Pehr Henrik Nordgren: Modernist composer who incorporated folk music into his work and relished his artistic freedom

Pehr Henrik Nordgren was a rare phenomenon among composers: he wrote music which held a place at the forefront of contemporary culture and which also managed to speak directly to his listeners. He took an essentially humanist view of the composer's role:

Music is not an isolated, "made" phenomenon, and so composing cannot be separated from life, from everything that one sees and experiences and feels. I see composition as a manifestation of a need to express, broader than speech, a mode of communicating with my fellow men.

Being a Finn, opportunities to communicate with his fellow men came more often than to contemporary composers in most other parts of the world, and Nordgren, who settled in Kaustinen in north-western Finland in 1973, developed an especially fruitful relationship with the conductor Juha Kangas and his Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra. He was writing for musicians and an audience he knew directly.

Nordgren was born on Aland, a cluster of islands off the tip of Finland, but grew up in Helsinki. He was 14 and already an admirer of Shostakovich when the Russian composer arrived in the Finnish capital to receive the Sibelius Prize. Nordgren went down to the station to see him arrive, although he didn't anticipate the immediate repercussions the prize would have in his own life:

"Shostakovich donated the prize money to the Finnish-Soviet Society where my mother was working. At that time the society did not receive any government support, and they were so short of money that my mother, for example, had not been paid for many months. But that day she was hardly inside the door before she called out, 'You can have some shoes from Shostakovich!' "

Studies in musicology at the University of Helsinki provided Nordgren with an MA in 1967, his time there overlapping with a period (1965–69) of private composition lessons with Joonas Kokkonen. The cellist Seppo Kimanen first met him at that time:

"His daily pattern of life was already established: first an intensive and exhausting period of lonely work at home, then a relaxing time with friends in a bistro. The surest place to find him was at Ateljé, the famous artists' restaurant next to the Sibelius Academy. Being a quiet sort of person he was not an obvious choice to be the main character in a pub, but some kind of inner magnet seemed to draw others to gather at his table."

In the late 1960s Nordgren began to attract attention as a composer, his music already revealing the open-mindedness which made his language so rich. In what he called a "melodic-polyphonic cluster technique", burgeoning instrumental lines, often based on 12-note rows, would generate dense polyphonic textures and build up to powerful climaxes. But folk music, too, was an early presence in his style. At the time the avant garde looked down its nose at such things, but Nordgren didn't care.

In 1970 he went to Japan for three years to study at the Tokyo University of Art and Music. In 1972 he wrote Hoichi the Earless, the first of 10 Kwaidan Ballads for solo piano inspired by the Japanese horror-stories of Lafcadio Hearn. In Japan he also met Shinobu Suzuki, whom he married in 1973.

On their return to Finland, they settled in Kaustinen, where Nordgren was to remain for the rest of his life. Kaustinen was then an isolated provincial town, but it was the centre of a strong folk-music movement, which was appealing to Nordgren who thought it could be a source of renewed vigour in contemporary music.

The means to that end – the partnership with Kangas and his chamber orchestra – accounts for the high proportion of string music in Nordgren's output, such as the suite Portraits of Country Fiddlers (1976). "The very number of works," Nordgren said, "is sufficient to prove the fertility of our alliance." But it was not a static association, as he later recalled:

"At that time the orchestra was performing a lot of music that was either based on folk music or was otherwise 'easy to understand', and my compositions suited this policy. But little by little the orchestra extended its repertoire, and although one can never be quite sure of the causes and consequences, I gradually began to look askance at the use of folk music and in the years to come composed a number of works for the orchestra that have nothing whatever to do with folk music."

Folk instruments, though, did continue to fascinate him: he wrote for Japanese instruments in the Autumnal Concerto in 1974 and in two quartets (1974 and 1978), and for kantele, the Finnish folk zither, producing Equivocations for chamber ensemble in 1981 and two concertos, in 1985 and 2000.

By the mid-1970s, though his style retained many of the quasi-modernist features of his earlier works, it began to acquire simpler characteristics, too. There was minimalist repetition of short motifs, and he displayed a fondness for resolving harmonic complexity with triadic chords. Seppo Kimanen found that Nordgren's language "combines a sort of inborn musical flow with almost Zen Buddhist serenity".

Nordgren once explained that form in his works "is wholly based on the logic of the expression, the same logic that one would employ in telling a story or describing something". That made the concerto a natural crucible for him, and he composed more than 30, many animated by a burning lyricism that belied his gentle, softly spoken manner.

His few choral works made it clear that his social conscience burned fiercely, too. His hour-long Agnus Dei of 1970–71, protested against pollution. And The Sun, My Father for soloists, choir and orchestra, written in 1987–89, sets poems in the Sámi language of northern Finland which act as a cipher to protest the fate of all indigenous peoples under threat.

In Finland the heritage of Sibelius makes the symphony something of a poisoned challenge for composers, and after an initial dalliance in 1974, Nordgren left the genre alone until the Second Symphony in 1989. But then more followed: the most recent, No 8, was premiered in March last year. He tackled opera, too: The Black Monk was premiered in 1984, two years before Alex, written for Finnish TV.

Although stricken last year with cancer, Nordgren composed as long as he had the strength: the Eleventh String Quartet – his Op 144 – written earlier this year, premiered at the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival at the end of July.

Nordgren's hangdog expression and personal reticence suggested a depressive personality, an impression that familiarity soon dispelled. For he never forgot what a fortunate man he was:

"In Finland the powers that be are not – luckily – concerned about the contents of art. It simply lays the foundations and thereby ensures the artist freedom to express his art and his outlook on life. This is something we take for granted, but we do not always remember just how privileged we are. For not so long ago, art was being suppressed on ideological grounds only just across the border from us."

Martin Anderson

Pehr Henrik Nordgren, composer; born Saltvik, Finland 19 January 1944; married 1973 Shinobu Suzuki (one son); died Kaustinen, Finland 25 August 2008.

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