Per Nørgård in the History of Music

by Erling Kullberg

This article will attempt to situate Per Nørgård's evolution as a composer in a chronological context, as a complex interplay - harmonic consonance, opposition, interaction - with developments in the world of music in general.

The myth of
Carl Nielsen

When Per Nørgård began his work as a composer, the musical scene in Denmark was permeated with aesthetic musical norms which had originated at the beginning of the 20th century with Carl Nielsen and his circle. The person of Carl Nielsen was surrounded with such an aura of veneration that his attitudes to questions of musical aesthetics totally dominated the field, excluding practically all other alternatives. This was no less true after his death, when something close to a Carl Nielsen myth developed, establishing the norms for what was 'right and proper' in Danish music.

Jan Maegaard, a composer, looks back as follows:

    To put it bluntly, when I was admitted to the Academy in 1945, fourteen years after the maestro's death, every nook and cranny of the place positively reeked of Carl Nielsen. One concentrated on those composers Carl Nielsen had approved of, mostly Mozart and Brahms. Those he had not approved of were hardly dealt with at all, or might simply not have existed. The instruction in composition which I received was mostly limited to admonitions about sticking to the straight and narrow path of good, sound Danish diatonic principles.

The central element in this approach to the aesthetics of music was a 'healthy' reaction against Romanticism and over-expressive music, as represented by the expressionism of the Vienna school.

Moderation was the order of the day, and a cool, 'Nordic' approach was encouraged as a counterweight to the 'overheated' music coming from the South. More than any other, Vagn Holmboe was the single strong personality who influenced the generation of composers that appeared on the scene at the beginning of the 1950s. He emphasised the importance of finding a balance between what he called the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, between a cold, calculating approach and a spontaneous, sensual one.

In terms of the technical side of music, the conventional wisdom went in for some kind of tonal, diatonic music, and metamorphosis was the dominant technique as regards form.

The Universe of the Nordic Mind

This is the background and musical upbringing that affected Per Nørgård's attitudes when he began to make a name for himself in the middle of the 1950s.

At this time, in the neighbouring country of Sweden, there was a growing interest in modernist phenomena such as dodecaphony, and even the advanced serial techniques presented at the summer schools in Darmstadt. The leading Swedish composers of this generation were Karl-Birger Blomdahl, Ingvar Lidholm and Sven Erik Bäck.

Frustrated by the state of affairs revealed at the Scandinavian Music Days in Helsinki in 1956, Per Nørgård wrote an article in which he coined the phrase, The Universe of the Nordic Mind, an article which was later to become famous. He wrote that Scandinavian composers were too little aware of their own roots, whereby he meant not only cultural roots, but also their roots in the climate and natural surroundings.

This article gave rise to a heated debate - Blomdahl especially was violent in his reaction - and for once Per Nørgård received support from within reactionary circles, from people who had in fact misunderstood his ideas. But at least, the debate about The Universe of the Nordic Mind revealed that Per Nørgård and his colleagues regarded taking a stand on one's own musical identity as more important than the new trends launched by the international avant-garde. Moreover, during his period of study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, Nørgård had been able to observe the fashionable milieu of the new music at close quarters, and felt disgusted by it.

Per Nørgård's works from this period, such as Quartetto brióso, Sinfonia Austera and Konstellationer (Constellations), are rooted in this Scandinavian tradition, and are characterised both by diatonics and the metamorphosis technique.


Shortly before 1960, however, there was a shift of mood. Per Nørgård and his contemporary fellow-composers, especially Ib Nørholm and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, all felt the need for a radical change of direction. Their meetings with the international avant-garde became more frequent - at the ISCM World Music Days in Rome (1959) and in Cologne (1960), for example - and the Danish composers began to feel there was a whole field of study here that they would have to catch up on.

Per Nørgård was the primus motor behind a study group for new music which met at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, and which began studying the techniques and forms of expression used in the new music. In the first place their aim was simply to understand it better, but before long they became interested in integrating some of the expressive and compositional techniques of the avant-garde into their own work as composers.

