Halfdan Kjerulf (1815 - 1868)

Halfdan Kjerulf (1815 - 1868)

Posted by ©Roz Trübger 2019 on 14th Sep 2019

Halfdan Kjerulf was the composer who inspired me to become involved in the world of research. In 1999, I had come across his piano pieces in a volume of my grand-mother's piano music and instantly was engaged by its quality, so much that I felt I needed to discover more about the composer. In those days, the internet was in its infancy and a search revealed just 18 results  for 'Kjerulf' (today there are 332,000 results), so I travelled to Norway to discover more.
Kjerulf felt disadvantaged by living in Norway. Aged 23, he wrote 'I am a dark, rather dismal little fellow, sickly and ill-equipped to overcome disappointments and adversity. I have a talent for only one thing - music; but this icy, poverty-stricken Norway cannot nurture this talent. There is no hot-house here and the North wind blows so sharp and cruel that it kills off the tender little plant.'  Four years before that statement, he had graduated as a lawyer – but what he really wanted was to be a musician and, since there were no teachers of any stature in Norway, he longed to study abroad. The sickness to which he referred, was tuberculosis, a condition that afflicted many of his family, and when he was diagnosed with it in the following year, he upped sticks, left the frozen north and headed to Paris to aid his recovery. There he was dazzled by the richness of the artistic life and attended dozens of concerts all of which left a big impression upon him. After hearing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony he wrote: 'it was a feeling of springtime right in the midst of burning summer.' But by the end of the year, his father, sister and brother had died and Halfdan had to return to Norway to support his mother and remaining siblings.
Arriving back in Oslo, he abandoned his legal studies to become the foreign journalist and later Editor of the newspaper Den Constituitionelle.But he did not forget his music and continued to study composition on his own, publishing six songs later that year, his opus 1. Buoyed by their success, he quit the newspaper to earn his living as a music teacher, albeit with typically disparaging pessimism, writing 'my social life will collapse' although, in fact this was not to be the case, since he was well acquainted with King Carl XV and a frequent guest at the castle. There his piano teaching brought him a student, a lady-in-waiting named Marie Garben, who became the love of his life. He was 32, she was 22 and it was the start of a very happy period for him. Unfortunately, however, it was not to last. A misunderstanding occurred that ended their relationship. It is possible that they had become secretly engaged in 1849 but something happened that left the two families at war, and although Halfdan and Marie remained friends and an attempt was made to smooth things over, ten years later, they never again had a close relationship again, and she ceased piano lessons with him, despite each of them remaining forever single. Their doomed relationship is the subject of Hjertesorg, a song-cycle which I created out of a selection of Kjerulf’s own songs and published with the original piano parts and also in my orchestrated version. Kjerulf lacked the confidence to write for orchestra, preferring others to do it for him, so I believe that he would approve of my work.
In 1850, Kjerulf finally achieved his dream of studying abroad, having gained a grant with the assistance of Carl Arnold (composer, teacher and political refugee) who had fled from Germany to live in Christiania. The influence of the year in Leipzig, where he studied with Richter, is clear and from 1852 we see a more mature style emerging. Previously, 1849 had been a significant year for Kjerulf when in March, together with Tidemand and Gude who painted the backdrop, he took part in an event, a Tableau, that may be seen as the real beginning of a period of strong National Identity in Norway and for which Kjerulf composed the famous choral piece Bruderfærden I Hardanger  (The Bridal Party in Hardanger). - every ‘self-respecting choir in Norway’ now has it in their repertoire. Still high on that experience, Kjerulf went on an extended walking trip – a boys’ jolly - into the Norwegian mountains to Hardagner via Hallingdal and Hemesdal with Hans Gude and two other friends. Along the way, he experienced a great deal of the traditional music in Norway, and later composed a number of pieces in national style. One of my favourites is Skizze no.4(originally composed for pianoforte), which Kjerulf described as being '... a sketch of the desolate mountains of Norway, with the sound of the Valley acting as a middle section..' Kjerulf's output is mostly of piano and vocal music, miniature gems, and especially important are the Norwegian Art Songs, the Romanser, a style that he developed and of which he may be deemed the father. The best of them can stand alongside the works of Schubert and Schumann in their ability to convey mood and use harmony to express subtle changes of expression. Täuschung (Betrayal) is one such song, which touches to the depth of human experience - it is is dedicated to Marie Garben and was composed 1853, the year in which the misunderstanding occurred that ended their hopes of marriage. Whilst in Leipzig, Kjerulf had been especially impressed by a performance of Schumann’s Paradise & Peri, whose words are by the English poet Thomas Moore and, towards the end of his life, Kjerulf used a number of Moore’s poems for his own songs. He also composed many vocal works for male voices, being conductor of the newly formed Norwegain Student Choir (which is still going strong today) and leader of the Kjerulf Quartet. He received awards for his work: the Littris et atribus medal in 1863 and in 1865 he was made a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.
But in 1868 Kjerulf became ill again with tuberculosis and with another mystery illness. He died on August 11th in hospital at Grefsen. Tributes included one from the poet Bjørnson, who wrote: 'Late in summer bloomed the flowers, Late in Autumn spread the ripeness: few were the fruits, but they were of a fragrant sweetness.' and Grieg, whose compositional style was influenced by Kjerulf , predicted that 'the time cannot be too far off when the Kjerulf songs will be hailed as the creations of a truly beautiful soul'. During my research, I was fortunate to meet and know two very important people. First, a descendant of the composer, also named Halfdan Kjerulf, who taught me how to correctly pronounce the name (not like a sneeze, as I had been doing) and who (he was a neuro surgeon) had tried to discover the mystery surrounding his great-uncle's fatal illness. Then I met Professor Nils Grinde who had spent fifty years researching the music of Kjerulf, publishing a complete edition in five volumes with critical notes. Nils also wrote a book about the composer’s life and work for which he was awarded the Gold medal by the Norwegian King Harald. Nils was very proud to be able to trace his musical legacy back to Kjerulf, as he had taken one lesson from Fridtjof Backer-Grondahl (son of Agathe Backer-Grondahl) in the 1950’s. I am grateful for the friendship, assistance and information that these two people gave me.