Reviews :


ith the death of Hallvard Johnsen in November of 2003 Norway was deprived of one of the country’s most characteristic symphonic idioms; highly distinctive and temperate at the same time. In the course of a long life as a composing and performing musician (Johnsen was an excellent flutist, and for 26 years he was the solo flutist of the Staff Band of the Norwegian Armed Forces) he developed a distinctive compositional palette that sometimes alienated him from the musical establishment of the post-war period, which was infatuated with modernism. He never left tonality as the architectural base of his music, even if he eventually arrived at a musical borderland between dodecaphony and tonality. The main inspiration for this development was his Danish mentor Vang Holmboe. Johnsen kept to this style throughout the greater part of his life and especially his symphonies are characterised by this method of composition.


t is an enigma indeed how a composer with a symphonic production as substantial as Johnsen’s – his list of works includes no less than 24 symphonies! – was able to live the withdrawn life that he did; away from the media’s attention. To understand how this came to pass we must take a look at the landscape of Norwegian music after WWII: The young and modernistic Darmstadt movement gained serious momentum in the 1950s and the increasing polarization between old and new that could be witnessed in the political and economical developments of western Europe at the time, also began to make its impact in the arts. A series of rahter spectacular and speculative happening-performances, musical installations and Musique Concréte concerts created global headlines. These performances became the basis for what in wide circles came to be considered as innovative and visionary art. More or less all artists, as well as everyone else with a vocation related to the arts, were practically forced into different veins of modernism.

n retrospect, many of the processes of this period appeared to be bordering on totalitarianism: Those who did not play along were automatically classified as outmoded or worse: as an explicit danger to the general intellectual development. The reason for the totalitarian tendencies was that one made the mistake of confusing notions of innovation with some concrete artistic devices: thus tonality was deemed old-fashioned while atonality was modern, harmony was labelled old-fashioned, chaos was modern. Over the years this dogmatic, bi-polar, way of thinking has been proven erroneous and limiting, both artistically and intellectually. Fortunately it has been almost completely absent from artistic discourse of the last decade. However, a whole generation of composers felt its effects in a very real sense –among them were Ludvig Irgens Jensen, Geirr Tveitt, Johan Kvandal, Sigurd Islandsmoen and Hallvard Johnsen.

umans have different ways of coping with injustice and obstructions: after years of isolation and being marginalized by key parts of the Norwegian musical establishment, Johnsen and several others gave up and withdrew to a deeply unjust state of anonymity. It is about time the musical audience was given the chance to get to know Johnsen’s evocative and very personal music –posterity has the right to decide for itself whether artistic integrity and originality are functions simply of the artistic devices used, or whether they are values determined by the content. Johnsen possessed one of the most characteristic musical voices in recent Norwegian musical history; it is time to let it be heard anew.


Wolfgang Plagge 2009


allvard Johnsen is a wandering symphonic composer. He takes us travelling in a polyphonic musical universe; a journey propelled by the free-tonal play of melodic lines so that the nature of travelling is characterised more by mild poetry than rigid rhythm.


n the distance we can just make out hints of Norwegian folklore, but only in the form of constituent parts of a musical cathedral of international stature.

Eyvind Solås



allvard Johnsensopus list comprises 135 opuses. Among his main oeuvres, special mention must be made of the opera «The legend of Svein and Maria», which was composed in 1971 and performed at The Norwegian Opera in 1973. Musically, the symphonic stretches and the choral movements are what stand out. «The legend of Svein and Maria» made a strong impression on the audience at the premiere and it must be regarded as a major work of recent Norwegian opera.

allvard Johnsen wrote 24 symphonies for large orchestra, notably # 13, subtitled «Pastorale» and # 19 entitled «Oceano». Other main works worth mentioning are the oratorio «Logos» and the cantata «Cross Easter». Johnsen composed concerts for solo instruments and orchestra; among them six string quartets and four horn quintets. He also composed songs; some for solo voice and piano and some for choir, as well as a number of works for piano and organ.

In his youth works Hallvard Johnsen is inspired by the national style that dominated in Norway in the period prior to 1950. Then, from «Pastorale» –opus 20 for flute and piano– he began working his way towards a more free-tonal style. Subsequent to his studies with Vang Holmboe in Copenhagen he developed a free-tonal twelve-tone style, yet with no use of twelve-tone rows. It was during this time of studying in Copenhagen that our friendship started, in Schæffergården in 1957. We had both received scholarships from the «Fund for Dano-Norwegian Cooperation». In the evenings we would perform music for the other scholarship holders. Hallvard was an eminent flutist and among other pieces we played one of his early works; «Fantasi» opus 11. Following his studies with Vang Holmboe Hallvard composed in the free-tonal style exclusively. An example is «Cantona» opus 87 for violin and piano, which he dedicated to me on my 50th birthday. Later on I had the great pleasure and honour of having his violin concerto # 2 opus 51 from 1961 dedicated to me; a piece I performed with Musikkselskapet Harmonien’s orchestra in Bergen. The piece was subsequently recorded for album release. The violin concerto was also performed by Filharmonisk Selskap’s orchestra, with me as the soloist. Hallvard Johnsen was faithful to this compositional form, and he made use of every opportunity to compose and complete his scores. Only occasionally did he write commissioned works. He was a modest and serious artist without pointy elbows, which is evident in his music. During my time as concertmaster of Harmonien’s Orchestra I was an obvious member of the program committee, and I was always delighted when Hallvard Johnsen’s symphonies were performed in Bergen. In conjunction with this I would like to commend our then chief conductor Karsten Andersen for his contribution to Norwegian music in that period. With our symphonic orchestras’ ever-altering chief conductors of foreign origin, it is little wonder that it is primarily the standard works that are upheld in our time.

n Hallvard Johnsen’s works from the 1970s one can identify a certain return to a more moderate and simpler style. Little by little I became accustomed to his way of composing, which demands a lot of both performers and the audience. Nature has always been a source of inspiration in his works, and he spent a lot of time at his cabin in Hemsedal. Every musician and artist will often feel the need to withdraw to a place of quiet to concentrate on his or her art. It was always an interesting pleasure to visit Hallvard in his home in Bærum and get to know his charming wife Mirjam and their four daughters. Now Hallvard is no longer with us, but his music will live on into the future.

Håkon R. Guldbrandsen  2009

Fact box:  Håkon R. Gudbrandsen was born in Bergen in 1931. He studied at the Music Conservatoire in Bergen from 1941-45. After that he studied with Istvan Ipolyi of the Budapest Quartet and at the Royal Music Conservatoire in Copenhagen. His debut took place in Oslo in 1953. He was employed by Musikkselskapet Harmonien’s orchestra in 1958, where he moved on to become concert master in 1965.