Monday, 12 January 2015

A very fine new biography of the Norwegian composer Ludvig Irgens-Jensen will, without doubt, persuade readers to investigate his music further

The Norwegian composer Ludvig Irgens-Jensen (1894-1969) was one of the towering creative figures of his native land, although his dignified and powerful music does not receive the attention its quality deserves, either at home or abroad.

The success of his dramatic symphony Heimferd (Homecoming) in 1930 brought him national fame, but post-War modernism, coupled with his personal modesty, pushed Irgens-Jensen's tonal music into the shadows. A growing number of recordings is now reminding listeners that he was one of the most distinguished and distinctive voices in twentieth-century music, a figure of international importance, writing music of striking nobility and strength of purpose. 

Toccata Press has recently published an English translation by Beryl Foster of Ludvig Irgens-Jensen: The Life and Music of a Norwegian Composer by Arvid O. Vollsnes.

This new book distributed by Boydell and Brewer is the first biography in English of Ludvig Irgens-Jensen that, hopefully, will bring a wider interest in his life and music. Indeed, a sampler CD that is provided with the book should help in this wider appreciation and encourage listeners to explore further.

Ludvig Irgens-Jensen - The Life and Music of a Norwegian Composer
Arvid O Vollsnes
Toccata Press Composer Studies
ISBN: 978-0-907689-73-7
pp 368
Hardback, Size 16.4 x 24.1 cms
Published: March 2014

The first chapter gives the reader the flavour of Musical Life in Kristiania, from 1877 to 1925 the name for the city of Oslo, setting the scene for the world in which Irgens-Jensen was to be born. We are then taken through his early life in a family that ran a successful and well-known grocery company, Jensen and Co.

Although born with reduced eyesight in one eye this did not prevent him having an adventurous nature, something that would later develop into an enthusiasm for mountaineering. Irgens-Jensen also showed a methodical approach to anything he tackled with an extract from his early notebook detailing how he would organise his ideal day.

As a grammar school student he was already writing poems; a number of which are included in an appendix to this volume. There is a suggestion that he may have had plans at one time to become a painter, indeed there are photographs of a number of pencil sketches reproduced here which shows a definite talent.

However his musical studies continued and by 1915 Irgens-Jensen was studying with the composer Nils Larsen (1888-1937).  He was developing rapidly as a pianist tackling repertoire such as Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s last sonatas and the piano works of Chopin and Schumann. He never appeared in public as a pianist apart from the odd occasion that he stood in as an accompanist.

Irgens-Jensen began to compose at an early age although his earliest sketches only date from around 1913. In order to keep outside of traditional composition teaching, he systematically read books on harmony, counterpoint and general music theory, whilst also discussing music with his childhood friend, the composer and later conductor, Odd Gruner-Hegge (1899-1973).

In 1919 Irgens-Jensen was confident enough to allow publication of a number of his songs, signing a five year contract with the new publishing firm of Skandia Musikforlag. This wasn’t a success, the publisher failing after some seven months to publish a single song. Irgens-Jensen managed with some difficulty to extract himself from the contract and published the songs himself. Later performances drew from the critics a grudging recognition of the composer’s talent.

In October 1920 Irgens-Jensen went to Paris where he was able to hear the music of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Debussy. A short visit to Berlin allowed him to hear Hindemith’s First String Quartet. In the 1920s he was very productive, producing many songs with a number of critics noticing changes in his compositional style. His Violin Sonata in B flat major was first performed in 1923, receiving an enthusiastic review in Aftenposten. It seems that Irgens-Jensen’s fine orchestral work Tema con variazioni dates from around 1925 though reworked and published in 1935.

This publication provides detailed information on this and many other of Irgens-Jensen’s works including musical examples. We are taken through his Piano Quintet of 1927, his very fine Passacaglia (1927), the large scale choral work Heimferd (1930), incidental music Driftekaren (1937) from which he drew his Partita Sinfonica (1938), his Symphony in D minor (1941) as well as his songs including his last large scale work, a song cycle Japanischer Frühling (1958) a revision of his Op.2 of 1920.

Chapter Twelve takes a look at Irgens-Jensen the man, his intense shyness, his reliability and dependability, his knowledge and wisdom, his kindness and modesty and much more. The following chapter looks at Irgens-Jensen’s view of music and his musical style. Perhaps here it is best to quote the composer himself in an interview given in 1931 where he states ‘On the whole I am against everything unnatural, everything strained in art. Art cannot be forced, it must grow organically…’

There is a list of Irgens-Jensen’s works, a bibliography and discography and general index as well as details of the contents of the sampler CD provided that also contains a rare recorded interview with the composer.

This is a well-illustrated book that is full of detail and information on this much underappreciated composer. It is rare that a book has led me to explore a composer with as much enthusiasm as this one has, leading me to seek out recordings of his music. He has an important place in the history of Norwegian music as well as twentieth century music in general.

If you acquire this new book and CD I will be surprised if you aren’t also persuaded to investigate further the music of Irgens-Jensen. 

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