About this Recording
GP739 - KVANDAL, J.: Piano Works (Complete) (Knoph)
English  Norwegian 

Johan Kvandal (1919–1999)
Complete Works for Solo Piano


Johan Kvandal was born in 1919. His parents were the artist Lissa (Amunda) and the composer David Monrad Johansen, and this early exposure to the arts proved extremely influential. He studied composition with Geirr Tveitt from 1937–1942 and with Joseph Marx in Vienna from 1942–1944. After the war, he completed his studies at the Norwegian Academy of Music, majoring first in conducting in 1947 and then in organ in 1951.

In the early years Kvandal was, like many other composers of his generation, influenced by the predominantly nationalist trends of the 1920s and 1930s. He sought in this period to combine elements from Norwegian folk music with classical forms.

Kvandal lived in Paris from 1952–1954 and this became an important turning point. He studied with Nadia Boulanger at the Paris Conservatoire and was exposed to a most inspiring musical environment. Kvandal explored the music of composers such as Bartók, Stravinsky and Messiaen and, during the 1950s and 1960s, incorporated some of their influences into his own music, but without using atonal or electronic methods.

From the 1970s onwards Kvandal returned to the Norwegian folk music close to his heart, but this time combined with the musical currents of the time. This fusion resulted in the creation of an innovative tonal language, based on what Kvandal himself called ‘modern tonality’. He became increasingly more occupied with composing and received many commissions both nationally and internationally. His opera Mysterier (Mysteries), was a major work, first performed at the Norwegian Opera during a festival linked to the Winter Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994. Towards the end of his life, Kvandal wrote a number of chamber works as well as orchestral pieces, and his last composition was a concerto for piano and orchestra. Johan Kvandal died in 1999.

Joachim Knoph
English translation by Astrid Angvik

Chronological Overview of the Works

Five Small Piano Pieces, Op. 1, were written during winter 1939–40. They were meant to be simple pieces for children, for use in an educational context, but already demonstrate the use of modality and imitation principles. The pieces can be said to show a personal exploration of music’s different elements and a sincere joy of expression through them. Kvandal premiered the opus himself on the radio during the summer of 1940, and it was published in autumn of the same year.

The Sonatina for piano, Op. 2, was written in the spring/summer of 1940, and here he explores larger formats. It was first performed at a meeting of the Norwegian Society of Composers in early 1941, and formally premiered by Jan Wølner at Universitetets Aula on 21 March 1941. Kvandal said: ‘I think I dare say that this sonatina is written by a very happy 20-year-old.’ A reviewer wrote that it was ‘an extraordinarily mature and clear work which shows much promise for the talented composer’.

Rondo grazioso, Op. 5, No. 1 (1942). The works in Op. 5 were written over a long period during the war years but were grouped into one opus when they were published. Op. 5, No. 1 has a relatively large-scale rondo form. It follows classical ideals but one can also sense a Norwegian touch in the music.

Three Norwegian Folk Tunes, arranged for piano, Op. 5, No. 2 (1948), were composed at the suggestion of the Swedish pedagogue Birgitta Nordenfelt when Kvandal was employed by her as a music teacher. The first performance was given on Norwegian radio on 29 July 1951 by Hans Solum. These pieces show early examples of Kvandal’s interest in folk music and folk tunes which he knew from his childhood.

Lyric Pieces for piano

Intermezzo No. 1, Op. 5, No. 4: Andante sostenuto
Intermezzo No. 2, Op. 5, No. 5: Andante
Capriccio, Op. 5, No. 6: Allegro molto
Scherzino, Op. 5, No. 7: Allegro scherzando

Intermezzo No. 1 was inspired by the nature of Lom and Bøverdalen, where Kvandal stayed during the summer and autumn of 1945. He often performed it himself. Intermezzo No. 2 was written in Stockholm in the autumn of 1947, where he lived from 1947–49. Capriccio was composed in 1942—the same year as the Rondo grazioso—and was regularly performed by the composer. Scherzino was written for the pianist Hans Solum for a radio programme; it was intended to be ‘a lively piece’ and its original title was Hare Dance.

The Fantasy for piano, Op. 8 (1947), was written for Kvandal’s own exam at the Oslo Conservatory of Music (now the Norwegian Academy of Music) in the spring of 1947. With this piece he expands into a bigger format, later commenting: ‘This composition expresses to some extent a romantic emotional world which actually appeals to me also today.’

