Bernhard Christensen


Bernhard Christensen studied Musicology at the University of Copenhagen between 1926 and 29 as well as studying organ and musical theory on a private basis; in the latter capacity he graduated as an organist from the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen in 1929. Soon after he was employed as a choirmaster and assistant organist at the Chapel of Christiansborg and stayed there until 1945. After that he worked as organist and cantor at Vangede Church outside Copenhagen between 1945 and 76.

As a composer he is autodidact. His background was the productive music environment in Copenhagen c. 1930. Like many other young composers, musicians and music critics of the time his basis was the Carl Nielsen tradition and the contemporary European modernism mainly exemplified by Bartók and Stravinsky, which he familiarizes himself with together with - among others - his friend Herman D. Koppel. This circle of composers dealt with the clash against Romantic preconceptions and musical ideas, and they advocated an objective attitude towards the nature and tasks of music as a whole. On the agenda were the crisis of musical life, the growth of "mechanical music" and the interest in the sociologically widely oriented endeavours within the field of folk music. However, it was primarily his discovery of the music of foreign cultures - the socalled "primitive music" - that became important for Bernhard Christensen as a composer. For him jazz was just one - educationally very effective - special case of rhythmic/ improvisational means of music known from foreign musical cultures. On these grounds he became known in the general public as the young jazz devotee; a fact which helped form his career. He is widely recognized for his contributions to the socalled jazz oratorios with Sven Møller Kristensen as lyricist. Perhaps this impact obscured the fact that Bernhard Christensen originally imagined a general vitalization of compositional music and musical culture as a whole based on foreign musical cultures. This idea is reflected in rarely performed orchestral works in a larger scale such as the ballets Enken i Spejlet (the Widow in the Mirror) and Den Evige Trio (the Eternal Trio) and the large amount of solo concerts which - apart from the ones mentioned in the work list - include a number of early, experimental concerts dating from appr. 1930. The same idea is reflected in the series of organ works that started in 1929 and have been continued throughout the years and which in recent years have become an integral part of his collecrted oeuvre.

The organ has been prominent in Bernhard Christensen's oeuvre; this is not only due to the fact that he is an organist himself but also that he in Finn Viderø has had a friend as well as a highly competent interpreter of his works from the very beginning. Thanks to Viderø's enthusiasm the organ works have been performed not only in Denmark, but in England and the US as well. Similarly, his friendship with Herman D. Koppel was stimulating, partly in connection with his Piano Concert from 1945. Bernhard Christensen wrote jazzy music for revues by Poul Henningsen between 1930 and 32; he participated in Melodien der blev væk (the Melody that Disappeared), which was one of the greatest theatre successes in the 30s and he worked as a composer and arranger for - among others - Erik Tuxen's jazz orchestra. His music for Poul Henningsen's "Film About Denmark" might be considered a sheer major work in early Danish jazz, and he has made considerable contributions within the field of film music, composing for still attractive short films like Bjarne Henning Jensen's Brunkul (Lignite) and Søren Melson's Jyske Kyst (the Coast of Jutland).

In small genres Bernhard Christensen's oeuvre spans writing delicate hymn tunes to a large number of melodies in the Danish high school tradition and to music from the period of the Danish and Norwegian occupation to a lot of songs mainly with lyrics by Poul Henningsen. Moreover, he wrote lots of childrens' songs attached to the work as an educationist he had had since the 30s and which was from the beginning aimed at young jazz devotees and later at grown-ups being trained as young children's teachers. Finally he aimed the music at the children themselves as the teacher in a progressive free school between 1950 and 76.

Bernhard Christensen's musical gift has been the one of the improviser. It has manifested itself in an exceptionally wide range of genres and relations. Usually it is the relationship that is the decisive factor, be it useful in the cases of church-, theatre or film music, the needs and capacities of a certain group of children in an educational process or the uniqueness of a certain performer like Viderø og Koppel. He was never interested in the absolute work of art, and neither was he a style absolutist. This might be one of the reasons why he probably has been a bit of an outsider compared to the trend-setting currents in art music since - at least - 1960. Bernhard Christensen is, however, a vivid and distinctive voice in the Danish choir of composers following Carl Nielsen. His view of music, characterized by cultural transgression, points forward in time. This applies particularly to the situation of cultural life today, and his music demands attention in the multi-facetted musical culture of our time. He expounded his view of music and its growth broadly in his dedicated book Mit motiv (My motive) (1983).