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Hjalmar Borgström

The almost complete disappearance of Hjalmar Borgström’s music from the repertoire is fully explainable by reasons not related to the quality of the music, but rather concerning a mismatch between the composer and the dominating trends in Norwegian music. Like Edvard Grieg in the preceding generation, and indeed like most every serious-minded Scandinavian composer in the late nineteenth century, Borgström went to Leipzig to study at the famous conservatory in 1887, after lessons with Halvorsen in Kristiania (Oslo), the town of his birth. Also like Grieg, Borgström was not impressed by the teaching at the conservatory itself, though revelling in the rich musical culture.

However, in contrast to Grieg who returned from Germany firmly resolved to carve out an authentic, Norwegian idiom, Borgström remained in Germany for a long time, immersing himself in the aesthetics of contemporary music there. When he returned to Norway for good in 1903, he was a staunch proponent of new German symphonic music – a firm believer in the power of programme music to express the deepest universal truths of human existence.

This conviction – or rather, Borgström’s lack of interest in developing a national idiom – hampered his career in Norway. Grieg himself reportedly expressed bafflement at the phenomenon of a younger Norwegian composer, so obviously gifted and well trained as a musical craftsman – but with nothing specifically ‘Norwegian’ about his music.

Establishing himself in Kristiania, Borgström soon became a highly respected music critic – a profession that he retained until his death. As a composer, he seemed enormously advanced at first to concert goers in the Norwegian capital. This impression was relatively short-lived, however, as the focus in artistic circles shifted from German to French culture in the aftermath of the First World War. Furthermore, although Borgström propagated the ideas of late German Romanticism, his personal idiom was always much less adventurous than that. In 1939, the composer Pauline Hall reviewed a performance of Borgström’s symphonic poem Tanken (The Thought), composed in 1917. Some twenty years younger than Borgström and founder of the Norwegian branch of ISCM, Hall proclaimed that it was not only old-fashioned at the time of the performance, but backwards-looking even for the time of its composition.  The music of Borgström was never completely forgotten – and his place in history books was always secure – but when his music began to be performed and recorded in the last decades of the twentieth century, as part of a general renewed interest in late romanticism, it was very much a moment of rediscovery.

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Borgström and Shostakovich – Violin Concertos
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