THE PERSONAL GALLERY
It was the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi who said “All music is a longing for home.” The last time I heard Pierre Boulez conduct his own music was at Chicago Symphony Hall in 2010. On that occasion Bela Bartók’s Concerto for 2 Pianos, Percussion and Orchestr was also presented. This was the concerto whose world premiere was held by my piano teacher, Ilona Kabos, in London in 1942. While Boulez’s own orchestra pieces for strings already sounded dated and irrelevant by then, Bartók’s music still maintained its freshness and gravitas.
2010 was also the year when I heard Guro Kleven Hagen for the first time. She was awarded second place in the Eurovision Young Musicians competition for her performance of the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, ahead of the Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, who had also played Tchaikovsky earlier in the competition. When I began working on my book Veien til Mozart (The Road to Mozart) around the same time, I had to give some thought to the position of melody and tonality in art music. Was it just a coincidence, or was it the irony of fate that Boulez was conducting high-Romantic music by the end of his life? And this was the man who, with his serial and often atonal imperatives, could simply get up and leave a concert if the music was too melodic.
In a well-known TV interview in the 1970s, Leonard Bernstein said that “tonality is a prerequisite for communication”. He certainly did not mean this as literally as it might sound. Today every classically trained musician has been exposed to the serial or atonal composers of the Darmstadt School. I myself was playing Fartein Valen and Finn Mortensen as early as the age of 14. It was rewarding, but no more than that. In the avant-garde atmosphere of the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter at Høvikodden, outside of Oslo, we young people were allowed to experiment in the proximity of John Cage, Cathy Berberian, Arne Nordheim, Steve Reich, Jan Garbarek, Steve Kuhn, Paul Bley and the Svein Finnerud Trio.
Maybe I gravitated towards jazz because I wanted to pursue a melodic concept that was forbidden in the world of art music in the 1960s and 70s. The borders were so clearly drawn then. One was never allowed to overstep them. One had to stick to one’s last. But jazz underwent a massive expansion in the late 1960s, with Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Terje Rypdal and all the others who dared to approach art music from an entirely different angle. It was precisely my long-term association with Terje Rypdal that made me aware of my own musical standpoint, between art music as a basis and improvisation with its freedom. Rypdal invited me to collaborate with him in a duo named “Melodic Warrior” that would have a decisive impact on the way I would continue to write music. Not wanting what was new at any price. Not trying to make oneself “interesting” or “exciting” or “innovative”. Perhaps it was precisely the innovative symphonic composer Carl Nielsen who wrote about these dilemmas with greatest insight in his famous essay on Mozart in his book Levende Musik (Living Music):
“And we would much prefer to thank Mozart, as he certainly does not impose himself by using crude, shoddy measures or by virtue of will and an eagerness for reform. He did not seek to create something new; this happened on its own. He did not seek to do things differently from the others, but he could give, and gave, something more. He did not remove anything from what was already there, but added to it from the many treasures he had found, half in dreams and half in play. He did not tear our houses down around our ears and build palaces that impressed us, but where we froze. He gave us himself, his friendship, his spirit, his sensitive feelings, his warm smile, his profound seriousness and his cheerful, hearty disposition, through his immortal melodies and his beautiful, rich art.”
When I heard Guro Kleven Hagen again in 2011, she played the entire Tchaikovsky concerto with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. This was one of those concerts that would be remembered for a lifetime. Even the conductor, Jukka Pekka Saraste, was deeply touched. The Tchaikovsky concerto was the music of my own childhood. I knew it by heart. Moreover, the violin was the instrument I felt the closest connection to after the piano. My mother’s side of the family was full of violinists. My father-in-law had played the violin. When I was young I played most of Mozart’s, Beethoven’s, Brahms’s and Grieg’s sonatas with various violinists. But oddly, I had never composed anything for the instrument. For cello and viola, certainly. But never violin. By sheer coincidence I heard Guro Kleven Hagen again, at the first chamber music festival organised by Leif Ove Andsnes in Rosendal in 2016. She played Schubert and Arne Nordheim. Once again I was profoundly moved. The very special tone she coaxed from the violin. The depth of her expressive powers. A few weeks previously she had invited journalist Anne Grosvold and me to her own festival, Valdres Sommersymfoni, which would take place the following summer, to talk about the position of literature in music, on the basis of my novel Til Musikken (To the Music). She also asked whether I, in addition to my own solo segment, would play Johan Svendsen’s famous Romance together with her. I felt that this was a great honour, and it was as though at the same time she had, without being aware of it, invited me back to my own starting point, classical music, which I had never truly abandoned. But naturally I also wanted to write something especially for her. I had heard her now. I knew how she phrased the music. Her unique ability to highlight a melody. When, in an exchange of letters between us, she mentioned that she had a special relationship with my song Sommernatt ved fjorden (Summer Night by the Fjord) , I thought that I could use that melody as a source of inspiration.
I suddenly had an image of the bohemian princess Oda Krohg, the subject of the song. How she would sit at the Blom Bodega in the 1920s, when she was old, and tell stories about her own past.
This was the beginning of the collaboration between Guro and me. Oda Krohg, 1927 is a continuation of both the melody and the atmosphere of Summer Night by the Fjord. Suddenly I realised that Guro was exactly the same age I had been when I wrote that song in 1978.
We do not actually know each other very well. Our time together has been limited. We have never been in each other’s company apart from when we have practised, played together in public, had a working lunch, taken part in a photo shoot, or worked in the studio. But musicians always construct their very own world. And we have had the same experience of holding an early debut, even with the same orchestra. She with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, at the age of 17, and I with Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, at 16, nearly a half-century earlier. We both know a great deal about being alone, day after day and year after year, and about relating to music as our closest companion, a demanding but also most generous friend. Maybe this is why our collaboration was so easy, almost inevitable, right from the start. I asked her if I could write The Personal Gallery for her, and she agreed. We did not know much more about each other than that we both loved Schubert. But that was more than enough.
All the compositions in this suite were written for Guro. If Only was also written for her, although I did not know who she was when I composed it many years ago. I only knew that there had to be a violinist who would play it.
Guro is that violinist.
The music on this album was, with very few exceptions, composed shortly before it was recorded, keeping in mind how she would be able to refine the compositions, to enhance them, with her own awareness of sound and melody. A musical and subjective picture gallery, across time. Yes, The Personal Gallery. The images we hold inside ourselves at any given time, the most important and most personal ones. I made suggestions for titles. Composing music always evokes such powerful associations with the lived life.
We talked a great deal about our lives while we were rehearsing the suite. Guro asked about the background for the titles, and the order in which they were written, while at the same time telling stories from her own life. We became storytellers for each other. There was much that was recognisable for both of us. The musical idols of my youth were also hers, and vice versa. We had many of the same reference points. Jeg følte at titlene underveis i prosessen ble like mye hennes som mine. Da hun for fullt gikk inn i redigeringsarbeidet, utdypet hun musikken og fant en rekkefølge og en sammenheng som vi begge kunne møtes i.
I wrote about this very special collaboration in my most recent novel, Siste Tiåret (The Last Decade) , in 2020, the final instalment of my six-volume work, Verden som var min (The World I Used to Know) :
“There are 42 years between Guro and me. I could have been her grandfather.
But it is I who am the student.”
Oslo, 19 January 2020