Léonie Sonning Prize 1996

Per Nørgård

The composer Per Nørgård received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize of DKK 300,000 at a concert held at 8pm on Sunday, 5 May 1996 in Radiohusets Koncertsal.

The music prize was presented by Steen Frederiksen, Head of Music at Danmarks Radio, who said:

“You have never isolated yourself or withdrawn. On the contrary, you have as a person been just as open as your music: You are curious and good at listening, but you are just as good analysing and expressing yourself with great personal force – that is why you have always been extremely active in the social and cultural debate on behalf of the weak, on behalf of what is meaningful, have struck a blow for cohesion and perspective. And for many years you have as a teacher passed on your experiences to the next generation of composers. Not only has the world – and have we – discovered that we have a Danish composer on a par with the greatest living composers, but you must also take much of the credit for the fact that the next generation has created music of high quality – also in an international context.

A few days ago you said on the radio – and this made me think of a resemblance to Leos Janácek – that you believe every human being can change perspective, change focus and that what you want to do with your music is to bring the individual listener to a state where openness is created to the idea that the given definitions do not always apply, that the world is endlessly diverse.

Music that can influence in that way is art: the poems, paintings and music that cause us to see our own lives, our own world and its surroundings in a new light, cause our eyes and ears and consciousness to grow. Great art actually does this – and so does your music.

Therefore – for the importance your music has had and continues to have – and because you in splendid fashion have led the musical cultural heritage on from Carl Nielsen and via Vagn Holmboe – and because your music has such expressiveness and such strength that it will remain standing for posterity as eternally valid – you are awarded the Léonie Sonning Music Prize for 1996.”

In his speech of thanks Per Nørgård said:

“Within me rises the head of the small, notorious Danish subordinate character that bashfully whispers: It’s completely wrong, it says, that it raises its head because a subordinate character would never raise its head, it would lower it, and then it would bashfully whisper: Thank you – you’re much too kind – don’t you think you’ve got the wrong address? Shouldn’t you have been looking a bit further south? Good heavens, the first prize-winner was Stravinsky – what are you thinking of?

But when this subordinate character has had its say for a while, there is fortunately a Mary, Mary, quite contrary in me that raises both head and voice and says: Great, thanks a lot! Great, marvellous! It’s really great that the Sonning Music Prize now goes (tumultuous laughter from the entire audience, shouts and applause) to a Scandinavian composer for the first time. And that strikes a new note, since up to now it has mainly gone to composers in Central Europe and USA, so that’s really great.

And I think there is a fine perspective in this, since modern Danish music in recent years has been gaining an ever-increasing international response. Something has actually happened between Danish composers and their international reception that is quite unique and that finds expression in many ways – in things sent to me and things I have heard from various far-off places – that it is considered something of a miracle that there are so many individual, highly original composers in Denmark – despite its size.”

You can listen to both speeches here (in Danish):

After the concert there was a reception in the relief foyer of Radiohuset, with hundreds of people – the entire orchestra, the choir, more than 100 invited guests, including such composers as Sven Erik Werner, Hans Gefors, Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen, Poul Ruders, Steen Pade, Arne Nordheim and Kristian Blak. All of them jostled to get a chance of congratulating Per Nørgård. And the crowd grew even bigger when the gripping moment came when the Ars Nova choir suddenly came slowly into the room in a long line while singing music by Per Nørgård. A great moment for all those present.

The programme

Per Nørgård Dobbeltspil – Kabale for piano and orchestra. Commissioned work. 
First performance.
  Wie ein Kind (1979-1980). For four-voice mixed choir a capella.
  Symphony no. 3 (1972-75).

