Gunnar Berg (1909-1989)

Gunnar Berg is one of the most international figures in recent Danish music life. He orientated himself internationally and was one of the first Danish 12-tone composers and modernists, from 1950 he consistently wrote an atonal music, full of explosive crackling energy, rhythmically complex and extremely colourful in the detail. His many abstract, non-figurative ink drawings might serve as clues to the composer's musical universe. As an artist Gunnar Berg registered with both eyes and ears.

Gunnar Berg was too late in the process of playing the piano to attain a professional career as a pianist. But the experiences at the piano had a decisive influence on his compositional thinking, as it was reflected in his piano compositions - from the numerous educational small pieces to the four virtuoso concerts for piano and symphony orchestra - Essai acoustique, Frise, Pour piano et orchestre and Uculang. The two major works for solo piano - Eclatements (1954-88) and Gaffkys (1958-59) - are both of a size that places them among the most voluminous manifestations in the Danish piano literature in the second half of the twentieth century.

Also for other instruments Gunnar Berg has written works that include him in the history of music, for example, the almost one hour long Fresques (1976-78) for guitar, composed for Maria Kämmerling. With the many quartertones, the unprecedented combinations of harmonics and an extremely wide spectrum of strumming and dynamics Fresques appears as one of the most compressed compositions within modern guitar music.

Switzerland, Salzburg, Copenhagen and Paris
Gunnar Berg was born in Switzerland on 11th January 1909. His childhood was marked by great changes and disease, and he was late to musical studies. He attended the Salzburg Festivals in 1932 and 1935, and his early scores from the mid-30s puts him closer to Central European aesthetics than a Danish or Nordic.

1936 he attended the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, followed by piano lectures with Herman D. Koppel and Elisabeth Jürgens. During the German Occupation Gunnar Berg was active in the Danish Restistance, and after the Liberation, he engaged himself in the music pedagogical projects in the refugee camps in Denmark. He gave concerts and presented himself as a composer by a pair of concerts in Copenhagen, but won no recognition for his music. In 1948 he went to Paris to study with Arthur Honegger and Olivier Messiaen.

Gunnar Berg was warmly welcomed in Paris, and the encounter with new musical idioms - Olivier Messiaen's Technique de mon langage musicale and Edgar Varese's music - made a strong impression and got him to revise his earlier works. In 1950, he was at the request of the French composer Darius Milhaud for the third time in Salzburg - the American of American Studies. This year he composed his only 12-tone composition, Suite pour violoncel seule, which in 1952 and 1953 was followed by the first carried out serial compositions by a Danish composer, Cosmogonie for two pianos and Filandre for violin, flute and clarinet.

Béatrice Berg
In 1952 Gunnar Berg married the French pianist Béatrice Duffour - with the piano concertos Essai acoustique from 1954 as a belated wedding present. The fruitful interaction between composer and pianist resulted over the years in many piano works by Gunnar Berg, but also developed Béatrice Berg to a distinguished and highly respected interpreter of contemporary piano music. In 1952 they attended the famous summer courses for new music in Darmstadt, where the meeting with Karlheinz Stockhausen was a confirmation of the sustainability and validity of Berg's own musical experiments and creations. A number of concert tours and radio recordings took the Berg's around Europe with music by today's leading composers on their programmes. In 1957 and 1958 they toured Germany and Scandinavia funded by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Folk High Schools in Denmark
In 1958 Béatrice and Gunnar Berg came to live in Denmark, where they were among the first ones to introduce the Continental European avant-garde music. It was a few decades of great importance for the Danish music scene due to her tireless concert activities and her international profile. A number of years they embarked on a unique project with residences, lectures and concerts at the Danish Folk High Schools. In 1965 Béatrice and Gunnar Berg moved into the old school at Lindved between Horsens and Juelsminde in Jutland. There they created an unusual cultural venue where the people of the region were often invited to memorable concerts of contemporary and classical music.

Back to Switzerland
A few years after Béatrice Berg's death in 1976 Gunnar Berg moved to Switzerland, where he saw a significant resonance to his music. Group Neue Horizonte Bern staged a broadcast concert under the title "Hommage à Gunnar Berg." His 80-year birthday 11th January 1989 was marked with concerts, world premieres and lectures. In Denmark Aarhus Symphony Orchestra celebrated the 80th anniversary by performing the piano concerto Frise with Danish pianist Erik Kaltoft and Hungarian conductor Tamás Vetö.

Béatrice and Gunnar Berg are buried in Rårup Churchyard, not far from the old school in Lindved. The beautiful gravestone was created by the Swiss artist Christine Schär, with whom Gunnar Berg lived in Switzerland.

©Jens Rossel
Updated July 2008