This 2012 article by Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen originally appeared in Danish on the website of the Danish new music organization SNYK. With the permission of the author, I present here a translation into English for the benefit of Nørgård fans worldwide, especially as the work will gain new attention with the release of its world premiere recording on the Dacapo label.
As you may know, Per Nørgård turns 80 years old this year. And he has even written a new symphony, the eighth in his cycle, which will be premiered in Helsinki on September 19, 2012. On this occasion I met with the composer to talk about symphonies in general and the Eighth in particular.
The Symphony No. 8 is unmistakably a Nørgård piece. And not just that, it is unmistakably a Nørgård symphony! Like his earlier symphonies, it opens with a intial attack from which rising and falling lines unfold. And at the same time it is – like the seven symphonies before it – completely unique. The opening has none of the violence that characterizes the openings of the Fifth and Seventh. Its falling melodic lines are not as ethereal as the movements that begin the Symphony No. 6, or so regular, even rule-governed, as the descending overtone series with which the Symphony No. 3 begins.
It is its own, and it is Nørgårdian. But what actually makes something a Nørgårdian symphony and distinguishes it from other genres? Nørgård doesn’t have a short, concise answer to that but instead unfolds a long train of thought:
A symphony is a work where the motion, the momentum, is like a clear unfolding of the material. When it has a relentlessness, something – as Sibelius called it –
compelling about what one is dealing with. What might be compelling could simply be that the work radiates a “suchness”, where one can say that it is just a question of having an inevitable way in which it unfolds its basic material. This will not be found, for example, in a series of variations, where you can have one more variation or one less. In a symphony the material imposes itself on you, so to speak.
The symphonic can be compelling in many ways.
The compelling character of a symphony for me lies in the fact, that it is never something that is explicitly stated. That is, the symphonic material is precisely not just material; it is in a state which ensures that it never gets through with itself. That state can be the unity behind it then.
As Poul Ruders once put it, the symphony is like a big bear that one wrestles with.
Such a description might remind one of Vagn Holmboe’s description of the symphony as a
an uninterrupted flow, a single long breath, as a process that must
be seen as something inevitable (Mellemspil (Copenhagen: Edition Wilhelm Hansen, 1961), pp. 43–44). For Holmboe this process is associated with his “metamorphosis principle”, which is a constant transformation of basic material from one state to another. I therefore asked Nørgård whether he thinks that the concept of “metamorphosis” is linked to the symphonic.
That’s what Holmboe thought, he answers promptly. When asked what he himself thinks, Nørgård’s answer is initially more hesitant:
That was the case for Holmboe. I have never been especially interested in it, except when I studied with him, of course. It would have been rude otherwise. We wrote dialogues about it, and I tried then to write something clever about metamorphosis, which was preserving the unity of something that constantly and overtly moves from something to something else, but in a different way than variation, which doesn’t have that compelling quality.
Here that word from the description of the symphony comes up again,
compelling, and when I mention that the idea of metamorphosis can be seen to be incorporated into the infinity series, which gradually and continuously transforms a starting point, Nørgård concludes:
Metamorphosis is really the basis for all of my music, I think. That is why the word itself has not interested me much, for what would it be if it wasn’t metamorphosis?
metamorphosis is quite different from Holmboe’s. What they share is the perception of music as an irreversible organic process, a perception that really dates back to Carl Nielsen’s views on music as expressed particularly in the writing of his Symphony No. 4 (and later placed as a motto in the published score):
Music is life, and, like it, inextinguishable.
Life in the first part of the Symphony No. 8’s opening movement consists of three elements:
- A rising, rhythmically exact motion,
- Falling, more rhythmically intangible motions,
- a “floor” between them.
As Nørgård explains:
The first movement has decided on a portal to enter. This is in the form of a “floor” in the middle, whose material is bound by a sort of gravity. It is a type of horizon, a line in the middle and it moves between a rhythm which consists of dotted eighths and then quarter notes in triplets, very close to each other, but it provides a variant between what is falling, set against triplets. They stand therefore opposite a rising and falling, which in a way is relentless and could theoretically go on forever, because when the one that is rising reaches the middle, where the other is falling down to, they could in principle pass through each other.
