Three generations make music

All in the Habbestad family

Photo courtesy of the Habbestad family
The Habbestad family performs together in both formal and informal settings, often wearing their colorful traditional Norwegian bunads.

Lori Ann Reinhall
Editor-in-chief
The Norwegian American

The Habbestads are a three-generation family of musicians who will be coming to Minneapolis from Norway to give several performances during the period July 29 to Aug. 6. Their 2023 visit to the United States is sponsored by the Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota, a program of Norway House. The Norwegian American will introduce readers to this remarkable family in a series of articles leading up to their performances in Minneapolis.

In installment No. 1, Editor-in-chief Lori Ann Reinhall interviews composer Kjell Habbestad, who leads the family group of musicians, the Habbestad Ensemble, with his wife, Inger Elisabeth.

LORI ANN REINHALL: The musicality of your family is truly amazing. Your three children are all conservatory-trained professional musicians. Your grandchildren all perform at remarkably advanced levels for their respective ages. Did you plan to create a musical family from the beginning of your marriage or did the idea emerge later as your children began to exhibit musical talent?

KJELL HABBESTAD: Thank you for your kind words regarding our family members’ musical abilities. To your question, I must answer that we from the beginning didn’t have a clue that anyone of them would care about playing an instrument at all. My brother, who was headmaster in a music school, even criticized me for not having let them start earlier. So, we thought, “Well, let us give it a try.” One summer morning at the breakfast table, I asked them who would like to play the flute, the violin, or the cello. They chose their instruments and started in August 1990 at the local music school. Ida was 10, the twins, Ingvild and Erlend, were 7.

My wife, Inger Elisabeth, was leading a children’s theater group at the time, and for Christmas that year, she wanted to dramatize Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Little Match Girl.” I created music for the play, doable for the three children, with mostly open strings, a simple flute melody, and a somewhat more advanced piano accompaniment for myself. We put on the play at a local theater, and all of a sudden, the kids were performing for an audience after three months of practice.

I think part of the secret for the success was that I could write for this ensemble and adapt the music to their ability at the time. In quite a few occasions we encouraged them to perform. They also played chamber music at the music school, and later took the initiative to act as street musicians in [Oslo’s] Frogner Park and on the main street in Oslo, Karl Johans gate, in this way also earning some coins. This was the beginning, and since then it has continued, via more elevated education, participation in different ensembles, and not least, our own Habbestad Ensemble. We made our first tour to the United States in 1997, to Decorah, Iowa, and many more concerts, and later more tours, altogether eight, up to 2006.

LAR: How did the two of you meet? 

KH: Inger Elisabeth and I met—well—in a choir! I was a church music/organ student at the Norwegian Academy of Music. My wife also had music in her curriculum, with language and religion, and she was/is a singer. She was then a member of a renowned church choir in Oslo. On one occasion the choir was to perform Thomas Tallis’ 40-part (!) motet “Spem in alium” (about 1570). To complete this task, the choir needed more singers. I auditioned and was accepted as a tenor. Through this choir the two of us got acquainted. We met just before Christmas 1975, I proposed nearly immediately, and we were engaged in August 1976 and married the last day of the same year.

LAR: Did you both come from musical families?

KH: In a way we did—Inger Elisabeth’s father was a pastor in the Norwegian Seamen’s Church, so she was brought up in Durban, South Africa, and Genoa, Italy. Later her father became an ordinary vicar in a Norwegian congregation. He had reasonably good singing abilities as a pastor and also played a little piano. Her mother grew up in a family of 12 children, who formed a choir among themselves, and one brother played the cello. She had a brilliant soprano voice and performed quite a lot at different occasions in church. None of them were educated in music.

So also with my father, who was a self-taught violinist (as I grew up, we performed quite a lot together in our local society). He also started a male choir for which he was a conductor for 40 years (also without any training) and led a choir for retired people for 12 more years. My mother could sing quite well. Musical education was not available for people living in the countryside at the time and was started first in the next generation.

LAR: Western music history provides several famous examples of musical families. The Bach and Mozart families are the most famous, but there are several impressive modern examples. The Trapp Family Singers come to mind, and more recently, the Jackson and Marsalis families, among others. Were these or any other musical families models for you?

KH: The thought has never come to our minds. I don’t either think that it is so special that we all play an instrument. I know quite a few families where this is quite normal; among others, one family in our inner circle in the United States, Bill Halverson’s daughters, the “five little sisters,” who also toured the Midwest as children. Of course, we are lucky that even our grandchildren have taken to the instruments, perhaps because we also have a good music school system in Norway, and not least that we live strategically close to Oslo for the best admittance to further education. An advantage I guess is also that they have a composer and arranger in the midst of the family ensemble. Playing together has always been rewarding in the daily coping with the persistance and loneliness of hard musical training.

LAR: We have heard a story about Ida giving her first performance at the age of 2. Could you tell us that story?

Well, I guess “performance” is quite an exaggeration. The story that comes to mind is when Bill and Marolyn (the latter of whom was my distant relative) witnessed a concert with Bergen Cathedral Choir at Grieg’s Troldhaugen. Ida was two years at the time, and the twins were ‘on their way’. We had engaged a babysitter to take care of Ida while we performed in the choir in the front of Edvard Grieg’s home. In the middle of Grieg’s “Four Psalms,” however, Ida got impatient. She let herself loose and ran up to her mother, who lifted her on her arm and completed the concert with Ida sitting there, listening with fascination. In this way, she became part of the performance. The episode was mentioned in the Bergen newspaper the day after.

LAR: Do you have any advice for music-loving parents who want music to play a central role in the life of their family?

KH: My wife and I have not ourselves been able to teach our kids playing either the flute, violin, or cello. Our contribution, or even more correct, Inger Elisabeth’s contribution has been to bring them back and forth to the music lessons. Another contribution has been to ask them to practice, not too strict and harsh, but to always encourage them and listen to their results. My contribution as a composer, arranger, and also a manager (this is maybe not a given for all music-loving parents) has been to write for them, for the different stages in their musical development (something our upcoming concerts will show) and encourage them to perform in every kind of setting. For instance, at our annual festival in Sweden, the grandchildren open every concert with a number or two, no matter which famous stars are coming on the stage after them. Often, they are also welcomed to participate with these brilliant musicians.

My advice would be: Give the children instruments, make arrangements for them to come back and forth to their music lessons, encourage them, and listen to their results. If possible (important): Let them play together in different constellations!

To learn more about the Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota, visit: norwayhouse.org/egsmn

Also see: The second generation in the April 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.