With Grieg in my heart

An interview with contemporary Norwegian composer Kjell Habbestad

Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota

Norges MelodierKjell Habbestad (b. 1955) is professor of music theory and composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo. His catalog of compositions includes dramatic (operas, oratorios), orchestral, solo instrument concertos, chamber, organ, and piano, and a large number of choral works and motets. Here, I talk with him about his struggle to “find his voice” as a composer in modern Norway. Kjell and I have been friends and professional colleagues since we first met at Troldhaugen in 1982.

Bill Halverson: I think the readers of The Norwegian American would like to know something about your background. Where did you grow up?

Kjell Habbestad: I grew up on Bømlo, an island on the west coast of Norway about 50 miles south of Bergen. Until 2001, it was accessible from the mainland only by boat.

BH: Would you describe your parental home as musical?

KH: Yes, especially my father, who taught himself to play the violin when he was a child and conducted a male chorus for 40 years. When I was 9 years old, my mother arranged for us to get a piano, which was quite unusual for non-wealthy families like ours. My parents also found an excellent piano teacher for me, and with her guidance, I made rapid progress. At a young age, I decided that I was going to become a professional pianist.

BH: Wow! That’s pretty impressive. What music did your piano teacher assign for you to play?

KH: I was given a book of Grieg pieces published by the Theodore Presser Co. of Philadelphia. I was also fascinated by Norges melodier—Norway’s melodies—a collection of simple piano arrangements of folk songs and music by various Norwegian composers edited by Grieg. Grieg had also added delicious harmonies to all the folk songs that gave them a new freshness and new meaning.

BH: Did you perform publicly as a pianist when you were young?

KH: Yes, quite a lot, and often together with my father. At 14, I collaborated with a friend in several performances of Grieg’s great melodrama, Bergljot, Op. 42, a setting for piano and narrator of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s dramatic poem. What I remember today, 50 years later, is the thrill of mastering this demanding work at such a young age, the joy of hearing the applause of the audiences, and what it taught me about music theory in general and dramatic music in particular.

BH: You did not go on to become a professional pianist. What happened?

KH: I decided that I was not cut out for rehearsing day and night in order to reproduce music written by someone else. I wanted to create my own music! I learned to play the organ and started taking lessons in jazz improvisation on the piano. In 1975, I went to the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo to study church music. It was there that I made my first serious attempt at composition: a choral setting of the Magnificat of Mary. I entered it in a competition, and to my great delight (and surprise!), I won first prize. That success definitely hardened my resolve to become a composer. My Magnificat, Op. 1 (1978), was recently recorded by the Latvian Radio Choir and in 2018 the CD was nominated for the Spelemannsprisen, the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy Award.

BH: Edvard Grieg struggled for a time to find his voice as a composer. You came to the Norwegian Academy of Music steeped in the Grieg tradition—“with Grieg in your heart,” as you once told me. I have heard your Magnificat, however, and it doesn’t sound at all like Grieg to me. Have you, like Grieg, had to struggle to find your voice as a composer?

KH: Yes, it has been a lifelong struggle. My aspiring composer’s tool kit when I came to Oslo contained a lot of Grieg, some church music, and a handful of jazz chords. None of these were “in” with my fellow students at the Academy. You were virtually forbidden to pay attention to Norwegian folk tunes or to Grieg or to any non-musical source. Contemporary music was supposed to be “pure music,” music that does not purport to carry a non-musical message. And the last commandment, for me maybe the toughest one, was: contemporary music should take a distant, objective perspective. Your music shouldn’t mean anything seriously: no conviction, no belief, no religion.

BH: Did you thrive in that environment, or was it a constant battle to remain true to yourself?

KH: I thrived, for the curriculum was, in fact, quite open to diversity, but I quickly decided that I could not be governed by the views of the other composition students or the prevailing dicta internationally. I could not ignore the “Grieg in my heart.” I completed the degree program in a way that honored my background and my values. I composed a large choral work based on religious folk tunes using Grieg- and jazz-inspired harmonies, a liturgical drama (Jubal, Op. 4), and Lament, Op. 6, an orchestral song with text from Jeremiah’s Lamentations.

BH: Okay, you were not governed by the “prevailing dicta,” but presumably they had some influence on your composing after all. Is your mature voice as a composer some kind of a synthesis of these disparate elements?

KH: That probably is a true statement, and when I say “Grieg in my heart” it doesn’t mean that I am reproducing Grieg’s music. It means that I am attempting to further develop his values. One result is that much of my music that is too conservative for my colleagues is, nonetheless, too modern for the average listener.

Kjell Habbestad

Photo courtesy of Kjell Habbestad
Contemporary Norwegian composer Kjell Habbestad.

BH: You have been a teacher throughout your adult life as well as a composer. Was that by design?

KH: No, I was actually invited to apply for such a position, and I have continued teaching ever since. It is hard to make a decent living solely as a composer, so I have found the combination of composing and teaching quite useful. Immediately after graduating from the Academy, I spent five years teaching harmony at the Bergen Music Conservatory, then I accepted the position that I now hold as professor of theory and composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music. My twin callings have resulted in 40 years of teaching and 102 opuses so far as a composer.

BH: What has been your most successful composition to date as measured by the number of public performances?

KH: The Moster Pageant, Op. 9 (1983), a historical play that was produced annually for 30 years at Moster, near my birthplace.

BH: Is there anything you would like to say in conclusion?

KH: I would like to say that it was mainly Grieg who inspired me to become a composer. Like him, I decided early on that I would create music that comes from within, music that speaks my heart’s language. The fascination with musical harmony, the many compositional features that I borrowed from Grieg—albeit translated into my own musical language—have constituted a constant driving force within me. I also had the urge to tell a story (as Grieg did in Bergljot). And most important of all: I compose because creating music gives me the highest pleasure and gives meaning to my life.

This article originally appeared in the May 7, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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William H. Halverson

Dr. Bill Halverson, scholarly advisor of the Edvard Grieg Society of America, Inc., is regarded as one of America’s leading authorities on the life and work of Edvard Grieg. His translations of Grieg’s writings (letters, diaries, articles, speeches) and of books about Grieg and his music are major sources of information about Norway’s greatest composer in the English-speaking world.