The 1997 Rieger organ at the Cathedral in Bergen, Norway. Case by Albert Hollenbach, 1891.
The 1997 Rieger organ at the Cathedral in Bergen, Norway. Case by Albert Hollenbach, 1891.
Sigurd Øgaard, Organist at Bergen Cathedral, discusses organ music, organ building, and education in Norway and the United States with Vox Humana Editor Christopher Holman.
Dr. Øgaard, thank you for agreeing to this interview. To begin, could you tell us about your musical training? Did you study piano from an early age? When did you take up the organ, and what attracted you to it?
My father and uncle were both organists, and I grew up going to church every Sunday with my mom singing in the organ loft and my dad playing, so I basically grew up next to the organ. I remember that from very early on I was determined that I was going to become an organist! I started playing violin when I was six, and I started taking piano lessons when I was eight. And all the while I kept nagging my parents, wanting to take organ lessons. However, my dad thought it was important that I should have some sort of foundation on the piano first, but finally, when I was ten, they decided that I could play the organ, but only if I also kept up my piano lessons (until that point, I would still sit weekly at the organ and play myself). I then took lessons from my uncle (it can be tricky to have lessons with your own parent). I then practiced and played as much as I could outside school, determined to pursue this further. I had a lot of encouragement and a nice environment with my father and uncle as organists.
I went to a high school that focused on music. But at that time, the process to get in was kind of a silly system — even though it was a school for the arts, there was no audition! All that was required were good grades. So the year before I began, I remember working very hard on topics that weren’t my strength or particular interest so I would have the grades to get in. I did get in, and I really enjoyed those years. Back in high school I was quite patriotic, so it was rather strange that I eventually ended up in Texas.
You also held several important organist posts in Texas. How did you end up in Lubbock?
During my third year at the Griegakademiet (“Grieg Academy”) at the University of Bergen, I spent a semester as an exchange student in Birmingham, England. That happened through a connection from an organist I met while in Haarlem in the summer. He suggested I take a semester abroad; of course, I learned a tremendous amount from my teachers at the conservatory in Birmingham, but for me the biggest impact was my time as an organ scholar at St. Mary’s Collegiate Church in Warwick. I came to know the music director there, Christopher Betts, who had spent a year as a guest organist at First United Methodist Church in Lubbock, Texas (at that time they invited an English organist to play there in one year stints). After my semester in Birmingham, he moved back to Lubbock and was Director of Music at First Methodist in Lubbock. At that point, they decided they wanted a permanent organist. Christopher ended up calling me in Norway, and asked if I would be organist at the church and pursue a master’s degree at Texas Tech for two years. I did that, and afterward I moved to Houston and was organist at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, and then took the post as organist at Christ Church Cathedral while also teaching improvisation at the University of Houston. I then won the position at Bergen Cathedral, and have been there ever since.
What are your observations about the differences between organ education in Norway versus the United States, and what do you perceive to be the strengths and weaknesses of the different systems?
Some of the differences we find between the two countries are inevitable because of the size. In the U.S. there are so many people! Additionally, there is an incredible number of institutions where sacred music and organ performance is taught, whereas in Norway (at least when I was a student), there were maybe five or six places that taught organ at all. You also have the social aspect — there are many more organists and events for organists in the U.S. (conferences, seminars, etc.). On the other hand, in Norway, one positive benefit of having fewer such programs is that we get to go to other countries (typically Germany, Denmark, or Sweden) for conferences, which is always exciting.
Unfortunately, we’re really at the point of crisis regarding organ education in Norway, in terms of the demand for organists compared to the very low number of students currently pursuing those degrees. There are mixed reasons behind it; from my perspective, one issue is that we haven’t done as well as in the U.S. in actively recruiting students. Also, for better or worse, Norwegians are not famous for being overly outgoing, and in a field where you find a lot of introverted specialists, perhaps we haven’t been able to reach enough young people as we could have. However, my more controversial opinion is that much fault lies within the Church itself as an institution, because they have not supported the organists and music directors in terms of esteem and respect; one would expect a theologian to speak to theology, a catechist to speak to church education, etc., but for some reason, everyone has a say in church music.
