Per Nørgård interview

The Danish composer speaks to Hannah Nepil about being a Northern leading light

Per Nørgård sounds puzzled. We are discussing the merits of Scandinavian classical music, but when it comes to Sweden, the 80-year-old composer is stumped. ‘Why hasn’t this country produced more characteristic music? Or a composer as famous as Norway’s Grieg, Finland’s Sibelius or Denmark’s Carl Nielsen? I have no answer.’ As a Dane himself, he doesn't need to take it too personally. But it’s a relevant issue, in light of the upcoming survey of Nordic music at the Barbican: ‘Total Immersion: New from the North’.

This is where, along with performances of Nørgård’s ‘Wie ein Kind’, and his score to accompany a film version of Ibsen’s ‘Hedda Gabler’, we will hear the UK Premiere of his ‘Symphony No 8’. Which prompts me to ask, does his music epitomise the ‘North’? Some might consider this a facile question, one which blurs the distinction between Norwegian, Danish, Finnish and Swedish music. According to Nørgård, however, there is a characteristic ‘Nordic’ sound: it has something to do with the Scandinavians’ ‘connection to nature, which is formed very early in our lives.’ And, yes, his own music does display this trait: emotionally unbuttoned, even quite wild in places, it’s something of a primal force to be reckoned with. But there’s also a sense of humour that catches you off-guard. A fan of South Park and the Marx Brothers, Nørgård is surely the only composer to appear naked on the cover of a book about his life and works: ‘The Music of Per Nørgård: Fourteen Interpretative Essays’. But then, according to Nørgård, ironic humour is as characteristic of the Danes as it is of the English: ‘It is sometimes said that the Danes are like Germans, who think that they are English.’

It was a Finn, however, who influenced Nørgård’s early compositional efforts: he idolised Sibelius in his youth, and even sent the ageing composer a letter telling him so. ‘I wrote that he was not an old hat but a man of the future, because of his unique approach to form.’ Sibelius replied that he had ‘very seldom received a letter showing such an understanding of his work.’ What particularly attracted Nørgård to Sibelius’s music was its sense of mysticism – a quality which he has attempted to invest in his own compositions.

Yet when the opportunity came up to approach Sibelius in person, Nørgård let it slide. ‘I was too shy!’ he cries, ‘and that is the story of my life.’ It happened again when his favourite artist, Marc Chagall, came to visit Nørgård’s home city of Copenhagen. ‘I could have gone up to him and told him how much I admired his paintings. But I didn’t!’ Interesting then, that this timidity finds no place in Nørgård's music. Harmonically and melodically adventurous, he draws inspiration from philosophy and all areas of the arts, such as the work of the disturbed Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli, who suffered from psychosis and spent most of his adult life in a psychiatric hospital. And although neither serialist or atonal, much of Nørgård’s work is governed by a mathematical principle called the ‘infinity series’, which results in the generation of an ever-changing sequence of notes. ‘It is important for me to create a sea of constant change while maintaining continuity,’ says Nørgård. I don't like repeating myself. Why should I do that?’

Nørgård still finds plenty to say through the symphonic format. ‘I don’t understand it when people say the symphony is outdated,’ he complains. To him, the word ‘symphony’ is simply a name for a substantial, well-structured work for a symphony orchestra. ‘So you can call it a “symphony”, or you can call it “Peter” or whatever you like,’ he says, ‘it doesn't much matter.’

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