Niels Viggo Bentzon
1919 - 2000
Niels Viggo Bentzon is perhaps the most wide-ranging Danish composer in the 20th century. His immense output of more than 600 opuses includes virtually every imaginable genre. The main emphasis is on symphonic music and music for Bentzon’s own instrument, the piano. Despite a certain recurrent inspiration from German composer Paul Hindemith, Bentzon’s music is best described as deeply personal. In his enduring career as both composer and pianist there is hardly a modern musical style, trend or compositional technique he has not challenged and turned into his own. Partly due to the vastness of his oeuvre, Niels Viggo Bentzon is one of the most important composers in 20th century Danish music.
...Just listening to him as a pianist was a fascinating and obsessive experience – Bernhard Lewkovitch, Kristeligt Dagblad
If one has a look at Niels Viggo Bentzon’s extensive life’s work, one quickly realises that the music for piano assumes a central role. This is not surprising: When presenting Bentzon the composer, one invariably has to mention Bentzon the pianist. When it comes to this artist, one can simply detect a predilection for the piano as musical medium. This combination of creator and performer finds his expression in a quite distinctive music, in which the two approaches form the background of a productive synthesis of system and freedom. The composer’s need for control over the material, and the pianist’s desire for free-wheeling fantasy, together create a kind of music that has been described as ‘structured improvisation’. This description of the music, as a balance between rigid structure and free gesture, can be heard in much of Bentzon’s music. It is, both literally and figuratively, a music that goes into the outermost registers: from lyrical, vegetating surfaces of sound that end time, to brilliant, virtuosic phrases or branches of notes of forceful energetic outbursts, as e.g. in the Partita op. 38 (1945), which, with good reason, became the big break-through for the 25-year-old composer.
Through the 1940s, Niels Viggo Bentzon wrote works for piano that secured his position as the new, young, impetuous genius. Already at that time, Bentzon had an insatiable craving for discussing, mediating and provoking. He took part in playing the music of Arnold Schönberg in Denmark in a period when the Carl Nielsen tradition was very strong. But Bentzon wished to get out of his rut, to absorb influences from the newest trends in art music. In his extensive oevre, we also find an abundance of chamber music, symphonies, oratorios, operas, works for string ensembles, concertos, string quartets, music for wind quintet, and much more.
In the music of Bentzon, we are not dealing with retrospective tonal music, even though the composer is not afraid to use the familiar techniques of music history, such as fugue and variation. Bentzon got titles such as Toccata (1941), Passacaglia (1944) and Partita from the musical forms of the Baroque, and, directly inspired by J. S. Bach, he wrote a large-scale piano cycle entitled The Tempered Piano (1964-1989). As a listener, then, one recognises expressions and phrases from the classical-romantic repertory. It is music that stands shoulder by shoulder with tradition, but at the same time points beyond it. Perhaps it is this exact feature of Bentzon’s music - the various different expressions and the compositional inventiveness - that has caused the works of the composer to evoke a response with such a wide audience, from jazz-enthusiasts to those interested in contemporary music.
If the music can be characterised as pluralistic with a multitude of approaches, then this characteristic goes hand in hand with a description of the man Niels Viggo Bentzon; being the all-encompassing, culturally engaged person that he was, the traditional division into genres and working fields seems all too limited. In order to satisfy his creating vein, the artist also worked as painter, provocateur, writer, debater, and teacher. The cultural activist Niels Viggo Bentzon engaged in the most diversified culture phenomena - like a sponge, he absorbed impressions from his surroundings and transformed them in his own, deeply original universe.
© Anders Beyer 2000