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 WAC Newsletter, February 1998
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From the Editor

Gunnar Johansen: Master Musician

by Gordon Rumson
The following article, used here with permission, first appeared in Composer/USA (Spring 1997).

Gunnar Johansen

Gunnar Johansen was one of the most remarkable figures in twentieth century music. Born in Copenhagen January 21, 1906, Johansen lived in the United States from the late 1920s until his passing in 1991. Ever active, he produced a gigantic legacy of performances, recordings, compositions and scholarship. Johansen was also dedicated to the ideals of humanity and the integration of knowledge for the benefit of humankind. Yet despite all this, he was not widely known to the general public.

Johansen was a superlatively gifted pianist. He studied in Copenhagen with the important pianist and conductor, Victor Schiöler, who in 1920 advised Johansen to travel to Berlin to complete his education. Johansen was soon welcomed into the highest circles of musical life. Most important proved to be his studies with the pianist Egon Petri, himself a disciple of the enigmatic, mystical composer and pianist, Ferruccio Busoni, giving him Johansen an insight into music that was deeply analytic, powerfully creative and motivated by a profound mystical sensibility.

In 1929 after performing throughout Europe, Johansen emigrated to the United States. For a number of years he broadcast weekly recitals for NBC Radio in San Francisco and performed as soloist with such important conductors as Bruno Walter and Pierre Monteux. His performance of the Rachmaninoff Fourth Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was so successful that the audience demanded, and received, an encore of the entire final movement.

During the 1930s, Johansen performed a series of historical recitals--twelve concerts in one month--covering the whole range of keyboard music from the early Renaissance to the twentieth century. This marathon event was presented in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Stockholm, Berkeley, Cornell and at the University of Wisconsin. Johansen joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin in 1939 as the first musical Artist-in-Residence in America where he remained until his retirement.

Always keen on big challenges, in the 1940s Johansen performed lengthy series of recitals and live radio broadcasts, including the complete chamber music of Beethoven and Brahms with the Pro Arte Quartet; the complete piano/keyboard literature of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin and Bach; and a series on the evolution of the piano sonata. With the preparation of the Bach series, Johansen discovered tape recording technology and became his own recording engineer. Over the next 40 years, from his home, he made almost 150 records: The Complete Keyboard Works of J.S. Bach (44 records and cassettes); The Piano Music of Ferruccio Busoni (7 records and cassettes); The Piano Music of Franz Liszt (53 records and cassettes); The Keyboard Works of Gunnar Johansen (20 cassettes); Historical Recital Series (12 cassettes); and The Complete Piano Music of Ignaz Friedman (7 cassettes).

This synopsis of Johansen's pianistic career, which would be enough for most other musicians, is only part of the story. Throughout his life Johansen composed prolifically. Among his almost 750 compositions are 31 piano sonatas, three piano concertos, three violin sonatas, a large work for orchestra, two works for oboe, a string quartet, a cantata for voices, piano and small ensemble, a number of suites and many short character pieces for piano, numerous songs, 41 piano improvisations after the Psalms of David, and over 500 improvised piano sonatas. The Improvised Sonatas and Psalms were recorded directly onto tape as spontaneous creations, Johansen's Tonal Tapestries.

To attempt to describe such a vast production of music at all is difficult, since many styles are present in Johansen's music, from soft jazz to the most complex chromatic music (including serial techniques) where, in spite of density, elaboration and complexity of design the piano always 'sings'. Alongside massive piano sonatas of twenty or thirty minutes duration, there are simple arrangements of Danish folk songs and an 11th century troubadour song. Johansen never felt constrained to compose in one style and never eschewed any technique if it suited his creative purposes. For example, one of Johansen's most beautiful compositions is the Toccata in the Phrygian Mode (published 1933), which has a neo-classic clarity that reminds one of some of the French composers of the time.

On the other hand, the Sonata II, subtitled the Pearl Harbor, December 6, 1941 is one of Johansen's mightiest creations and one of the most powerful works conceived for the piano. It fully deserves comparison with Prokofief's war sonatas and will be found to surpass them in the brutality and vehemence of its vision. Begun in September of 1941, it was completed in a white heat on the eve of the attack that precipitated American entry into World War II.

