By Leif Thomsen


Per Nørgård was born on 13 July 1932 in Gentofte, the son of a draper, Erhardt Nørgaard, and his wife, Emmely .

His father had been born into a working class family in Esbjerg, and the boy's first ambition, like so many others in that area of Denmark, was to be a seaman. One of the boys he went to school with told him that he at any rate had no intention of going to sea, and was going to be a shop assistant instead, selling clothes. Inspired by this, Nørgård's father changed his mind and started as an apprentice shop assistant himself. Later, in 1923, he and his young wife opened a drapers' shop in a parrallel street off Nørrebrogade in Copenhagen.

The business prospered, and after a few years they moved to larger premises in a building on Nørrebrogade. At the same time, Erhardt and Emmely Nørgaard decided to specialise in wedding dresses and the various accessories connected with this line of business. In fact, it turned out that they had opened the first specialised shop for wedding dresses in Denmark - incidentally, the shop was called Eva, and existed until a few years ago. Per Nørgård still lives in this house, and has done so for many years now.

Early childhood

Naturally enough, Per's father and mother were both kept very busy in the shop, and employed domestics to take care of the daily chores in the house. Moreover, Per's aunt and his grandmother lived just round the corner. They were both pensioners with time on their hands, so they spent a lot of time playing with the little boy and taking him on walks round the town. One of these two women was almost blind, and the other was nearly deaf, so in this way the boy experienced other ways of sensing the world around him. On the other hand, Per had little contact with other children, except his elder brother, Bent, who was five years older. In this way, Per was immersed in adult life and had time to play on his own and develop his imagination, but he was also somewhat shy and withdrawn, and remained so until he was a young man.

Music and drawing

However, there was plenty of music in his childhood home: his parents owned both a radio and a gramophone, his father played a small accordion, and the family sang to his accompaniment. They acquired a piano and the children were given lessons. Per's parents did not play the piano themselves, but they were determined that their boys should, not least perhaps because it was the done thing at that time. Per began playing at the age of seven, but ordinary piano practice was not really his cup of tea. The young Nørgård began improvising and composing at the piano at an early stage.

Drawing was another area in which Per soon showed a budding talent, and for a number of years this was the most important thing for him. One of his specialities was what were called ‘tecnis’, which were cartoon series set to music. Per did the drawings and composed the music, while his elder brother, Bent, five years older, wrote the texts. These works were performed within the family circle every six months. In fact, they were mini-musicals in Disney style. The drawings reveal that Per Nørgård possessed considerable talent in this field. At this time he was 11 years old.

Musical talent

Drawing and music, therefore - these were the young Nørgård's main interests. In 1942 he was admitted to Københavns Kommunes Sangskole (the Copenhagen Municipal Choral School). An audition had revealed that he had ‘sufficient musical ability’.

However, this school did not have a grammar school section, so in 1944 Nørgård was admitted to Frederiksberg Grammar School, the same school which his elder brother, Bent, was already attending.

The bombing

More or less an idyllic middle-class family, one might suppose, but there was a darker side, albeit veiled. Nørgård was seven years old when the Germans occupied Denmark, and of course these sombre years could not but leave their mark on the young Per Nørgård. On 1 March 1945 occurred one of the most terrible events of the war in Denmark. English planes bombed The French School by mistake, and Frederiksberg Grammar School, where Nørgård was a pupil, was also damaged.


Early compositions

As we have already said, the young Nørgård was given piano lessons, but he was more interested in exploring sounds than in systematic practice: he always used ‘too much pedal’, as his teacher, Inger Rehfeld, who lived in the flat above, often said.

He started putting texts to music at an early stage, sometimes as a further development of his small dramatic musical pieces - his ‘tecnis’. Here we see an example of an early, (undated) work found in a sketchbook. Quite apart from the music, this example also clearly reveals how the composer's handwriting developed. Compare it with the samples of scores from the 1st and 5th Symphonies shown later on.

Nor was Nørgård's drawing confined to ‘tecnis’: he also worked with naturalistic themes, such as this landscape from 1947.

When Nørgård was in his early teens, therefore, drawing and music were his main interests. When Per was 16, his elder brother, Bent, was called up for military service, and Per lost interest in the cartoons, not wishing to carry on alone.

The budding composer

Instead, he began composing music for its own sake. In 1949, at the age of 17, he took a decisive step into the musical world by writing his first piano sonata. He now knew that he wanted to be a composer, and most of his spare time was spent composing.