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22 May - 5 June 2024

The first Norwegian music festival

A dedicated opera singer, inspiration from prominent European cities, and that special Bergen brand of ambition were some of the ingredients needed to create the very first Bergen International Festival. In this article, Geir Hasse Hofsæth, son of the festival's second director, takes us back to the days of its forerunner and tells of how the festival was revived in the 1950s.

'Only the best is good enough'

In the 1890s, composer and Bergen native Edvard Grieg was entertaining the idea of a large music event. By some golden coincidence, a large-scale fishery- and industry exhibition was being planned for the summer of 1898, and the exhibition had gained much attention from abroad.

By Grieg's initiative, it was decided that the exhibition would include a music festival between June 26 and July 3 – the first Norwegian music festival ever to be held. As per Grieg's request, only Norwegian music would be played, but there was much criticism that Grieg had engaged the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and not Norwegian musicians for the job. 'Only the best is good enough', Grieg replied. The concert, which was held in a big provisional hall in Nygårdsparken for an audience of 2000, was a huge success.

Grieg's idea was a proclamation of Norwegian art and of the best artists that could be assembled, but also instigated a conflict between Norwegian cultural personalities. His plan was met with joy and enthusiasm, but correspondence during 1897/98 shows that many of the suggestions he received from Norwegian senders regarding musical performances and highlights, were not to his taste. Naïvity and provincialism were some of Grieg's characteristics. 'The music festival aims to add a lasting asset to our cultural, intellectual and spiritual life. Let that be the music's task', said Grieg.

Troldhaugen – a tourist destination

Grieg passed away in December 1907. A few years later, in 1913, Franz Beyer, who was Grieg's close friend and neighbour, launched the idea of arranging special Grieg-performances in Bergen, but the time was not ripe for such a suggestion.

The interwar period provided space for more cultural activity, and the number of tourists that visited Bergen and the western Norwegian fjords increased. Grieg's home at Troldhaugen became a museum, and many of the home's objects that had previously been auctioned off were regained.

By 1928, Troldhaugen had become a tourist destination. In 1929, lawyer Christen Gran Bøgh proposed a 'Grieg Week', with the purpose of performing and documenting Norwegian culture in an effective way. His idea would soon come to fruition.

The Haakonshallen Festival

On August 7. 1931, the Mayor of Bergen, before an audience of Crown Prince Olav and many invited guests from across the country, declared the new festival open. Established by prominent businessmen and cultural figures in Bergen, it was named The Haakonshallen Festival and saw performances of folk music, national dance, music by Norwegian composers, and the theatre piece 'Votan' by author and artistic director of the festival, Stein Bugge.

The festival lasted until August 18, but as audiences continued flocking to the attractions, there was an extra performance on August 21. The Market, which included a fairground, dance court, circus, food, beverages and sales stalls, continued as planned until Sunday, August 23. The performances sold 4.954 tickets, while The Market sold 31.134 tickets.

The festival was such an economic success that a second festival was planned for the following summer. It would focus on the works of author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and composer Edvard Grieg, as well as an abundant presentation of Norwegian folk art.

While the second festival attracted a visit from the King himself, the weather was worse than the year before. The Market's opportunities were reduced, outdoor areas washed away by rain, many plans were altered, and various restrictions added. The result was a significant economic loss. It was to be the last Haakonshallen Festival.

Back on the map

After World War II, Bergen was a city dealing with the aftermath of occupation and war damage.  The city had no airport, no road that would allow year-round connection to eastern Norway, cramped city limits, and a short tourist season.

Aid given by the American Marshall Plan got Norwegian industries up and running, Norwegian athletes proved their skills in both summer and winter sports, Oslo was granted the VI Winter Olympic Games, Thor Heyerdahl gained world fame with his Kon-Tiki expedition, and Trygve Lie became the United Nations' first Secretary-General. Simultaneously, Bergen and its people scarcely made their existence known to the world. It was time to once and for all put Bergen back on the map.

Elsta's festival idea

Between 1945 and 1950, despite much political rivalry and the drawing of the Iron Curtain across Europe, 15 new festivals were established in France, the Netherlands, England, Scotland, Germany, Italy and Yugoslavia. Geographically close, the Edinburgh Festival and Holland Festival were particularly noticed in Bergen.

It is hard to say with certainty what the first initiative towards the founding of the Bergen International Festival was. One thing we know is that opera singer Fanny Elsta in a 1949 interview with the Norwegian music periodical Norsk Musikkliv, launched the idea of a modern festival in Bergen.

The interview was not by chance. In 1948, authorities had said no to hosting a guest performance from Salzburg, and Elsta thought it regrettable that a Norwegian audience should not get to experience even a small taste of what a festival could be. The Nordic countries were nowhere to be seen on the European festival map, and she wanted Norway to be the first. In 1950, still glowing about her new festival idea, she met with Christen Gran Bøgh, the lawyer who two decades earlier had initiated the Haakonshallen Festival and who was now the head of tourism in Bergen.

