The Norwegian composer Geirr Tveitt, who lived from 1908 to 1981, was plagued by bad luck in the final half of his life. Tveitt was ostracized in the decades after the Second World War for the Pagan, Pan-Germanic, and racialist (but never National Socialist) views he had defended in writing and expressed in his music during those years, and in 1970 his cabin in Hardanger burned to the ground, destroying 4/5 of the almost 300 original scores it contained. Among many other things, three of Tveitt's six piano concertos perished in the flames.
Tveitt's oeuvre—what's left of it—is multifarious, replete with hundreds of art songs and folk song arrangements as well as large, ambitious masterworks, such as the ballet Baldurs draumar (Balder's Dreams) and the magisterial Sonata Etere. Although Tveitt's music is not atonal, most of it is not based on the major and minor keys, but on the modal scales familiar from the folk music traditions of many countries, including Norway. Several Norwegian composers, most famously Edvard Grieg, had incorporated elements of their country's folk music into compositions in the 19th century. But Tveitt, who grew up in the Norwegian heartland and made extensive studies of its music, found Grieg's folklorism affected and superficial. He was probably the first Norwegian composer to assimilate fully the principles that governed the traditional music of his country, and to adhere to those principles in his own works even when they clashed with those of the classical tradition. Tveitt's music has cosmopolitan influences as well: his piano writing combines the ethereal textures of Ravel and Debussy with the sonorous virtuosity of Rachmaninov and Liszt; his orchestration often echoes the Stravinsky of Petrushka, The Firebird, and The Rite of Spring.
Tveitt was born in Bergen, Norway's second largest city and one of Northern Europe's most important ports. His roots ran to nearby Hardanger, a rural region centered around the eponymous Hardangerfjord; the name Tveit (one T) comes from the family's ancestral home there. Tveitt, the son of a nationalistic high school teacher, grew up among books and pianos, and heard the music of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle during visits to Hardanger. Although not a child prodigy, he was musically precocious, composing chamber pieces and founding an orchestra in his late teens. At around the same time he became interested in pre-Christian Norse culture, changing his birth name, Nils, to a Norse and angular Geirr and adding an additional T to the end his surname.
According to biographer Reidar Storaas, it was not given that Tveitt should decide on a career as a composer; he could just as well have gone the way of a linguist (Tveitt wrote in an archaic, Norse-inflected Norwegian for which he had devised his own vocabulary and grammar), a writer, or a concert pianist. But he did eventually decide on composition, and went to study at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1928. His teachers there considered him brilliant, but were often frustrated by his fixation on the modal scales of traditional Norwegian music: for although Tveitt was a Germanophile, he had little use for the German music of his time, be it Brahms or Schoenberg. Like his fellow composers Béla Bartók and Ralph Vaughan Williams he wanted to forge a music unique to his country, and believed that he could only do this once it had been rid of some of its Teutonic influence.
After finishing his studies at the Conservatory, Tveitt lived in Paris and then Vienna for a few years before returning to Norway. Among the pieces he wrote and premiered during his time abroad were his First Piano Concerto, which some sources list as his first opus, and the Two-Voice Studies, which are technical exercises based on the modes of Norwegian folk music. The First Piano Concerto inverts the traditional concerto pattern of two fast movements with a slow movement in the middle, bookending a lively, Lydian-mode folk dance with two introspective slow movements ushered in by the solo piano.
During the 1920s, Tveitt began to compose a series of large-scale works with Neo-Heathenistic themes. This culminated with 1934's Balder's Dreams, a monumental ballet loosely based on the poetic Edda and featuring parts for a speaking narrator, multiple solo singers, and a set of nine specially built steel drums tuned to the pentatonic scale. The third movement of 1958's Sun God Symphony, a condensed version of Balder's Dreams, is entitled Dansen i pileregnet (Arrow-Dance). The movement is a balletic illustration of an extract from the Poetic Edda. In it, the goddess Frigg has made everything in nature promise to do no harm to her son Balder, the most beloved of the gods. Shortly afterward the Æsir are amusing themselves at a feast by bombarding Balder with axes, stones, and arrows (hence the title of the movement), knowing that he will not be harmed thanks to Frigg's deal-making. But Loki, a trickster, has learned that there is one thing from which Frigg has extracted no promise—the mistletoe, which seemed too inconsequential to be of any danger—and convinces one of the gods to plunge a mistletoe branch into Balder's chest, killing him instantly. Balder's death is universally mourned, but it is only Odin who realizes its full significance—for Odin alone knows that the event is a portent of Rangarok, the end of all things. Tveitt illustrates the “arrow-dance” with a light texture of interweaving ostinatos, gradually building up to Balder's death and a dissonant, brass-driven climax.
