The Danish composers at UNM 1947. Peder Holm is the second from the right.

“We can’t really afford to fuck this up”

Amidst the hectic planning of the Young Nordic Music Festival in Aarhus, vice chairman Lasse D. Hansen has visited Peder Holm, 89, who participated in the very same festival right after World War II. A lot has changed since then, but the sense of a Nordic community is still what’s most important. Well, that and the responsibility of continuing 70 years of music history. Yikes.
11. august 2016
An interview and a time travel between 1947 and 2016
  • Annonce

    Klang Festival
  • Annonce

    Man skal høre meget

One day, in October 1947, there is a knock on the door of director Christian Christiansen’s office at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. The student council president Eifred Eckart-Hansen brings the message that Norway has cancelled the upcoming second edition of the ‘Nordisk Musikfest (Konservatoriefest)’ – the Nordic Music Festival (Conservatory Festival) – with only three weeks’ notice, and he wants the RDAM to take over the hosting.

In November 2015, I receive an email from Allan Gravgaard Madsen, the current chairman of the very same festival organization, now entitled Ung Nordisk Musik – Young Nordic Music:

Hello there,

I've been thinking: Considering the latest rejection of our funding application, we’d better hire a professional fundraiser. We can’t really afford to fuck this up. I mean, UNM has been around for 70 years, so it’s no good if we do not make it...

What do you say?


Kaj Duncan David, treasurer, suggests that we wait and talk about it the following Monday. I begin another rewrite of the funding application.

Dear Allan and Kaj,

Next year we should remind the composers to submit only digital scores.

I’m sending the message in December 2015 from my newly created UNM mail where the signature now contains all possible links to information about the UNM Festival: website, Facebook page and Twitter account. We are now visible and official.

On the floor of the Royal Academy of Music Aarhus’ composers’ room I have tried to gain an overview of the works submitted by composers, all under the age of 30 or studying, for the upcoming UNM Festival which will take place eight months later. 61 submitted works by 38 composers and sound artists. Nearly one third more than in 2014. Not bad. It is the job of the vice chairman to receive the submitted scores and to make sure that they are anonymous, so the appointed jury – whose identities are still unknown at this point, both to the public and to the other jurors – will not assess the work from the composer’s name but from the content alone. I send all the scores to the solo flautist Hélène Navasse and the composers Anders Nordentoft and Manos Tsangaris who, at the general meeting in October, were given the task to listen to and read through the many works in order to judge them (after an ingeniously designed scoring system), to ensure as fair a selection as possible.

I send another e-mail:

Dear Allan,

Please remember to bring your external hard drive, so we can transfer the scores and audio files to it. My Dropbox is full and can no longer update. We will need to create that Google Drive soon.

No school for composers
The 20-year-old Peder Holm plays the violin part himself in his Sonata for violin and piano, in front of the UNM committee at the RDAM in 1946. The year before, the academy’s student council met for four days in Stockholm with the Norwegian Student Society and student councils from the Swedish Royal Music Academy and the Finnish Sibelius Academy. The purpose was to discuss options for hosting the ‘Nordisk Musikfest (Konservatoriefest)’ in the countries’ capitals, in turn, each year in October – a cooperation between Nordic music students.

The committee does not select Holm’s sonata, but he participates the following year, in 1947, when Eckart-Hansen has organized the festival in Copenhagen in the space of just three weeks. Eckart-Hansen writes in the preface to the festival program:

The aim of these music festivals for students at the Academies of Music is to get to know the state of music in the neighbouring countries, while performances of new music from each country will make it possible to follow the musical trends in the Nordic countries, for the idea is simply to perform music, composed and played by music students.

“At the time, the administration wasn’t that difficult. Eckart-Hansen just paid a visit to the director Christian Christiansen, they discussed the issue, and then agreed on something. A lot of things were easier back then,” the now 89-year-old Peder Holm laughs when I visit him in his home in Viborg. From January 1945 to December 1947, he studied violin and music theory at RDAM and majored in both subjects.

“There was no education for composers. Those who later became composers were admitted to the academy as musicians. I believe that Bernhard Lewkovitch was an organ student and that Poul Rovsing Olsen and Thorkild Knudsen were both piano students.”

Another few years will pass before the academy becomes a state conservatory in 1949 and establishes an actual study programme for composers. Therefore, at the private institution all composers participating in the festival are enlisted as musicians.

“As (composer, ed.) Niels Rosing-Schow said at one point: ‘Previously, composers were gifted musicians who also composed.’ I have written a book about my compositions which I titled Musician, because I read something from the 1800s, when all those who we today name as composers officially called themselves musicians. Of course, when they are dead you can only recall their compositions, and they are also the only things you can revive. My whole attitude was just that: I am a musician, and my composing is probably quite extensive, but it is only a part of my work.”

Dear Allan and Kaj,

We have received a message from some potential applicants who want to know if they can apply as a group. The application procedure is designed for individuals submitting as composers or sound artists, but here is a group of musicians who want to submit a work together. What do you say?

In May 2016, we have finally hired the musicians to perform the selected works. Established, professional ensembles and soloists appear side by side with music academy students, more often in combination than separately. In four cases the works are so synonymous with the creators that the composers perform the pieces themselves, and in two cases the ‘performers’ are, respectively, a home-built instrument installation and a four-channel sound system.

