a march and called it “The March of the Boyars”, and just when I had finished it, the same afternoon, Edvard Grieg came in. ‘Now, hove are you doing? Already in full swing I see.’ He saw the manuscript on the piano, looked at it carefully and said: ‘That's really good!’.”

The cooperation between Grieg and Halvorsen was extremely significant for Norwegian music. Folk fiddler Knut Dale from Tinn in Telemark had visited Grieg in the late autumn of 1901 to have the many folk dances on his repertoire written down. He couldn't write music himself, and was therefore afraid that the dances, including some he had learned from the legendary fiddler Myllarguten would be lost when he died. Grieg thought he was the wrong person for the job since he was a pianist, and believed the music should be written down by a violinist. That is why Knut Dale was sent on to Johan Halvorsen in Christiania. This occurred towards the end of 1901, and the writing took place in the basement of the National Theatre, where Dale played until his fiddle glowed while Halvorsen took down the music by ear as best he could. In a letter to Edvard Grieg, Halvorsen writes:

“Today I saved two folk dances from oblivion. They aren't so easy to transcribe. Small jumps and trills like a small trout in a torrent...Sometimes he (Knut Dale) used ornaments, a mixture of 2/4 and 6/8 time, that made me laugh aloud for joy”.

The meeting wish fiddler Knut Dale was decisive for Johan Halvorsen. He became seriously aware of the uniqueness of folk music, and embarked on thorough studies of the Hardanger fiddle. Many people believe that the first real entry of folk music into classical music took place at this meeting. Anyway, it is certain that the meeting led to a new direction for Halvorsen as a composer: he saw the potential for music with a clearly national character.

The first time the Hardanger fiddle was used as a solo instrument with an orchestra was in Halvorsen's music for Fossegrimen (the fiddle playing water sprite), a play by Eldegard based on Norwegian folk stories and legends. The work also includes the famous piece Fanitullen, which according to Norwegian superstition was a dance played by the Devil himself on the Hardanger fiddle at a wedding in Hallingdal. I am sure it was with much national pride that Johan Halvorsen captivated his audience playing the solo part at the premiere.

This composition was subsequently expanded and perfected. Halvorsen's eminent folk music arrangements may be found in Norske Vise og Danse I-V (Norwegian folk songs and dances I-V) and in Norske Slaatter (Norwegian folk dances). In 1933, he rewrote the suite Norske eventyrbilder (Pictures from Norwegian Fairy-tales), creating four movements for a large orchestra. It had originally been composed in the 1920s as music for the children's comedy Peik, prinsessen og stortrollet (Peik, the Princess and the Big Troll) by Barbara Ring. Here the Peik motif is played by a Hardanger fiddle, the princess is enveloped in beautiful melodies, while the big troll resounds in dark, dangerous brass tones.

A new recording of this work was issued a few years ago, with the excellent soloist Terje Tønnesen and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karsten Andersen. If you wish to approach the Norwegian soul, it's not a bad idea to listen to Norske eventyrbilder. Here the fun and games and the fundamentally Norwegian appear in full orchestration with folk dancing, poetry, emotional upheavals, improvised storytelling and reflections of the darker, more gloomy aspects of the soul - but with no cheap national accents or musical clichés.

Perhaps it is the violin sections that would bring a foreigner closest to understanding what it means to be Norwegian, or at least how Norwegians would like to be understood. There is not much coldness or lack of quality; the Hardanger fiddle motifs express the indomitable, stubborn dimensions of the soul, its bottomless depths of longing and dreams.

Norway's new National Theatre opened in Christiania (Oslo), in 1899. There was a strong desire for the new National Theatre also to be a leading local theatre, and funding was allocated for a 43-piece orchestra. Halvorsen was extremely interested in the new job of conductor. His problem was that few people in the capital had heard of him. He solved this by going Christiania and giving a concert to advertise his candidacy. The programme consisted entirely of his own works.

Halvorsen was both conductor and soloist at the concert, and it was a success. When both theatre director Bjørn Bjørnson (son of the national poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson) and Edvard Grieg supported Johan Halvorsen for the post of conductor at the new theatre, the job was his. This was the beginning of his 30 years as conductor and composer at the National Theatre.

Johan Halvorsen's level of activity during this period could exhaust a lesser man. He composed music for over thirty plays, some of which was later arranged as orchestral suites. His compositions for the theatre include music for Shakespeare's “A Merchant of Venice”, “Macbeth”, and “Much Ado About Nothing”, Knut Hamsun's Dronning Tamara (Queen Tamara), Bjørnstjerne Bjømson's Kongen (The King), Sverre Brandt's Reisen til Julestjernen (Journey to the Christmas Star) and Holger Drachmann's Gurre. The latter was the first play he wrote music for, dramatic music that conjures up associations with Richard Wagner. He also produced a number of operas and conducted well over two hundred symphony concerts during his period at the theatre.

At the end of August 1929, Johan Halvorsen conducted the National Theatre Orchestra for the last time. He was by no means unsatisfied: “This was my last appearance at the National Theatre, where I have worked and had more freedom and better conditions than any other Norwegian musician,” he wrote in his memoirs. He died on 4 December 1935, much reduced by a stroke suffered some time previously.

For anyone hearing Johan Halvorsen's music today, it is clear that it encompasses far more than the disparaging label “theatre carpenter” would indicate. Much of Johan Halvorsen's theatre music can stand entirely on its own two feet. The problem for anyone wishing to listen his way into Johan Halvorsen's musical universe is that very little of his music has been recorded. Most of his works exist only in the theatre archives. It is therefore encouraging that several young Norwegian musicians now show an interest in performing works by Johan Halvorsen. Perhaps, in the 1990s, we may even speak of a minor “Halvorsen renaissance”?

His genius as a theatre composer is undeniable. Perhaps more contemporary Norwegian composers should take up the challenge and understand the possibilities of live music in the theatre, original music written for drama, rather than theatres, as they do now, so often utilising the facile range of the synthesizer.

To prove, if for no other reason, that although the art of the transitory moment, the theatre, dies when the curtain falls, the music lives on. Provided it is played again.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.2 - 1994 No. 3
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