Ib Nørholm - Obituary

The death of Ib Nørholm marks the loss of one of the most striking and lovable profiles in Danish musical life. The composer, Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen has written an obituary about his teacher and friend.

Photo: Per Morten Abrahamsen
Ib Nørholm passed away on Whit Monday at the age of 88. This marked a loss to Danish musical life of one of its most striking and lovable profiles, and in him I personally lost a much-loved teacher and friend.

As a composer, Nørholm – along with his colleagues Gudmundsen-Holmgreen and Nørgård – was among the first to embrace the new trends of the 1960s, which resulted in serialism and diverse forms of happenings. Like his colleagues, however, Nørholm was also quick to reject Central European aesthetics in favour of the so-called ‘new simplicity’, which for a number of years and in various guises was to become the norm in Danish music. It is often said that what was typical of Nørholm’s music was pluralism. His aversion to limiting his own aesthetic standpoint. His wish to open up the works to whatever impulses might happen to arise. ‘I wonder where on earth this is leading to?’ he sometimes said when he played the beginning of a new work. This extreme sensitivity to what is also possible was a unique quality of Nørholm’s production. And, like no one else, Nørholm elegantly managed to gather together all the various paths that the music might take into a coherent whole which always had that unmistakable Nørholm form of expression. An expression which particularly manifested itself in melodic mastery – whether it found its way into the music as an instrumental upper part, a lied or a popular song, such as the already established ‘Now Christmas bells are ringing’. In addition, there was his symphonic mastery, developed in no less than thirteen major symphonies. With this complete command of both melodics and large-scale works, Nørholm would seem to be the unequivocal torch-bearer of the Carl Nielsen tradition and he forms a bridge that links 20th century music together.

The major role Nørholm plays both directly and indirectly for present-day Danish musical life is due to the interaction between his composing and his work as a teacher. From 1980 onwards, he was professor of composition at the Copenhagen Academy of Music. Most of the composers of my generation were students of Ib Nørholm. And his pupils (which included Ivar Frounberg, Karsten Fundal, Ejnar Kanding, Martin Lohse, Niels Rosing-Schow and Bent Sørensen) have continued this tradition for teaching and in so doing have passed on the legacy they themselves received. And this legacy was special. Nørholm, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen and Nørgård were not only artistic innovators. They were also – and this is ultimately perhaps even more important? – social innovators. They managed to create an environment of understanding, curiosity and tolerance. An environment where composers were friends and colleagues rather than rivals; where aesthetic differences were welcomed – or at least discussed in a sober tone – and seen as a an incentive to develop rather than criticise. In his own teaching, this is what Nørholm advocated. One of the most important elements of his teaching in composition was the weekly composer classes, where all students met and discussed the subjects that Nørholm or we ourselves had brought up.

Throughout all this, Nørholm the man was radiant. As a man, he was always most attentive towards his pupils. A man who always began his lessons by asking how one was getting on. In life, that is. And then, at a certain point, with a twinkle in his eye as usual, he would say ‘well, I don’t suppose you’ve brought something along with you, have you?’ Which we always had, of course! Although Nørholm could be as cordial as could be, he could also grow angry with virtually no warning. Legend has it (in one of its versions) that Nørholm, after a DUT concert (DUT= the Association of Young Composers) was so incensed by what he had just heard that he drove through a red traffic light and was taken into custody at a police station until his identity could be verified.

And this story of the DUT concert brings us to another of Nørholm’s characteristics: his curiosity! His desire to be abreast of things, to always relate to the changing tendencies of the age, meant that he – usually in the company of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen – could be found among the listeners at practically all the concerts which featured new music. And this was part of his involvement in the work to establish an environment in which new music and its musicians and composers could flourish. That this was work which bore fruit is something that – among his many initiatives – the latest Klang Festival bears witness to. The vigour to be found in new music nowadays must be seen as a direct legacy of Nørholm’s life’s work. The fact that he personally would perhaps be sceptical about some of the new trends does not change this. Those are the conditions. As he once – resignedly or consolingly? – expressed it: ‘Developments are always right.’

And now Nørholm himself is no longer with us. But his spirit lives on, both in our memories and the thriving environment he helped create.

- Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen