Norwegian women composers come to life

No longer forgotten

Laura Loge
Northwest Edvard Grieg Society

Edvard Grieg dominates Norwegian music, and despite progress in gender equality, other visionaries of 19th and 20th century Norway have remained unknown.

These unsung heroines helped develop Norwegian art song alongside Grieg and brought Norwegian music to Europe and the United States. They fought to preserve their culture and identity when women composers were discouraged from pursuing this career. Both gender discrimination and circumstances of history have relegated their works to be forgotten, unpublished, and almost never performed.

In one step toward bringing their music to life, pianist Angela Draghicescu and I have recorded an album, Der Skreg en Fugl (A Bird Cried Out). It is a world-premiere collection of Norwegian art song by 11 women composers who were crucial to the development of Norwegian Romanticism in spite of their struggles as women.

We aim to give a voice to their music and move these long-neglected women and their songs to the forefront of Nordic Art Music to join in the rich repertoire the region has produced over the centuries.

Agathe Backer Grøndahl

Norwegian Women composers

Agathe Backer Grondahl (1847–1907)

Perhaps the best-known and most successful during her lifetime is Agathe Backer Grøndahl (1847-1907). Born in Holmestrand and raised in Olso, she quickly outgrew Oslo, studying in Weimar, Germany, for further training.

She was a dear friend of Grieg and frequent collaborator and performer of his music, performing across Europe, but also at home in Norway. She was one of the greatest concert pianists Norway ever produced.

Agathe was also a prolific composer. With two orchestral works written as a student in Berlin, and a few pieces for mixed chorus, her opus list contains an impressive 70 numbers. She wrote about 190 songs and 120 pieces for piano, as well as arrangements of more than 50 folk tunes.

Mon Schelderup

Norwegian Women composers

Mon Schelderup (1870–1934)

Finding Mon Schelderup (1870-1934) was a wonderful surprise. With her clear piano and composition talent she began studies as a teenager with Agathe Backer Grøndahl, and then to Paris to study with Jules Massenet.

Her violin sonata, composed and published in Paris, made her the first Norwegian woman to have her work, other than art song, published by a foreign publisher. However, even with recommendations from Massenet and Grøndahl, she was unsuccessful at acquiring a study stipend and had to return to Oslo, where she taught piano. There she suffered from mental illness due to not being able to compose.

Inspired by Vilhelm Krag’s poetry, she found an outlet in her songs for her complicated mind, developing enticingly haunting melodies, which, like Massenet, she liberally repeated. When she retired from composing at the age of 34, she left behind 40 songs, piano pieces, violin pieces, a sonata for violin and piano, and an orchestral prelude.

Anna Severine Lindeman

Norwegian Women composers

Anna Severine Lindeman (1859–1938)

Anna Severine Lindeman (1859-1938), born in Trondheim, showed enormous talent from a young age. She was encouraged through piano, organ, voice, and theory lessons and eventually married a musician, Peter Lindeman.

After a few years in Dresden, Germany, they returned to Norway, opening a music conservatory in Oslo, which they ran for the rest of their lives. Anna composed piano pieces and songs for students and colleagues, as well as a handful of chamber works, including a string quartet.

Of her 60 songs, a dozen were published, but she received little credit. Her charming songs are distinctively National-Romantic and often evoke Norwegian fjords and nature, but they also explore empathetic qualities, such as motherhood and social justice. Her songs emphasize the text, as a well-trained, experienced composer is able to do.

Anne-Marie Ørbeck

Norwegian Women composers

Anne-Marie Ørbeck (1911–1996)

Anne-Marie Ørbeck (1911-1996) lived through most of the 20th century and fared better as a composer overall, and yet her beautiful songs are still rarely performed today, even in Norway. Born in Oslo, she was encouraged in her musical studies in Norway, Berlin, and Paris with Darius Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger.

She became one of the most prominent concert pianists in Norway during the 1930s, frequently performing her own compositions. In the 1940s, she settled in Bergen. Motherhood and World War II limited her time for travel and performing, allowing her to focus on composition.

Her musical style possesses a fresh, distinctively modern quality that is not always predictable, but it is still clearly Nordic. In 1954, her “Symphony in D major” became the first orchestral work composed by a woman to be performed by the Bergen Philharmonic and her song cycle Vonir i blømetid (Hope in the Time of Flowers) won an award from the Norwegian Society of Composers in 1942.

Additional composers represented on this album include Hanna Marie Hansen, Magda Bugge, Hilda Neupert, Inga Lærum-Liebich, Inger Bang Lund, Pauline Hall, and Theodora Cormontan. Each is worthy of being heard, and their music can encourage us to seek out the silenced, as beauty can be found in their voices. More information about these intriguing women will be available with the release of our album on the Chandos record label in 2025 and as part of our concert tours.

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.