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Leif Solberg: Modest Master

An old man sits at the back of the recording studio, intensely silent, his strong features immobile. Only an occasional telltale silver flash – light refracted in a tear falling down his cheek – hints at the strong emotions playing in his mind. The man is Leif Solberg, composer. He is 84 years old. The music he is listening to is a symphony – his own, written 46 years earlier; never before has he heard it properly performed.

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My acquaintance with Solberg’s music I owe to this very magazine. Regular readers may recall my enthusiastic review in issue No. 2 (1997) of a disc of some of his organ works. I hadn’t heard of the composer before but was deeply impressed by the music: here was a someone whose musical language was honesty itself. The CD notes told me that his only work for orchestra was a symphony. My curiosity was considerably aroused and so I requested a score and cassette.

My first glance at the music told me that it was something very special: lively counterpoint that leapt off the page, orchestration of classical clarity but lots of local colour and a fine sense of onward movement. I hurriedly played the recording from 1953, only a quick run-through – but it bowled me over nonetheless. The next night I had dinner with conductor Gary Brain. Without telling him who the composer was, I spread the score in front of him and put on the cassette – and before we were more than a few pages into the work, Gary declared that he simply had to conduct it. And two years later here we are, in the Norwegian Broadcasting studios for the first professional performance of the Solberg Symphony.

So who is Leif Solberg? He was born near Lillehammer in 1914. He studied organ with Arild Sandvold, the main Norwegian exponent of the grand Romantic approach to the instrument, who encouraged Solberg to compose, and his graduation exam featured a prelude and fugue of his own making and his Variations on the Folktune “Eg veit i himmerik ein borg” – two of the nearly twenty large-scale organ pieces Solberg was to write over the next two decades. During this time he was a church organist in Lillehammer, whence he occasionally made brief sorties to London, Salzburg, Haarlem, to continue his education.

Solberg’s contributions to the major forms have been isolated instances: a violin sonata, a Berceuse for violin and piano and a string quartet written in 1948. Likewise, there is this single symphony, from 1951-52 – but why, I asked its composer, tackle such a demanding genre after years of writing little other than organ music? Solberg is a modest chap, and his answer is straightforward: “I was studying in Denmark with Jørgen Jersild, … and the Symphony was a sort of finale to my studies with him. I also had lessons in harmony and orchestration with Karl Andersen, a cellist in the Oslo Philharmonic, and he was the man who got me thinking about a symphony.” And then, all of a sudden, by the mid-1950s, the flow of compositions stopped. “Almost,” Solberg corrects. “For one thing I didn’t have time, and for another there was no time for that kind of music. You had to learn other techniques if you wanted music performed, and that wasn’t so easy when you lived out in the provinces… You’re writing in major and minor keys for the church, and there are so many new things coming.”

Now, almost half a century after Solberg composed the symphony, at this distance, what does he make of the piece? His reply is typically modest: “Well, the main theme from the first movement comes back again towards the end of the third movement, and Gary Brain made those connections, so it was a new experience for me to hear how it worked.” And what are his feelings, now that he has finally heard it properly done? For the first time since I have met him, he drops his guard and a broad grin spreads across his craggy face: “I‘m proud as a cock!”

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