Rethinking Harald Sæverud’s Piano Music:

A personal account, by Einar Røttingen



Harald Sæverud (1897-1992) is one of Norway’s most original and important composers. His works are still not widely known, except for the two popular pieces, “Rondo amoroso” and “Kjempeviseslåtten” (Ballad of Revolt). These are often chosen as representative pieces by pianists or orchestras. So why is his music not more known and played? Is there something in his music that is too inaccessible, failing to communicate to a larger audience?  Or is it that the performers of his music - conductors, pianists, and other instrumentalists – have failed to understand essential characteristics of his artistry? What is the performer’s role - and how do I as a pianist make his scores become alive, communicative, and meaningful?

Personal background

At the end of Master studies in music in the U.S., I was asked to participate on an LP, “Hommage à Sæverud”, to be released at the 1986 Bergen International Festival, where Sæverud was festival composer. I recorded “På kingelvevstrenger” (On the Strings of a Spiderweb) and “Vindharpeslåtten” (Eolian Harptunes) and learned several other pieces from the suites “Slåtter og Stev fra Siljustøl” (Tunes and Dances from Siljustøl). After having performed a selection of his pieces during the festival with the composer present, I became interested in playing more of his music. Eventually I decided to learn all the solo piano music. Over several years, I visited the composer at Siljustøl and went through all the piano pieces with him. He gave encouraging comments, as well as corrections, when there was something important that was missing. These were inspiring encounters which resulted in three concerts in Troldsalen (Chamber Hall at the Edvard Grieg Museum) in 1990; due to illness, Sæverud could unfortunately not be present. He died in 1992, just before his 95th birthday. After his death, it became important to document my work on CDs. The opportunity arose to record the solo piano music, as well as the “Piano Concerto” Op. 31, with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. This was part of a series of recordings of Sæverud’s orchestral, chamber and piano works made for the 1997 centennial celebration.


Reassessing interpretations: self-critique of earlier recordings

Over the years, I became more critical of my earlier performances. I realized that I was not finished with this repertoire, and that I wanted to rethink my interpretive approach. The earlier recordings had a fresh and matter-of-fact approach with youthful energy and drive, but the tempos now seemed to be on the fast side, with insufficient emphasis on details of articulation, nuances of sound (dynamics) and phrasing issues (breathing, shaping, flexibility). Something essential was missing that had to do with expressing sensitivity and vulnerability. I realized that such qualities of expression mattered much more than I had been able to see. There was a potential for more expressiveness and depth, particularly in the lyrical pieces, which are such an important part of Sæverud’s artistry.


Bodily and spiritual experiences

“…This (Zen) is not a philosophy of not looking where one is going; it is a philosophy of not making where one is going so much more important than where one is that there will be no point in going …” (Watts: 1957, p. 125)

“… the Taoist mentality makes, or forces, nothing but “grows” everything …” (Watts: 1957, p. 176)

“… There is only this now. It does not come from anywhere; it is not going anywhere. It is not permanent, but it is not impermanent. Though moving, it is always still. When we try to catch it, it seems to run away, and yet it is always here and there is no escape from it. And when we turn around to find the self which knows this moment, we find that it has vanished like the past …” (Watts: 1957, p. 201)


Other experiences before and during my project have influenced my artistic outlook. Two of these have a direct bearing on my artistic approach.

In 2013, I had problems with my right hand during a concert series performing Beethoven’s solo piano works. Since then, I have been undergoing physical therapy to address these issues. It gradually became clear to me that these problems were symptoms of a fundamental bodily imbalance. The process of undoing old physical habits and gradually “re-programming” my body to a new way of functioning has taken many years. Parallel to gradually opening up (reorganizing my source of energy), I became increasingly interested in spiritual ideas from Asia, more specifically ideas from Tao and Zen-Buddhism. Several central elements from Zen – such as the notions of awakening, awareness, and presence - seemed to confirm and reinforce my new way of thinking.

The earlier stress and preoccupation with the music’s constant drive forward changed towards a greater interest in the immediacy of musical details and how to express them. This new outlook goes directly to what I now see even more in Sæverud’s artistic project: the deep interest in making music that is close to the shifting feelings and moods of the actual presence of life and nature. I needed to show, down to the smallest details in the score, how the moment could be expressed in the immediacy of tones and musical gestures. There seems to be an innate link between Sæverud’s artistry and life attitude and central elements of Zen. This life-affirming quality and meaningfulness of the moment can be realized and experienced in music more than in any other art-form, as stated in the composer’s artistic credo: “All feelings and moods in a human mind can be notated in pure music”. (Kayser: 1997, p. 152)


Characteristics of the composer

“… Already as a teenager I was making my own form in that it was the lines that meant something for the sounds that appeared when the lines met. This I consider the ideal sound world” (NRK TV archive, 1972).

“… My music is purely classical – in my own way, and my master teachers have been Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. All of my works stem from an inspiration – therefore I always have a note pad with me. I think more in lines and voice leadings than chords, and melodies are at the core” (Kayser: 1997, p. 97).

While Sæverud was alive, he was often involved in listening to and coaching performers. He demanded above all an uncompromising involvement and consistent expressive projection of the music’s true character. Sæverud is known to have shouted “I want more blood!” when showing his dissatisfaction with musicians’ lack of involvement while conducting an orchestral rehearsal.

