Music: Harald Saeverud—A Norwegian Original

The abundance of first-rate symphonic music produced by Scandinavians in the 20th century is a mysterious secret to most music lovers. Is there life after Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen? Try Herman Koppel, Niels Bentzon, Aare Merikanto, Einar Englund, Klaus Egge, Hilding Rosenberg, Gosta Nystroem, Lars-Erik Larsson, or Geirr Tveitt, to say nothing of Vagn Holmboe, Aulis Sallinen, and Einojuhani Rautavaara, whose works have been covered extensively in this column. These are certainly among the better-known Scandinavian composers of the last 75 years, which is still to say that they are hardly known at all outside Scandinavia itself.

The magnitude of our loss can fortunately be measured by the gain in new CD recordings that can almost instantaneously pluck a composer from obscurity and place him center stage. Two Scandinavian labels, Simax and Bis, have done this for Harald Saeverud (1897-1992), one of Norway’s finest composers and perhaps its most original.

In my Crisis interview with Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (December 1998), I suggested Saeverud as an influence on Rautavaara’s music. Rautavaara seemed surprised at the mention of Saeverud’s name, presumably because of its obscurity, and responded: “Yes, of course. His music has not been around for a long time now, but in the 50s I really studied him and I liked him very, very much. And I think he was quite close to what I wanted to do at that time.”

Saeverud’s music is now back and, as if in compensation for its neglect, there are two superb competing cycles of his nine symphonies under way: one from Simax with Saeverud’s hometown Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Dmitri Kitaenko, and one from Bis with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, under Alexander Dmitriev. Simax has also released a two-CD set of other orchestral works and concertos, again with the Bergen Philharmonic but directed by veteran Saeverud conductor Kirsten Andersen.

Saeverud is very famous in Norway, where he is considered, along with his predecessor, Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), one of the nation’s musical treasures. In fact, Saeverud’s famous residence, Siljustol (known as “tone-castle”), situated on 176 acres of unspoiled nature, is only six kilometers from Grieg’s home, Troldhaugen. Aside from geographical proximity, both composers share in the spirit of Norwegian folk music and nature. Grieg brilliantly embellished Norwegian folk tunes. Saeverud created his own. Saeverud excelled in highly elliptical, aphoristic music, some of which is so quirkily peculiar and delightful that it is hard to believe it is not directly quoting folk material. “Allow me to emphasize,” Saeverud insisted, “that, while my music has no connection with Norwegian folk songs…my melodies have the same origin: the Norwegian landscape and temperament.”

That temperament, however peculiar to Norway, nonetheless shares in the same ethos expressed by another very individual genius, Czech composer Leos Janacek, who said that folk song “is the expression of men who know only the culture of God, not an alien, inflicted culture. I believe that a time will come when all art music will spring from a common folk source…” It is Saeverud’s unique distinction that he is one of those sources. He seemed to possess an inexhaustible spring of highly original melodies, and one need not be Norwegian to delight in them.

Beyond geography and folk-spirit, however, Saeverud shared little else with Grieg. Grieg was a Romantic in spirit and a miniaturist in form. He attempted a symphony as a young man but then abandoned the genre as not his own (writing “never to be performed” on the manuscript). Adept as he was at miniatures, Saeverud also excelled at larger forms and became, Norway’s premier symphonist, numbering nine symphonies to his credit. He was not a Romantic in any conventional sense. Some of his music is very lyrical and touching in a childlike way, but it is free of sentimentality.

Saeverud was far tougher at the core than Grieg, and, as one would expect, used a more modern language. Nothing illustrates this more effectively than Saeverud’s music for Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt, which is as gruff as Grieg’s earlier music for the same play is sweet. Though Saeverud was thoroughly immersed in nature and thought the intrinsic strength of a theme should alone determine its growth, “just as a flower seed can only become a flower, or an acorn—an oak,” he knew that nature is not all flowers and trees. Saeverud’s teacher in Berlin once remarked, “There is so much stone in your music.” To which, Saeverud responded, “I love stone.”

While Saeverud abhorred serialism and other fashionable modernisms, he experimented freely to find his own means of expression, which are highly idiosyncratic, occasionally including ample amounts of dissonance. The great British conductor Sir John Barbirolli said, “Whether you like the music of Saeverud or not, there is no mistaking who wrote it, and this can be said of few composers of the present day.” Saeverud’s music possesses unmistakable traits. It has its own special weirdness and charm. It is puckish, pungent, defiant, feisty, bold, whimsical, roughhewn, cranky, fantastic, mischievous, rustic, but sophisticated.

Somewhat like Janacek, without at all sounding like him, Saeverud found a way to anthropomorphize his instruments so that they almost speak. Particularly with wind instruments and the piano, he can say things that are understandable in any language. One particularly poignant example is the Rondo Amoroso, which originated in a dialogue between Saeverud and his little son. As Saeverud said, “I was permitted to put down in music the soul of a child.”

As for his music’s development, Saeverud said, “a theme is propagated by generating new versions of the theme itself. One then concentrates on a single part of the theme, allowing it to generate further components, preferably enabling it to grow naturally and systematically as if it were a plant shooting from the earth.” There is a free-wheeling, unfettered, almost improvisatory air to the way Saeverud’s ideas are developed through variation techniques, which is quite exciting and fascinating. Saeverud uses short motifs again like Janacek and with his same extraordinary rhythmic vitality. Saeverud also uses repetition to great effect. To show his irritation with something, Saeverud will point a melody at it and repeat it insistently until his point is made, as if he were wagging his finger.

