Symphony No. 3 (Nørgård)

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The Danish composer Per Nørgård's Symphony No. 3 was written between 1972 and 1975 and marks the first union of the hierarchical methods he had developed to date, the so-called infinity series. The work is in two movements and lasts about fifty minutes.

Commissioning and writing

Nørgård originally received a commission in 1971 from the Danish Broadcasting Corporation for a dramatic work. However, Nørgård was at the time finishing an opera, Gilgamesh. Furthermore, he was in need of a symphonic work to which he could apply his new techniques. In 1972 the corporation asked him to produce a "large-scale symphonic work" instead, which would be broadcast twice on the Danish state radio. In an unusual turn, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation put its musicians, both in small ensembles and with the full orchestra, at Nørgård's disposal during the writing of the symphony. This allowed the composer to hear the complex interplay of his new hierarchical music before the work had reached its final form.

While he was composing the symphony, Nørgård wrote the article Inside a Symphony, explaining the theoretical basis of the work and his feeling of awe in the face of his discoveries. An English translation was published in the journal Numus West in 1975.

Nørgård completed the work on 25 May 1975, writing Soli Deo Gloria ("Glory to God alone" in Latin) at the end of the score. The symphony was first performed on 2 September 1976 by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir conducted by Herbert Blomstedt.


First Movement

The first movement is concerned with the individual introduction and subsequent union of the three infinity series.

The harmonic infinity series is presented first. The work begins with a profound intonation on C2. The note D, its 9th partial, becomes the center of the entire register, which a descending spectrum of overtones seek. However, it becomes increasingly evident that the descending overtones seek three different fundamentals, namely D, B, and G. Yet they all belong to the overtone spectrum of the note G, which dramatically appears on brass.

The music becomes a trill on A and G sharp, a two-tone infinity series. It is played in its fastest form as sixteenth notes, and orchestrated in slower wavelengths.

The music becomes a diatonic melodic infinity series. Linked to the harmonic infinity series, each wavelength is centered on a different partial. The melody is ultimately played not only at different wavelengths, each a different key, but also at different pulses according to the principles of the rhythmic infinity series, which is based on the golden section. Though generally offset by their varying pulse, the wavelengths meet at various portions of the symphony, which serve a climaxes.

The movement ends with an ascending spectrum of the overtones of C, suggesting a process which could go on forever were it not limited by the range of the orchestra.

Second Movement

In the second movement, the infinity series rarely appears overtly, but all of the musical material is derived from the series.

The opening section features various treatments of wavelength 15, one of Nørgård's favorite segments of the series. Little melodies arise on woodwinds, and piano and harp briefly come to the forefront.

The following and much longer section is a passacaglia spanning periods of six bars with the same structure. Within this section the choir becomes active. While its members initially sings pure vowels, the first texts subsequently used in the movement are two Marian hymns, Ave Maris Stella and Ave Maria. At the end of the passacaglia the infinity series briefly appears in its clearest form.

The symphony is rounded off with Singe die Gärten. This setting of Rainer Maria Rilke's poem from the Sonnets to Orpheus was first written as an independent work for eight-part choir and eight instrumentalists, but Nørgård chose it to form the ending of the Symphony No. 3. During this section, the musical material becomes so reminiscent of common-practice tonality Nørgård was able to integrated a quotation for solo alto from Schubert's Lied Du bist die Ruh.