EIVIND GROVEN (1901 - 1977)
‘If anyone asks the way to Groven’s place, they will receive the answer that they only have to follow their longing. It is to the east of noise, and to the west of today’s insane tempo—just by a forest lake. And on the other side there is someone playing.’
This lyrical greeting from the composer Arne Nordheim on the occasion of Eivind Groven’s 60th birthday in 1961 describes both his personality and also his music.
Eivind Groven (1901–1977) grew up on a farm in the region of Vest-Telemark, located in the centre of Norway, isolated geographically but not culturally. The heritage of folk music was strong. Before Groven was 15 years old, he played over 200 slåttar (folk dance tunes) on the Hardanger fiddle and also composed for this instrument. After training as a teacher he settled in Oslo. His encounter with classical music set his musical origins in relief—it had a liberating effect and spurred him on in three ways:
Faced with audiences, especially in the capital city, who might listen to genuine folk music with reluctance, prejudice or lack of knowledge, Groven felt he had a job to do. He wanted to give them insight into a world of music that, in his opinion, was on a par with art music in terms of complex formal thinking, melodic richness and intrinsic value. He presented Norwegian and international folk music in articles and radio programmes. Groven laid the foundation of the folk music archive at the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and made sure they had modern, high-quality recording equipment. He collected around 2,000 Norwegian folk tunes and preferred to use a transcription method that best reproduced the unique intervals and rhythmic structures of folk music. His notation of Helge Ingstad’s sound recordings (1949–50) of the Nunamiut people, Alaska, was another pioneering piece of work. Groven considered these Eskimo melodies to be a contribution to ‘world music’—long before the concept of ‘world music’ was introduced.
With his background in folk music, Groven soon discovered that the piano and other keyboard instruments cannot reproduce all the harmonies in all the keys pure at the same time, as only twelve tones per octave are available. He learned that folk musicians use acoustically pure intervals and, like Hermann von Helmholtz and others, felt that the twelve-tone equal temperament made the music too smooth. Groven constructed several pure-tuned organs with a minimum of 36 tones per octave, but these always retained a standard keyboard. His unique invention was a tone selection device that is controlled by impulses directly from the keys and ‘tunes’ the instrument while it is being played. The aim was to reproduce pure intervals in all keys and also to recreate the scales that are found in folk music.
Groven’s theoretical and practical preoccupation with the problem of pure tuning attracted international interest. By means of letters and visits he maintained contact for many years with international composers, musicologists and musicians such as Martin Vogel (Germany), Adriaan Fokker (the Netherlands) and Alois Hába (Czechoslovakia). When Albert Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954, he visited the Trinity Church in Oslo to play Bach on the pure-tuned pipe organ Groven had installed there. Schweitzer expressed his unqualified approval. Groven distributed a recording of music played on his pure-tuned organs. The international response was substantial. The American violinist Camilla Wicks wrote in a letter: ‘This work is the greatest “break-through” in reproducing music since the invention of recording sound.’ (8 September 1968).
Many interwar composers tried to create a new national music by combining elements of authentic folk music with new techniques. In the 1920s, Groven felt that the music needed, for instance, other harmonic tools. Folk music’s universe of pitches influenced his choice of chord systems. With modal means and musical material from the upper part of the overtone range he created an extended tonality.
Around the time of the First World War, a need was felt for new formal solutions in European music. The continuous variation form, extended to include transformation or metamorphosis technique, appealed to many composers. Among Norwegian composers, Groven was probably the one who most clearly applied developmental principles derived from instrumental folk music. In Groven’s compositions folk music is often encountered as subtly transformed, usually not as direct quotations. Nonetheless, his musical material was related to it, and in symphonic works it demanded a new approach to form compared to that which had previously formed the basis for Norwegian music.
Governed by continuous variations on various levels, the most characteristic Norwegian instrumental folk music, the ‘slått’ tradition, is structured according to a unique asymmetric ‘budding’ technique that was ‘in Groven’s blood’ and which he followed in his symphonic works as well. He perceived a relationship between the Baroque Fortspinnung technique and the ‘development stage’ of the instrumental folk dances. In an article, Groven wrote: ‘Folk dances are like sonata movements with principal motifs, several subsidiary ideas and rich variations of these.’ He himself combined the structure of the dances with familiar formal principles, a type of innovation and adaptation that Béla Bartók also used.