Olav Anton Thommessen

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Olav Anton Thommessen
Thommessen olavanton 2.jpg
Born (1946-05-16) 16 May 1946 (age 76)
Notable work
Et glassperlespill; The Teacher Who Was Not To Be

Olav Anton Thommessen (born 16 May 1946) is a Norwegian contemporary composer who has been one of the foremost modernist composers in Norway since the 1970s. His main compositions include Et glassperlespill and Gjennom Prisme. He was a professor of composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music until retiring in 2014, and has also been an influential figure in music education and music organisations in Norway. Thommessen has played a significant role in aesthetic discourse in Norway and is known for his modernist and atonal stance. In later life he has become known for engaging in a critical public dialogue with his former student Marcus Paus about the future of art music, that has resulted in the opera monologue The Teacher Who Was Not To Be with a libretto by Thommessen; a 2015 debate between the two was described as "the biggest public debate about art music" in Norway since the 1970s.[1][2]


He is a son of the diplomat Knut Thommessen (né Knut Saenger), a grandson of the German gynecologist Hans Saenger and a great-grandson of the gynecologist Max Saenger (also spelled Sänger).[3] He trained in the United States, earning degrees from Westminster Choir College and Indiana University. He is a former professor of composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music, where he was employed in 1972. He retired in 2014.


Thommessen is a productive composer who utilizes a tonal language bordering on the radical while also harking back to classical roots. Through his compositional career, Thommessen has influenced the outlook on modern music through his career as a scholar and an advocate for dissemination of information on Norwegian contemporary music. Thommessen's list of works includes numerous symphonic works, chamber music pieces, and vocal music works. He has written several operas.

From 1972 onwards, Thommessen distinguished himself more and more as a composer through performances of his works at major festivals and with key orchestras: his work Some Sound was nominated for the 1972 ISCM World Music Days in London, Down-Up/Sunpiece saw a performance with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in 1973 and Mutually was bestowed with the award Samtida Musiks Quality Prize and was premiered at the Bergen International Festival in 1973. Following this breakthrough, Thommessen received a number of commissions; Stabsarabesk, Banners for Music, Maldoror, The Secret Gospel; The Overtone and A Concert Chamber are all works that represent this compositional period, not to mention an early version of The Hermaphrodite, premiered at the Vadstena Academy in 1976.[4]

The early 80s saw Thommessen gradually employing quotes and well-known phrases as basis for some of his works. The initial works that would later constitute his full-length concert opera A Glass Bead Game saw the light of day during this period: From a Glass Bead Game featuring themes from Beethoven and Verdi – premiered by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in 1980, Macrofantasy On Grieg's, 'Piano Concerto in a Minor', Op. 16 premiered by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in 1981 and Beyond Neon performed by the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra in 1982. Through a Prism was penned in 1982. As composer in residence at the 1982 Bergen International Festival, Thommessen's piano work EingeBACHt saw its premiere at the festival as did a performance of the final version of his opera The Hermaphodite – a work that was premiered earlier the same year by the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. The same year also saw Thommessen composing the stage music for a version of Romeo and Juliet performed at the unveiling of the Norwegian Theatre's new Oslo building, while The Emerald Tablet saw its premiere at the Høvikodden/Henie Onstad Kunstsenter and Gnostic Fragments as well as The Phantom of Light were commissioned by the Swedish National Concert Institute.[5]

During the latter half of the 80s, Thommessen composed a number of major works: the trumpet concerto The Second Creation, the opera The Duchess Dies, the viola concerto Near the Comet Head, the synthesizer concerto From Above as well as the organ and cello concerto Through a Prism. These works in turn led to Thommessen being bestowed with a number of awards: The Norwegian Critics’ Award (1987), the Wilhelm Hansens Family Endowment (1987), the Lindeman Prize (1989). Through a Prism earned Thommessen a 1989 Norwegian Society of Composers Work of the Year Award, a second prize at the 1990 International Rostrum of Composers as well as the 1990 Nordic Council Music Prize.

