A Short Introduction to Norwegian Literature, Art and Music


In 1814 Norway was emancipated from Denmark after 500 years’ existence as a Danish province. It was necessary for the young nation to create its own national literature, art and music.

In 1849 a large cultural festival was organized at the Christiania Theatre where traditional Norwegian fairy tales, folk art and folk music were brought into the limelight. It was at this event the legendary violinist Ole Bull played his new folk music-inspired rhapsody “Seterbesøket” (The Visit to the Summer Farm) with the famous “Seterjentens søndag” (The Dairy Maid’s Sunday).

Norwegian Literature, Art and Music
Norwegian violinist and composer Ole Bull

Bull also posed as a model for the fiddler in the famous painting by Tidemann and Gude, “Brudeferd I Hardanger” (The Bridal Procession on the Hardanger fjord).  This particular painting concluded the festival as a “tableau vivant”. The ‘tableau vivant’ presented people in the national costumes and was orchestrated around the music of the composer Halfdan Kjerulf.

Despite the fact that this festival had a distinct national romantic flavor, it is evident that even at that time Norwegian artists and performers viewed their work in a wider and more international perspective. For instance, a tableau called the “Neapolitan Fisher Family” was included in the festival.

Adolph Tideman & Hans Gude: Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord (National Gallery, Oslo)

Moreover, a significant part of the very best Norwegian literature and music is created in the cross-section between patriotic love for Norwegian artifacts and the admiration for exotic international impulses. The famous playwright Henrik Ibsen, for instance, makes his Peer Gynt character visit ‘everyone’ from the ultimate Norwegian “Dovregubbens hall” (Hall of the Mountain King) to the young exotic Arabic girl Anitra. A parallel range is found in Edvard Grieg’s well known composition to this play. In fact, Henrik Ibsen gad to a large degree moved away from the national romantic ideas when he wrote Peer Gynt, and of which Peer Gynt is a caricature, but figures like “Dovregubben” crept into people’s consciousness and became genuine national symbols.

Norwegian Literature, Art and Music
Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen

A quarter of a century later, when the artists of Kristiania (now Oslo) met in 1874 for a masquerade ball, the theme for the ball was the wedding of Dovregubben’s daughter and the southern European Prince Carnival. The guests consisted of Norwegian super-national mountain and forest creatures like dwarfs, gnomes, gremlins and huldras (the latter is a female underground figure) as well as Southern European guests like Bacchus, Columbine, Harlequin and Pierrot.

This colorful meeting between north and south is beautifully captured for the occasion by Johan Svendsen’s sparkling music in which two Norwegian danced, “springer” (a running dance), and Brudeslått (bridal tune) are combined with a popular Neapolitan song.

Norwegian Literature, Art and Music
Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen

So it is in the cross-section between the national and international that Svendsen composed one of the most inspired masterpieces, “Norsk Kunstnerkarneval” (Norwegian Artists’ Carnival).

Norwegian Literature, Art and Music
Christiania Theatre, by architect Christian Heinrich Grosch

This is also true of his colleague Johan Halvorsen who wrote the piece “Entry of the Boyard” which has distinct Norwegian Mountain King style depicting the march into Bucharest by Russian warriors.

Feature image (on top): From the Johan Halvorsen Music Festival 2017

A Short Introduction to Norwegian Literature, Art and Music, written by Tor Kjolberg

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Art and Culture in Norway
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Journalist, PR and marketing consultant Tor Kjolberg has several degrees in marketing management. He started out as a marketing manager in Scandinavian companies and his last engagement before going solo was as director in one of Norway’s largest corporations. Tor realized early on that writing engaging stories was more efficient and far cheaper than paying for ads. He wrote hundreds of articles on products and services offered by the companies he worked for. Thus, he was attuned to the fact that storytelling was his passion.