Composer: Gunnar Berg
Instrument: Violin and Piano
Duration: 7 min.
Gunnar Berg (1909-1989) grew up in Switzerland and in Copenhagen without significant contact with music, apart from elementary piano lessons. In 1931 however it was clear to him that he had to go the way of music and began to prepare for admission to the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. The Salzburg Festivals in 1932 and 1935 gave him vital experiences and impressions and introduced him to the music by Debussy, Stravinsky and Schönberg. In 1936 he started at the music academy, where his Fantaisie for piano solo was premiered by Ida Koppel. The stay at the academy was short, because after a year he acknowledged that he had to go on his own as a composer. He took, however, piano lessons with Herman D. Koppel until 1943 and then with Elisabeth Jürgens.
In a number of major works such as Preludio, Passacaglia e Fuga for two violins (1937), Toccata - interlude - Fugue for piano (1938), Sonata for piano (1940), Caprice for violin and piano (1941) Sonata for flute and clarinet (1942), Sonata for solo violin (1945) and Sonata for Piano (1947) and Suite for solo cello (1950) Berg grappled with the baroque and classical music forms with the neoclassical characteristic features such as extended harmonics, asymmetric period formations and rhythmic irregularities such as syncopes and irregular accents, polyphonic melodies, sounds and rhythms.
The one-movement Caprice is composed 1941 in Vedbæk, north of Copenhagen, where Berg in 1943 helped the Jews to Sweden and took part in the resistance movement, and it was premiered 27 April 1944 in Copenhagen by Niels Nielsen and Boris Linderud. The three-part form is rhapsodic, and the approx. 8 minutes long piece opens with a marked upward theme of shifting metres with the unusual character "Ferroce ", presumably derived from the Italian ferro (iron). The middle section begins slowly with a downward seufzer motif in the violin, followed by a faster Allegretto section with a rhythmic bopping motif and a melodic theme that evolves dramatically with sudden and unexpected dynamic shifts. The work culminates in an upward 10-tone scale in the violin, to the sounding away of a 10-part ffff–chord in the piano.
Violin and Piano
About the composer +
In 2009, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gunnar Berg (1909-1989) sparked a rediscovery and reassessment of the Danish composer as one of the most important Danish representatives of musical modernism on the international scene. More than 50 performances and events were held in Denmark, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Finland, Ukraine, USA, China, France, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Berg’s music was played, discussed and written about to an extent never experienced by Berg, himself, in his lifetime. His drawings were also exhibited and his music was released both in print and on CD.
Gunnar Berg was born in St. Gallen in Switzerland on 11 January 1909, the oldest of four siblings. From 1890 his Danish father Sigvard Berg worked on the railway construction in Switzerland, but he died of a heart attack in 1914, only 60 years old. Consequently Berg’s youth in Switzerland and in Denmark was difficult, marked as it was by illness and frequent moves, and without much contact with music.
In 1934 Berg graduated from a business school in Copenhagen, despite having been so deeply affected by a 1931 performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Royal Theatre that he vowed to devote his life to music. In the summer of 1932 Berg bicycled from Copenhagen to Salzburg, and during the music festival he attended a course given by Austrian music critic Paul Stefan at the Mozarteum. The course opened doors for Berg; he attended rehearsals, concerts and other courses as well as experienced decisive first encounters with the music of composers such as Debussy, Schönberg and Stravinsky. Berg returned to Salzburg in 1935, where he was granted access to rehearsals and concerts led by Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter, and where he attended the conductor course by Herbert von Karajan, with whom he had private meetings.
Berg’s time in Salzburg was of landmark importance to his musical orientation, for thereafter he was positioned closer to the music culture of Europe rather than to one that embodied a Danish-Nordic aesthetic. His stays in Salzburg certainly contrasted with his studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen in 1936 where his idea of establishing a study group for new music was met with blank refusal from the conservatory. He left at the end of the year, but continued to study piano with the pianist and composer Herman D. Koppel until 1943. From 1944 on Berg studied with Elizabeth Jürgens, an unusually gifted piano teacher of Swedish birth who had lived in Copenhagen for decades.
