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Geirr Tveitt (1908-1981) was a Norwegian pianist and composer.

Tveitt was born in Bergen, Norway, on 19th October 1908, but brought up in the family home by the Hardanger fjord in western Norway; he remained conscious of his cultural heritage all his life. He was christened Nils, but as a young adult he took the old Norwegian name Geirr, which means “spear”. He spent his childhood years both at Lofthus in Hardanger and in Drammen, but each summer returned to the ancestral farm at Kvam, where he experienced the rich folk-music traditions of the area from an early age.

He had musical training both in piano and violin, but it was not until his adolescence that he decided to become a composer, after having been encouraged by Norway’s most significant composer at the time, Christian Sinding. In 1928 he went to Leipzig to study composition (H. Grabner and L. Wenninger) and piano (O. Weinreich). After only two years of study, his Two-Part Inventions were published, and shortly afterwards his first piano concerto was performed by the Leipzig Symphony Orchestra.

He left Leipzig after four years. In 1932, 1933, and 1935 he studied for periods of time in Paris where he was taught composition and orchestration by Honegger and Villa-Lobos, among others. In Vienna, he received musical training under the guidance of Egon Wellesz. He then settled in Oslo, where - until the outbreak of the Second World War - he experienced a prosperous period as a composer. The performance of the ballet Baldur’s Dreams in Oslo in 1938 was a high point. The piece was later performed in Paris and was also supposed to be staged in Covent Garden, but the score was lost in the bombing of London during the war.

In 1942 Tveitt moved back to Hardanger, where he began to systematise the collecting and arranging of folk-tunes. Numerous trips around the fjord resulted in the transcription of more than a thousand folk-tunes (according to Tveitt himself). He arranged a hundred of the tunes, both for piano and for orchestra. Luckily, copies of the first fifty piano versions as well as four suites, each including fifteen folk-tunes for orchestra, existed at the time of the tragic fire that destroyed his farm house in 1970. These tunes have since been considered Tveitt’s main work, and the orchestral versions in particular have received acclaim.

In the years to come, Tveitt toured extensively in Europe as a pianist in addition to his composing. Among the most significant events was a very successful concert in Paris in 1947, with first performances of Sonata no 1, some of the Hardanger Tunes, as well as the more modernist works, Sonata no 29 and Piano Concerto no 4. Seven years later he returned to Paris for a first performance of his Piano Concerto no 5, op. 156, an event that was equally successful. A number of piano recitals where the composer played his own music, often together with works by Grieg, Chopin, and Liszt, gained him fame as a virtuoso pianist. As a composer, however, he faced greater opposition than before in his own country. The national style represented by Tveitt was increasingly criticised in the Norwegian press.

Tveitt was a prolific composer. He worked quickly and seldom used drafts. Instead he transcribed complicated scores from memory. He was clearly impulsive; his compositions were frequently altered, often a change was made in the music only just before the musicians were going on stage. Tveitt wrote music in many different of formats, from snatches of songs to concertos, ballets, and operas. He was a strong supporter of the national idiom and his early compositions particularly show signs of this. Several works are also programmatic.

The inspiration from Hardanger was important to the composer, and often a walk in the mountains was what led to a new composition. Themes of folk-music were, however, seldom integrated in his works the way they are in Grieg. Tveitt was careful to credit different sources. In fact, he was so eager to inform the general public about other sources than himself, that there have been speculations as to whether some of the Hardanger Tunes really are his own compositions, either partly or fully. There is, however, no doubt that the majority of the Tveitt works are folk-music inspired.

A considerable number of Tveitt’s works are written in modal keys. In 1937 the composer published a theoretical thesis (Tonalitätstheorie des parallelen Leittonsystems) in which he stated that the modal scales Dorian, Phrygian, and Lydian really are old Norse keys. He did not find support for his ideas in central musical circles in Norway where he was often looked upon as a reactionary, but in France his thesis was given credit by Florent Schmitt, among others. Later Tveitt considered his thesis “a bit youthful in its form”, but he did not give up these theories in his composing.

From the 1960s onwards, the composer spent a lot of time in Oslo working partly as a radio producer. In this period a number of songs were added to his body of works, often written on a moment’s inspiration. Many of these songs were made for radio programmes, produced by Tveitt, about Norwegian authors such as Hamsun and Wildenvey. Nonetheless, the 1970 fire which led to the loss of possibly 80% of his musical production, took away a lot of his will to live. Tveitt, once described as “an unstoppable waterfall” in Norwegian musical life, died a reduced man, after a period of illness, on 1st February 1981.

Edited by Grosseteste on 21 Jun 2008, 09:00

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