In the first place, Per Nørgård began working with serialism, but it is interesting to note that his approach to this technique was in reality to build a bridge between the serial principle, on the one hand, and, on the other, the organic, metamorphic development of a piece of music which had been the dominating principle in Danish musical thinking in the 1950s. There is no doubt that Per Nørgård was interested in the idea of predetermination itself - the idea that determining the tones to be worked on (i.e., the series) before starting a composition would define the pitch of the work. On the other hand, he was not satisfied to work with serial processes that were simply the result of the composer's arbitrary choice, so he began to look for some way to let the basic material develop itself organically: to let the series itself supply the rules for its own procreation. These efforts led to the development of the infinity series, and later of hierarchical music.

His early use of modernist techniques is illustrated in a number of works for piano: Skizzer (Sketches), 9 Studies and Fragment I-V, and even more so in the large orchestral work, Fragment VI, which is the most extreme Danish composition of the time - and which in fact Nørgård later withdrew.

Vocal serialism

Other modernist traits can be found, for example, in Prisme (1963), where the language is resolved down into phonemes using a technique which is also to be found in Stockhausen (e.g., in Gesang der Jünglinge), Kagel (in Anagramma) and Ligeti (in Aventures). By applying a special phonetic notation it is possible to use retrograde versions of words (as, for example, with the Danish word, 'sødme' ('sweetness') = sødmö - ömdøs).


In the period 1963-65, Per Nørgård composed a number of dramatic musical works characterised by an extreme heterogeneity of styles. In the first place, these works represent the composer's confrontation with established approaches to music theatre: opera and ballet. At the same time, these works, with their collage juxtaposition of contrasting styles, are an early expression of the awareness, which was growing at the time, that there can be no 'authorised version' of artistic expression in any given period, and that at all events such expression cannot be unambiguous, but is bound to be pluralist.

This collage technique is dominant in the opera, Labyrinten (1963), the stage 'happening', Babel (1965), and the ballets, Den unge mand skal giftes (The Young Man Must Marry) (1964) and Tango Chikane (1969).

The New

The prevailing style in Danish music in the second half of the 1960s is often subsumed under the heading, The new simplicity, a title that embraces several tendencies, though with a common denominator: they all rejected the wild posturings of modernism and its demand that everything should start from scratch. The leading representatives of this movement were Pelle Gudmundsen- Holmgreen, Ib Nørholm and Henning Christiansen.

However, the music Per Nørgård wrote at this time has little to do with this 'new simplicity' - at least insofar as it was expressed in such categories of style as Concretism, Absurdism and Pluralism of style. At the same time, his works from this period do reveal an interest in the world in miniature and in small details. It is a kind of mood music, undemonstrative, though requiring very careful listening.

Inner journeys

Very much in harmony with the psychedelic trend in the spirit of the time, one often discerns in Nørgård's music of this period a turning inward towards a microcosm of unobtrusive and undramatic moods.

This tendency can especially be seen in the piano work, Grooving, in the 1st Movement of Voyage into the Golden Screen, and in the string quartets, Dreamscape and Inscape.

Tone tapestries

The large orchestral works from this same period - Iris and Luna - offer Nørgård's version of, or counterpart to, the kind of flat, featureless compositions one otherwise normally associates with Ligeti (e.g., Atmosphères) and the Polish school (Penderecki and others).

Hierarchical music

Per Nørgård's music of the 1970s - his work on hierarchical music and the whole body of theory associated with this, comprising melody, harmony and rhythm - resembles nothing else in the music scene of the time. Earlier in the century, musicians such as Hindemith had made use of the overtone spectrum as the basis for a harmonic theory, and even further back, Hugo Rieman (and others) had played with the idea of major and minor as mirror images of each other. Many musicians over the years (e.g., Béla Bartók) have been fascinated by the Golden Section as a proportion, especially in terms of the formal aspects of composition.

All this, however, is something quite different from the all-embracing theory behind hierarchical music, which has as its overall aim to create in the microcosm a reflection of the holism and harmony of the macrocosm.

At the same time, there are certain elements of Per Nørgård's musical universe which can be related to familiar international currents and trends in music.


The repeating and gradually changing patterns which can be heard in Waves, Turn, Spell and Libra, for example, reveal an obvious kinship with American minimalism, but the theory behind them is quite different. The pulsating rhythm of minimalism, which relates it to popular music, is quite different in nature to Per Nørgård's music, in which the pulsating rhythm is primarily found in works based on the two-tone infinity series, the Sun-and-Moon music.