2005 saw the premiere of Thommessen's concert opera A Glass Bead Game in the entirety. The work is made up of six individual orchestral works which when united constitutes a full-length concert opera: Prologue, Macrofantasy On Grieg's, 'Piano Concerto in a Minor', Op. 16, Beyond Neon, Choral Symphony over Beethoven’s Eight Symphony, Through a Prism and Aposteose.[6]

Recent Thommessen works includes Kristi Brud (2012), Tuba Mirum (2012), Felix Remix, String Quartet No. 4 (2014) and A symphonic scherzo for strings and orchestra (2015).

Involvement in music organisations[edit]

Thommessen has been an advocate for artists' rights and has frequently partaken in public debate; in particular defending the composers' rights to rightful remuneration for performances of new works. Thommessen has been a board member of Ny Musikk – the Norwegian section of the ISCM, the Norwegian Society of Composers, the National Music Council and was instrumental in the foundation of the Music Information Centre Norway as well as serving as the organization's chairman from 1979 to 1985.

Thommessen in aesthetic discourse[edit]

Thommessen has also been active in stylistic and aesthetic discourse and is regarded as a critic of non-modernist and tonal music. In addition to public debate, his stance on this matter has also led to compositional output by third parties: a 2006 letter he wrote to the then-26 year old composer Marcus Paus was years later utilized as the libretto for Paus' opera monologue The Teacher Who Was Not To Be, which premiered at the concert "Paus & Paus" (with works by Marcus Paus and Ole Paus) in the Atrium of the University of Oslo as part of Oslo Opera Festival in 2013. Thommessen was later identified by Paus as the previously anonymous librettist.[7][8] The opera monologue was included on the album Requiem/Trisyn/Læreren som ikke ble (2022) alongside the work Requiem by Marcus and Ole Paus. It was also featured in the first episode of the podcast series Paus og Castle blir kloke på musikklivet (Paus and Castle Figure Out Music Life) in 2021. In the letter/libretto, Thommessen wrote:

Dear Marcus! I write to you based on your presentation in the Norwegian Composers' Association, where you tried to act as a "breath of fresh air" in an environment that you believe has been led astray. It was insulting and pubertal. And I send you some of my own works (works that you haven't bothered to familiarise yourself with!). We are probably not that different, but that you did not let me teach you at all is a personal defeat for me. The attitudes that you demonstrated in your presentation show that you do not understand what it means to be a "creative" artist. [...] I don't want any more verbal contact with you.

— Olav Anton Thommessen, The Teacher Who Was Not To Be (2006)

In 2015 Thommessen initiated a lengthy debate in the music journal Ballade over Paus' Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra and the merits of the contemporary use of tonal music;[9][10][8][11][12][13] it was described as "the biggest public debate about art music" in Norway since the 1970s.[1]


Selected works[edit]

  • Some Sound for choir and orchestra, op. 8, 1971
  • “Down-Up/Sunpiece” for orchestra, op. 13, 1972–73
  • “Mutually” for two voices and instruments, op. 14, 1973
  • Stabsarabesk for wind instruments, op. 15, 1974
  • The Hermaphrodite , a ballet opera, op. 18, 1970–80
  • Stabat mater speciosa for choir, op. 28, 1977
  • Banners for Music for choir and orchestra, op. 32, 1978
  • Melologer og monodramaer. En ordløs kammeropera, op. 32, no. 2, 1979/82
  • The Second Creation. An orchestral drama for trumpets, op. 32 nr. 4, 1988
  • A Glass Bead Game op. 34 nr. 2, 1979–82
  • Ekko av et ekko op. 36 nr. 2, 1980
  • Macrofantasy On Grieg's, 'Piano Concerto in a Minor', op. 39 nr. 1, 1980
  • Beyond Neon. Post-commercial Sound Sculptures for horn and symphony orchestra, op. 41 1980
  • Through a Prism A Double Concerto for cello, organ and orchestra, op. 44 nr. 1, 1982–83
  • EingeBACHt. InnBACHt parafrase over Toccata in G-major, first movement for piano, op. 47 nr. 1, 1984
  • L'éclat approchant for synthesizer and chamber orchestra, op. 52 nr. 1, 1986
  • The Duchess Dies, op. 56 nr. 1, 1987
  • The Phantom of Light. A Miniature Concerto for cello and two wind quintets, op. 62 nr. 1, 1990
  • Edda-Da. Monodrama op. 63a, 1991
  • Near the Comet Head, op. 64 nr. 4, 1993–94
  • Kassandra op. 69, 1996
  • Music for Vandals, op. 76, 1998
  • Corelli Machine op. 82, 2002
  • Veslemøy synsk – en GRIEGsk musi-collage over Arne Garborgs HAUGTUSSA for mezzosopran og klaver, 2007
  • Motett over Wergeland (2008)
  • Smykke eller saga (2009)
  • Kristi Brud (2012)
  • Tuba Mirum (2012)
  • The Teacher Who Was Not To Be (2013), librettist (music by Marcus Paus)
  • Felix Remix, strykekvartett nr. 4 (2014)
  • A symphonic scherzo for strings and orchestra (2015)
  • Purpose: For symphonic wind orchestra (2015)


