A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Kjerulf, Halfdan

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KJERULF, Halfdan, was born at Christiania in 1815,[1] and became known as a composer in Norway and the surrounding countries during the time of Norway's struggle for freedom, and the consequent renascence of her intel lectual and artistic spirit.

In 1834 he was a graduate of the Christiania University, and he had as a matter of course devoted himself to the study of jurisprudence, for his father's high post under Government would have ensured for him a good start in official life. There ensued the heartaches and the struggles of a born artist who cannot throw himself into what he feels to be the 'wrong direction for his energies.' His case was aggravated by the condition of the poor and cold country of[2] Norway,' which possessed 'no hothouse to foster the arts.' Nevertheless, the blossom of Kjerulf's art was destined to raise its head in the chill desert. On the death of his father in 1840, a decided step was at last taken by Halfdan Kjerulf; and he began his professional career at the age of 25. He settled down as a teacher of music, and published some simple songs even before he had been introduced to the theory of music by some resident foreigner. In 1850 or thereabouts Kjerulf had begun to attract public attention, the Government awarded to him a grant by which he was enabled to study for a year at Leipzig under Richter. On his return to Christiania he did his best to establish classical subscription concerts in that city, but with no lasting success. In 1860 he was in active co-operation with Björnson, who wrote for him many poems; and it was during these years—1860 to 1865—that Kjerulf did his best work, resigned to a contemplative and lonely existence, and content to exercise a quiet influence upon those who sought him out. Grieg amongst others was very glad of the older master's moral support.

The portraits of Kjerulf represent him with a mild and pensive face, with traces of pain in the expression. He had indeed suffered for long from extreme delicacy in the chest, and death overtook him when he had withdrawn to a retreat at Grefsen, near Christiania, in August 1868. A wave of deep emotion and sympathy, the fervour of which would have astonished the composer himself, passed over the country he had loved and served so well.

The value of Kjerulf's stirring quartets and choruses for men's voices, as reflecting the national sentiment in the way most acceptable to his countrymen, has already been commented on. As absolute music they are of slight interest, but by their vigour and their straightforward simplicity they may be said to possess all the virtue which belongs to complete appropriateness to the subject. His few pianoforte pieces fully maintain the highly artistic standard to which Kjerulf was always faithful.

Consideration of the purely musical side of Kjerulf's songs shows the perfect genuineness of their inspiration, and also the limits of that inspiration in intellectual depth and power. The stream of melody, generally written with due effect for the voice, and with a varied and sometimes elaborate pianoforte accompaniment, in fact, with considerable instinct of just proportions, is saved from actual commonplace by the fresh fragrance and the refinement which make his music distinguished though not important. Its sadness never becomes morbid, but is stamped with the resignation of a noble nature. Among the Northern ballads and lyrics are to be found some really characteristic and quaintly fascinating ditties. Such are Björnson's 'Synnöve's Song,' 'Ingrid's Song,' 'Young Venevil,' 'Evening Song,' and the Scotch 'Taylor's Song,' Munch's 'Night on the Fjord,' Theodor Kjerulf's 'Longing.' Several songs that spring from Kjerulf's sojourn at Leipzig most eloquently recall the influence of Schumann, while his treatment of some English poems is almost startling. The polished verses of Moore are made the vehicle of outpourings in which the gentle Kjerulf is seen in his most impassioned mood—for instance, 'Love thee, dearest, love thee.' 'My heart and lute,' on the other hand, has inspired the composer with an intensity of dreamy melancholy. Unfortunately a certain amount of license has been taken in the settings, and where the poem as a whole gains by the suggestiveness of the music, the lines and words now and then suffer from false accentuation. This is especially the case with some familiar verses by the late Lord Houghton. It would be impossible to enumerate all that is worthy of note in the collection of more than one hundred songs by Kjerulf; but notice must be taken of the successful colouring of some Spanish subjects, and of the pleasing settings of Victor Hugo's Romances. Many of the songs are familiar to English amateurs through the compilation by T. Marzials, published by Messrs. Stanley Lucas, Weber & Co. Kjerulf's name has been included in Mr. Carl Annbruster's Lectures on 'Modern Composers of Classical Song.' Further testimony to the value of the Norwegian composer's work can be read in the 'Musikalsches Wochenblatt' of Jan. 24, 1879, in an article rom the pen of Edward Grieg.
  1. Mendel and other German authorities give wrong dates.
  2. For a full account of Kjerulf as the representative of his country, and for extracts from his letters and details of his private life, the reader may be referred to the articles 'Halfdan Kjerulf' by Henrik Sundt, in the 'Musical World' of October 1, 8, and 15, 1887.