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Tuesday 22 August 2017

Prolific artist combined music and theatre

Google "Norwegian composer" and the first name that will present itself is that of Edvard Grieg. He's by no means the only one, but he's certainly the best known, from his iconic Piano Concerto to his pair of Peer Gynt suites, written to accompany the Henrik Ibsen play.

Wikipedia lists 112 Norwegian composers in all, among them Johan Halvorsen, who provides a connection to Grieg, not least in that he carried on composing in the romantic, nationalist style, just as Grieg had done. He was married to Annie Grieg, daughter of Edvard's brother, John.

Although there were more than 20 years between them, the two men were close. They had met in Leipzig and would end up in Bergen, Norway's second city, and Grieg's home town. Halvorsen took charge of the Philharmonic Orchestra there.

A move to Kristiania (as Oslo was known until 1925) represented something of a shift in that it confirmed what were his twin passions, music and the theatre.

Halvorsen was chief conductor of the Kristiania National Theatre for 30 years, and was able to combine the direction of both stage and orchestral performances. This also gave him a platform for his own compositions, work that elevated him to a status as perhaps the most important Norwegian composer of the first half of the 20th century.

Best known of Halvorsen's pieces is The Entry March of the Boyars, an orchestral sketch much in the style of Borodin's In The Steppes of Central Asia (the Boyars were a Russian division).

Halvorsen paints the picture of the approach of a military parade. There's marching brass, and dancing violins, drum rolls and clashing cymbals. Enjoyable and not too demanding.

His later compositions included three symphonies. But there had been plenty before those, with two Norwegian Rhapsodies, scores for theatrical productions and arrangements and variations on themes. He also adapted a lot of Grieg's piano output.

When Grieg died in 1907, a funeral march he'd arranged for a wind band was to be played. But there was no band, so Halvorsen stepped in, produced a score, and a full orchestra delivered the salute. Halvorsen passed away 75 years ago today.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning ghamilton@independent.ie

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