Johan Halvorsen

1864 1935

Johan Halvorsen



Johan Halvorsen was a composer, conductor, and violinist. He traveled Europe to work and study until returning to Norway to advance the nation’s musical aspirations. His fame was more for his work in the theatre than for his compositions, perhaps explaining why his reputation has not maintained widespread appeal.

Johan August Halvorsen was born on 15 March 1864 in Dremmen, Norway, a small town south of Oslo, at the time called Christiania. At the age of seven he began studying the violin.  He joined the Civil Defense Band where he learned flute and althorn. He studied violin and theory in Stockholm and in 1885 he joined the Musikelkabet Harmonien, now known as theBergen Philharmonic, as violin leader. He made his solo debut playingBeethoven’s violin concerto. In Bergen he developed a relationship with the Grieg family. He played chamber music with cellist John Grieg, who would later become his father-in-law, and he started a close and musically important friendship withEdvard Grieg.

Halvorsen spent time in Leipzig and Aberdeen until settling in Helsinki for three years, 1889-1892. In Finland he taught violin at the conservatoire. He also began performing music composed byFerrucio Busoni. It was around this time he began more seriously composing. He was brought back to Bergen in 1893, having been appointed conductor of both the Harmonien and theatre. Halvorsen had never trained as a conductor, and it is likely his friend Edvard Grieg aided in his posting.

His new career as a conductor took most of his attention day to day, but Halvorsen was still able to compose. Works like the chamber pieceBergensiana, Bojarenes inntogsmarsj (March of the Boyars), and his Passacaglia all date from this time. ThePassacaglia was a violin and viola duet based on a theme by Händel and premiered by the composer on viola.

In 1901, the folk fiddler Knut Dale visited Grieg hoping to have his work transcribed. The fiddler was unable to write music himself and was afraid of losing his dances, including some taught to him by other legendary players. Grieg, a pianist, thought that a violinist would be more fitting for the task. He suggested Halvorsen to Dale, who at this time was living in Cristiania. In the basement of the National Theatre, Dale and Halvorsen worked together, the composer writing as fast and as best he could with the fiddler’s irregular, folk music style of playing. The encounter was eye-opening for Halvorsen. He felt he was truly saving the music “from oblivion”. He also was experiencing his first real connection with folk music. It led him down a more nationalistic path for his future writing.

Halvorsen wrote music for a play, Fossegrimen, and used for the first time the Hardanger Fiddle. The Hardanger Fiddle is a traditional instrument also used often in Norwegian art music. Within the piece is his famousFanitullen, a Norwegian dance traditionally believed to be by the devil himself. Swept in nationalistic pride, Halvorsen played the fiddle part himself at the premiere.

Halvorsen spent thirty years as conductor and composer at the national theatre. Unsure of his ability to be hired due to his reputation having not reached Christiania, he produced a concert of his own works. He served as soloist and conductor for the evening and Bjørn Bjørnson, the director of the theatre, attended and would support his candidacy.

During his time at the theatre he produced a massive body of work. He composed music for plays, both Norwegian works and staple classics like Shakespeare. He wrote several operas. He conducted more than two hundred symphony concerts. August 1929 would bring his final concert performance with his orchestra. He said at the time, “This was my last appearance at the National Theatre, where I have worked and had more freedom and better conditions than any other Norwegian musician”. On 4 December 1935, Johan Halvorsen died, having suffered a stroke years earlier.

Johan Halvorsen wrote music starting with his time in Finland. He wrote numerous orchestral works, including three symphonies. He wrote chamber music and choral music. He was perhaps best known though for his works for the stage while working at the theatres in Bergen and Christiania.

Bojarenes inntogsmarsj (March of the Boyars) was first published in 1895. Halvorsen was offered a position in Romania and was researching Bucharest while debating taking the job, which he ended up turning down. He learned about the descendants of the Boyars who lived there and wrote this orchestral piece based on his impression of them. He believed the queen would summon him to the palace and want to hear his music. During the piece you hear the approach of the Boyars and their marching past.

Halvorsen’s Fossegrimen Suite is taken from his incidental music for a play of the same name. The suite is in five movements. The orchestration is given a Norwegian color with the addition of the Hardanger Fiddle to the score. The music was originally included with the play, but pulled when the composer believed it could be one of his signature works. It was premiered in January 1905.

Written when Halvorsen was around thirty years old, his arrangement of Händel’s Suite No. 7 in G is one of the most famous. He scored it for viola and violin, but it can be performed on other combinations of stringed instruments. He includes the original eight bar progression, but expands on it with his own additions.

Halvorsen as a musician has a strong place in Norway’s history, though his place a composer is not as easily defined. Works like his,Passacaglia, are still part of the established repertory. He is still performed internationally, but largely in Norway. He is however, certainly not a household name like his compatriots like Grieg. His legacy really remains with how he developed the musical scene in Bergen and Oslo.

Header image: courtesy Tres Connus Other images courtesy of NRK TV and public domain