Ragnar Söderlind - Biography

Ragnar Søderlind (Foto:NMI)

Ragnar Söderlind (1945) was considered as having a rare talent for composition before he was nineteen years of age, when his orchestral work "Jølsterslått" was performed. His exquisite treatment of the orchestra, and good grasp on the musical craft of composition, was impressive already at this early age. 50 years later, he can count more than 130 titles in his production. Among these, we can particularly mention eight symphonies, a violin-, a piano- and a cello concerto, the ballets "Hedda Gabler" (Ibsen), "Kristin Lavransdatter" (Undset) and "Victoria" (Hamsun), the operas "Esther og den blå ro" (Obstfelder) and "Rose og Ravn" (Knut J. Moe), as well as a number of orchestral and vocal works. In addition, notable chamber works provide a depth to his artistic output, and confirm the mark of quality that is associated with the name Söderlind.

When the young composer established his musical direction in the middle of the 60's, avant-garde music dominated the composition environment in Norway. Electro-acoustic music, serial music, tone-color music and aleatory music seemed to be the solution for a young composer with a future. Tonality and triads were still banished from dominant trends, but Söderlind had the courage to bring forth a different aesthetic. He was labeled a "new-romanticist" because he was among the first at that time who dared to use musical means from the turn of the century. Söderlind incorporated stylistic techniques from this period, and renewed them in the light of the avant-garde composer's timbral world of experience. The symphonic poem "Rokkomborre" from 1967 was Söderlind's breakthrough as a symphonic composer. The mountain Rokkomborre, and the nature from northern Norway, are the sources of inspiration for this short and musically precise work. The large contrasts, the quick changes, and the special light that characteristic motives are exposed to during the development of the work, can be explained from these impressions of nature. At the same time, the clear and thorough exploitation and coloring of the musical motives are of great pleasure to the listener.

The symphonic poem "Polaris" from 1968-70 is a further development of his technique for describing nature. Here, the metaphorical representation of emotions and experiences of nature is strengthened. However, Söderlind had set a goal to be more than a romantic painter of landscapes. In order to communicate with a larger audience, he had chosen to break out of the self-imposed isolation of contemporary music. At the same time, he wanted his music to reflect, and to awaken engagement in, contemporary times. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the war in Biafra in 1968, served as points of departure for "Trauermusik". When the Norwegian parliament decided to develop the Alta river in Finnmark for hydro-electric energy in opposition the wish of the Lapps, Söderlind once more felt the need to protest. This time, the protest was directed towards a society that chose to ignore a minority group, while both violating a sensitive nature and an exposed culture.

Symphony nr. 2 from 1980 is characterized by impressive images of nature, and this is the environment where good and evil forces struggle. A Lappish joik is developed into a patriotic battle-hymn, but the work nonetheless dies out in resignation and hopelessness. The universal and emotional means utilized by the composer render additional commentary superfluous.

Söderlind's virtuoso instrumental technique, and his obvious leaning towards programmatic means, has in a natural fashion led him towards scenic works. At the same time, his music retains a symphonic character. This is particularly prominent in his operas; "Esther og den blå ro" as a scenic symphony, and his ballets,"Hedda Gabler" among others, as choreographed symphonic poems.

On the other hand, Symphony nr.3 from 1984 can almost be considered a study for an opera. The texts in the Rimbaud collection of poetry, "Les Illuminations", are the points of departure for the five movements in the symphony, and are sung alternatively by a soprano and a baritone. The introduction of the voices has strengthened the 'melody' as the carrying element in the work. Rimbaud's collection is characterized by rich possibilities for a varied and detailed interpretation of the text. It seems that this is what has attracted Söderlind. To create a symphonic unity between the singular emotions and atmospheres, Söderlind has employed both cinematic techniques and a technique for musical transformation, not unlike what we find in the works of Alban Berg. With a virtuoso hand, the tone structure is underlined by the contribution of timbral combinations from a large symphony orchestra.

Söderlind's fourth symphony, a commission from The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, was written in 1990 and received it's premiere in 1992. Other recent works deserving mention are a cello concerto and the ballet "The Dance of Life" based on the art of Edvard Munch. The latter was a commission from the Norwegian National Opera in connection with the cultural festival during the Lillehammer Olympic Winter Games in 1994. His Symphony No. 5 is a commission from the Bergen International Festival, where Söderlind is composer in residence for the festival in 1995.

As a composer, Söderlind is largely self-taught. He has, however, studied counterpoint under Conrad Baden (1965-66), and composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki (1967-68), with Erik Bergman and Joonas Kokkonen as his teachers.

In 1976, he received his degree in conducting from The Norwegian State Academy of Music. He has received commissions from almost all of the important music institutions in Norway, including The Norwegian Opera, and the Bergen International Festival. He has received several commissions from the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as from abroad.

Translation: Palmyre Pierroux
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