By Jørgen Mortensen

Per Nørgård is a very prolific composer, and his works cover more or less all musical genres.

91½ hours

If we add up the playing time of all his works until July 1999, we reach the grand total of 91½ hours - with a certain degree of uncertainty, in that I have had to guess at the playing time of some works where this is not indicated.

That this is a large oeuvre may perhaps best be seen by comparing it with the collected works of Carl Nielsen, which total 30 hours of playing time. This is in itself impressive, but as may be seen, Nørgård's oeuvre is three times as long.

Rued Langgaard's oeuvre - 48 hours of playing time - is considerably larger than that of Carl Nielsen, but still only about half of Nørgård's production to date.

About 330 works

The list of Nørgård's works today runs to about 330 compositions, spread over the years 1951-1999. It should, however, be noted that some of the works are 'open', that is, the number of musicians called for is flexible, and extra parts can be developed, or improvised (you can read more about this in the section Open works in the 1970s).

The following diagram shows how many minutes of music were composed each year from 1951 to 1999. Works are assigned to year in which they were finished, even though the process of composition may have lasted several years.


What can be concluded from these statistics?

It may be seen that a more or less even level of production was maintained in the years 1951 to 1961, with a playing time of around one hour per year. In 1962, however, there was a sudden increase, and until 1969 the playing time of the music composed was around two hours per year. The diagram is only quantitative, but in qualitative terms one may also speak of a creative explosion in these years, in which many really innovative works saw the light of day - mostly based on the infinity series. Works such as Iris, Luna, Grooving, and Voyage into the golden screen were written in this period.

The reason why 1970 tops the list with more than 10 hours of music is that this was the year in which Kalendermusik (electronic music to accompany the test card on TV) was produced. It lasted 8 hours!

In the following years we often find playing times of two hours or more. A sharp fall in production in 1971 can be explained by the fact that Gilgamesh was published the following year, and a similar fall in 1974 by the fact that Symphony No. 3 came out the year after. Likewise, a fall in 1978 would indicate that work was being done on Siddharta.

As may be seen, the years 1980-1982 were very productive - this is the period in which the influence of Wölfli made itself felt in works such as Wie ein Kind (Like a Child) and Symphony No. 4. No fewer than 16 works were composed in 1981! The high figure for 1986 may be partly explained by the appearance of the electronic composition Najader and the ballet Ildnatten (Night of Fire).

In the 1990s there was a boom around 1992-93, possibly due to the new musical structures, Tone lakes.

How are these works distributed according to genre?

Instrumental music
Orchestral music 8%
Concertos 4%
Chamber music 18%
Solo pieces 13%

Electronic music 12%

Vocal music
Choral, perhaps with instruments 16%
Other vocal music 7%

Dramatic music
Opera 10%
Ballet 4%
Film, TV 4%
Other dramatic music 4%

If the music is divided into four major categories (instrumental music, electronic music, vocal music and dramatic music), it may be seen that the largest category is instrumental music, which makes up 42 %. Only about half as much vocal music has been produced (23 %) and almost half as much dramatic music (22 %). The fact that electronic music makes up as much as 12 % of Nørgård's oeuvre can partially be explained by the eight hours playing time of Kalendermusik, which takes up quite a lot of space in the statistics.

Solo pieces

Most of the instrumental music is chamber music, but solo pieces make up a considerable part of the oeuvre (12 %), comprising as many as 76 compositions. The instruments preferred are piano, organ, guitar, cello, and in more recent years, percussion. Pieces for accordion have been composed at regular intervals throughout all the years.

Solo pieces occupy a prominent place, not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively. In many cases, an instrument is given a completely new role, expanding its boundaries. This has often taken place in a fruitful dialogue with prominent instrumental virtuosos.

Many solo pieces have a playing time of 10-15 minutes, but some are quite short, less than five minutes. Such a miniature piece calls for a special 'epigrammatic' precision, and this has been a challenge eagerly taken up by Nørgård, writing for larger ensembles as well.

Chamber music

Most of the chamber music is written for 2-4 instruments. Nørgård has a predilection for chamber music involving unusual combinations of instruments, but even so, two 'classic' ensembles - the string quartet and the clarinet trio (clarinet, cello, piano) - have attracted his attention for many years.

As in the case of the solo pieces, one is bound to say that many of these chamber music works are really innovative, widening the scope of the genre as a whole.

Orchestral works

The symphonies make up a large part of Nørgård's orchestral works. The six symphonies are distributed throughout all his productive years, and each symphony reveals a fundamentally new form of expression - see our analysis of the symphonies, and read (and listen to) Nørgård's own words regarding the demands made by this genre.

Solo concertos

The solo concertos are not evenly spread throughout Nørgård's productive years. Apart from the accordion concerto, Recall, from 1968, they were all composed in the 1980s and 1990s, when Nørgård was taken up with the the idea of the loner in opposition to the collective. All the solo concertos, written for soloists on percussion, the cello, the viola, the violin, the harp and the piano, are works which each leave their own special imprint.

Electronic music

One can hardly maintain that Per Nørgård has made a special name for himself in the area of electronic music, but even so he has been working with this genre since Den fortryllede skov (The Enchanted Forest) in 1968. For various reasons, his large work, Kalendermusik (lasting 8 hours) from 1970,  was never used for its original purpose (to accompany the test card, or intermission, on the TV). Today, the idea that any television station should use an intermission would make us smile! This composition was re-worked and given the title Årsfrise (The Year Frieze) in 1989. Other electronic works are Najader with a number of related works, and Circus City from 1995.

Vocal music

Choral music

Most of Nørgård's vocal music is for choir, with or without instrumental accompaniment. One can discern two tendencies in his choral music: the tendency to involve amateurs (see the article on music for amateurs), in works such as Du skal plante et træ (You Shall Plant a Tree) and Vinterkantate (Winter Cantata); and the tendency to exploit the genre in a virtuoso manner, as for example in Frostsalme (Frost Hymn). It is clear that both tendencies are very important for Per Nørgård.

Other vocal music

The rest of the vocal music is written for solo voice(s) with piano, and especially solo voice(s) accompanied by a variety of different instruments in imaginative combinations.

Dramatic music

Dramatic music has also been at the centre of Per Nørgård' interests, especially opera. Labyrinten (The Labyrinth) was finished in 1963, Gilgamesh in 1972 and Siddharta in 1979. The last two especially are 'large professional opera productions'. Det guddommelige Tivoli (The Divine Circus) (the Wölfli opera from 1982), Den uendelige sang (The Never-ending Song) (1988) and Nuit des hommes (1996), written to a text by Apollinaire, are more in the nature of chamber operas.


Two ballets, Den unge mand skal giftes (The Young Man Must Marry) and Tango Chikane are from the 1960s, whereas Kropsdrøm (Body Dream), Tre søskende (Three Siblings) and Ildnatten (Night of Fire) are from the middle of the 1980s.

Film, TV

Nørgård has composed music for such Danish films as Den røde kappe (1966), Manden der tænkte ting (1969), Babettes Gæstebud (1986) and Amled - Prinsen af Jylland (1993). The music for the BBC’s television production of Hedda Gabler is from 1993.

Other dramatic music

Other dramatic music composed by Nørgård includes the staged youth oratorio, Dommen (The Judgement) (1962) and Babel (1965) - "a musical play for people". He has also composed occasional music for theatre and radio plays.