Axel Borup-Jørgensen was born in Hjørring on 22 November 1924, but grew up in Sweden, which his family moved to when he was 2½ years old. After a few years’ nomadic existence, the family settled in Mjölby, where Axel went to school. His father was an inventor by nature and his creativity was inherited by his son. From his early boyhood, he was able to play several instruments by ear: mouth organ, small accordion, mandoline and piano. In junior school he played together with a couple of class-mates, and they often performed at class parties. As a schoolboy, Axel developed into an impressive drawer, he was interested in astronomy and dreamt of becoming an engineer or an architect.
The shift towards classical music came in 1942, when the boy’s piano teacher – after having tried in vain to arouse his interest in operetta and popular music – presented him with the slow movement from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. ‘It was as if a spiritual world opened up, almost with the effect of a religious conversion.’ After this, piano playing became Axel Borup-Jørgensen’s overriding interest. He spent many hours every day at the piano instead of playing, and as an upper secondary student in nearby Linköping he used the school’s sports days to travel to Stockholm and get piano teaching. His repertoire included Grieg’s Lyrical Pieces as well as some of the classical-romantic works that were at the centre of the young man’s musical universe.
Alongside music, Swedish nature was a source of experiences and inspiration for Axel Borup-Jørgensen. In 1942, the family acquired the small island of Björkön in lake Sommen on the border between Östergötland and Småland. Here Borup-Jørgensen used to walk, cycle and row on long trips during the summer holidays and lose himself in the special stillness that characterises the open expanses of deserted countryside – a stillness that often seems to be recognisable in Axel Borup-Jørgensen’s music.
In 1946, Axel Borup-Jørgensen returned to Denmark as a student at The Royal Danish Academy of Music, with the piano as his main subject and supplementary lessons in instrumentation. This teacher – together with Niels Viggo Bentzon’s introduction into the various forms of music – was of decisive importance in causing composition to take over the role of piano playing after 1948 as his key musical activity.
He retained his connection with Sweden and spent many summers on Björkön. He was also a diligent reader of Swedish literature. Up to the mid 1950s, this reading focused on such writers as Verner von Heidenstam, E. A. Karlfeldt and Gustav Fröding. Later on, more modernist lyricists such as Karl Vennberg and the Finland-Swedish avant-garde poet Gunnar Björling played an important part in his development from an early romantic-impressionist position to a more aphoristic style. According to Bo Waller, the influence of modern poetry was more important to him than contemporary modern music.
After passing his music teaching examination, Axel Borup-Jørgensen established himself as a piano teacher. He taught at institutions and had private pupils and this, combined with family obligations, tended to isolate him from the environment for new music in Copenhagen. A divorce in 1958 brought about a change in his family situation and meant that he was now able to devote more time to new music. In 1959, he travelled to the European mecca of modern music, Darmstadt, when he found confirmation for the development he was undergoing in, for example, his Preludes for Piano op. 31,1 (1958–59). He played some of them at one of Wolfgang Fortner’s courses, and Fortner felt that Axel Borup-Jørgensen’s development ‘seemed to be the right one’.
Borup-Jørgensen returned to Darmstadrt in 1962, but he did not return as a serialist or electroacoustic composer. He was already in pursuit of his own corresponding form of expression, and Darmstadt did not mean a new departure for him but a confirmation, where the early orchestral works of Ligeti in particular, with their strictly divided string voices, were an inspiration for the orchestral works from the 1960s.
Borup-Jørgensen became especially known among the general public when his Nordic Summer Pastoral won first prize in the competition for a short orchestral work held by Danmarks Radio in 1964, with extensive media coverage. The first prize also included a commission for a large orchestral work for the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.This work, Marin, Borup-Jørgensen worked on until 1970, when it was given its first performance by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Herbert Blomstedt, was awarded a prize by the international Rostrum of Composers in Paris, and played by Francis Travis and The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra as the concluding work at Nordic Music Days in 1978.
Marin was a milestone for Axel Borup-Jørgensen as a composer. The composition and the fair copy of the score and voices required an enormous amount of work – about 6,500 hours, or more than three normal years of work – the main part of which comprised a daily work-load of 16 hours in 1969 and 1970. After Marin, Borup-Jørgensen avoided works for large orchestras with strictly divided string voices, concentrating to an increasing extent on chamber music ensembles.
Nevertheless, the tendency towards a simpler mode of expression – be it modernism’s ‘neo-simplicity’ or a neo-classicism – which was typical of Danish music after the 1970s, is not apparent in Borup-Jørgensen’s works. If simplicity is there, it is due to pedagogical considerations being taken of amateur musicians or students, either in the form of music designed specifically for teaching purposes or as the preparation of musical material in versions of varying levels of difficulty.
Axel Borup-Jørgensen lived a quiet life as a composer, piano teacher and avid concert-goer. He continued to develop his personal style until his death on 15 October 2012, and he liked to collaborate with instrumentalists who could help him realise his ideas about new ways of playing and new sound possibilities that could be obtained from traditional instruments such as the recorder and guitar. With a consistency and perseverance that characterised his music for over 60 years, he worked towards an ever-increasing clarity, concentration and fine graduation of expression.