Given that, what is church music like in Norway?
I have to start by explaining that we’ve had a state church, but starting in 2017, the Lutheran Church of Norway was no longer an official government organization; also, which parish a person belongs to is not their choice, but determined by geographic location (like public school districts in the U.S.). If you don’t want to be a member of your city/district church, you have to actively rescind your membership. In some ways, this leads to Norwegian congregations having a much more eclectic mix of interests among its congregants. Of course, every parish has a variety of people and interests, but when you consider that they haven’t chosen to go to that particular church, every church has to cover every demographic. This can sometimes dramatically change how you do your job. For instance, we have a lot more weddings and funerals here than in the U.S.; some Norwegian churches have three or four funerals every week!
All that has a dramatic impact on church music, because the demand for an eclectic style is nearly universal. To some people that is a strength, to others a weakness — there are constant conflicts in terms of artistic choices. So, you find that, in the bigger cities like Bergen, Oslo, and Stavanger, who generally have well-educated professional musicians directing the music, there are strong music programs (this also applies to the countryside). Another difference in church life, impacted by the state/church relationship, is that church attendance in Norway is much lower in general than the U.S. Again, I think this is partially because parishioners don’t feel the same kind of ownership as when they specifically choose to go to a church for personal reasons.
In the U.S., most churches have a choir every Sunday, save for a few weeks in the summer. That is not the case in most churches in Norway; there is simply not such a commitment from people to sing every Sunday. Part of that is because, in Norway on the weekends, everyone likes to go off and ski and hike in the mountains. That being said, there are often tremendous oratorio performances on Sunday afternoons; but on Sunday mornings, often it’s a very small group of singers (if any) who lead the services. Thus, the organ has a bigger role in worship; we sing a lot of hymns in the service.
Given your description of the rather extreme diversity among musical tastes, are hymns in Norway more traditional, or is there also a popular influence?
The old Norsk Salmebok that I grew up with is quite traditional, not dissimilar to the Hymnal 1982 or recent editions of Hymns Ancient and Modern. The Norsk Salmebok included a few modern melodies, but the really big inclusion of popular-style songs came in the 2013 edition. To be fair, they did have some new melodies written by some traditional classical composers, but there are quite a few melodies and hymns that don’t function too well as congregational hymns, some of which really are not hymns at all (in terms of poetic meter). But one thing about our hymnal that’s unique is that we have a lot of Norwegian folk melodies set to sacred texts, and that’s something that I really treasure. Quite often these are in a modern key or mode, but they are also fairly complex harmonically.
What is your philosophy regarding hymn playing? How do you teach hymn playing to your students, and are there differences between how you teach hymn playing to students in Norway and the U.S.?
My approach to the student would be the same whether from the U.S. or Norway. My philosophy is fairly simple, in that it is led by singing the melody itself. Sometimes, from an organist’s perspective, there’s a temptation to judge the tempo of a hymn based on the harmonization. As a general rule, I would say that there is only one consideration to make when choosing the tempo: how the tune best comes to life as a singing melody. When determining tempo, I sing them, and I sometimes surprise myself because sometimes it leads me to play slightly faster than I thought. Remember, the people in the pews don’t care about how many pedal notes you have to play — they just want to be able to sing their favorite hymn comfortably.
When thinking about important historical organs in Scandinavia, organists probably know more about the instruments in Copenhagen, Helsingør, or Göteborg. What are Norwegian organs like?
Right up until the 1960s, Norway was a poor country; we were under Danish rule for several hundred years, then we sort of gained semi-independence in 1814 because the Danes sided with Napoleon (a bad decision for them!). But even with that step toward independence, we were still under the Swedish king from 1814 until 1905 in a relationship similar to modern-day England and Scotland. Our history with the organ and church is very tied in with that. Norway, for all those hundreds of years, was made up of farmers and fishermen who really led lives of struggle. We have churches that are a thousand years old, but they were typically small, and many didn’t have organs until the 1800s.