The composition is also significant for its use of the Victory motive--Beethoven's Fifth Symphony--in the third movement that is marked 'ironically in jazz'. It is a wild ride in stride piano style. But as the music gradually rebuilds energy after a partial release, the Dies Irae theme erupts from the texture culminating in a gigantic climax that sounds as much as air raid sirens and explosives assaulting the ears as any music written for the piano.

The acquisition of the tape recorder in the early 1950s coincided with Johansen's reading of The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, recently edited and published by McCurdy. There Johansen read: "Music has two ills, the one mortal, the other wasting: the mortal is ever allied with the instant which follows that of the music's utterance, the wasting lies in its repetition, making it seem contemptible and mean." [Edward McCurdy, ed., The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956), p. 401.]

The effect was immediate and life-changing. Johansen recorded the first Improvised Sonata 32 on January 14, 1953. The last was created on June 13, 1990 and numbered 550. Most of Johansen's energies were poured into these spontaneous creations that attempted to capture the moment of inspiration. The results are not jazz, though there are some works in that genre, rather Johansen's improvisational method continued the interrupted lineage of Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt that viewed spontaneous creation as fully the equal of reflective effort. The closest examples in modern practice to Johansen's work are the public concerts of Keith Jarrett. It is unlikely that Jarrett is aware of Johansen, but the connection is clear.

Johansen was also a resourceful scholar, researching and collecting many manuscripts and early editions for the music he recorded. Johansen came to believe that the fragmentation of human knowledge into many specializations prevented us from solving our most pressing problems. To address this crisis in human thought, Johansen established the Leonardo Academy (after the painter and renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci) devoted to the fruitful integration of the arts and sciences. Conferences included such distinguished participants as Edward Teller, inventor of the American hydrogen bomb, and Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome.

Pianist, composer, scholar, humanist, man of wide learning and vision, Johansen represents a high ideal of achievement in the twentieth century. His recordings attest to his musicianship and his compositions to his creativity. [All of Gunnar Johansen's recordings (in LP and cassette format) are still available from his company: Artist Direct, Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, 53517.] With time his great legacy will become better known.

Gordon Rumson, pianist and composer, is Founder and Proprietor of Sikesdi Press, Music Publishers of the "New and Little Known." For more information and music of Johansen, visit their web site: <http://www.cadvision.com/Home_Pages/accounts/liszt/SikesdiPressWebpage.html>.

Works by Gunnar Johansen

[Dates are provided for only some works, based on availability of manuscript verification. A complete catalogue of Johansen's works is in preparation by the author.]

  1. Piano Concertos
    • No. 1 (1930)
    • No. 2 (1949) for piano, three recorders, and orchestra
    • No. 3 (1969-71)
  2. Orchestral
    • Variations, Disguises and Fugue on a Merry Theme of Cyrus McCormick (1937)
  3. Choral/Instrumental
    • East-West Cantata (1943) for piano, choir, and small ensemble (full score lost)
  4. Piano works
    • Sonatas 1-31 (1940-1951)
    • 12 Toccatas
    • Numerous Suites
    • Many shorter works
    • Atonal Sonatinas (1943 and 1944)
    • Transcriptions, embellishments, elaborations of works by a number of composers
    • Cadenzas to various works
  5. Chamber music
    • 3 Violin Sonatas
    • String Quartet (1937)
    • Four Pieces for String Quartet (incomplete)
    • Oboe Sonata (1943) (third movement only)
    • Triptique for cello and piano (ca. 1984)
  6. Vocal Music
    • Songs on texts by Wilde, Longfellow and others
    • Sonata 160 for voice and piano (wordless singing)
    • Vocalise for voice and piano (1975) (wordless singing or any suitable solo instrument--oboe preferred)
  7. Improvisations
    • Improvised Sonatas numbered 32 - 550 (1953-1990)
    • Improvisations after the Psalms of David (1-41)
    • Miscellaneous Improvisations, some from live performances.

Publishers: Carl Fischer, Sikesdi Press

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