  • Requiem/Trisyn/Læreren som ikke ble (2022), with The Teacher Who Was Not To Be by Marcus Paus/Thommessen and Requiem by Marcus and Ole Paus
  • Bjørn Sagstad, Ila Brass Band, Klang (!) (2012)
  • Ernst Simon Glaser, Zvezdochka in orbit (2012)
  • Staff Band of the Norwegian Armed Forces, A Tribute to the Northern Winds (2011)
  • Veslemøy synsk (2011)
  • The Oslo Philharmonic, Peter Herresthal, Bull's Eye ; Please accept my ears ; Cantabile (2006)
  • Corelli Machine (2006)
  • Einar Henning Smebye, Guri Egge, Songs from the Last Century (2006)
  • Christian Eggen, Oslo Sinfonietta, Norges Musikkhistorie - Bind 5 (2001)
  • Kyberia, Navigations (2000)
  • Peter Herresthal, Partita für Paul 1. sats (1998)
  • Peter Herresthal, Please Accept my Ears! (1998)
  • Jeg er flerspors - variasjoner over Olav Anton Thommessen (1998)
  • Håkon Austbø, Juni Dahr, Edda-Da (1995)
  • Oslo Sinfonietta (1993)
  • Gaute Vikdal, Skygger (1992)
  • Frode Thorsen (1991)
  • Ensemble K 4 Live at Henie-onstad Art Center (1990)
  • Frantisek Veselka, New Norwegian Violin Music, Vol.II (1990)
  • Frantisek Veselka, New Norwegian Violin Music, Vol.I (1990)
  • The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, A Glass bead from above (1990)
  • Jeunesses Musicales World Orchestra, Scandinavian Tour 1988 (1988)
  • Geir Henning Braaten, Norwegian Pianorama (1984)


  1. ^ a b Nerdrum, Bork S. (2019-10-16). "The Challenges for a Romantic Composer in a Field of Dogmatic Modernists".
  2. ^ Alexander Zlatanos Ibsen, "Tonal provokasjon," Minerva, 4 March 2015
  3. ^ ”Nu er jeg beskeden. Og mer enn det.” Fra Tyskland til Norge i 1934
  4. ^ "Bio from MIC Music Information Centre Norway". listento.no. Retrieved 2016-12-07.
  5. ^ "Bio from Music Norway". musicnorway.no. Retrieved 2016-12-07.
  6. ^ "Bio from The Society of Norwegian Composers". komponist.no. Retrieved 2016-12-07.
  7. ^ Ibsen, Alexander Z. (11 October 2013). "Brøt med klisjeene". Minerva.
  8. ^ a b Paus, Marcus (3 March 2015). "En 'riktig' stil?". Ballade.
  9. ^ Olav Anton Thommessen, "Annen-gangs er som regel annen-rangs," Ballade, 3 March 2015
  10. ^ Alexander Zlatanos Ibsen, "Tonal provokasjon," Minerva, 4 March 2015
  11. ^ Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen, "Alt er lov – heldigvis?," Ballade, 4 March 2015
  12. ^ Ragnar Søderlind, "Varer modernismen evig?," Ballade, 18 March 2015
  13. ^ Arild Pedersen, "Annengangs?," Ballade, 24 March 2015

External links[edit]