As the following excerpt from the score shows, one can find lines of the score that actually
pass through each other and go on in opposite directions.
On Nørgård’s piano at home is a sketch where this first movement is described as “Sequences of Consequences”:
So how does this symphony compare to the others?
I seem to have noticed a similarity in the way that the Symphonies Nos. 3–8 open, with an initial attack that the music flows out of. Nørgård responds:
The Third has an ideal symphonic beginning. The Fourth is the least symphonic. The Third is a big, serious older brother, while the Fourth has a more of an observer relationship with the symphonic. The Fifth, on the other hand, was no doubt a beginning for me, a beginning of a symphony.
And why was that? I ask myself this question. I don’t know why, but I was entirely aware of it from the beginning. It was a beginning that made me more and more aware that it was a big bear that I had got involved with. I either had to go ahead with the rather large sounds that are at the opening of the Fifth, and it would be a violent task, or I had to find a whole other way. And in that case it would have not been the same kind of work.
In fact, it’s related to the Symphony No. 6, although the Sixth is more of a will to write a symphony. So it was the desire to get out of something that really took hold of me. And all the violence in it from the beginning, that swirling tonal material, formed an excellent starting point, I think, for that symphony.
I mention that the Sixth was originally presented as a more “mature” version of the Third. Nørgård recognizes this idea, but the differences are more important:
Where the Third is almost programmatic in its attack – here comes a big bear with a start and everything that really demands attention – yes, what is the beginning of the Sixth other than a kind of rough draft. It bursts out into this huge atmospheric space and therefore may be related with the Third; but I see them as very different, those two.
I note that the last three symphonies are structurally similar to each other with their division into three movements “fast–slow–fast”. That this does not reflect a particularly preferred gesture that Nørgård has worked towards is shown by the Symphony No. 7:
The Seventh appears to have three movements, but it really doesn’t. No, the Seventh is really in a single movement, which is interrupted by an intermezzo that makes a tunnel into a different view. And when it has presented this otherness, then the third movement continues where the first left off.
And the Symphony No. 8?
Somewhere in my thinking the Eighth stands as three possible states of being.
The first movement is the classical symphony, an arrow pointing in a direction, whereas the second movement, here we have a situation where it spins around in a kind of never-ending three-part carousel. And the third movement, what is that then? I was very excited about it, only I didn’t know until I worked towards it, but suddenly I was well aware of it. It’s the one where you have nothing to hold on to! If you look at the third movement, its rhythm is puzzling, because there doesn’t seem to be any pulse. It’s like blades of grass that sprout up. And yet you see a form as you go along. So in my mind the third movement is the only new option.
Writing a movement like this third movement, which is entirely open, created a sense of panic for Nørgård:
What happens with me if I don’t have any real sense of the form from the moment I start, but instead I only experience it from moment to moment like raindrops?
It’s music where you have nothing to hold on to. You find it along the way. That means that for every step, you have to ask what the next one will be. The attacks are like sprouts that grow up and accelerate. When will they come on? So I had to work by intuition the whole time, and it was a strange feeling.
Then there are places where the movement gathers itself together and there you could say,
But that way of starting, we’ve already seen that three minutes earlier, but that is just the result of what is happening along the way. Something is gathering itself together, you see, something that is initially vague. In its later recurrences it will therefore have established a relationship with itself, which means that it has an almost quotation-like character when it returns. I feel that way in particular about the third movement. So that made the third movement a huge challenge.
What the music in the third movement collects towards turns out to be the music from the first movement. The rising motions, the “floor” theme and other thematic gestalts from the first movement show up and lead to a final, floating almost Lux Aeterna-like section titled Lento visionario. Here the “floor” melody is included in a big harmonized pianissimo space, which theoretically could go on forever. The ending is almost magical in the way it combines harmonic clarity with an ultrashort melodic apotheosis, the details of which shall not be revealed here.
In the first movement the different lines are brought together into a motivic gestalt, which appears as a mixture of ascending and descending motions. As Nørgård puts it,
The upward and downward motions have a strange mating dance.