In the cities, there was more organbuilding activity (especially if the city had connections to wherever the political center was — Copenhagen or Stockholm), but for the same reasons of poverty, a lot of the expertise for specialized things like organbuilding had to be imported. I think one would be hard pressed to find a Norwegian organbuilder before the 1700s. For instance, as late as the 1890s, three of the major churches in Bergen had new organs put in, but they were all by German builders. There were a few significant Norwegian builders in the nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that we had an established organ industry based in Norway; even that had mixed results, especially after World War II when everyone in Europe was cutting corners.
Nowadays, the modern organs are basically in the north German style, but sometimes the stop names are in Norwegian. But even that didn’t fully develop until the early twentieth century; before they’d be in German. In the 1940s–60s, the Orgelbewegung swept over the country, and we were particularly influenced by the Danish builders. There was then a phase when more Dutch organs were being built, so now we have a pretty eclectic mix of northern European style organs around the country. We still import many instruments, but we now also have several major organbuilders in Norway. Now the Norwegian Organ Society has an entire database of all the organs in the country, and operates a “pipe bank”, in which pipes from old organs that were destroyed are stored to make sure valuable pipe material doesn’t get thrown out.
I suspect most organists know basically no Norwegian organ music. Have you come across any organ literature from Norway that we should know about?
There is some okay music from the nineteenth century, and almost nothing from before that; most of what does survive was imported. Norwegian organ music of significance is from the twentieth century. The person that first comes to mind is Egil Hovland; his most famous organ piece is a toccata on “Nun danket alle Gott.” Another is Arild Sandvold, who was the cathedral organist in Oslo in the 1920s–40s; he studied in Leipzig with Karl Straube, and came back to Norway with that school of writing (many of his pieces sound like Reger). He wrote an Introduction and Passacaglia and some variations on Norwegian hymn tunes that are really clever and beautiful; his organ Sonata is also significant, though maybe not earth-shattering.
What are your current composition projects?
Recently I have published two pieces for violin and organ with Morning Star — the first is Christmas Fantasy (available here), and the other is called Peace (available here). Those are my first publications of original music.
Born in Bergen, Norway in 1978, Sigurd Melvær Øgaard began studying the organ with his uncle at age ten. In 1996, he attended the International Summer Academy for Organists in Haarlem, The Netherlands. While there, he studied with Professor Piet Kee. From 1997–2002, Øgaard was an organ performance major at the Grieg Academy in Bergen, studying organ, harpsichord, and choral conducting. As part of his undergraduate work, he spent a semester at the Birmingham Conservatoire in England, while also working as organ scholar at St. Mary’s Collegiate Church in Warwick.
In 2002, Øgaard moved to the USA to work as Organist and Assistant Director of Music at First United Methodist Church, Lubbock, Texas. During his time there, he completed a Master’s Degree and a DMA in choral conducting at Texas Tech University. From 2009 until 2011, he worked at TTU as Adjunct Instructor of Collaborative Piano and Organ. After relocating to Houston in 2011, he worked first as organist at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church until 2014, then as Associate Minister for Music and Cathedral Organist at Christ Church Cathedral. From 2012 until 2015, he was Organist and Accompanist for Bach Society Houston, as well as instructor of improvisation and hymn playing at the University of Houston. Since September 2015, Øgaard is Domkantor (Cathedral Organist) at Bergen Cathedral in Norway.
Øgaard has performed extensively in Europe and the USA. Performance venues have included Bavokerk in Haarlem, the Netherlands; St. Paul’s, Westminster, Birmingham, and Coventry Cathedrals in England; and Washington National Cathedral, USA. He has been a featured soloist in the Bergen International Music Festival and the Oslo Church Music Festival.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.