The Danish composer Gunnar
Berg was born in Switzerland, where he spent his earlier childhood, a period
dominated by serious illness and a number of changes of environment. In 1921
he moved with his widowed mother to Copenhagen and it was not until he was
fourteen that he was able to start piano lessons, during a period of convalescence
in the country. In 1924 he returned to Switzerland, where he worked as an
office-boy, moving again to Copenhagen in 1929, to remain there for some twenty
years. In 1932 and 1935 he attended the Salzburg Festival and was the only
student to attend Herbert von Karajan’s classes in the Bruckner symphonies.
In 1936 he started counterpoint lessons in Copenhagen with Knud Jeppesen,
but his time at the Royal Danish Academy of Music was short. Gunnar Berg’s
compositional style in these years brought him much closer to a Central European
aesthetic, with a power of expression foreign to Danish music of the period.
Not until 1948, when Berg moved to Paris, did he find a sympathetic audience,
including Arthur Honegger and the circle of Olivier Messiaen. In 1950 he composed
the first Danish 12-tone composition and in 1952 he became the first Dane
to visit the famous summer courses held at Darmstadt. From then onwards Gunnar
Berg developed a personal serial style of composition, a technique he continued
until his death in 1989. After extensive tours of Europe with his wife, the
French pianist Béatrice Berg, he settled again in Denmark in 1958, writing
there a considerable number of his more important works, such as the Gaffky’s
I-X and the Eclatements for piano, and the piano concertos Frise, Pour piano
et orchestre and Uculang. After the death of his wife in 1976, Berg returned
to Switzerland, where he was active until his death, attracting considerable
critical attention and becoming an honorary member of the Schweizerischer
for solo flute (1950)
In the 1970s the Hungarian-Danish
flautist András Adorjan came to know some of Gunnar Berg’s compositions for
flute such as the Sonata for flute and clarinet (1942/51) and the Pastourelle
for solo flute, which Berg had written in 1950 in Salzburg, where he was attending,
at the invitation of Darius Milhaud, the Seminar in American Studies. Earlier
in the same year he had written a 12-tone Suite for unaccompanied cello, but
for the flute he rejected the limitations of the baroque suite form, preferring
the flexibility of the impressionistic Pastourelle.
for two pianos (1952-53)
In 1952 Gunnar
Berg attended the annual summer meetings at Darmstadt. Here he heard the music
of Karlheinz Stockhausen, a confirmation of his own experience. The result
was Cosmogonie for two pianos, a fully serial composition, in which the principles
of serialism are applied to every aspect of the music, notes, rhythm and dynamics.
The title chosen by the composer is an indication of the importance he attached
to the composition, the creation and development of the world.
part of Cosmogonie is a slow movement in 6/4, although the pulse of the music
is not apparent, partly because of the precisely recorded arpeggios and accentuation
on unaccented beats. The lack of dynamic continuity gives the impression of
flickering, further emphasised by the frequent use of overtones, resulting
from tone-clusters in the lowest register, sustained by the pedal. The first
performance of the first part of Cosmogonie was given in 1967 by the Czech
pianists Vera and Vlastimil Lejsek.
part of Cosmogonie is quick, in 4/4 time, with an insistent quaver motor impulse.
The music is not completely serial in the orthodox sense, and this caused
the composer to break off work on the movement, resuming only for the first
complete performance by Frode Stengaard and Erik Kaltoft in 1986.
Aria for flute and orchestra
The meeting between
Gunnar Berg and András Adorjan resulted in the flute concerto Aria, which was
completed in 1981 in Switzerland and performed for the first time in 1984 on
Danish Radio by Adorjan, with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted
by Tamás Vetö. The title refers to the original meaning of the Italian word,
“air”, rather than to any musical form. The character of the one-movement composition
can be described as airy and is thus well suited to the solo instrument. In
contrast an often insistent but brief repetition of the same note appears as
an important structural element throughout the whole work. The instrumentation
is generally transparent, with a flickering impression created by sharply differentiated
rhythms and the frequent use of quarter-tones. There are very few occasions
when the orchestra, with single wind and a percussion section dominated by the
xylophone, joins together in a tutti. The solo flute part demands considerable
virtuosity, with its widely differentiated rhythms and elaboration of sonorities
closely associated with the two flutes of the orchestra. The composer clearly
intended to extend the expressive range of the flute in this work, which was
in 1988 recommended for the Nordisk Musikpris (Scandinavian Music Prize).