When Ludvig Irgens-Jensen died in 1969, his colleague Øistein Sommerfeldt called him “a mountaineer of the spirit”. This description reflects both Irgens-Jensen's lifelong interest in mountains and mountaineering and his quest for musical heights.
Even after their deaths, Edvard Grieg and Johan Svendsen continued to exert enormous influence, as did leading composer Christian Sinding. Around the time of World War I, the critics believed Brahms to be too radical and French impressionist music too “ugly”. Performing Stravinsky in Norway was unthinkable.
Irgens Jensen's debut in 1920 aroused attention. Here a radical, dubbed “our younger music's enfant terrible”, was presenting almost atonal songs. An autodidact, he studied competition and music theory on his own. He spoke several languages, was well travelled, and consciously sought out the newest trends in Europe. Due to his deep understanding and critical ability, he became a major importer and adapter of European culture, and his music was the inspiration of younger composers. Irgens Jensen was highly respected and his mature, simplified style gradually won him a broad audience. In 1945 he was awarded an artist's stipend by the Storting (the Norwegian national assembly).
His extremely expressive and strictly constructed orchestral piece, Passacaglia, which won a prize at the international Schubert competition in 1928, enjoyed immediate success. Norway had finally conceived a major competition after Grieg, and Passacaglia was subsequently performed in many countries in Europe and in the USA. Irgens Jensen was offered contracts by several international publishing houses but was too modest to accept, thereby missing a broader, international launch of his music.
In 1930, Heimferd won a music competition arranged in connection with the 900th centenary of the death of St. Olav and the victory of Christianity in Norway. This “dramatic symphony” is often referred to as the “St. Olav Oratorio”, as it requires a large ensemble comprising soloists, choir and orchestra. There is much beautiful music in this through-composed work. The “sacred” parts have elements reminiscent of older church music, even Gregorian chants. However there are also lyrical descriptions of nature, and there is no lack of drama.
The libretto is powerful, in strict metric form, with many allusions to the sagas. However, it was written in New Norwegian and due to an unfortunate language battle, the author, Olav Gullvåg, and his text were boycotted at the celebrations in Trondheim.
Heimferd was therefore first performed in Oslo in autumn 1930, and became one of Oslo's greatest musical successes ever. Two performances were planned, but the work became so popular that it was performed twelve times in the course of thirteen weeks, and was also broadcast live from the concert hall twice, which was fairly unique at the time.
During World War II, Irgens Jensen composed his symphony, a protest against occupation and repression. Under a pseudonym, he also wrote songs to poems by the resistance poets Nordahl Grieg, Arnulf Øverland and Inger Hagerup. Some of these songs were smuggled to Sweden and broadcast from England. The melodies were also printed by the resistance movement with a different text, but “everyone” knew which illegal poem they were really supposed to sing. At the time of liberation in 1945, a choir of 8000 stood in front of the Royal Palace in Oslo singing Irgens-Jensen's and Øverland's “To the King”. The underground grapevine had worked well.
Unfortunately, his whole generation of composers was sadly neglected in the 1960s and 1970s. Only in recent years has the polarisation between the self-centred interest of modernism and the romanticism of the traditional performing institutions became less marked and interest in the mid-war period shown signs of increasing. Ludvig Irgens Jensen's music is a good starting-off point for new discoveries in Norwegian music.