The interwar years saw Tveitt's cultural and religious opinions take on a political character. Many Norwegian intellectuals and artists of the time held revolutionary conservative, Völkisch, Pan-Germanic,and Neo-Heathenistic views, with the publication Ragnarok forming a loose nexus for their movement. In the mid-1930s, Tveitt, by then one of the most famous young composers in the country, started writing for Ragnarok and quickly became a part of the inner circle of intellectuals that kept the magazine running. The Ragnarok circle, influenced by philosopher Hans S. Jacobsen, completely rejected Judeo-Christianity in favor of the polytheism of pre-Christian Scandinavia and derived from this a Pan-German political philosophy that emphasized the unity and racial purity of the Germanic peoples. That was no problem for Tveitt, whose Neo-Heathenism had always gone hand in hand with a dislike of Christianity, an animus that may resulted from his Pietist mother's overbearing and strict style of parenting. This extract from a 1934 letter gives some indication of how extreme his opinions were at the time:
I fear that the Fimbulwinter has set in at last! People have little interest in old Norwegian, jazz and Grieg-style mediocrities predominate, the Jews are raping our women, and young people are brought up by the “Labor” Party's whore handbooks and “sexual education.
The Ragnarok circle was ambivalent about Hitler, Mussolini, and fascism in general. While many in it sympathized with some of the goals those movements pursued, few considered themselves members of them. Norway's main fascist party, Nasjonal Samling, and its leader Vidkun Quisling never held much appeal for them: Quisling, a bourgeois Protestant, was more occupied with anti-Communism than race, and one historian writes that the party as a whole consequently held views that were nationalist and conservative, not radical and Pan-Germanic. Things did not improve when, after Germany's invasion of Norway in 1940, Quisling was sidelined by Reichskommisar Josef Terboven, who in the eyes of the Ragnarok circle, treated Norway more like a colonial protectorate than a stronghold of the Germanic empire. Tveitt, who moved from Oslo to Hardanger shortly after the occupation, allied himself with the Norwegian resistance movement, hiding resistance fighters from the authorities and sabotaging Terboven's schemes through his position as a cultural consultant to the government. One photograph taken after the liberation of Norway shows him in the uniform of a local guide for Britain's Hardanger command. There is no evidence, however, that Tveitt's anti-Nazism led to or was caused by a turnabout in his religious, political, or cultural opinions—nor, indeed, that he was a great supporter of the Third Reich even before the war and the occupation.
This did not deter many in the postwar era from painting Tveitt as a “collaborationist.” In Norway as elsewhere in Europe, leftists in politics and modernists in art saw de-nazification as an opportunity to do away with ideological opponents. Tveitt, a right-wing Germanophile who wrote tonal, folk-inflected music, was targeted by both groups. Frozen out of the Norwegian establishment he toured Europe as a concert pianist, playing recitals before thousands and reportedly throwing his audience into a “paroxysm of ecstasy” on at least one occasion. Things gradually improved for him in the following decades: Parliament granted him an artist's salary in 1958, orchestras began to play his music again, and he continued to compose prolifically. A notable postwar work is the 29th Piano Sonata (“Sonata Etere”) from 1951. Under its conventional three movements, the sonata hides a form that abandons Classical development in favor of a cyclical structure tied together by a recurring motto theme. The theme appears explicitly at the beginning of the first and third movements, and permeates the rest of the sonata in various ways.
Tveitt suffered another blow in 1970, when most of his works were lost in the fire. In the years before his death in 1980, he had developed a drinking problem and found it increasingly difficult to compose. Still, Tveitt's last major composition, the 1974 cantata Telemarkin, is every bit as good as his early works; it even includes a solo part for Hardanger fiddle. Tveitt's late compositions also include another notable work for that instrument, namely the Second Concerto for Hardanger Fiddle and Orchestra. Like the 29th Piano Sonata, the concerto is a three-movement structure with a slow set of theme and variations in the middle; and like it, the Second Hardanger Fiddle Concerto is a cyclical work. In the middle of the third movement a wistful theme, first introduced in the second, reappears fully harmonized for the first time, bringing the apparent climax of the whole concerto to a poignant pause.
In recent years, a spate of CD releases and concert performances have given Tveitt's music a Renaissance in Norway and abroad. It has not been without controversy. Anti-racist and left-wing groups continue to paint Tveitt as an unapologetic Nazi sympathizer, and they have garnered the support of some historians. (A newspaper article from 2003 about a recently published book on Tveitt's involvement with Neo-Heathenism declares that Tveitt thought that Vidkun Quisling was "not enough of a racialist," which sounds damning until you realize that Quisling was not a racialist at all.) But although the postwar Norwegian establishment's treatment of him is an instructive example of the way in which “anti-fascism” has become an ideological battering ram, Geirr Tveitt was far more than a pitiful victim of overzealous de-nazifiers. He was a genius, and his works constitute an important but neglected contribution to the aesthetics of the revolutionary Right.