Peder Holm at home in Viborg. Copyright: Allan Gravgaard Madsen

Everyone should be speaking Swedish
After a few days with orchestral, solo piano, piano trio and string trio works – alongside songs, organ and choral music and works for similar chamber ensembles – the first movement of Holm’s String Quartet in B is performed at the last day of the festival, Wednesday, October 29, 1947. Peder Holm is on stage playing the viola in the Academy’s concert hall and by his side he has his fellow students, Nic Hermans (from Holland) on cello, Eyvind Sand Kjeldsen on second violin and Jørgen Fischer Larsen on first violin. Prior to this performance the ensemble has played the finale of the String Quartet, op. 1 by organ student Knud Høgenhaven and three Bagatelles by violin student Jørgen Fischer Larsen at the festival.

At this age they are already talented musicians, and the two violinists will years later become concertmasters respectively in the Royal Danish Orchestra and Aarhus City Orchestra (now the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra). But they are not themselves aware of this yet, just as Peder Holm hasn’t got the slightest idea that he himself will become the principal of the Danish National Academy of Music in Esbjerg, where he is to initiate the general ensemble leading programme and the country’s first professional chamber ensemble, Vestjysk Kammerensemble (now Esbjerg Ensemble). But they all agree that they will not be making a living as composers. Writing music is first and foremost a con amore thing.

“Rolf Davidson and Bengt Olof Engström were chairmen of the student councils, and that was why they attended the festival. I remember other participants who, later on, did not become composers, but very prominent organizers of the musical scene. They became academy principals and headed Rigsmusikken in Sweden and things like that,” Peder Holm tells me.


- Find a location for the site-specific piece

- Get the keys to the chamber music hall


- Book a room for the meeting with volunteers


Three weeks before the festival begins in August 15, 2016, we festival organisers are extremely busy. The three of us agree that after the festival we are going to take a break from organizational work for a period to care for our compositional work. The program book is, after numerous additions and rewrites, finally sent to be printed – at the last minute. One of the discussions has been centred on whether the book should be written in English, Scandinavian and English, Danish and English, in the individual Nordic languages alone or in the individual Nordic languages and in English combined.

The pragmatic solution wins and we end up with the latter model of combined English and Scandinavian. When I read through the book – which with the English translation included becomes one third thicker than first expected – I cannot help but think it a bit senseless and unnecessarily ‘globalized’. Is it really not possible to speak and write together in a common Nordic language among the five countries involved? In some cases, when cortisol and adrenaline control the fingers on the keyboard, emails to even the Swedish and Norwegian UNM delegations are written in English.

Dear all,

UNM is getting closer. Thanks to UNM IS we have now found our horn player, but we are still missing 5 violins and 2 violas. So please, cash in personal favours or persuade your fellow string-students to come.

"Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi you're my only hope."

Best regards, Allan

It is the third time we send an email with such a plea and the wording becomes more and more desperate every time. Peder Holm remembers that the participants used to expect the Finns to speak Swedish and the Icelanders, who joined in 1974, to speak Danish.

“I remember from meetings at the academy that it gradually became more difficult and that the Finns and Icelanders would rather speak English. But in the beginning it worked quite well. I remember one time – it was probably in the seventies or something – where the Danes still tried to speak Scandinavian. The Norwegians had no problems, for they had been subjugated to both Denmark and Sweden – they could follow easily – and the Swedes said ’why doesn’t everyone just speak Swedish?’ That says something about the attitude towards the problem. The cellist from a piano trio consisting of three Finnish sisters spoke very bad Swedish, and the Dutch cellist spoke very poor Danish, so they made a good match,” Peder Holm laughs.

“It was only two years after the war, so it was very isolated at the time, and it was all very primitive, seen with today’s eyes. So it was pretty amazing to get such a thing up and running. The moment when Denmark was liberated – and there’d been the DANFORCE in Sweden – you started seeing what could be done. Immediately after the liberation it was great to have contact with foreign countries, and we went to a large Copenhagen cinema to hear Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony on a recording. It was incredible. Shostakovich wasn’t known in Denmark at that time as far as I know. And a Russian opera singer came and sang. People flocked to the place. And Menuhin came and played in the Forum Copenhagen. I was there for the concert, and he was far away and you heard a tiny little tone. The world was coming back.”

Christian Christiansen writes in his welcome text to the festival of 1947:

Now that the youth from the music academies of the four Nordic countries holds a convocation here in Copenhagen, where we get the opportunity to hear what the young people have in their hearts, both when they compose, sing and play, the desire for such a convocation has probably arisen from the experience that a comradely company with artistic purposes is the very best means to achieve a real understanding of the efforts that all of the young people present today by their work in the service of music.

In Aarhus I have just picked up a box of UNM stickers that I am now going to paste on the black portfolios for all the musicians and composers. I answer a day-old mail:

Dear Allan and Kaj,

I have read the draft of the welcome speech, and it’s really good! However, I agree that we must give priority to elaborate a little on the festival theme ‘Togetherness’. We need to somehow find out what it really means to us, and try to remember amidst all of these practical things, why we chose this theme in the first place. Aren’t all UNM festivals a celebration of the Nordic community? We agree that it is important, but why exactly is it so important in the world today? Well, I’m going to do some thinking and I will get back to you. Let’s talk about it Monday.