The Fantasies on Three Country Dances, Op. 31 (1969), were composed for the Bergen International Festival and its ‘On Norwegian Strings’ programme in 1969, and required performances of folk music in its original form as well as the adapted version. Kvandal used traditional country dances for three instruments: Jew’s harp, Langleik and Hardanger fiddle. The first (Jew’s Harp Dance) is in pure Lydian mode; the second (Langleik Improvisation) combines two different Langleik dances and has a Mixolydian mode. Kvandal notated Vigstadmoen/Springleik for fiddle after a visit to the fiddler Rikard Skjelkvåle in Sjåk. These fantasies on three country dances are among Kvandal’s most performed works. They were premiered by Finn Nielsen at Håkonshallen, Bergen, on 25 May 1969.

Jew’s Harp Waltz (1980) was composed for ‘Norwegian pianorama—25 new piano pieces’ (edited by Cecilie Ore). The idea behind the collection was to show a selection of contemporary Norwegian piano works that take different stylistic directions. The theme used in Kvandal’s waltz is from Folk Music from Gudbrandsdalen by O.M. Sandvik. The tonality is modal (Aeolian minor).

8 Norwegian Folk Tunes arranged for piano, Op. 70, were composed in 1986–87 at the instigation of the piano pedagogue Eva Sandvik Stugu. This collection of arrangements of Norwegian folk tunes shows a broad spectrum of characteristics.

Mood. From an Old Sketchbook (1952) was at first performed by Kvandal privately and was published in 1987 at the suggestion of the pianist Kjell Bækkelund.

Dance was composed in 1998 for Bjørg Julsrud Bjøntegaard’s pedagogical work Mosaics – Piano Music through the Ages. The piece has a fresh touch, with some elements of folk music.

Valse is from the opera Mysteries (from a novel by Knut Hamsun), Op. 75, on which Kvandal worked from 1990 until 1993. It had its premiere at the Norwegian Opera in Oslo on 15 January 1994. In the opera, the piece is performed on a harp.

Glockenspiel Minuet is from incidental music written for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s TV production of ‘Skipper Worse’ from 1968, after Alexander Kielland’s novel.

Joachim Knoph
English translation by Astrid Angvik and Andrew Barnett


Morten Gaathaug (ed.): ‘Celebration of Johan Kvandal on his 70th Birthday, 8 September 1989’.
Øivind Lillemæhlum: ‘Johan Kvandal – Piano pieces 1939–1948. A review, mainly from the view of tonality’.
(Master Thesis, University of Oslo, 1982)

Special thanks to Morten Gaathaug for providing the source material.

The Dynamics of Silence

Johan Kvandal was a subdued and cautious man but, for those of us who had the privilege to know him up close, he also stood out as a sly humorist, a perceptive analyst and a creative wellspring of artistic ideas. I became acquainted with him when I was eleven years old: I had just won a competition on British television and, alongside piano lessons from Robert Riefling, I had already been studying composition under Øistein Sommerfeldt for some years. It was Sommerfeldt who thought that I should begin studies of music theory ‘in earnest’, and he suggested Johan Kvandal, his friend and colleague from his own studies under the Boulanger sisters in Paris.

Kvandal soon proved to be a fantastic teacher. His rock-solid mastery of counterpoint was ‘of the old school’; he dragged me through hundreds of exercises in both counterpoint and theory—and, when my knowledge of German proved inadequate, he translated the thorniest passages of Hermann Grabner’s book Der lineare Satz into Norwegian for me. We had regular weekly lessons at the Norwegian Performing Rights Organisation’s premises (Klingenberggata 7), sitting at a table beneath black-and-white photos of strict-looking gentlemen in dark suits—the composers who had been chairmen of the Norwegian Society of Composers through the years. One day, one of these black-and-white men—the composer Klaus Egge—turned up in person while Kvandal and I were sitting at our table, and I still remember that I found the experience slightly scary. Kvandal, however, set me the task of learning one of Egge’s piano pieces before the next week’s lesson, and that put an end to my anxiety—regarding not only strict men on walls in general but Norwegian composers in particular. There and then I decided that my childhood dream of becoming a composer was going to become a reality.

