The Nowegian Society of Composers

Elevating musical life in Norway

Photo: Norwegian Society of Composers
The board of the Norwegian Society of Composers gathered in 1992 for the organization’s 75th anniversary. From left to right: Alfred Janson, Åse Hedstrøm, Cecilie Ore, Kjell Habbestad, Håkon Berge, Anne Røthing, Yngve Slettholm, Rolf Wallin, and Morten Gaathaug.

IDA HABBESTAD
Executive Director, Norwegian Society of Composers

The Norwegian American has invited me to share some information about the Norwegian Society of Composers (Norsk Komponistforening), where I have the honor of serving as executive director. 

To put the work of the society in historical perspective, I will give a brief account of the frustrating experience of Edvard Grieg—the experience that almost certainly contributed to the establishment of our organization soon after his death. For much of this historical information, I am indebted to American Grieg scholar Dr. Bill Halverson, who is more knowledgeable about the details of Grieg’s life than I am.

Grieg’s letters reveal his great frustration regarding the “pirating” of his compositions, i.e., the reproduction and sale of his works by unscrupulous foreign publishing companies without compensating him in any way. One such publisher had the audacity to ask him if he would be so kind as to suggest the fingering on some pirated piano compositions that the “pirate” proposed to publish! 

In a letter dated Dec. 25, 1898, Grieg attempted to enlist the help of his famous countryman Henrik Ibsen in tackling the problem. “A request from you to our national parliament or our government to bring the matter up as quickly as possible … is the only way to move quickly toward the goal,” he wrote. “Surely you will agree with me and the [legitimate] publishers that something should be done here without delay.” 

Nothing came of this initiative, but two years later Grieg made a second attempt in a letter addressed to American banker and politician Lyman Judson Gage, who had been identified to Grieg as someone who shared his views on the matter. Grieg wrote: “The present arrangement is that original works can be pirated and then printed in America on a large scale despite Norway having joined the Bern Convention. 

Photo: Renate Madsen
Ida Habbestad received her professional training as a flutist and music historian at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo. She has been active as a music journalist as well as a performer, serving for many years as editor of the music periodical Ballade and as music critic in two of Oslo’s largest newspapers, Aftenposten and Dagsavisen. She recently was appointed executive director of the Norwegian Society of Composers.

“The result for me personally is that it is only the American publishers who reap the material advantage of the popularity that my name has the honor of enjoying in America. This seems to me a barbarity. I therefore take this opportunity respectfully to appeal to your interest in music and to your sense of justice to try to secure an alteration in these unfortunate circumstances.” Once again Grieg’s effort came to naught.

In 1902, Grieg made one last attempt to secure his rights in a letter to his American biographer, Henry T. Finck, who had been invited by the Oliver Ditson Company of Boston to select what he considered Grieg’s 50 best songs for publication in their Musicians’ Library. Finck had responded that he would do so only on condition that the composer be paid a royalty on every copy sold. The Ditson Company accepted this condition, but unfortunately Grieg was unable to accept the offer because of his contract with his German publisher, C. F. Peters Verlag. 

In a letter to Finck dated Sept. 30, 1902, he wrote: “My relations to the Peters firm are such that … I cannot entertain the offer made by Mr. Ditson. It will be different if Mr. Ditson makes an arrangement directly with Peters. Then it would perhaps be possible to have my works appear legitimately in America too. But if he is not willing to do this, things will have to remain as they are: the clever pirates will reprint [the works they have stolen] and enrich themselves without considering the composer.” 

Ditson did not follow through on this suggestion. The sad result was that Grieg, one of the most popular composers in the world during the 19th century, never earned a penny from either the publication or the performance of his music in America.

Grieg’s frustrating experience was not unique. Indeed, it was precisely the shared frustration regarding the composer’s lot in society that led to the founding of the Norwegian Society of Composers in 1917. Grieg died 10 years before the Society was established, but there can be no doubt that had he lived he would have been an enthusiastic supporter of the work that it is trying to do on behalf of his successors and his countrymen. 

The society has grown from just 12 members in 1917 to a current roster of 340 members. This phenomenal growth is partly a result of the cultural maturation of Norwegian society and the corresponding increase in public support of cultural activities. To some extent, it is also a result of the resolve of composers to unite in the pursuit of common goals.

The society has been at the forefront of several campaigns to improve the lot of Norwegian composers, writers, and performing artists. In 1930, for example, it strongly supported the passage of the Intellectual Property Act, which remains in force to this day. Political activity in connection with the Intellectual Property Act has been central to our work in recent years, as the act was revised in 2016 and is being considered for further revision in 2021 – 2022 in consultation with the European Union Intellectual Property Office. 

In 1979, the Norwegian Music Information Centre (now called Music Norway) was established, promoting, and releasing non-commercial music for various purposes. These and other initiatives have contributed greatly to the welfare of artists in Norway.

In 1928, the society established TONO, which represents songwriters, lyricists, and publishers as well as composers. TONO provides a simple way for artists and others to purchase the right to use music and other intellectual property under copyright and remits the proceeds to the respective copyright owners. TONO collects and distributes performing and mechanical rights royalties for over 34,000 rightsholders in Norway and about 3 million rightsholders from other countries. In 2019, the last year for which complete results are available, TONO collected and distributed royalties of over $90 million.

Having delegated responsibility for protecting the economic rights of Norwegian composers to TONO, the society can focus primarily on the tasks of facilitating the daily activities of our members and promoting the performance of their music. It does this in a number of ways. We work with the leaders of orchestras and ensembles to ensure that they perform works by contemporary composers. We lobby NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, to reserve space for contemporary Norwegian composers and performing artists. We encourage the producers of concerts and music festivals to include works by contemporary Norwegian composers in their programs. We work with Norwegian newspapers to ensure that they take art music seriously. We consult with politicians regarding possible or pending legislation that may affect composers. We act in an advisory capacity to the Ministry of Culture and Church Affairs and are represented on several boards (such as TONO) and public committees. 

In collaboration with our sister organizations in the other Nordic countries, we help arrange an annual festival called “Nordic Music Days.” We provide practical advice to our members regarding such things as the pros and cons of various computer programs that may be used to transcribe scores or the special challenges faced by composers in preparing their tax returns. We constantly urge anyone who will listen to remember that all music was once new music. 

Edvard Grieg spent his life trying to elevate the musical life of Norway. That, in the deepest sense, is the ultimate goal of the Society of Norwegian Composers and its members.

More information about the society may be found at www.komponist.no/information-in-english.

This article originally appeared in the May 21, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

The Norwegian American

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