Gunnar Berg (composer)
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Gunnar Berg (11 January 1909 – 25 August 1989) was a Swiss-born Danish composer. A leading exponent of serialism in Denmark, he is considered to have written the first Danish serial piece, his Cosmogonie for two pianos, in 1952.
Berg was born to Danish and Swedish parents in Switzerland. He studied with Herman David Koppel from 1938 to 1942, and moved to Paris in 1948, where he became associated with Honegger and Messiaen. In 1952 he married the pianist Béatrice Duffour, who would later record much of his piano music. In the same year he became the first Dane to attend the summer courses at Darmstadt.
Arriving in Paris in 1948 he became part of the international modernist movement in post-War Europe by joining the circle around Olivier Messiaen. Here, Berg had inspiring encounters with key figures such as John Cage, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Serial organization began to make its mark already in the newcomer’s Pièce for trumpet, violin and piano from 1949, and henceforth Berg uncompromisingly yet in his very own fashion would remain faithful to the complex expressive mode of musical modernism, from now on always composing within the theoretical and aesthetic framework of serialism.
Life and music
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Switzerland, Salzburg, Copenhagen and Paris
Gunnar Berg was born in Switzerland on 11 January 1909. His childhood was marked by great changes and disease, and he was late to musical studies.
He attended the Salzburg Festivals in 1932 and 1935, and his early scores from the mid-30s puts him closer to Central European aesthetics than a Danish or Nordic.
In 1936 he attended the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, followed by piano lectures with Herman D. Koppel and Elisabeth Jürgens. During the German Occupation Gunnar Berg was active in the rescue of the Danish Jews to Sweden and the Danish Resistance, and after the Liberation he engaged himself in the music pedagogical projects in the refugee camps in Denmark. He gave concerts and presented himself as a composer by a pair of concerts in Copenhagen, but won no recognition for his music. In 1948 he went to Paris to study with Arthur Honegger and Olivier Messiaen.
Gunnar Berg was warmly welcomed in Paris, and the encounter with new musical idioms – Olivier Messiaen’s Technique de mon langage musical and Edgard Varèse’s music – made a strong impression and got him to revise his earlier works. In 1950, he was at the request of the French composer Darius Milhaud for the third time in Salzburg – the Seminar of American Studies at Schloss Leopoldskron. This year he composed his first 12-tone compositions, Suite pour violoncelle seul, followed in 1952 by Trieda for solo recorder, and the first carried out serial compositions by a Danish composer, Cosmogonie from 1952 for two pianos and Filandre for violin, flute and clarinet from 1953.
In 1952 Gunnar Berg married the French pianist Béatrice Duffour - with the piano concertos Essai acoustique from 1954 as a belated wedding present. The fruitful interaction between composer and pianist resulted over the years in many piano works by Gunnar Berg, but also developed Béatrice Berg to a distinguished and highly respected interpreter of contemporary piano music.
In 1952 they attended the famous summer courses for new music in Darmstadt, where the meeting with Karlheinz Stockhausen was a confirmation of the sustainability and validity of Berg’s own musical experiments and creations. A number of concert tours and radio recordings took the Berg’s around Europe with music by today’s leading composers on their programmes. In 1957 and 1958 they toured Germany and Scandinavia funded by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Folk High Schools in Denmark
In 1958 Béatrice and Gunnar Berg came to live in Denmark, where they were among the first ones to introduce the Continental European avant-garde music. It was a few decades of great importance for the Danish music scene due to her tireless concert activities and her international profile.
A number of years Béatrice and Gunnar Berg embarked on a unique project with residences, lectures and concerts at the Danish Folk high schools. In 1965 Béatrice and Gunnar Berg moved into the old school at Lindved between Horsens and Juelsminde in Jutland. There they created an unusual cultural venue where the people of the region were often invited to memorable concerts of contemporary and classical music.
Lindved - Bern - Lindved
A few years after Béatrice Berg’s death in 1976 Gunnar Berg moved to Switzerland, where he saw a significant resonance to his music. Groupe Neue Horizonte Bern staged a broadcast concert under the title »Hommage à Gunnar Berg«. His 80-year birthday 11 January 1989 was marked with concerts, world premieres and lectures in Switzerland and in Denmark.
Gunnar Berg died in Bern 25 August 1989 and he was buried in Rårup Churchyard, not far from the old school in Lindved. The gravestone for Béatrice and Gunnar Berg was created by the Swiss artist Christine Schär, with whom Gunnar Berg lived in Switzerland.
Gunnar Berg 2009
The centennial of Gunnar Berg’s birth was celebrated with concerts, radio programmes, CD-releases, writings, printed scores, and exhibitions in Denmark, Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, USA, Ukraine and China. These activities has caused a significant change in the understanding of and respect for his artistic oeuvre - being far from a cold speculative, mathematic game.
Working Group Gunnar Berg
Working Group Gunnar Berg - Agneta Mei Hytten, Erik Kaltoft and Jens Rossel - was formed after Gunnar Berg’s death in 1989 by composer Tage Nielsen (1929-2003), editor and former head of the music section of DR, Mogens Andersen (1929-2008), pianist Erik Kaltoft and Jens Rossel with a view to raising awareness and understanding of Gunnar Berg’s music.
The working group placed the largest part of Gunnar Berg’s manuscripts and things left behind at the Royal Library in Copenhagen, released two double-CDs with historical recordings of Gunnar Berg’s piano music on Danacord Records and coordinated the various actitivites in the centennial of Gunnar Berg’s birth.
- Rossel, Jens (2008). "Gunnar Berg (1909-1989)". Edition S.