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22 May - 5 June 2024

Voices we forget

A number of musical pioneers are – and have been – based in Bergen. Anne-Marie Ørbeck is one of those you may not have heard of.

Photo: From Anne-Marie Ørbeck's collections, Bergen Public Library
Photo: From Anne-Marie Ørbeck's collections, Bergen Public Library

This year's festival composer at the Bergen International Festival is Anne-Marie Ørbeck (1911–1996). During the war, she was in Ytre Sandviken in Bergen, writing her symphony in D major. It was completed in 1944 but was not performed until 1954 – an entire decade later. She was the first Norwegian woman to write and have a symphony performed. She was a pioneer. But if you have never heard of her, you are not alone. When she died in 1996, her obituary in Bergens Tidende filled just a small column, and her music was scarcely available.

History is full of forgotten music, and it is not always obvious which music will remain for posterity.

“She was the first Norwegian woman to write and have a symphony performed. She was a pioneer.”
Lars Petter Hagen, Festival director

When Mendelssohn performed Johan Sebastian Bach's "St Matthew Passion" in 1829, the piece had not been performed in more than a hundred years. Bach was highly recognised in his own time, and today, his music is by many considered to be some of the very best that humanity has made. But even Bach was about to be forgotten and needed help returning to people's awareness.

Anne-Marie Ørbeck was born in Kristiania (Oslo) in 1911. During the 1930s, Ørbeck distinguished herself as one of Norway's foremost pianists with performances at home and abroad and excelled with her own arrangements and cadenzas for works by famous composers. She studied both piano and composition and debuted as an orchestral composer in Berlin in 1938, where she was a soloist in her own Concertino. The piece was a significant achievement, and the concert was a great success.

Together with her husband, Helge Smitt, she moved to Bergen in 1940, first to Ytre Sandviken and later to Wergelandsalleen. The war and family life meant fewer concerts and, thus, more time for composing. Ørbeck wrote a number of works, most in a tonal but modern, international style, and also inspired by traditional Norwegian music. She said, "I am neither a fanatical classicist nor a revolutionary modernist". The music was well received by her contemporaries, even though she also faced considerable opposition, but today her works are seldom performed. One can only speculate whether this is due to the music's quality or other reasons.

“I am neither a fanatical classicist nor a revolutionary modernist”
Anne-Marie Ørbeck, Festival composer

Several of the projects during this year's Bergen International Festival are about the forgotten, sometimes ignored or simply hidden voices. Voices that may not have been listened to, whether because of gender, orientation, cultural background or other things. What is today gathered under the term classical music is, in reality, more than 1,000 years of music from many different places, cultures, traditions and artistic voices – an intricate musical universe in continuous development.

Tradition and renewal are two sides of the same coin. "Tradition is not to worship the ashes, but to maintain the fire", said the composer Gustav Mahler. Renewal is also about looking at history with fresh eyes, finding alternative courses where the path is already well-trodden or long since blocked, and adding new kindling.

“Even Johann Sebastian Bach could have been forgotten.”
Lars Petter Hagen, Festival director

When streaming services were new, we thought they would open the path for more voices to be heard. We now know that algorithms are narrowing our musical horizons, even if the intention was perhaps the opposite. When everyone plays the same music – whether from the charts or in the concert hall – our overall history becomes poorer. Voices fall silent, flames die out, and we don't know what is lost along the way. Even Johann Sebastian Bach could have been forgotten.

Art is all the stories about who we are, who we have been and who we will become. In a public space characterised by those who shout the loudest and thereby receive the most attention, Anne-Marie Ørbeck modestly reminds us that we must not accept conventions without question. We must keep searching and listening.

This text was originally published in the newspaper Bergens Tidende 4 February 2023, in Norwegian.

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