Per Salo

Choir soloists:
Susse Lillesøe, Marianne Lund, sopranos
Kim Nandfred, Kasper Højby, tenors
Peter Fog, baritone
Hedwig Rummel, contralto

The Danish National Symphony Orchestra
The Danish National Radio Choir

Leif Segerstam and Stefan Parkman


The Léonie Sonning Music Prize 1996 of DKK 300,000 is hereby awarded to the composer Per Nørgård, because he has taken further the best of Danish heritage in a way that sharpens our senses to sound and time, stimulates our curiosity and widens our consciousness of life as a whole. His music has a lasting place in the literature of music, and with its universal view of humanity as its point of departure it has evoked a response in a host of listeners that stretch far beyond the shores of Denmark.

Concerning the prize concert

Three days prior to the prize-giving concert, the city of Copenhagen celebrated Per Nørgård at a reception at Copenhagen City Hall – in the presence of mayors and figures from Danish musical life – all those people who had been in close contact with Per Nørgård and his music and who wanted to be there to pay him tribute.

In connection with the prize concert, two books were published:

Anders Beyer (ed.): The Music of Per Nørgård: Fourteen Interpretative Essays

Scholar Press (1996). Published with financial support from the Léonie Sonning Music Prize.

Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen: Virkeligheden fortæller mig altid flere historier [Reality tells me more and more stories]. About Per Nørgård’s philosophy of life and his music.

The Funen Academy of Music (1995). Published with financial support from the Léonie Sonning Music.

Per Nørgård’s own note on the piano concerto ‘Dobbeltspil – Kabale for klaver og orkester’

"The title of the work can of course quite simply be interpreted as the double play that exists between soloist and orchestra. That the word ‘Kabale’ is used as a genre definition implies the ambiguity the title also contains. The concept of ‘cabal’ was formerly used to talk about the most diverse of human activities – so it can also take being used in a musical context. (Derived from the Indian word for tradition, used in Jewish philosophy, the ‘quabbala’ is a term for a coded system for universal secrets, transferred to the secretive in the intrigue and to the secretively turned-down card that is the fascination of the solitary card game of patience.) The ‘cabal’ in the piano concerto is based on the tension between the superficial layers – and their apparently harmonious complicity – (soloist/orchestra, relationship between the individual instruments in the orchestra – and, last but not least between certain instrumentalists in the orchestra who engaged throughout the work in a ‘certain alliance’, especially between the piano soloist, the harpist and the percussionists – while a shrill clarinet mainly does its own thing...) – and what one could perhaps call ‘the hidden agenda’: For the world of notes and rhythm is governed by a constant ambiguity, where it can be pushed away to the advantage of ‘the second tempo’, which, however, has always been present, just under the surface. Generally speaking, ‘Dobbeltspil’ is an unbroken journey in three stages that could be conceived as ‘into the night’, ‘in the night’ and ‘out of the night’. But no matter which images one tries to include in the listening process: the hidden rhythmical agenda will always disturb even the most self-confidently smooth surface."

Selected Music by Per Nørgård

The daily press

wrote, among other things:

"Nørgårds piano concerto, which sends the soloist out on an almost thirty-minute, unbroken tour de force, seems to have a more robust solo voice than his previous concertos. The demanding piano voice has a feeling of raw energy, even openly aggressive will to control things. With an alto saxophone that, from its position on the side-lines comments on events, the piano soloist seems to use the orchestra as a sparring partner in sequences that constantly worked with the tension between various tempos operating at the same time [...]

[...] Overall, a well-designed programme which, as a setting for the prize-giving ceremony, demonstrated aptly why Per Nørgård was to have the Sonning Prize: for his ability and will to create cohesion and to explore new musical territory, and to create music that also offers the listener the opportunity to shift musical boundaries."

(Thomas Michelsen, Information, 7 May 1996)

"Per Salo bore the new piano concerto, Concerto in due tempi, that Per Nørgård had dedicated to him. The performance was masterly – it seethed with energy and gleamed with insight. The piano part was an oasis of clarity in a wonderful strange weave of events [...]"

(Teresa Waskowska, Politiken, 7 May 1996)