Modelled on Salzburg

Before the war, Elsta had performed on many European opera- and concert stages. Especially dear to her heart was the Salzburg Festival and the city of Salzburg itself, where she had also performed several times after the war. In her eyes, Bergen, a 900-year-old city, was ideally suited for a Norwegian festival. Grieg, beautiful nature, traditions, a colourful city life, a cultural melting pot with international connections, a picturesque and defined city centre – which Oslo did not have – this, as well as inhabitants that knew how to put on a good party and celebrate anything that could be celebrated, were all appealing factors.

Mayor Nils Handal quickly realised the potential that her vision held for Bergen. He summoned meetings with several business representatives and cultural institutions in the city, which, in short, led to very positive results.

Elsta proposed that the first Bergen International Festival should take place over fifteen days in the summer of 1953. It would, she said, conclude on June 15 – the 100th anniversary of the birth of Edvard Grieg.

Was Bergen the right city?

Many doubts and warnings soon arose. The city was in a forgotten corner of Europe, they said. It lacked communication, had few hotels, an orchestra that was too small and no suitable concert hall, no choir capable of anything substantial, huge technical requirements and needed extensive planning.

But, said the pro-festival team, waiting for Grieghallen to be built was not an option. Unless Bergen got started on plans for a festival straight away, others would instead gain the advantage. The city had experience and the right people to administrate and arrange events. And in any case, it was perfect timing, as Bergen would be celebrating Grieg that year anyway.

In 1951, Tassilo Nekola, director of the Salzburg Festival, was invited to Bergen to give his expert advice. His conclusion was as follows: Get started, the city has potential! In light of this, Fanny Elsta and her husband Herman Lepsøe donated NOK 300 000.

Room for development

From day one, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (Musikkselskabet Harmonien, founded in 1765) and Den Nationale Scene (The National Stage, founded by violinist, composer and Bergen native Ole Bull in 1850) served as the main pillars of the festival. In 1950, the orchestra was comprised of 54 musicians and was immediately viewed as a crowbar to expansion. The conductor, Carl von Garaguly, lifted the orchestra to a good European level. Det Dramatiske Selskab (The Drama Company) was established just a few years after the orchestra and made it possible for visiting theatre groups to perform.

Edinburgh had founded its first festival in 1948. Its basis was in many ways the same as in Bergen, and in just four years, it had established good artistic experiences with audiences arriving from near and far. Surely, this could happen in Bergen, too.

The Bergen International Festival was founded on November 6. 1951. It's colourful advisory committee consisted of the Municipality of Bergen, Musikkselskabet Harmonien (The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra), Edvard Grieg's Fund,  Den Nationale Scene, The Tourist Traffic Committee for Bergen, Municipalties Hordaland and Sogn og Fjordane, Gamle Bergen (Old Bergen), The Troldhaugen Committee, Det Nyttige Selskab (The Useful Company), The Bergen Art Society, the city's banks, The Bergen Trade Association, The Bergen Crafts and Industry Association, The Bergen Shipping Association, The Bergen Press Association and The Bergen Sales and Advertising Association.

A board consisting of seven members was elected, with shipowner Hilmar Reksten as chairman.

The festival's purpose was to produce an annual international festival in Bergen which would provide new impulses to the Norwegian cultural scene via international contacts, to perform music, theatre and folklore, to present the best of what Norwegian artists could create, and to increase interest in foreign art and culture.

Establishing an administration was swift. A North Sea Exhibition had just been held in Bergen, and the festival soon took over its offices and hired its daily manager, Frank Meidell Falch, as the festival's first director. Barely 30 years old at the time, Falch had spent three years in a German concentration camp, and had sworn that should he survive, he would never leave Bergen again. His skills and dedication to the city meant he was considered the best man for the job.

The festival aimed to benefit the entire nation, but raising enough funds, interest and support on a national level proved a seemingly impossible job. Enter a highly determined Bergen mayor and equally determined festival chairman, who took matters into their own hands.

Reksten at the Royal Palace

The Mayor of Bergen, Nils Handal, did a formidable job. The municipality stretched the limits of what was considered to be of municipal matter and granted the festival an astonishing NOK 100 000 to ensure that Bergen had the opportunity to become culturally equal in strength to the capital, Oslo. Handal had good political contacts, and three government ministers promptly gave their support, including Bergen native, Nils Langhelle. If it was possible for Oslo to put on an Olympic event, it was possible for Bergen to have an international festival, they said.

Since Bergen considered the festival to be of national benefit and importance, chairman Hilmar Reksten applied for an audience at the Royal Palace. The meeting resulted in King Haakon VII declaring that he would become high patron to the festival.

The government liked the idea of the festival, too, but thought it was a problem for Bergen to solve on its own. A sum of NOK 30 000 was granted for the first and also the second year, while state TV- and radio channel NRK promised NOK 50 000. Another NOK 110 000 came from private sponsors, and the final budget was NOK 320 000.

150 000 brochures

And so began an extensive marketing campaign. 150 000 brochures were printed – 50 000 in Norwegian, 75 000 in English and 25 000 in French. Norwegian travel- and information offices abroad did their share of marketing, and information and music recordings were sent to American radio stations.

