Norway’s classical music community owes a great debt to the composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). Although Norway achieved its independence only two years before his death, he put it firmly on the international musical map through his compositions and concert activities. The fact that Norway only gained its independence in 1905 has had a significant influence on Norwegian music history. For five hundred years, Norway had little exposure to European aristocratic and bourgeois cultural traditions, and therefore has little to offer by way of Renaissance and Baroque music.
Nevertheless, Grieg did have some important predecessors: Halfdan Kjerulf (1815-1868) established a considerable reputation as a composer of piano works, lieder and choral music in the mid-1800s, and the great violin virtuoso Ole Bull (1810-1880) had a brilliant career in Europe and the USA during the same period. These two figures paved the way for the development of today’s classical music community in Norway, and are central to the Bergen International Festival, not least through the concert arenas at the Edvard Grieg Museum and Ole Bull’s home, Lysøen.
The major figures in today’s Norwegian classical music community include the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, the cellist Truls Mørk and the soprano Solveig Kringelborn.
The period between Grieg and Bull’s era and today’s musical heights has also featured some world-class soloists, such as the soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962). Norway owes its present crop of internationally-acclaimed soloists, ensembles and orchestras to the boost the Norwegian music community has received since the 1970s, first through the introduction of public music education, and later through the growth of a number of festivals and the building of concert halls in all of the country’s largest cities. The next major project is the construction of a new opera building in Oslo, into which the Norwegian National Opera will move in the autumn of 2008.
Norwegian composers have kept Edvard Grieg’s heritage alive to the present day. After Grieg’s death, the most important composer was Christian Sinding (1856-1941), whose music was clearly influenced by Romanticism. At the same as continental atonal trends began to influence Norwegian music, a solid core of composers continued to build on Grieg’s tonal and National Romantic elements. These include David Monrad Johansen (1888-1974), Ludvig Irgens Jensen (1894-1969), Harald Sæverud (1897-1992), Klaus Egge (1906-1979), Geirr Tveitt (1908-1981), Øistein Sommerfeldt (1919-1994) and Johan Kvandal (1919-1999). Of contemporary composers, it is perhaps Ragnar Söderlind (born 1945) who is most closely associated with this tradition.