After several years fighting Alzheimer’s, Arne Nordheim – the leading contemporary Norwegian composer and one of the great creative figures in post-war 20th-century music – has died, 15 days short of his 79th birthday.
Nordheim first came to prominence with a series of controversial works such as the String Quartet (1956) and cantata Aftonland (“Evening Land”, 1959), provocative in their rethinking of traditional forms in a Norway not then conversant with Bartók, later Stravinsky or Schoenberg.
In the 1960s, Nordheim experimented with musique concrète and electronic music, creating ground-breaking sound sculptures and incorporating tape elements into major concert items such as Epitaffio (1963; issued on LP in Decca’s Head series) and Dinosaurus for accordion and tape (1971), recorded for Philips by Mogens Ellegaard, who went on to record the excellent concerto Spur (1975) for Unicorn.
Nordheim was at heart an orchestral composer as works such as Greening (1973), the cello concerto Tenebrae (1982), Magma (1988) or the string-orchestral Rendezvous (1956; 1975) virtuosically affirm. His output was extremely varied with major contributions in many genres of western art music yet he left no symphony or opera.
Ballet was a recurrent interest, his best-known being The Tempest, after Shakespeare (1979), and Draumkvaedet (1994), based on a folk tale. Both works are currently available on the Aurora label, which has championed Nordheim’s music for two decades, in a 7CD retrospective release entitled “Listen: the Art of Arne Nordheim”. (The title derives from Nordheim’s most recorded work, the piano solo, Listen.) The 1996 Violin Concerto, already issued on Sony, has been re-recorded by BIS for issue later this year.
Nordheim was born in Larvik in Oslofjord in 1931 and went to Oslo to study organ in 1949. An encounter with Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony set him on the path to be a composer and he spent the next decade-and-a-half honing his skills to become Nordheim’s pre-eminent modern composer and her greatest creative musician after Grieg.
After studies at the Oslo Conservatoire, with Holmboe in Copenhagen and Paris — plus encountering Ligeti in Sweden in the early 1960s – Nordheim in the 1970s consolidated his position and in 1982 was invited, with his wife, the interior designer Rannveig Getz, to take up residence in Grotten, the Norwegian Government’s artistic residence (next to the Royal Palace) which is the preserve of the most eminent composer, artist or writer of the day.