Early impulses (1919-1951)
From an early age Kvandal received impressions from a rich artistic environment. His father, the composer David Monrad Johansen and mother ‘Lissa’ were constantly on the move. The young Johan was brought to Paris, lived in Arne and Hulda Garborg’s house in the ‘artist valley’ at Hvalstad and the Ekeberg artists’ colony. Every summer was spent in the mountain valley Østerdalen. There, a vibrant community surrounded the Norwegian anarchist writers Arne Garborg and Ivar Mortensson Egnund. The cultural influences and beautiful mountain landscapes were abundant sources of inspiration throughout Kvandal’s life. After having lived on nine different locations the family finally got a permanent home close to Oslo in 1935. Painter Henrik Sørensen found the suitable property and architect Arnstein Arneberg designed the characteristic building – successively the home of composer Monrad Johansen and his son Johan Kvandal.
Kvandal studied composition with Geirr Tveitt from 1937- 1942 and Joseph Marx in Vienna 1942-44. He graduated from the Music Conservatory in Oslo as a conductor in 1947 and as an organist in 1951. He also studied theory with Per Steenberg and organ with Arild Sandvold. Like other composers of his generation Kvandal was influenced in his early works by the then prevailing national movement in the 1920’s and 1930’s. This can be seen in Seven Songs, Op. 4 and the Piano Pieces op. 1 and 5. His early work also reveal an urge to combine Norwegian folk music elements with classical forms such as the rondo and sonata form, e.g. Sonatina for Piano op. 2 and Norwegian Overture op. 7.
Paris and the avantgarde (1952-1969)
Kvandal’s stay in Paris in 1952- 54 became an important turning point. Through studies with Nadia Boulanger at the Conservatoire de Paris he was exposed to an extremely inspiring musical environment. He became familiar with the works of Bartók and the later works of Stravinskij and Messiaen. In the 50s and 60s he integrated elements from international contemporary music scene, but without employing atonality or electronic aids. The result was a far greater compositional freedom. From 1970 he returned to his core with strong impulses from Norwegian folk music. But this time it became synthesised with an equally important feeling for the international contemporary music. This led to an innovative musical language based on what Kvandal himself defines as modern tonality.
Kvandal’s modern musical expression is reflected in Variations and Fugue op. 14 for orchestra (1954), Duo for Violin and Cello op. 19. (1959), Symphony No. 1 op. 18 (1958-59), Symphonic Epos op. 21 for orchestra (1962), Flute Concerto op. 22 (1963) and String Quartet No. 2 op. 27 (1965-66). Symphonic Epos was his final breakthrough, and the conductor Odd Grüner-Hegge pronounced that ‘this is a work of European importance.’ The conductor Herbert Blomstedt appreciated the music of the young composer and premiered Kvandal’s Flute Concerto op. 22 in 1963. The contemporary music association Ny Musikk comissioned a string quartet in 1965, which resultet in String Quartet nr. 2 op. 27. It is Kvandal’s most experimental piece, summing up his modernistic periode in the 60s.
New synthesis (1970-1979)
In his youth, Kvandal had experienced the Norwegian modal tonality of folk music, which he later combined with the sonata and symphony form. He said that this form of classical music was not a conformity, but an enormous field of energy, which he as a composer could activate. The 70s was a rich decade in Kvandal’s production. He turned back to a more melodic style. Fantasies on Three Country Dances op. 31 (1969) introduced a new turn back to folk music inspiration. Antagonia op. 38 for two string orchestras and percussion (1972-73) reveals a synthesis of the national and international tendencies in Kvandal’s compositions.
His later works often contain transformed folk music material, for instance Sonata for Solo Violin op. 45 (1976) and Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra op. 46 (1976-77). At the same time, romantic elements become progressively more discernible, particularly in Michelangelo Poem op. 49 (1977) and the large-scale Concerto for Violin and Orchestra op. 52 (1979). One of the music critics wrote: ‘Kvandal’s Violin Concerto is such a monumental composition that I would not be surprised if it were the best Norwegian work in this genre.
Composer in demand (1980-1999)
The 80s and 90s were extremely busy decades for Kvandal, with new commissions accumulating and actually having to wait in line. The opera Mysteries is Kvandal’s major opus. Based on the novel with the same name by Knut Hamsun, the opera was commissioned by The Norwegian National Opera & Ballet and was mainly written during the early 90s. The world premiere took place in January 1994 as part of a Norwegian Music Festival in connection with the Olympic Games at Lillehammer. The opera music received excellent media reviews and was performed a dozen times in 1994 og 1995. The opera was followed by the colourful Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra op. 77, commissioned by The Edvard Grieg Society in New York for the Grieg jubilee in 1993.
Sonata for Strings op. 79 (1994) was commissioned by the Arts Council of Norway (Norsk Kulturråd) for its 30th Anniversary. In 1995 Trondheim Symphony Orchestra commissioned a work for the Kirsten Flagstad Jubilee and the result was Eternal Summer op. 80 (1995) for soprano and symphony orchestra, based on three Shakespeare texts. Sonata for Viola and Piano op. 81 (1995) was commissioned by Leif Ove Andsnes and Lars Anders Tomter for the Risør Festival of Chamber Music.
After Fantasia for Hardanger fiddle and String orchestra op. 82. came Fantasia for Organ and Strings op. 83, followed by Missa Brevis op. 84 for mixed choir and organ.The last work Kvandal completed is Concerto for Piano and Orchestra op. 85, commissioned by the Elverum Music Festival 1998 and The Norwegian Youth Symphony Orchestra. It was written for pianist Håvard Gimse, who recently recorded the concerto together with Kvandal’s father Monrad Johansen’s Piano Concerto.
“His world of sound is international”
Strongly rooted in the European tonal musical tradition, Kvandal inevitably came to represent an opponent voice in the prevailing experimental modernist environment. It remained a life-long paradox for Kvandal that a radical avantgarde itself had turned into a powerful establishment. In 1988, Kvandal publicly critisised the evident favoring of atonal music in the Norwegian Society of Composers (see Quotes). In 1998, he released an album with his most important orchestral works, also known as his “protest album” (see Articles). Simultaneously, towards the end of his life, Kvandal experienced an increasing international interest in his music. The trend continues into the 21th century, with recent performances in New York, Dubai, Berlin, Aix-en-Provence, Devon, Scotland, Australia and India. The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet has put one of his works on their permanant repertoire .This development testifies what the famous pianist and journalist Kjell Bækkelund once wrote: “His world of sound is international” (see Articles).
Sources: Norsk Musikforlag AS and biographical article by Morten Gaathaug in Anniversary Tribute to Johan Kvandal on the occasion of his 70th birthday (NMO)