The old concert hall in Bergen, Konsertpaleet, which today houses the Bergen Cinema, was rebuilt to improve acoustics. A lack of funding and materials made it impossible to do the same for Den Nationale Scene. Nearby, chamber music concerts would be held at Logen, and church concerts would take place in the Bergen Cathedral. 

The first festival begins

On June 1 1953, King Haakon VII declared the first Bergen International Festival open. Prince and Princesse Prem Purachatra of Siam (Thailand) who were visiting Norway at the time, were among the specially invited guests.

The 15-day long event was a huge success. The weather was fine and at times outstanding, the city was polished and decorated to party, famous and prominent artists from home and abroad delighted the audiences, Norwegian and foreign press was very positive, the Grieg jubilee was integrated, and despite many first-time expenses, the festival finished with a profit.

Just eleven days after the festival was done, plans for a second were already underway.

'The whole city is active'

The next four festivals, between 1954 and 1957, followed much of the same recipe – with varied orchestral programmes of Norwegian and foreign composers, visits from distinguished international orchestras, guest conductors and soloists, visiting theatre productions from Oslo and the Nordic countries, and folklore performances both indoors and outdoors.

The Bergen International Festival had decided that ticket prices should be affordable to most: 'The whole city shall be active', was its motto. Simultaneously, cooperation between the Nordic festivals was solidified, Nygårdsparken was utilised for popular events, radio transmissions of festival concerts grew in number, and advertising films were made to market the festival abroad.

To extend the tourist season, the tourist industry asked the festival to begin earlier, and from 1955 the festival would start on May 25. Over six years, the number of foreigners that were registered staying in Bergen during the festival period increased by 95 per cent. The festival was proving very profitable for the city.

Here to stay

By the third year, the festival had become a fixed item on the State budget with NOK 100,000 in annual grants. The business industry in Bergen had given the festival five years to prove its salt, which it had. By now, the festival was receiving so many requests for participation and cooperation that it was impossible to say yes to them all. Spending a considerable amount of money on marketing both at home and abroad had yielded incredible results. Numerous and varied articles were written, and radio stations in many countries, including the USA and Canada, transmitted the festival's concerts live or as recordings.

A doorway to Europe

In 1958, the new festival director, Gunnar Arne Jensen, pointed out that the city's business industry should utilise the festival better. Many leaders and representatives from foreign businesses often have an above average interest in music and culture, he said, and the festival, both during and beyond, should be taken as an opportunity to enrich their impressions of Bergen, western Norway and Norway as a whole.

Since Flesland Airport opened in 1955, travel to and from the city had improved considerably. Bergen, said Jensen, is for a number of travellers from the USA and Canada, in reality, a doorway to Europe, Scandinavia and Norway. Furthermore, he said, numbers from the tourist industry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that tourists that visit Norway spend a relatively higher amount of money here than in other European countries – and the festival is most likely a significant reason for this.

From 1958, the number of events during the festival doubled from 35 to 69, and the Bergen International Festival became a member of the European Festivals Association. The festival director had on numerous occasions seen and heard foreign radio- and press journalists mention the festival as one of the most interesting, due to its quality, diversity, enthusiasm from the city's politicians, businesses and people, and its many participating world-famous stars. The festival's economy was further strengthened by income from a circus, fairground, lottery and markets, although annual income was still very much dependent on good weather.

International reach

The festival was also a team player when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wanted to show foreign guests what Norway was like outside Oslo. The most prominent visitors at the time were the Shah of Persia and queen Farah Dibas in 1961.

In the 50s and 60s, many cultural agreements were made between Norway and other countries, and the festival ensured a close collaboration with the MoFA's office of culture. Many seemingly impossible projects were therefore made possible, and highly respected French, English, American, Russian, Czech and German orchestras soon visited, including the Hallé, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Berlin Philharmonic with conductor Herbert von Karajan. 

The festival started making its own original productions, too. The biggest project was "Dance, Yelled the Fiddle", in 1958. It was such a success that in the winter of 1959/60, the show went on a four-month tour to the USA, Canada and Cuba, before performing in England and Germany.

A new concert hall – and a bright festival future

The city's existing concert hall, Konsertpaleet, was small, and with no orchestra pit, it was especially poorly suited for visiting European opera productions. Removing the front rows of the audience seating worked but could be no long-term solution.

As the Festival went from strength to strength, the need for a new, large and adapted concert hall for most types of music performances gained priority. In 1963, plans for Grieghallen were re-visited and developed. The property on which it stands today was secured, and an architect competition was announced.

In 1966, Åsmund Oftedal became the new festival director. The festival had become more popular than ever, but journalists and others were now calling for even more diversity: more new and modern music, jazz, and performances for children. A brand new concert hall would indeed make all the difference.

The Danish architect Knut Munk won the design competition, and construction on the new concert hall began in 1967. Since its completion in May 1978, Grieghallen has been home to the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and has hosted many different kinds of performances, events and exhibitions to the benefit all kinds of audiences throughout the entire year, not only during the Bergen International Festival.
And it all started with an idea. Edvard Grieg's idea.

Based on texts by Geir Hasse Hofsæth (2010) and Teresa Grøtan (2010)

Edited and translated by Britt Embry in 2019


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