These are an unusual but quite coherent means for holding a symphony together, though they may give an initial impression of aphoristic fracture or haphazard exfoliation, which may account for British critic Robert Layton’s judgment that “Saeverud is often not a long-breathed composer.” Saeverud is so effective at capturing one’s attention in the moment, and at each succeeding moment, that this may seem the case. But he can also deploy long-lined melodies within impressive polyphonic structures that can sustain his occasionally aphoristic utterances over large spans. The music is most imaginatively and piquantly orchestrated, and possesses a multitude of very affective and expressive melodies. The canvas onto which these components are splashed in bold and original ways is a large one, though woven in a thoroughly accessible and traditionally tonal manner. Saeverud’s music also contains a strange brew of exuberance and melancholy.

Saeverud speculated that the strong streak of melancholy in his work may have originated with his birth in an abandoned churchyard. “My house was built on its grounds,” he explained. “The churchyard was very ancient and in disuse for some time. It is possible that there exists a relation between the morbid church-yard atmosphere and the plaintive sad music which at the time was my entire repertory.” In fact, Saeverud entitled his first childhood composition Death of the Hen. Saeverud displayed his equally prominent sense of humor some years later in an interview. When asked what the death of the hen meant to him as a child, he responded, “I stopped eating eggs.”

Saeverud’s childhood was also enlivened by a music book a cousin brought him that contained cheerful marches and waltzes. He was so impressed by its contents that he determined to make music his life. Perhaps his encounter with this book also accounts for the predominance of dance rhythms in his work, just as his churchyard parturition may have inspired his many choralelike themes.

By the age of fifteen, Saeverud had composed enough orchestral music to conduct a concert of his own pieces in Bergen. After studying at the Bergen Conservatory for five years, he won a scholarship in 1920 for a further year’s study at the Hochschule in Berlin. Saeverud then returned to Bergen to earn his living as a pianist, teacher, and composer.

He showed his predilections early. Three of his first five opus numbers are symphonies. Having heard Saeverud’s First Symphony, the great Danish composer Carl Nielsen wrote to him, “Your composition succeeded in retaining my interest from the first note to the last, a seldom occurrence…. I have great expectations for your future careers’

Saeverud’s future career did not come easily. The folks in Bergen were not entirely pleased with the somewhat aggressive, intense music of this young man, which is hardly surprising considering how provincial musical life in Norway was at the time. But Saeverud was not pleased either. He found fault with his first three symphonies and was still working on a revision of his 44-minute-long Third when he died in 1992. The partially revised Third is available on Bis-CD-872 and, while containing some impressive music, still seems overly discursive.

By the time of the Fourth Symphony, Saeverud found his footing. His next three symphonies came from the World War II years. They are Saeverud’s testimony against the Nazi occupation of Norway. Epitomizing the resistance, these works, along with the Ballad of Revolt, dedicated to the “great and small heroes of the underground movement,” have become part of the fabric of the Norwegian national consciousness. Saeverud said, “I felt that my work must be a personal war within the war with Germany.” The Ballad of Revolt was prompted, according to English critic Robert Layton, by Saeverud’s “fury at the sight of Nazi barracks near Bergen.”

The particularly moving and highly concentrated Symphony No. 6, Sinfonia dolorosa, was dedicated to Saeverud’s friend, Dr. Audun Lavik, who was executed by the Germans in 1944. In under twelve minutes, Saeverud creates, in a nearly monothematic work, an unforgettably powerful lament. Symphony No. 7, Psalm, written near the end of the war, has the subtitle “the symphony of adversity, battle, faith and acknowledgment. Father’s and mother’s symphony.” In it, Saeverud returns to the churchyard in which he was born for both consolation and celebration. This one-movement work is built around two chorales (of Saeverud’s invention) and is subdivided into five sections: Hymns; Yuletide Variations; Stave Church Chimes; Fugue; and Glorification. It must be emphasized that these works are not polemical tub-thumping or explicit wartime narratives. One need know nothing of their germination to find them completely compelling on purely musical terms.

Saeverud’s penultimate symphony, No. 8, was dedicated to Minnesota, the home of so many Norwegian immigrants in the United States, where it was premiered to great acclaim. At 40 minutes long, this work, like the Third, I find too discursive and lacking in memorable melodies. With his Symphony No. 9, however, Saeverud closed out his cycle with another masterpiece, though it was not universally greeted as such at its premiere in 1966. The Poco lento movement is a good example of the fun Saeverud can have with dance rhythms. I have not heard such a delectable treatment of waltz rhythms since the second of Lars-Erik Larsson’s Due Auguri, as beautiful an apotheoses of the dance as has been written in modern times. The powerful closing movement, marked Moderato (“Tolling Bells in the Mountains”), reprises some of Saeverud’s favorite themes and ends in a magnificent climax.

The two Simax two-CD boxes contain nearly five hours of music-19 orchestral works and three concertante works. The newcomer to Saeverud’s music should probably begin with Volume 2 because it contains so many of Saeverud’s most folk-like works, with their quite touching, completely disarming, and unaffected simplicity. Volume 2 shows the more complicated side of Saeverud and is indispensable for symphony lovers. It offers Symphonies Nos. 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 (three of them recording premieres), along with three other orchestral works. I have heard only two CDs in the Biscycle, and they are exemplary. The one containing Symphony No. 3 and the Violin Concerto is for the converted. The other has the only available recording of Symphony No. 9, making it indispensable. It also offers an excellent rendition of the Piano Concerto (also contained in Simax Volume 2) and the raucous Fanfare and Hymn, dedicated to the 900th anniversary of the city of Bergen but inspired by Saeverud’s loathing for the Norwegian tax system, which he equated with slavery.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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