Kvandal never treated his students as pupils, but rather as future colleagues. By according us respect, he earned our absolute admiration in return, and the fact that he himself was active as a composer and organist during the period he was teaching us was a tremendous stimulus. He drew us into his circle, showed us works while he was still working on them, discussed the challenges he faced and made us understand the importance of collaborating with performers in order to develop idiomatic skills. He never forced us in specific stylistic directions but opened our eyes to all types of musical expression with equal importance.

Over the years I was to have the opportunity to perform a number of piano pieces, chamber works and songs by Kvandal at concerts all over the world, and these—along with his major orchestral works (such as Antagonia) and music dramas (such as the opera Mysterier [Mysteries])—still strike me as ultra-fresh, relevant and powerful examples of twentieth-century Norwegian art music. Unlike the music of many of his contemporaries, Kvandal’s works seem to have retained their relevance even many decades after they were written. Of course this is partly a result of the composer’s professional abilities, but perhaps to a greater extent it stems from his great seriousness and humility when dealing with sources of inspiration from folk music. For him there was never any question of providing folk music with an ‘art music alibi’; on the contrary, it was always about understanding folk music as art music in its purest form. Like few others at the time, he understood the value of silence as the platform for an entire universe of sound: he may have been a quiet man, but he possessed an exceptional musical dynamism. In this way he resembled Béla Bartók: after a performance of the latter’s Concerto for Orchestra in the USA in 1945, one of the reviewers expressed his astonishment at the contrast between the music and the composer’s appearance: how could this timid little man, produce such dynamic music?

It is darkness that gives meaning to light; silence places sounds in relief.

Wolfgang Plagge
English translation by Andrew Barnett

The Large, Yellow House on the Water – and the Composer Who Went His Own Ways

Isn’t it fascinating how strongly we are influenced by experiences in early life? As a child, I had the pleasure of being a pupil at the so-called ‘Saturday school’ at the Bærum Community Music School. Among my lessons there featured piano classes with the inspiring Wolfgang Plagge, sometimes held at the school’s large, yellow house on the Sjøholmen. One day there was a new score on the grand piano: Johan Kvandal’s Tre slåttefantasier (Fantasies on three country dances). A couple of years earlier I had performed Kvandal’s Four miniatures for four violins, but apart from that I knew very little about him, other than that he had obviously been inspired by Norwegian folk music, and also that these works had been first performed at the Bergen International Music Festival.

Several years later I had the opportunity to explore more of Kvandal’s oeuvre, and now I have the privilege of recording his complete works for solo piano. When I look back at my involvement with his music there are perhaps two particular aspects which have a specific resonance for me. The first is folk music. The more I learn about folk music—not just from Norway, but from other countries as well—the more I am moved by its timeless beauty, delicate sensitivity, and the way that its historical richness touches the soul. The list of composers who have been influenced by folk music is long, from Grieg, Tveitt and Bartók, through to Berio’s incredible Folk Songs. I have also taken great pleasure in seeing young Norwegian artists such as the fiddler Gjermund Larsen use folk music as their inspiration, simultaneously respecting its origin and transcending the barriers of contemporary music.

The second aspect of Kvandal’s music which resonates with me is his strong tonal framework. I am fortunate to have worked at length with contemporary music which does not have a modernistic or avant-garde starting point. This is not due to a specific ‘agenda’—I’ve had much joy in playing and listening to more experimental music.

However, I cannot shake a certain fascination with (and respect for?) composers who emphasise the contact with their musical roots and who see possibilities for creative expression within tonal frameworks. Kvandal had to live with a certain amount of rejection from the musical establishment, as his music was not perceived as sufficiently modern. Luckily, in our times the acceptance levels are higher—and a variety of artistic expressions can live and be respected side by side. Composers are united on what at the end of the day is the essence of their work: communication.

Perhaps there are some invisible threads linking the music class in the large, yellow house on the lake to this album. It has been an exciting journey, regardless, and I would like to express a big thank you to Johan Kvandal’s family, in particular to Lilleba Lund Kvandal, for support as well as help with the manuscripts. Last but not least, many thanks to professor Jiří Hlínka for having gone through these works with me.

Joachim Knoph
English translation by Astrid Angvik

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