This motif, or melodic line (which apparently can never exhaust itself; even after that long B the motion continues) leads to a contrasting section. At first glance, this section is based on a siciliano figure. But it’s not so easy as that:
The eternal 6/8 is unstable. A normal siciliano is suggested but never fully materializes. Sometimes it is shifted by an eighth note. When will the dotted eighth and sixteenth note result in one, and when will they not? This creates a textures of vibrations that never repeats itself. It revolves the whole time around the siciliano motif, so one just rediscovers it. It’s like one of those toys where you push it down, and it comes right back up again.
(The siciliano rhythm is knocked down and comes right back up again…)
It would not be a true Nørgård work if these changes, which are after all relatively simple, did not feed a somewhat more radical interpretation. In this case it is the interpretation of a 6/8 bar, which is put into play through further differentiating between the bar’s inherent following from a fourth note and an eighth note.
Then that’s that – you can say,
Yes, that was an easy way to write a symphony, you just keep going and going, but that isn’t what I’m doing. I’ve found something new here. It has to do with the interpretation of 6/8. People think they know that 6/8 is. 6/8 consists of a long note, a quarter note, and a short one, an eighth note, or vice versa, an eighth note and a quarter note. At any rate, the quarter note can be divided so that it contains a triplet.
For if one subdivides the quarter notes in a 6/8 bar into triplets, this allows a smaller short+long or long+short motion within the bar’s overall short+long or long+short. Through the contrapuntal nature of this rhythm Nørgård achieves a detailed rhtyhm of great sophistication, which transforms an ordinary 6/8 into something completely different, something as yet unheard.
The figure below shows two different gestalt setups of this idea.
Now, it’s never so simple in Nørgård’s music. The complex itself becomes more complex. At that moment that these two rhythmic structures are added together – the knocked down siciliano and the triplet subdivision – the siciliano rhythm is transformed to quadruplets against a 6/8 bar that is further distinguished by the triplet divisions (bar 77). Later the basic 6/8 part’s basic structure is more pronounced (bar 94). (For the record, it should be said that deferring the siciliano figure to quadruplets may help clarify a figure which might otherwise risk being being blurred compared to the triplets, as a rhythmically unchanged siciliano would be very close to.)
The second movement is in every way a contrast to the first movement (although the rising and falling motions can be said to be occur transformed in the harmonies’ voice leading).
Of this movement, the never-ending three-part carousel, titled “Rotundum” on the paper on the piano, Nørgård says:
It’s a soundworld that I had already heard when I was writing the first movement. So I knew where I was going, unlike when I was moving on to the third movement. And I was delighted to immerse myself in this movement, because there’s something special in these sounds. The movement is almost like an Amager shelf, where three images appear. It turns, and then the new image comes.
And what role does this movement have in this context, then?
I’ve never thought about it before, but based on intuition I would answer, that the axis of rotation is continually in motion. Try to imagine that there is a space that arises, so there must be something that is constant. It is not just something that shows up. It is itself the tempo of the rotation, the very axis that the whole moves around. And on this axis are the three types of expression. It is very much a resting point.
The three images from the Amager shelf, or the three-part carousel which forms the basic material of the second movement, Nørgård characterises as the
State of Being. Or, as it is put later, the spinning axis that the symphony itself spins around. Note the harmonies, which in the second and third element are composed of different versions of chords with both a major and minor third.
I mention to Nørgård that the second movement shares this focus on harmony with the second movements of his last two three-movement symphonies, the Sixth and Seventh.
I think it has to do with how you view tempo. If you look at it the way I in fact do in this case with these movements, then what we might call the slow tempo is present.
But if we imagine the fast tempo from the first and third movements, it will be such, that it is really the same thing, heard at different distances. For if you hear something fast vibrating at a great distance, it will act like slow sounds that change. And it is these that appear all by themselves in e.g. the second movement’s theme. It is as if we have come so far from it that we only see it as a sound. Melodically and acoustically. In contrast, when you come closer to it, you see that there are always vibrations around it. And it is the point in between that interests me. So a sound that one thinks is static, is in fact vibrating between different states.
With this our conversation came to an end. Per Nørgård went to have a rest before another visit an hour later, and I went home with, as is usual for a meeting with Nørgård, a head full of new impressions and thoughts that would gradually settle in the coming days.