During the German occupation, Berg actively took part in the rescue of Danish Jews - transporting them to Sweden - and in the Danish resistance movement. After the liberation he was involved in music teaching projects at numerous refugee camps in Denmark and gave concerts featuring his own compositions, classics, and new music including works by Stravinsky, Satie and Honegger.
Berg’s first works date from the mid-1930s; Zehn japanische Holzschnitte (Ten Japanese Woodcuts) for voice and piano from 1938 is considered his first major work, and the three sonatas - for flute and clarinet (1942), for violin (1945) and for piano (1945-47) - with which Berg in the 1940s finally left classical formal structures behind, are significant contributions to this genre within the neoclassical style.
In January 1945 the autodidact composer debuted in Copenhagen, but Berg won no recognition for his music so he began to prepare to go abroad, and in autumn 1948 he went to Paris in order to study with Arthur Honegger at École normale. Berg quickly gained access to the circle around Olivier Messiaen and thus became part of the international modernist environment in post-war Europe. In 1950, at the invitation of Darius Milhaud, he attended the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies, and in 1952 he married the French pianist Béatrice Duffour. They spent their honeymoon at the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, where Berg’s meeting with Karlheinz Stockhausen served to confirm the validity and contemporaneity of Berg’s own musical experiments. The couple made a number of concert tours around Europe featuring music of the leading composers of the time. In 1957 and 1958, funded by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they toured Germany and Scandinavia, and then settled in Denmark. For a number of years thereafter the Berg couple embarked on a unique project with residences, lectures and concerts at the Danish Folk High Schools. In 1965 they established their first own home in the old school in Lindved, a very small village located between Horsens and Juelsminde in Jutland. There they created an unusual cultural venue where the people of the region were often invited to memorable concerts with contemporary and classical music. Béatrice Berg died 1976, and in 1979 Gunnar Berg returned to Europe and finally settled in Switzerland, where he experienced a significant surge of interest in his music. Gunnar Berg died in Bern, Switzerland, on 28 August 1989, and he and Béatrice Berg are both buried at the Rårup churchyard, close to their home in Lindved.
The 10-year stay in Paris proved crucial to Berg, and from 1950 he uncompromisingly, yet in his very own fashion, remained faithful to the complex expressive mode of musical modernism within the theoretical and aesthetic framework of serialism, and, it should be noted, without turning dogmatic.
Only very rarely did Gunnar Berg add analytical or explanatory comments to his music: “My works must stand on their own feet, and they must answer for themselves,” he asserted. However, among his posthumous papers there is a wealth of slips of paper with columns of figures and letters, note names, volumes and durations, which provide us some insight into his composition workshop. They also confirm the limited number of analyses of Gunnar Berg’s works that have attempted to map out his working method. Berg’s point of departure was Olivier Messiaen’s division of the twelve chromatic notes of the tempered scale into groups, the so-called “modes with restricted transpositions,” but expanded to apply to all the parameters of the music. The result is a meticulously calculated structuring of durations, pitches, volumes and instrumentation, which was a major theme in Darmstadt in 1952. Berg described his method as “static”, and he spoke of ground rules where, by means of techniques such as mirroring, reversal and transposition, he established a basic body of material to be ordered in his own, personal way.
Gunnar Berg came too late to his study of piano to attain a professional career as a pianist. However, his experiences at the piano decisively influenced his compositional thinking as reflected in his piano compositions – from the numerous small educational pieces to the four virtuoso concertos for piano and symphony orchestra: Essai acoustique (1954), Pour piano et orchestra (1959), Frise (1961) and Uculang (1967). The two major works for solo piano - Eclatements (1954-88) and Gaffky’s (1958-59) - both large compositions, are among the most important contributions to Danish piano literature in the second half of the twentieth century.
This is also the case with his contributions to Danish guitar literature after his meeting with Maria Kämmerling in 1976 which resulted in Fresque I-IV (1978), Hyperion (1978) for guitar, soprano and 9 instruments, Melos (1979) for solo guitar and Ar-Goat (1984) for guitar-duo.
Foreword (Danish): Jens Rossel
Front cover: Gunnar Berg
Front cover graphics and layout: Ronni Kot Wenzell
Printed in Copenhagen, Denmark
Copyright © Edition Svitzer