He would often gesticulate with his arms and body and sing (in his own peculiar way), illustrating the shape of his melodic motifs. Each musical figure – with its intervallic building blocks - had its own inherent power and strength to speak as a direct musical utterance. All tones should be clearly articulated in different ways; on the piano he would show various touches, such as directly dropping into the key or sliding the finger in and out of the key. “Always speak clearly the first note”, he told me again and again, as if to emphasize the “consonant” in a word.

He never stayed long in one mood; if something he was saying was sad, he could suddenly break the mood and say something humorous in contrast - “I am so sad I have to laugh” (Kayser: 1997, p. 190). For Sæverud, life had to be experienced intensely and spontaneously in the moment; it had to be varied and never boring. There was often an amusing comment about something he noticed in the room, in a person, or in an earlier experience. His perception and appreciation of life’s small incidents and peculiarities was extraordinary.

Like many of Sæverud’s contemporaries, such as Hindemith, Bartók, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, he started composing in a late-romantic style. Gradually, through reducing the texture and experimenting with atonality, he found inspiration in the Viennese classics. Here he found the ideals of motivic craftsmanship, elegance, and clarity while at the same time maintaining a concentrated intensity and directness of expression. No tones are superfluous: every note matters. Above all, I feel Haydn’s and Mozart’s transparent textures (often two-voiced), economy of means, humanity, lightness, joy, and constant surprises to be akin to his style. The “Sonatinas” Op. 30 are a true homage to Haydn! Beethoven’s direct projection of emotional extremes, from playful to tragic, joyful to angry, can also be found in Sæverud’s music. Another trace of Beethoven’s influence can be found in Sæverud’s extreme notational control of articulation (marcato, sforzando, dolce, etc.).

Sæverud plays with conventions of tonality and traditional phrasing, as do other neo-classical composers, such as Prokofiev, Bartók, Stravinsky and Hindemith, but Sæverud does it in his own way. I feel that Sæverud wanted his music to be anything but “ordinary” or “predictable”. The musical material - melody, motifs, figures – is always varied in interaction with other voices, so as never to be identically repeated. Variation form, not sonata form, is the main form principle in his music. And the simple fun of how the musical material is varied and what unexpectedly can happen along the way, becomes the main point.


Revising scores: processes-oriented communication with the performer

Experiencing Sæverud personally was considered important for performers of his music when he was alive. His music was so intrinsically connected with his personality. Even though he conveyed his musical intentions in detail in scores, he experienced problems of communication with performers and was often not happy with performances of his music. Therefore, Sæverud often revised his scores throughout his lifetime, changing the way he communicated information to the performer. Through time his scores became even more punctuated with detailed instructions - more articulation marks, verbal comments, and tempo modifications.

Some pieces, such as “Rondo Amoroso”, were originally written in a single tempo. Later it was revised to include multiple, changing metronome markings to indicate change of character, mood, or direction. It seems he was increasingly trying to gain more control of tempo modifications and rubato in the notation in some pieces. For example, “Rondo amoroso” starts with the tempo indication a quarter note = 66. As the melody becomes more insistent, the score indicates a quarter note = 72, with increasing intensity to a quarter note = 76.

These modifications seem to say something basic and important about his music, but they are often not followed; in many recordings of the symphonies, such as Nos. 5, 6 and 7, tempo markings are often neglected. The recording of “Symphony No. 6”, with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Karsten Andersen as conductor, also lacks these tempo changes and forward motion as notated in the score. Sæverud collaborated with Andersen throughout many years; the question arises as to why these essential indications were not followed in such an important documentation. The result is that the music can seem too static and laboured, with a lack of freshness, vitality, flexibility, and direction. A sense of coherence can easily be lost, and the overall organic feeling can fall apart along the way. Sæverud’s larger structures seem dependent on the character of motifs and local tempo changes, and his symphonies clearly have a more episodic and variation-oriented conception than for example Shostakovich’s more epic, linearly conceived symphonies. Could it be that one of the main problems of interpretation since the romantic era has been a lack of differentiation between the styles of the of different composers within the same period? There is often a dominating way of interpreting music of a certain period, heavily influenced by the way one or more famous composers are performed. This dominating way of interpreting is often transferred to other composers, even though these clearly demand different artistic approaches.

Sæverud’s struggles, experimentations and alterations of score indications illustrate the problems of notation as means of conveying artistic intentions from composer to performer. A score has limitations and is never “finished”; it is only a meeting place for informed dialogue between the composer’s initial artistic vision and the performer’s dedication to create meaningful performance. Sæverud’s search for better ways of notating his ideas is similar to the performer’s constant search and questioning to find and refine expressive means. The essence of the music lies beyond the score, but the score is the common ground for reflection.

S C R O L L   D O W N


Performed by Einar Røttingen (piano)

Recorded at Siljustøl (live performance in Harald Sæverud’s home), February 16th, 2020

Foto: Bente Elisabeth Finserås

“Bånlåt“ Op. 21, No. 3

Den Siste Bånlåt“ Op. 22, No. 3

Gjætlevise“ Op. 14,4

“Hjuringen'pi Eismodal“ Op. 24, No. 2

“Kristi Blodsdråper“ Op. 21, No. 1

“Kvelding-Sull og Lokk“ Op. 21, No. 4

“Li-Tone“ Op. 14, No. 5

“På Kingelvevstrenger“ Op. 22, No. 4

“Revebjølle“ Op. 22 No. 1

“Rondo Amoroso“ Op. 14, No. 7

“Sonatina No. 2, 2nd Mvt.“

“Sonatina No. 3, 2nd Mvt.“

“Sonatina No. 4, 2nd Mvt.“

“Tones Vuggevise“ Op. 25, No. 4