In Per Nørgård's hierarchical period we are apparently faced with a return to a kind of tonality, in virtue of the fact that the harmony is based on the overtone and undertone spectra. Moreover, one often seems to recognise familiar stylistic idioms: here we have Mahler, here a Tchaikovsky melody, and here comes Grieg's piano concerto. Both these phenomena are reminiscent of the free use made by postmodernism of our historical heritage, and reminds us of other Danish composers who have made use of a plurality of styles. In fact, many Danish composers of the 1970s used various forms of musical 'recycling'.

Objects Trouvés

Related to this is the use made by Per Nørgård of objects trouvés, that is, the incorporation into a composition of already existing musical material, as is the case, for example, in his violin concerto.

Both the use of objects trouvés and other more anonymous allusions to familiar stylistic codes are clearly related to the tendencies referred to above.

Once again, however, the theoretical foundation is completely different. When it comes down to it, there is not much about Per Nørgård that is post-modern. In fact, his whole approach to composition is fundamentally 'modern' in his unrelenting search for what is as yet unknown, his constant concern to reveal, discover, to perceive something new. His musical works thus become an artistic solution to whatever problems are currently occupying him, problems which may quite probably exist on other levels - aesthetic, technical, existential. As a true modernist, he creates his art under the driving force of an inner necessity.

Electronic music

If we are speaking about Per Nørgård's position in the history of modern music, we have to add that he has composed electronic music on a few occasions, though it does not form a large part of his production. One particular composition, however, attracted a great deal of public attention. This was his Kalendermusik (Calendar Music) (1970), which was to be used as interval music on the television, linked to a graphic design. Both sound and picture would constantly change depending on the season and the time of day. After a short trial period, however, this very interesting (and very harmless) experiment was dropped after a storm of protests from viewers.

Other significant electronic works are Den fortryllede Skov (The Enchanted Forest) (1968) and Najader (1986).

Per Nørgård
as a model

As a composer, Per Nørgård cannot be said to have founded a school in the normal sense of the term. There is no flock of disciples walking directly in his footsteps in terms of compositional techniques, though there were a number of followers in the hierarchical period of the 1970s, such as Erik Højsgaard and Hans Gefors, who also experimented with the infinity series. The fact is, though, that Per Nørgård's oeuvre is too broad and too complex to be copied. His sphere of interest is simply too all-embracing. Anyone who wants to survive as an independent creative artist cannot simply copy the master.

His influence is of a more general kind: as a person who observes the cultural scene, shapes opinion, and guides others. In this sense, his impact has been enormous. Few people in the cultural life of Denmark have been listened too as much as Per Nørgård - and in the musical world he has no peer.

The beginnings of his reputation go right back to his advocacy of the The Universe of the Nordic Mind in the mid-fifties. At the beginning of the 1960s, when modernism was on the march, Per Nørgård soon labelled public enemy no. 1 by reactionary forces in the world of music.

Asger Lund Christiansen warned against:

    the state-subsidised, twelve-tone, serial warship with chief artillery officer, Per Nørgård, at the head of a motley crew of marines and gunners

In 1965, in reaction to the conservative environment of Copenhagen, he moved his activities as a teacher of composition to Århus, and since that time his influence as a teacher of later generations of composers has been enormous. He has exercised (and been accorded) an indisputable authority, despite the fact that many composers do not share his 'organismic' view of music and the compositional technique that flows from it. For a long time, for example, the literature aimed at professional musicians, has witnessed many fruitful debates between Per Nørgård and colleagues of another observance, such as Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen and Karl Aage Rasmussen.

He has also had a marked influence on the general discussion of social topics, in which he has always played a lively part, from the campaign against nuclear weapons in the 1960s, over the debate about alternatives to reductionism in the 1970s, to ideas about limiting economic growth in the 1980s and whatever topics were current in the 1990s.

Whenever a new work by Per Nørgård is to be performed, the media show a degree of interest quite unusual in the world of music. Even the main television news runs a spot, and the ideas and themes behind the new work are presented on the radio and in the press.

The fact is, then, that Per Nørgård exercises his greatest influence by force of example. At the turn of the millennium he is indisputably the leading and most original composer in Denmark; a position which he has been gradually building up since the mid-sixties, when he took over the yellow leader's jersey from Vagn Holmboe.